USA Today’s Sam Amick obtained a memo that Adam Silver sent to all 30 NBA teams a week ago, warning them that they faced the “swiftest and harshest response possible” from the league office if they get caught outwardly trying to lose games. The memo was sent on Feb. 21, the same day that Silver fined Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $600,000 for admitting that “losing is our best option.”
In the memo, Silver warns that the NBA “must do everything in our power to protect the actual and perceived integrity of the game”:
Over the past several seasons, discussions about so-called ‘tanking’ in the NBA have occurred with some frequency, both in the public discourse and within our league, and you as governors have taken steps to address the underlying incentive issues by adopting changes to our draft lottery system that will go into effect next year. Throughout this period, we have been careful to distinguish between efforts teams may make to rebuild their rosters, including through personnel changes over the course of several seasons, and circumstances in which players or coaches on the floor take steps to lose games.
The former can be a legitimate strategy to construct a successful team within the confines of league rules; the latter — which we have not found and hope never to see in the NBA — has no place in our game. If we ever received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.
Silver said that the league had reviewed possible evidence that the Mavericks had moved on from “passive tanking” (playing a bunch of guys who suck) to “active tanking” (having Metta World Peace shoot a million threes), and while they didn’t find anything worth punishing further, he warned teams to avoid being so blatant. “You are therefore advised to avoid such statements, and to pass along this admonition to all other key personnel in your organizations. We will continue to monitor closely the play of all teams during the remainder of the season.”
As wonderful as it would be to have every team try to win every game every night, the incentive structure is still such that tanking is basically unavoidable. There are 10 teams who are currently trying to head south, and the six worst teams in the NBA are all essentially tied. The league knows there’s nothing it can do short of docking draft picks to discourage teams from continuing to lose, especially this year where a single win could move a team back five spots in the draft. This memo is more about the perception of tanking.
Players on the court will still try to win every time out, and no young guy at the end of his contract is going to miss shots on purpose for the good of some organization that may or may not have his back. With Cuban’s big fine as a warning shot, teams won’t stop self-sabotage, but they’ll have to become more clever about it. They’ll play veterans for only a few minutes, utilize nonsensical lineups, or chop up rotations to favor worse players. The toilet party isn’t going to stop; it’s just going to change.