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Discouraging tanking in the NBA

By Scott Tibbs, November 21, 2013

With several prospects for the 2014 NBA draft that could potentially be franchise players, the debate about "tanking" has come to the forefront again. Michael Rosenberg makes a distinction between patience and tanking his his recent editorial, and it's an important (if subtle) distinction to make. His proposed solution to a lottery that encourages lottery teams to be intentionally bad certainly merits consideration.

There is one aspect to this issue that no one is considering: The NBA has too many teams. The league has expanded several times since the late 1980's, and every time you add another team you dilute the talent pool by adding twelve players who would not otherwise be talented or skilled enough to play at the highest level.

Because there are seven more teams in the NBA than there were in the 1987-88 season, there are 84 players who would not be in the NBA if the league looked like it did then. This means the worst teams are much worse than they would be without expansion. Reducing the number of teams would improve the quality of the game.

Of course, contraction is not realistic and (barring a major financial crisis for pro basketball) is not going to happen. So what can be done to discourage teams from intentionally being as bad as possible?

Rosenberg's proposal merits attention. Relegating teams to a lower division (as is done in European soccer) sounds interesting, because that would give the worst teams a strong motivation at the end of the season and would make their games much more interesting. That would also make the regular season mean much more. That is not a realistic solution for the NBA, though, because of the difference in facilities, fan base, television market and so forth between the NBA and the NBA Development League. The biggest factor, of course, is arena size.

Whatever the NBA comes up with, this issue needs to be addressed. It is an embarrassment to the league to see teams intentionally putting together bad rosters to secure a high draft pick, and the current weighted lottery is too strong of an incentive to be intentionally be bad. This is a broken system and it needs to change soon.