It wasn’t a massive presence at Utah Summer League, but it was a vocal one. During the three Philadelphia 76ers games in July, a small group of loud, proud fans inevitably chanted: “Trust the Process!”
For the few uninitiated, the process was Philadelphia’s concerted organizational strategy of fielding bad teams for bad seasons and a higher chance of top draft picks. The fan support at summer league was in part because Sixers fans were watching Markelle Fultz, the team’s fourth top-three pick in four years.
But celebrating tanking is something that former Utah Jazz CEO and NBA Board of Governors representative Greg Miller simply cannot understand.
“I don’t know I’d say it’s frustrating; I’d say it’s a mindset I can’t relate to,” he said in an interview with The Tribune. “Everything about the Jazz is continuous improvement — how do we get better. It’s just who we are. Nobody in this organization would ever even think about proposing tanking. To me, it’s just immoral.”
While Sixers fans may continue to trust the process, the majority of NBA ownership sees tanking as Miller does: an insidious loophole in the NBA draft lottery. The board of governors voted last week on a strategy trying to close that loophole, giving the NBA’s worst teams less of a chance to win top picks in the lottery — and potentially helping teams such as the Jazz that eschew the process as an organizational strategy.
Since 1994, the odds of the team with the worst record in the league getting the No. 1 overall pick has been 25 percent; the second-worst 19.9 percent; the third-worst at 15.6 percent.
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Starting in 2019, the odds for the three worst teams will flatten out at 14 percent each, the NBA Board of Governors voted. It will be more likely that the worst team will get the No. 5 overall pick (47.9 percent) than a top-three pick (40.1 percent). There also will be four teams instead of three in the lottery draw, meaning more chances to move up.
Meanwhile, competitive non-playoff teams see a slight bump in their chances to move up. For example, Utah’s No. 12 slot (which netted Trey Lyles) from their 38-44 record in 2015 had a 2.5-percent chance of becoming a top-three pick. Under the new format, the odds would improve to 5.1 percent of a top-three pick, plus a 2.1-percent chance to get the fourth overall pick.
“We think statistically until we get to be an elite team, which we hope isn’t too far away, we think that we’ll wind up in the range that the odds now increase our opportunities to draft higher,” Miller said.
The pitfalls of tanking are obvious. The NBA collectively held its nose while the Sixers slogged through three straight seasons of less than 20 wins, not trying to improve through either free agency or trade but solely through the draft. TV partners complained. Attendance and ad sales dropped in Philly for the historically putrid run.
However, while general manager Sam Hinkie lost his job for trying to lose, the strategy — in a warped sense — worked. The Sixers netted Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons and Fultz in the last four drafts alone. The Jazz have had only four top-three picks in their entire history.
Still, the cost isn’t worth it, the Jazz say. Trying to tank would erode fan, sponsor and broadcast support, and takes a gamble that potentially could be impossible to recover from.
“I can’t imagine what it would do to a culture of an organization if the strategy was to lose,” team president Steve Starks said. “The fact that the culture of the Jazz organization has always been about leaving everything on the court helps make us who we are, and we build on that.”
But a question lingers: Does the reform actually stop tanking?
Only the Sixers ever unabashedly have pursued multi-season, long-term tanking, but there are teams that tank midway through seasons or in March or April once they’re out of the playoff race, especially if there’s a lottery pick to protect. The Los Angeles Lakers would’ve lost their pick in the 2017 NBA draft (which ended up being No. 2 Lonzo Ball) if they had fallen from the top three.
Did they tank? They did go 6-29 through one stretch last season with a roster that was arguably one of the NBA’s worst. It’s harder to legislate against that kind of short-term nosedive. An additional rule to fine teams for resting players at $100,000 a pop might help, but it applies only to nationally televised games.
The NBA has struggled with it, failing to pass reform in 2014. Even this last vote had a dissenting voice. The Oklahoma City Thunder voted against it, while the Dallas Mavericks abstained, according to ESPN. That may reflect an awareness among smaller-market teams, who struggle to add big names in free agency, that the draft remains the best way to build a true contender.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted at his former protege Hinkie after the vote, “tanking is solved.” It’s hard to tell whether the object of his barb was Hinkie, who pioneered tanking, or the league at large, which still may need to take steps to contain the problem. But Miller feels that the new reform is as good a start as any.
“We feel like this is an appropriate first step to discourage the tanking mentality, and if it turns out that’s not the case, perhaps stronger disincentives may come about,” Miller said. “To know that we somehow gained an advantage by not giving our best doesn’t sit right with us.”