Does the NBA Have a Tanking Issue?

            The NBA’s current lottery system encourages teams who are struggling to do the least possible to be in the best position to select the draft prospect of their choice. The NBA lottery system works like this: The bottom 14 teams are put into a lottery and based on their standings at the end of the season, they are given greater or lesser odds to be awarded the number 1 pick in the draft. The bottom three teams get a 14% chance to get the number 1 pick and the odds trickle down from there[1]. If a team is struggling about halfway through the season and it isn’t likely that they will make a playoff push, what is stopping them from not trying their best to win to position themselves in the best way possible for great odds at a top pick? The answer is nothing, and the incentive to tank is especially enticing this year.

            In the upcoming NBA draft, there is what they are calling a “once-in-a-generation player” available by the name of Victor Wembanyama. At 7-foot-4 and with a wingspan of 8 feet and the skills of a guard, many scouts are saying that Wembanyama is potentially the best prospect of all time, and at the very least the best prospect since Lebron James[2]. Getting a player like this could completely change the trajectory of a franchise for decades and the league is worried that teams are going to do whatever they can to try and get their hands on him.

            Commissioner Adam Silver has called tanking a “serious issue” and has said that the issue has sparked hundreds of meetings across the league. “We put teams on notice,” Silver told employees when asked about tanking. “We’re going to be paying particular attention to the issue this year.” “Teams are smarter, they are creative, and they respond-we move, they move- so we’re always looking to see whether there’s yet a better system,” Silver told employees. “It’s something we have to watch for,” Silver said. “A draft is, in principle, a good system. But I get it, especially when there is a sense that a once-in-a-generation player is coming along like we have this year.” Silver didn’t mention Wembanyama by name, sources present said, but added that the league will adjust as necessary. NBA is the one sport out of the major four that teams are very incentivized to tank because it is the sport most disproportionately altered by the addition of a single player[3]. The financial rewards are enormous, and your franchise has the potential to skyrocket overnight. Ironically, the NBA just announced they will stream all French league games featuring Wembanyama for free on the NBA app. This is the first time a non-NBA affiliated league’s games are live streamed on the NBA app[4]. The league realizes how good this guy is and are looking to profit off of him even before he makes the league. Just imagine how individual teams feel.

            In light of this issue, there have been many ideas floated about what can be done to prevent teams from tanking. In an effort to reduce tanking, the NBA flattened the draft lottery odds in 2019, but the issue remains the same[5]. The league has explored one radical change to combat the issue of tanking. Silver said that the league looked into a promotion and relegation system along the lines of European Soccer as a potential solution. Under such a system, the worst-performing one or two teams in each season would be demoted to the G League, while the top G League teams would be promoted in their places[6]. Although in theory that sounds good, it is evident that is a near-impossible scenario. “It would so disrupt our business model,” said Silver, explaining why the league is unlikely to pursue the concept. “And even if you took two teams up from the G League, they wouldn’t be equipped to compete in the NBA[7].”

            There have been other ideas floated as well to help this issue. It has been suggested that the NBA should implement a rule preventing teams from winding up in the top three of the draft in back-to-back years. This would encourage teams to push to improve every single year while also not hurting struggling teams too badly, with the potential to still have a top 4 pick. If the NBA is serious about preserving the integrity of the league, a slight tweak to the lottery system could be an answer[8].

            Tanking violates the foundational principle of sports that competitors play to win. Tanking not only challenges the integrity of the league, but it is also a slap in the face to an entire fanbase’s pride and dignity[9]. Fans who pay their hard-earned dollars to come to games don’t deserve to deal with a team that is quietly trying to lose, and it will be interesting to see if the league implements any policies to veer teams away from tanking.

  1. https://www.nba.com/news/nba-draft-lottery-explainer
  2. https://uproxx.com/dimemag/victor-wembanyama-2023-nba-draft-g-league-ignite-analysis-videos/
  3. https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/34854066/adam-silver-says-nba-monitoring-serious-tanking-issue-sources-say
  4. https://www.nba.com/news/nba-app-to-stream-wembanyama-games
  5. https://www.businessinsider.com/nba-draft-lottery-odds-devastation-2019-5
  6. https://frontofficesports.com/nba-considered-euro-style-relegation-system-to-combat-tanking/
  7. Id.
  8. https://sports.yahoo.com/nba-tanking-is-a-problem-so-here-is-one-possible-solution-to-encourage-quality-regular-season-play-025107352.html
  9. https://en.as.com/nba/what-is-tanking-in-the-nba-and-why-do-teams-tank-n/#:~:text=Tanking%20is%20purposely%20creating%20a,them%20closer%20to%20winning%20titles.
  10. Photo: https://www.lemonde.fr/en/m-le-mag/article/2022/10/28/who-is-french-basketball-prodigy-victor-wembanyama_6002095_117.html
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I am a third year law student at the University at Buffalo. I wish to pursue either personal injury or sports law in my career after law school.

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