NBA: Tanks for any suggestions

Posted: March 07, 2014

Third in a series

BOSTON - At the self-proclaimed Super Bowl of sports analytics, Sam Hinkie had to be squirming in his chair.

With Hinkie among the crowd at last Friday's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, along with three members of the Sixers' front office, former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy ripped his team.

Regardless of his position in the standings, Van Gundy said, he at least wanted to field the best team possible to try to win.

"Not what Philadelphia is doing right now, which is embarrassing," Van Gundy said. "I don't care. Adam Silver can say there's no tanking or what's going on. If you're put that roster on the floor, you're doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose."

After 15 consecutive losses by a combined 297 points - an average of nearly 20 points a game - there is probably little Hinkie can do to combat Van Gundy's opinion. The Sixers haven't won a game since Jan. 29.

Tanking? What tanking?

Hinkie's former boss, chief NBA nerd and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, said the Sixers and other teams are simply using the current rules in place to hasten the rebuilding process.

"We have to get rid of the marginal incentive to lose," Morey said on the same panel. "It's bad right now. I think last year, at the end of the season, I counted like two-thirds of the teams weren't trying to win."

Amazingly, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver - on the job for just a little over a month since David Stern's retirement - said he does not think teams in his league are actively trying to lose. But he isn't naive enough to believe that the current draft system does not require an overhaul.

Silver sat down with author Malcolm Gladwell in an engaging, hourlong chat about the state of the NBA last Saturday. Changing the NBA's draft system, with tanking the NBA's biggest roadblock in unwatchability, was not surprisingly the hot topic - as it was all weekend at MIT.

How many people want to pay to watch the 15-win Sixers face the 12-win Milwaukee Bucks in a game neither wants to win?

Silver reminded that the current system has been tweaked over the years with the lottery. Remember when the worst team in the NBA automatically received the No. 1 pick?

"I'm open to taking a fresh look at it," Silver said. "One of the fundamental mistakes we made at the league, if you were the worst team, it was a 1-to-1 chance of obviously having the first pick.

"We have to dramatically reduce the odds. I'm not sure we're at the optimal point. I'm not sure analytics bear that out [losing] being the optimal way to operate. Just like any business, there's short-term and long-term goals."

The issues facing the NBA are threefold. Unlike the NHL, franchises are not as dependent on gate receipts for revenue, since the NBA has so many other revenue streams. Basketball's playoff structure is ridiculously predictable and doesn't lend itself to the philosophy that if you get in, you have a chance to make a run.

And most important, teams are dependent on superstars to win.

"Basketball is so unique in that it is a team and individual sport," Silver said. "Even if you and I took a group of basketball experts and put the cards of every player on the table and said, 'Let's create maximum, any-given-Sunday parity,' I don't think we could do that.

"We all recognize, if you don't have one of 10 or 15 players in this league - and it might be a smaller number - you have a very small chance of winning a championship."

So, what options does Silver have to return the NBA to relevance? Van Gundy wants the league to abandon the draft and make every prospective player a free agent. Morey didn't endorse one plan over another, but he agreed a change is necessary.

Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren was part of the MIT think tank last weekend to get basketball back on track. Zarren's proposal is the idea of a rotating "wheel," which essentially assigns draft picks in a fixed order so all 30 teams would have the first overall pick once every 30 years. Each team would cycle through the 30 draft slots, year by year, in a predetermined order designed so that teams pick in different areas of the draft each year.

"When Mike first brought it to me, I thought, 'Wow, this solves all our problems,' " Silver said. "Teams can plan for the future. They have absolutely no incentive to do anything but win the maximum number of games per season. They know when the draft pick is coming."

So, Silver asked other team's general managers to review Zarren's idea. The reaction was not all positive.

"There is a belief that certain markets have advantages," Silver said. "Players may choose to be on a coast, or choose to be in a larger market or a smaller marker. I'm not sure if that is the case, but that is the perception."

According to Silver, one downside is that if a hotshot freshman from, say, Duke is ready to leave college, he might be persuaded to wait an extra year or 2 if his desired destination is up next on the wheel in a year or 2.

That would also imply that said player could accurately predict where he'll be taken in the draft. With the "wheel" system, teams could always trade the pick, as they could now. And even in today's setup, a player can refuse to sign with the team that drafts him.

"I liked the idea initially," Silver said. "We're still studying it. If there is a game-changer that only comes along once every 10 years and he says, 'Don't bother, I'm not going to play for you,' or more appropriately says, 'I can wait a year or 2,' that creates an issue."

Sports writer Bill Simmons proposed a system nearly 7 years ago that Silver referenced, which would create a playoff play-in tournament for the eighth and final seed between the eight teams that haven't locked up a spot. That would also give the first seven seeds a chance to rest as a reward for a strong regular season - and maybe even create additional revenue incentives for teams to keep winning.

"That's interesting how it affects the incentives," Silver said. "The issue is that by having a seven-game series, you reduce the randomness of the outcome. I think what's so exciting about college basketball is the single-elimination NCAA Tournament. Statistically, you're going to have a lot more upsets."

Silver said he has "mixed views" about tinkering with the NBA's current playoff setup, because he likes the narratives and drama, even though they go hand-in-hand with the draft. Part of that is because he "can't think of a better way to do it."

The good news is that Silver is working on it; it just won't make the Sixers any less embarrassing any time soon.

"The amount of time I spend talking about tanking, of course that concerns me from a business standpoint," Silver said. "It's definitely an imperfect system we have now."

Tomorrow: An analytical approach to golf with an everyday application, plus a recap of the latest and greatest in analytics in other sports.

On Twitter: @DNFlyers


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