By Kevin Aherne (@KAherne17)
The NBA is broken. The current system in place to create parity is actually the biggest obstacle preventing balanced play... and I know just how to fix it.
The National Basketball Association is a league of "A's" and "F's," where the worst grade you can receive is a "C." These mid-level teams can be relegated into mediocrity for decades at a time. The teams at the head of the class, such as the Heat, Spurs, Thunder, and Bulls have their core players, and use the offseason to add a few supporting pieces, or essentially shuffle the deck chairs. Then there are the slackers, teams like the Cavs, Pelicans, and Wizards; these squads usually have a few young studs who have yet to blossom, and are just one core player away from their resurgence... that game-changer can usually be found in the top of the draft.
There enlies the rub; the NBA Draft utilizes a flawed system. Yes, basketball's entry draft uses the same reverse meritocracy system as the other major sports, but basketball is fundamentally different from baseball and football. Most sports are Rube Goldberg machines; the end result is the product of several different, yet equally important functions. In football or baseball, one single player does not convert a cellar dweller into a contender. One single player doesn't carry a soccer (or futbol) club to a World Cup. However in basketball, with just five players participating at one time; one player CAN shape a team's entire fortune.
So what? What's the big deal, isn't the intent of the draft to help give a boost to struggling teams?
Yes. The draft does work as intended in some areas. However, the teams in the middle, the squads who are on the cusp of a postseason berth, are left behind. The current system essentially punishes the teams who are good enough to contend for a playoff spot, but not make it in. Many teams have found themselves in NBA purgatory in the last two decades. Whether it's the Celtics, Knicks, and Bulls of the early 2000's, or more recently; the Raptors, Jazz, and, Blazers, there seems to be one easy, but cheap way out of the middle...tanking.
Teams have been losing, semi-intentionally, with hopes of landing a top spot in the draft for decades. These teams aren't actively telling players to miss shots or to not try hard; but they aren't pursuing veteran free agents to improve their squads, or fielding the best teams on a nightly basis. This practice is damaging to not only the tanking team's reputation, but the entire league and its players. Would you want to see your home team play against a Celtics team who sat down Rajon Rondo with a phantom injury, or the Milwaukee Bucks with Marquis Daniels as their top scoring threat? Of course not.
This was the original purpose of the lottery. The lottery system was adopted in 1985 to curb the tanking impulse, but all it has done is make an imperfect system less perfect. So, if reverse-meritocracy doesn't work, and the lottery is ineffective, then what should the NBA do?
Allow me to propose a few solutions:
Option A: Flip The Switch
Why do we reward the worst teams with the best picks? The league would cite parity and competitive balance. However, in reality, the NBA will never have true balance. Free Agency, which is a wonderful thing, is very detrimental to basketball. When free agent has to pick between Los Angeles and Detroit; or between Miami and Milwaukee, in the winter months, for (due to the salary cap) essentially the same money... where do you think the player is going?
So here is my idea. What if we gave the top pick to the first team to miss the playoffs? The number nine seeds in the East and West would be given picks number one and two. The number ten seeds would get three and four, and so on. Then, once we get to the worst teams, we reverse it, and revert to the old system for picks sixteen through thirty.
So that means this year, the Jazz would have picked first, the Sixers second, and the Mavericks would be given the third pick. These are all teams who could go from average to awesome with one key addition. This system may not be perfect, but its flaws are far less numerous than the current lottery draft.
However, I may have an even better idea:
Option B: Playing Rather Than Praying
Using the same principles as the flipping scenario above... what if the league instituted a lottery tournament. The league loves more revenue, and fans love more meaningful games. What if the NBA sent the fourteen non-playoff teams into a single elimination tournament at season's end? So,while your favorite team might be out of title contention by February, they have a chance to play into a favorable draft position in April.
The tournament results would dictate the final draft order, and teams could have more control of their destiny. Don't you think that it would be exciting for fans and players to have a game between the Blazers and Sixers for an opportunity to draft the next LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal? Wouldn't Rajon Rondo step up his game based on the thought that he could be teammates with the next Kevin Durant? I think so.
So, while I don't expect these ideas to be put in place anytime soon, it is fun to think about. David Stern steps down in a few months, and that might be a catalyst for some much needed change in the NBA, but the Stern legacy is bound to prevent any wide sclae adjustments. So, we will have to keep living in a world of haves, have nots, and the lost world in between.
The NBA could be a better place...If only I ruled the world!
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