Kragthorpe: It’s time for NBA to stop the tanking
By kurt kragthorpe
Tribune ColumnistFirst published Jan 04 2014 01:42PM
So the Jazz trailed the Lakers by 21 points Friday night in Los Angeles before rallying, only to lose.
Or did they win? I’m confused.
This is a perplexing season in Jazzland, unlike anything I’ve experienced. The dynamic of the team’s positioning itself for a high draft pick in June makes a sizable number of fans unhappy when the Jazz win.
That’s no fun. The problem revolves around an NBA system that rewards poor performance, which is why I’m endorsing a proposal that would do away with the lottery and create a 30-year cycle of fixed draft slots.
It’s revolutionary. The side effects could hurt small-market franchises like the Jazz that lack the power to attract free agents, and I recognize the hope that the draft brings to downtrodden teams.
Yet only two months into this season, the first time in 30 years when tanking has entered into a conversation about the Jazz (11-25), I’m disgusted with the whole discussion.
The wheel concept the NBA is considering, as Grantland.com reported, has a lot of merit. Whether the league’s owners would approve a major change is questionable. It also would take several years to implement, because of trades involving future draft picks. But it’s worth pursuing.
While the lottery is a good invention, the league’s integrity would be enhanced by eliminating any incentive for losing — or punishment for winning. Teams would know where they stand, with an annual sequence of first-round picks such as Nos. 14, 11, 2, 29 and 20.
Obviously, successful teams would benefit more from the new system. To me, that tradeoff is worthwhile for the sake of value to ticket-buyers everywhere, who know their teams are playing to win.
This is much less of a problem in other sports. When the Indianapolis Colts went 2-14 to earn the No. 1 pick and draft quarterback Andrew Luck in 2012, they won two of their last three games. Baseball, hockey and soccer players make much less immediate impact, reducing the value of top picks.
But tanking is a big issue in the NBA, and not just with teams’ own picks. The Jazz remember the distasteful events of 2011-12, when Golden State owed them a pick to complete the Jazz-Nets trade. The pick was protected; the Warriors would keep it, as long as they finished with the seventh-worst record. They succeeded, and profited by drafting Harrison Barnes.
The wheel system would do away with protections, because teams would know the precise value of a future pick. That would eliminate any shenanigans like Golden State coach Mark Jackson’s moves.
In the hypothetical case of this season, the Jazz’s locked-in draft slot would have changed the entire narrative in a healthy way. The team would be rebuilding without any suggestion of sandbagging or fans’ misgivings about the Jazz’s winning too much.
I’ve accused Jazz management of overdoing this strategy by not assembling a better roster in 2013-14. It’s also foreign to me for fans to be cheering against their own team.
But I understand that everybody’s just playing along with a system that — even with the uncertainty of the lottery — will deliver a really good player in June.
I’ll always wonder how this picture may have changed if rookie Trey Burke hadn’t broken his finger in October. The Jazz were 1-14 before he fully blended into the lineup. By then, the focus of many fans already had shifted to Jabari Parker and other potential draftees.
That’s too bad. I know this: The folks who come to EnergySolutions Arena are engaged in the fourth quarters of close games, and seem happy when the Jazz win.
Yet there’s also this prevailing belief that coach Tyrone Corbin and his players are undermining everything by winning. In this Jazz season, there’s nothing like the agony of victory.