Zion, Spike Lee, and the Race to the Bottom

The NBA has been dealing with the issue of “tanking” more than ever over the course of the last decade, and the recent success of the Philadelphia 76ers has seemed to legitimize this practice of losing games on purpose. With the prospect of Zion Williamson waiting for whatever franchise is able to land the #1 pick in this year’s lottery, the League is working harder than ever to ensure that teams do not go all in on tanking for the future superstar.

On February 24, the 91st Academy Awards ceremony took place, and saw some of the biggest names in box-office being rewarded for their efforts on the big screen over the course of the last year. While there were plenty of highlights and surprises, for sports fans watching the event, the most memorable moment of the night came when Spike Lee won the first competitive Oscar of his career for the adapted screenplay that he wrote for BlacKkKlansman. Right before Lee was about to win, Samuel L. Jackson announced that the New York Knicks (whom Lee has often been known to be a superfan of), had beaten the San Antonio Spurs, which ended a franchise-worst home losing streak of 18 games. That is when fans watching the awards ceremony saw the camera pan to Lee, who mouthed the words: “we’re trying to tank,” clearly talking about his beloved New York Knicks.

“Tanking” in this context is when teams try to improve their draft position by losing as many games as possible during the course of a season. This has become a much more common practice in professional sports leagues in recent years, and most notably in the NBA. The most well-known example of tanking came from the Philadelphia 76ers, who put an abysmal product on the court for a span of roughly five seasons, which led to them having very high draft picks every season. The team was able to stockpile these picks, and although some of them ended up being misses (Jahlil Okafor, Markelle Fultz), it also yielded them two of the game’s brightest young stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and has vaulted them to the top of the Eastern Conference just a few years after being arguably the worst team in professional sports. After seeing this model, other teams have tried to do the same thing, and some teams have even went on the record publicly stating that their team would be tanking because it would make more sense for their franchise to lose more games and get a great young player, instead of being stuck as a middle-of-the-road team, in what can only be described as sports purgatory.

Clearly, this is a very bad look for the NBA, as no professional sports league wants its fans thinking that its teams are purposely losing games. Ticketholders and the viewing public do not want to watch games where they cannot be sure if the teams that they are watching even want to be victorious when the final buzzer sounds. Spike Lee’s public acknowledgement of tanking sends the exact opposite message of what the NBA wants fans to believe, and the stir that it created on social media afterwards furthered the problem. This issue has been as big as ever this season, as the “prize” for the worst teams in the League seems bigger than ever. Enter: Zion Williamson. The standout Duke freshman has averaged 21.6 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game, while looking like one of the most dominant college basketball players of all time. In doing so, he has become the consensus number one pick across almost all mock draft boards, and NBA teams know that it is essentially a race to the bottom to get Zion Williamson. With this on the line, the NBA has to worry more than ever about tanking, as its teams know that Zion could be their ticket to completely changing the future of their franchises.

To try and prevent this, the League does have sections of its Constitution and Bylaws devoted to deterring teams from tanking. Article 13 of the Constitution discusses conduct that will allow for the termination of the interest of an owner with a vote of (3/4th) of the Board of Governors. Section (g) specifically addresses the ability to punish “players or other employees” who attempt to lose or control the score of any games that are participated in by a member of the association. When read as plain language, this sounds as though it would clearly allow the possibility of a team to be punished and an owner to possibly lose control if they are found to be purposely losing games. The problem becomes that this punishment only comes about with a vote of (3/4th) of the other owners, and this vote seems very unlikely to occur when owners of so many struggling teams seem to have an incentive to commit to the practice of tanking at one point or another. Instead, it seems that the more likely remedy would come under Article 15 of the Constitution, which allows the other owners to waive “remedy of termination,” and instead force the offending owner to pay a fine to the other owners as compensation for damages of the punishable act (in this case, tanking). This seems like a plausible option, but again has proven to seldomly be used, as owners are wary of monetarily punishing their fellow owners for committing an act that they themselves may also need to commit at one point.

Based on the lack of enforcement of the Constitution thus far, the NBA realized that it needed to take further action in order to protect the image of the League from becoming known as an organization that seemed to tolerate its teams losing games on purpose. The League has recently implemented a new procedural change in its draft lottery process this season. For the first time since the draft lottery started in 1985, the teams with the three lowest win totals will all have the same odds to get the number one pick, at 14% each. Prior to this year, the team with the worst record at the end of the season would automatically have a 25% chance to receive the #1 overall pick; however, Commission Adam Silver made it clear that he wanted “lottery reform,” and in doing so wanted to make it harder for the worst team in basketball to be rewarded with the top pick at the end of the season. This past month at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, N.C., Silver went on to state: “I personally don’t think it’s a winning strategy over the long term to engage in multiple years of rebuilding. There’s a mind-set that, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad. I believe personally that’s corrosive for those organizations.”

Although this is the right thing for the commissioner to say, many franchises probably just think this is lip-service when they see how well tanking has worked out for teams like the Philadelphia 76ers. Based on this, the NBA will eventually need to make even more alterations to the draft lottery if they truly want to quell tanking. The flat odds for the bottom three teams in the league is a start, but this still leaves too much of an incentive for teams tot purposely lose. This season’s upcoming draft class has several marquee players that franchises believe could be cornerstones of their team for years to come. From Zion, to teammates R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, to Murray State’s Ja Morant and many others, this class is being touted as one of the most talented in recent memory. Based on this, a regulation that provides the three worst teams with the same odds at the #1 pick does not really prevent tanking, because these teams would still be extremely happy with picks 2 or 3 as well, as they are still guaranteed an elite player.

Clearly, this new lottery system does not do enough to truly prevent tanking in the way that the League wants to. As an NBA fan, I applaud Adam Silver and the League for making strides to at least try and suppress tanking in the way that they have. However, the NBA needs to continue working to tweak the system to disincentivize its franchises from losing on purpose, especially when it is the same teams year after year that are benefitting from the draft lottery. In order to truly create a fair system, the League should start with a base rule that the same team cannot be in the top X number of spots in the lottery for multiple seasons in a row. Whether the League wants to make that the top 3 or top 5 spots, this will prevent teams from benefiting from losing on a consistent basis, which is the most important problem here. This rule can then be expanded to encompass other issues that come about with tanking, but this will provide the NBA with a good base system that will make fans of the NBA more comfortable that teams are truly doing their best to win on a consistent basis. As fans, that is all that we can ask for.

-Will Hython

Photo Credit: Lance King (Getty); Icon Sportswire (Getty)

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