NBA Commissioner Adam Silver does not believe his league's worst teams are losing intentionally. He believes they're just so bad that they can't help themselves.
Speaking in Boston, Silver addressed the perception that teams like the Bucks (13-52) and Sixers (15-49) are embracing futility with an eye on landing one of the top picks in a top-heavy 2014 draft.
"I think it's important to clarity what we all mean by tanking," Silver said. "Where I grew up tanking meant the coach and the players or some subset of that group were intentionally trying to lose a game. I don't think that's going on anywhere in the NBA and I would take action immediately if I thought it was.
"What is going on is rebuilding. And we have a system right now that incentivizes teams to rebuild. There's a sense that you're better off rebuilding in some cases from scratch than remaining mediocre. Now I am concerned even if it's a legitimate strategy that there's a perception out there by many people that it's not. There's an awful lot of chatter out there in the land and I continue to hear the 'T' word. So I think it's my obligation to address it."
What Silver's getting at is an important distinction on the agents of a team's inferiority. It very much matters, at least in the public perception, whether a team is designed to lose (by a GM and front office) or engineered to lose (by players and coaches). For reasons that are obvious—but not necessarily logical—only the latter is considered unacceptable by fans. Any suggestion that teams are deliberately failing to play to their full potential is anathema, even if that potential isn't much to begin with. For fans, it defeats the fundamental purpose of the sport, and not insignificantly, screws with gamblers.
At the Sloan Conference, former Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo admitted that he built the 2011-12 Raptors to lose, but was thwarted by coach Dwane Casey. To laughter from the audience, Colangelo said of his coach: "He did too good of a job in motivating his players."
But what's the difference, other than the scale of the tank? A flawed blueprint dooms a structure just as much as does shoddy workmanship. On the same Sloan panel as Colangelo (and 76ers GM Sam Hinkie), former coach Stan Van Gundy pointed out that the end result is the same.
"What Philadelphia is doing right now... is embarrassing," Van Gundy said. "I don't care, Adam Silver can say there's no tanking—if you're putting that roster on the floor, you're doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose."
And yet, there's no outrage about it. Annoyance, sure, but even as shitty teams affect actual playoff races by being a gimme, no one's up in arms. The answer to that is simple: From a decision-theory point of view, tanking is absolutely the smart and correct thing to do.
There's no benefit to missing the playoffs by a game rather than 20, but there's a huge reward for being worse than everyone else. So why wouldn't you try to win the losers' race, which has a very tangible prize? In a sport with a team size as small as basketball's, all it takes are a couple of deliberate roster holes for a couple of seasons to increase your chance of plugging those holes with real and cheap talent.
Intelligently managed teams tank. (Stupidly managed teams trade away their draft picks, Knicks.) You can't punish a team working within the rules to make itself better in the long run. So the onus falls on the league to de-incentivize tanking. Adam Silver gets this:
"I don't have a sense that any teams are doing anything wrong. They're responding to the incentives that are built into the system and if the incentives aren't right, we have to address it. This is genuine, appropriate rebuilding in this league but at the same time some teams are better managed than others."
The most obvious solution is to give every lottery team the same odds. There'd be no drawback: It's good for the league to have great young players land on decent teams, and it's good for the league to force perpetual bottom-dwelling franchises to drag themselves up from the dregs—or hire people who will.
David Stern seemed willfully deaf to the fact that there's even an issue. His successor is at least talking about it, so that's a start. But now that Silver's in a position to actually do something about it, his talk is cheap.