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Why the “Wheel” Won’t Solve the NBA’s Tanking Problem

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Despite Adam Silver’s claims to the contrary, there are teams in the NBA that—while they would never explicitly say it—are playing to lose. The Philadelphia 76ers are the best example of that right now, perfectly illustrated by the lingering question of whether they could beat college basketball’s top team, the Kentucky Wildcats.

While every team aims to win in the long term, losing in the short term makes a whole lot more sense than being stuck in mediocrity. Philadelphia is arguably doing such a good job at that mindset, that it’s ruffling more than a few feathers. There does seem to be a long-term plan. Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid (the team’s last two top picks) were at one point or another considered to be the top player in their respective classes. Together, they could potentially form a formidable frontcourt in a few years’ time. With Dario Saric another prospect stashed overseas and the odds of yet another top-3 pick this upcoming draft, the Sixers have their sights on contending a few years down the line.

The strategy shows promise, but does that make it right? In the words of former NFL coach Herm Edwards, “you play to win the game.”

And so, suggestions have been tossed around on how to fix tanking. The focus has been on the draft, and the fact that teams with worse records get higher picks. Even with the current lottery system, the team with the worst record in the league is guaranteed no worse than the 4th overall pick, and has the best odds (at 25%) of claiming that #1 spot.

The “Wheel”

The suggestion with the most momentum right now seems to be the “Wheel”, aka the “Wheel of Misfortune.” The way it would work is that each position, from 1-30, gets put on a wheel in such a manner that the top 6 picks are spread out evenly and a team gets at least one top-12 pick in every four-year span. The image below (credit: Grantland), makes it clearer.

NBA Lottery Wheel

A team would start at some position on the wheel, and then for the next 29 seasons, they’d know exactly where they’re picking in each subsequent draft. In theory, this eliminates the connection between losing and a high pick, so there’d be no incentive to tank. Additionally, trading draft picks would be a simpler process, and you wouldn’t end up with situations like the Nets (who were fighting for a playoff spot) trading for Gerald Wallace and giving up the 6th overall pick (which turned into ROY and All-Star, Damian Lillard).

The Problem

This system would probably have value if every organization was really trying to win a championship every year. But that’s not a realistic assumption. For one, basketball is a game of superstars—if you have one (or, three), you can compete; if you don’t, you’d better be trying to get one. Furthermore, even though the luxury tax and revenue sharing is supposed to increase parity, they can’t affect free agency and the fact that some geographic locations are simply more appealing destinations for players. Especially with more and more players seeing themselves as brands, and wanting to maximize their exposure, big-market teams have a leg up even without spending more cash.

No one likes losing, not even the owners[…]the draft at least gives fans hope.

But the real issue is that teams have a reasonable sense of whether this year is “their year”, or not, and will either be buyers or sellers as a result. Even without the allure of a high draft pick, there is still incentive to clear out the roster and keep low-priced, short term contracts with younger players. Why? Because at the end of the day, the NBA is a business. It makes no sense for owners to spend big on a team that’s going to lose anyway. Even from a basketball standpoint, if building a team is all about landing a star, you either need the cap flexibility to pursue one in free agency or you need to try and develop one from within. Paying above-average role players does nothing to advance toward that goal.

Exacerbating the Issue

No one likes losing, not even the owners (there’s a lot of money to be made in the playoffs). The thing is that the draft at least gives fans hope. 76ers fans right now can go watch NCAA basketball or dig up YouTube clips of Emmanuel Mudiay and feel excited that another top prospect is coming their way. “Just wait ’til next year” might be a tired phrase, but it’s one the league needs people to keep repeating, lest they lose interest. The wheel takes all of that away, without correcting the other factors that cause a team to tank. The only “problem” the wheel would really solve is getting rid of hope.

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