This season has been rough.
You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. The Celtics are tough to watch, because Danny Ainge (making exactly the right basketball move) made it hard for this team to win. Rebuilding sucks.
Discussions about tanking have dominated the NBA conversation this year, and most people are sick of the topic. So instead, allow me to propose a solution to tanking. Is it going to happen? Almost certainly not. But feel free to pick holes in it. That has to be better than arguing about the wheel, right?
Let’s say Bill Simmons got his way, and the NBA created the Entertaining As Hell tournament — single elimination, the winner gets the eighth seed, tons of ad revenue and ticket sales. Ordinarily, the 8th seed in the playoffs is a team that fights admirably but doesn’t have a lot of hope of escaping mediocrity over the next few years. Sure, every once in a while Memphis beats San Antonio, but generally, the 8th seed is going to be bounced right away. What would be the point of trying to win the Entertaining As Hell tournament if your reward is getting beaten to smithereens by the Heat or the Thunder?
So let’s up the stakes. What if, instead of cursing the 8th seed with mediocrity, we gave them a bump? My proposed solution: Have the tournament, and have a lottery for the top four teams. The winner (and also the 8th seed in their conference) gets the highest probably of winning the lottery and thus the most ping pong balls. The runner-up gets the second-most and the other eighth seed. The third and fourth place finishers get an equal amount of ping-pong balls. After the lottery, the remaining team with the worst record gets the fifth pick, etc.
Put as simply as I can: The final four finishers in the tournament get the top four picks, in some order. Everyone else is sorted without a lottery, from worst to best. For instance: This season, the tournament might look like this (yes, in my hypothetical, Boston upsets a couple of teams). If you can’t read the bracket, here’s a link.
In this scenario, Minnesota would have the best chance at a top pick while Boston would have the second best. Phoenix and Detroit, meanwhile, would split the remaining odds for the top pick. None of these teams could fall out of the top four. Milwaukee, as the team with the overall worst record, would then get the fifth pick. Philadelphia would get the sixth, and so on.
Why is this better? Lots of reasons. Let’s do some pros and cons.
The most obvious is that teams have very little reason to lose. Sure, if the draft is deep enough, a team might like to have a no-questions-asked fifth pick, but it would be hard to sell a fan base (and, more importantly, a president of basketball operations) on losing everything for the fifth pick in the draft. It would be better to bring in decent players (say: Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, et all) and try to win during the regular season, ramping up for the EAH tourney. Essentially, this system rewards good free agency signings and drafting.
An additional benefit: Good young players are less likely to have their potential stunted on dysfunctional teams. Is Andrew Wiggins really going to be in the best position to succeed in Milwaukee, where he’ll be asked to be the man right away? Or would he be better suited in Minnesota, where the Wolves have built a playoff contender that can’t quite get over the hump? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it seems more likely that he would flourish with the Wolves.
Meanwhile, for Milwaukee and Philadelphia, things aren’t completely hopeless. The Bucks wouldn’t get the top pick, but there is usually plenty of value to be found at the fifth and sixth spots. Will they get a franchise-changer? Maybe not, but they might get a player who could help them win some games next year, giving them a better chance in the tournament.
Finally, this tournament would be fun. Simmons didn’t name it the Entertaining As Hell tournament for no reason — fans of non-playoffs teams would be fully invested in it, since not only is a playoff spot on the line, the immediate future of the franchise is up for grabs.
First and foremost, how would bad teams get better? By trying to improve immediately, rather than aiming for outright awfulness. If you have a bad team, get better players (you know, rather than getting Hollis Thompson like Philly). You might not be a championship team, but you’ll get good draft odds which could help you become a championship team.
Second, would a 7th seed tank out of the playoffs to get in the Entertaining As Hell tournament? Maybe, but that’s a risky move. First, they don’t know if they will win, which means they are gambling their playoff revenue on a single elimination tournament. And even if a team did employ that strategy, the tanking would only last a week or two at the end of the season. We wouldn’t see the year-long horror show that has been the Sixers.
Third, the tournament idea rewards teams in a weaker conference and punishes those in a stronger conference. This is a problem I don’t have a solution for, but I’m not sure there is one. The brackets would have to be divided by conference, since both the winner and the runner-up get the 8th seed, and as long as there are conferences, one is going to be stronger and one is going to be weaker. Abolishing them is a different topic for a different day.
Finally, for obvious reasons, this system would mean that any trade of any draft pick would have to be top-4 protected. If a team dealt its pick without top-4 protection, they would have no reason to try to win in the tournament.
On the Celtics front, this system would have changed Boston’s season considerably. Would Ainge have traded away Courtney Lee if Boston was trying to win? What about Jordan Crawford? Probably not, because those players were helping Boston win. Fans could have simply grown attached to Steez, rather than wishing Danny would trade him so the Celtics would lose more. People could marvel at Rondo’s passing wizardry rather than worrying he makes Boston “too good.”
Is this a gimmicky, convoluted idea? Sure. But is it any more gimmicky or convoluted than a 30-team wheel or 1,000 ping pong balls? I don’t think so. This system would increase the league’s revenue while rewarding teams who win as much as possible. Isn’t that kind of the point?
Follow Tom on Twitter to tell him his idea is dumb: @Tom_NBA.