Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy has arrived at the same conclusion as basically the rest of the NBA-watching world: this latest draft lottery adjustment probably won’t do much to curb tanking, its stated goal. Van Gundy’s suggestion is reportedly to get rid of the draft altogether:
“I’d get rid of it, just get rid of the draft altogether,” Van Gundy told reporters after practice Friday. “We’d just deal with the salary cap. Make all [rookies] free agents coming in, and if I want to go give a guy $50 million a year, good, but I got to do it under the cap.”
It’s actually a two-part plan—ESPN says Van Gundy would also do away with maximum contracts, which he apparently sees as a major reason why super teams are able to form in the modern NBA.
The best thing about Van Gundy’s plan is it is a solution—an excellent, long-overdue solution—in search of a different problem. Tanking isn’t really a big deal! There are two kinds of tanking: in one kind, a team in the midst of a shitty season shuts down their best players in order to lose their way into better draft position; in the other kind, a team spends an offseason (or multiple whole years) casting off good players and accumulating bad ones so that they can enter a given season (or multiple seasons) with as great a chance as possible of being among the worst teams in the league. The former is relatively benign—teams having shitty seasons are likely to lose down the stretch anyway—and while the latter can be a blight on the league if it stretches beyond one season, it rarely does, and is in most ways indistinguishable from honest-to-God rebuilding. It’s rare that tanking looks all that different from just, you know, being the Orlando Magic, and no draft lottery reform is ever going to stop the Orlando Magic from being the Orlando Magic.
But Van Gundy’s plan is still a good one. If anything, the Orlando Magic prove that the draft doesn’t even especially work as intended—as a device for spreading top-level talent around the league and crafting the NBA’s preferred version of parity. The Celtics won the Eastern Conference last season and also won the first overall pick in the draft; clearly that is not a pro-parity result! No. More than anything else, the draft (and rookie scale contracts) screw young players, and max contracts screw top-level veterans, and all so that NBA general managers can be protected from their own bad decision-making.
I have no idea what the NBA would look like without a player draft. I also can’t imagine a tanking-free NBA looking all that much better than the current one. But if the scourge of tanking leads NBA decision-makers to conclusions like “actually we should be more fair to players,” it can’t be all that bad. Maybe the tanking ... is good?