Sunday Discussion: Fixing the NBA - Discouraging Tanking and Shortening the Schedule

Christian Petersen

You get some playoffs. And you get some playoffs. And even you get some playoffs. PLAYOFFS FOR EVERYONE!

The concept of tanking has become a hot topic in the NBA, especially of late. The accepted quality of the upcoming NBA Draft combined with the inability for most franchises to truly contend without a "Superstar", led many franchises to sink their season before the games even began.

The biggest culprits were the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, and to an extent, the Boston Celtics. Looking at the standings now you can see that the Milwaukee Bucks, initially expected to be signing up for another "8th seed of bust", have imploded; the Suns have exceeded all expectations; and plans to reach respectability have been dashed for Cleveland, Detroit, and our beloved New Orleans Pelicans. The Knicks are terrible despite owing their pick (with NO protections) to Denver, while the Lakers without Kobe Bryant have been a train wreck of older players on the downside of their career and D-League projects. (Remember when Xavier Henry was setting the world on fire? He was recently assigned back to the D-League.)

In addition to the usual concerns about tanking, during the Sloan Conference this weekend, worries about the long term health of the NBA product were raised. Specifically, the health of players and the competitive nature of the NBA product. The Indiana Pacers, for instance, are 45-13. Seven of those thirteen losses have occurred on the road on a back-to-back. On the injury front, beyond those familiar to Pelican fans (Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Jason Smith), a number of other stars are missing this season. Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, and Andrea Bargnani are all done for the season and earning in excess of $10 Million on the season each. And countless of others have missed significant time: Marc Gasol, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

Injury Problem

As Dr. Czeisler stated above, reducing the injury probability could be achieved by eliminating back-to-backs. For all the concerns about owners losing the revenue from home games, what do they gain to pay a player $10 Million to not play basketball? No league is more star driven than the NBA, so developing a schedule to protect those assets is good business. One need only observe the San Antonio Spurs resting players on the back half of a back-to-back on national TV to see one successful method of circumventing the toll an NBA schedule takes on the human body.

Step one of my plan is to eliminate back-to-backs AND shorten the NBA season to 66 games. To solve the schedule issues of the current uneven model, I propose that each team would play a four game series with each team within the division (16 games) and a home and home with every other team in the league (50 games). To further consolidate the season, I would move the beginning of the season to the middle of November, while maintaining the end at the middle of April. This provides roughly 150 nights to squeeze in 66 games.

Championship Playoffs

Currently there is a great disparity between the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference. While maintaining divisions to enhance regional rivalries, I would eliminate conferences altogether. The teams in the playoffs would be the six division winners and the next ten best teams, regardless of division. These teams would then be seeded 1-16 by record alone, winning a division would guarantee a playoff position but not home court advantage. For example, currently this is how it would look as of March 1st.

1 - Indiana Pacers
16 - Brooklyn Nets
8 - Golden State Warriors
9 - Dallas Mavericks
5 -Portland Trailblazers
12 - Toronto Raptors
4 - San Antonio Spurs
13 - Chicago Bulls
6 - Houston Rockets
11 - Memphis Grizzlies
3 - Oklahoma City Thunder
14 - Washington Wizards
7 - Los Angeles Clippers
10 - Phoenix Suns
2 - Miami Heat
15 - Minnesota Timberwolves

Only one team below .500 would be included in the playoffs. The series would consist of the best of seven variety throughout.  Currently, the NBA Champions could play up to 110 games if every series goes all seven games. (Reducing the season to 66 cuts that number to 94.) The first round looks significantly more compelling than whatever the Eastern Conference is going to provide and the second round, should the favorites win, is downright explosive. Pacers-Warriors, Spurs-Blazers, Thunder-Rockets, Clippers-Heat. I want to watch every minute of that.

Eliminate the Lottery

This second piece is the biggest change -- I would institute a playoff for lottery position. Seeding for the remaining fourteen teams would be in reverse order of the standings. The worst two teams (in this case, Philadelphia and Milwaukee) would receive a bye into the second round. For the NBA standings (again as of March 1st), the seeding would be as such:

8 - Utah Jazz 1 - Milwaukee Bucks
9 - New Orleans Pelicans 8/9 Winner
4 - Boston Celtics
13 - Atlanta Hawks 4/13 Winner
5/12 Winner
5 - Sacramento Kings
12 - Denver Nuggets
3 - Orlando Magic
14 - Charlotte Bobcats
3/14 Winner
6 - Los Angeles Lakers 6/11 Winner
11 - Cleveland Cavaliers
7 - New York Knicks 2 - Philadelphia 76ers
10 - Detroit Pistons 7/10 Winner

Once seeded, each series would be a five game series with the "higher seed" receiving home court until the lottery finals, which would be seven games. Scheduling this during the championship playoffs would result in the lottery playoffs concluding before the start of  the NBA Finals.

With this method, every NBA team will host at minimum 34 home games and play at minimum 69. Also, even young teams would experience the different environment of an NBA series, complete with game planning over the course of multiple games for a single opponent. Long runs in the lottery playoff would not only gain a franchise a potential star player in the draft, but the experience necessary to achieve in the championship playoffs.

Each team eliminated from this playoff for the draft would be slotted at the bottom of the lottery, contingent on how many games they lasted. A team that is swept in the first round would receive the 14th pick. If two teams are swept the team with the worse record receives the better pick. After the completion of the first round, seeds 9-14 would be determined. By providing a bye to the two worst teams, they are guaranteed to pick no worse than 8th but still must compete to secure a more valuable pick.

Limitations

This plan is not without limitations. It could encourage some teams at the fringes of the championship playoffs to tank in order to get into the draft playoffs in the final weeks of the season. Of course the ability to flip that switch back into a winning mode, especially against opponents with every reason organizationally to win, would be difficult. Further, by creating shorter series, it gives lower quality teams an increased chance to "get hot"; eliminating upsets, such as Denver over Seattle was the impetus to increasing the first round to seven games in the first place.

Furthermore, the current practice of trading future draft picks would have to be eliminated. A system like this would encourage the Knicks to lose out immediately from the lottery playoffs, as they do not own their pick. Conversely, it could mean that trading unprotected first round picks much less appealing. Instead protections such as top 2, top 4, or even top 8 would incentivize teams to put their best foot forward to keep their pick.

The current method of pick protections encourages teams with such protections to take part in the worst kind of tanking imaginable at the end of the season. One most recently practiced by the Golden State Warriors at the end of the 2012 season and currently being considered by Pelican fans if not by the Pelican front office, yet.

You can read an interesting plan developed by the NBA (and reported by Grantland's Zach Lowe) here, also known as the "wheel". For a more comedic approach, I strongly urge you to read Tom Ziller's The Cones of Silvershire. Reporting on tanking has been thorough enough that it is reasonable to expect the NBA to try some change to awarding the top picks in the NBA draft. Why not make teams go out and win it?

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