Adam Silver has been getting a lot of wins since becoming commissioner.
From navigating the Donald Sterling scandal to finishing the season during a pandemic, Silver and the NBA seem to traverse the peaks and valleys of being a sports league better than Roger Goodell and the NFL or Rob Manfred and the MLB and Silver has used this aura of invincibility to implement the latest big success: the play-in tournament.
And with that success has Silver wanting to add something from his love of soccer to spice things up during the regular season with a midseason tournament. But instead of that, I have an idea for a lottery tournament that helps fix one of the few problems the league still has; the tank.
Flattening the lottery odds for the top teams in 2019 helped by making it a race to the bottom three instead of a race to the bottom and the play-in tournament has given the teams in that 9-12 range to compete for as the season winds down instead of simply worrying about ping pong balls.
But as much as it has muddied the waters for teams on which direction they want to take their franchises for the season, it hasn’t changed the fact that NBA fanbases (and front offices) are still rooting for their favorite teams to lose games more often than not once the trade deadline comes and goes.
So what can the league do to get the fans on the same page as the coaches and players who want to win every game?
Is There a Viable Solution to Tanking?
What it comes down to are the lottery odds. The fans don’t enjoy rooting against their team and given the chance would prefer to get to cheer for victories and success. But with the NBA working the way it does, securing more ping pong balls in the offseason supersedes the desire to pick up W’s in the regular season.
For a lot of teams this comes at the cost of culture; seeing players drafted into situations that aren’t conducive to winning stunts their potential growth. I’m looking at you Lauri Markkanen and Mo Bamba.
There was a lot of creative thinking during the pandemic break about how they might resume and one of my favorite ideas was Kevin O’Connor’s group play concept borrowed from soccer. His article here explains how Adam Silver has expressed his jealousy over soccer’s ability to sustain fan support by wanting to have things like a mid-season tournament and the play-in tournament we are seeing now to much success.
But after it became clear that the group stage for the bubble was off the table and would become another “what-if” that lives on in my brain forever my mindset shifted and I came up with an idea of my own.
Introducing: The NBA Lottery Tournament
Instead of a mid-season tournament, why not a tournament at the end of the year that had stakes for the lottery teams? But I also wanted to create at least a small timeframe that allowed the fans to get behind the team before a one game loss sent them immediately into the postseason. The group stage was the solution to my problems.
Take the five lottery teams not involved in the play-in from each conference for your two groups and have two locations that don’t have NBA teams for a week-long stay with games playing throughout the day, much like the bubble experience we all enjoyed with the games being from noon on March Madness style.
So have the Pelicans, Timberwolves, Rockets, Thunder, and Kings go to Seattle and have a week long NBA celebration while also seeing each of those teams play each other one time over the course of the week. The Eastern conference teams can do the same in an NBA-less city on the Eastern side of the country to determine the top three teams from each group for the lottery tournament.
While the group stage is going on concurrently with the play-in tournament it will allow the two teams from each conference that don’t advance in the play-in tournament a chance to play a single elimination game that would grant them a spot in the lottery tournament as well.
This is to keep teams from tanking out of the play-in tournament and into the lottery tournament while also rewarding the teams that won in the regular season to get to the play-in tournament a chance at improving through the draft; something I believe front offices would see the value in.
And with those games played, taking the best three teams from each group stage along with the winner of the single elimination game from the play-in participants would leave us with an 8 team tournament; 4 teams from each conference. Each round of the tournament that your team makes gives your team 1 percentage point more in the lottery odds with the winning team getting an extra 1 percent for winning the tournament.
In total, it would be putting 16 percent of the first place odds up for grabs with 4 teams getting a 1 percent boost, 2 teams getting a 2 percent boost, the runner-up getting a 3 percent boost and the winning team getting an extra 5 percent odds towards the first overall pick in the draft.
I altered the lottery odds as they currently are now to come up with the 16 percent to be up for grabs as you can see from the graph below but not so much that I thought it gave any particular group a distinct advantage over the other and every slot can increase their lottery odds from the previous system by making the finals of the lottery tournament which was important.
The advantage isn’t too huge though to be a seismic shift in the standings but enough of one that front offices will see the value in competing instead of encouraging teams to tank their way into the offseason.
Another thing I added into the odds to help reward winning teams was taking a percentage point for the 4th pick from the worst 9 teams along with all of the odds for the play-in teams (7 percent total) to give the bottom two seeds in both conferences a four percent chance at the 4th pick.
While not likely to change a franchise, picking that high in the draft for a team on the border of competing (or in this year’s case being the defending champions) could be the difference in a title one day. Plus it rewards teams for winning even when they aren’t top tier contenders but doesn’t jeopardize the top 3 picks for the teams that are fully in the lottery.
That is a lot of moving parts and information to try and process; I know. But in practice it’s much less complicated than it sounds and I’ll use this year as an example. After a week of group play in a neutral area to help drive fan interest on a local level, the three teams that did best would advance to a tournament that would see the games being played as the first round finished up, with the tournament final being played between the first and second rounds.
If the group play went as the standings expected, we would see the Cavs, Raptors, Bulls, and Pacers from the East and the Pelicans, Timberwolves, Kings, and Grizzlies from the West in the lottery tournament.
Once again assuming things went chalk and the higher seeds won, we would see the Bulls, Pacers, Pelicans, and Grizzlies advance to the final four before the Grizzlies took the inaugural crown as first lottery tournament winners. And if that was the case, this is how the lottery odds would look before and after the tournament was finished.
This is the worst case scenario for the worst place teams playing out in real time. Given that this is the worst outcome for those teams I wouldn’t expect too much resistance on that front and while the critics will ask “why would the players try?”, you can say the same thing for the end of the regular season or even the play-in tournament when you’re starting at a Brooklyn or Philadelphia team with a win or lottery odds with a loss.
The players who are competitors and want to win games will try and the players that don’t put in the effort will expose themselves for that to the front office and coaching staff. Seeing if you have a player that is going to give maximum effort regardless of the situation is valuable in player evaluation and paying the players for showing up will be the main motivator, just like it is during the regular season.
Finding winning players and building a winning culture should be rewarded, as should winning as late into the season as you can. This would give teams like the Bulls and Timberwolves a few more games to see their core players together as well as give a team like the Thunder the chance to show off the talented core they’ve built that plays well together and potentially make a run to jump up in the odds for that #1 pick.
The play-in allowed a handful of more fanbases to stay energized later into the season and into the first round of the playoffs. This proposal does that for every fanbase in the league.