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The Case for the NBA Lottery Tournament

The NBA's competitive balance issues can't be fixed with one move. Here's how the league can get rid of tanking and give fans a new tournament just as addictive as the playoffs themselves.

​Over the past few weeks around the NBA, there have been ongoing discussions about tanking, play-in tournaments, competitive balance, revenue and the 82–game schedule. As the league becomes more lucrative and looks to optimize interest going forward, most of these debates will continue well into the next decade. There are no easy answers. But listen. As we enter the throes of tanking thinkpiece season and the world wrings its hands over competitive balance, I want everyone to know that it doesn't have to be this way forever.

Here is a possibly insane 10-point proposal that could help address concerns in every area—tanking, the schedule, competitive balance, revenue, tournaments—while also giving basketball fans a year-end tournament that could be every bit as addictive as the playoffs themselves.

1. The idea for an end-of-year tournament of bottom-dwellers goes back to NBA blogging godfather (and my former boss) Bill Simmons. He's been pushing for the NBA to adopt the "Entertaining as Hell" tournament since 2007, where 16 teams at the bottom of the league would play for the No. 8 seed in both conferences. What I love about the idea: we'd get to see a a bunch of weird young teams and great young players thrown into high–pressure situations. Half the players on the league's worst teams are young enough to be playing college basketball anyway. It'd be like a bizarro version of the Sweet 16. (How much fun would it have been to watch Anthony Davis try to tear through the field the past few years? Or what about watching Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and Brandon Ingram this year?)

I have two small problems with the "Entertaining as Hell" idea: First, the next month of the regular season is twice as interesting because of the playoff race in the West; we lose some of that if we're opening up the final two playoff spots to the field. And then, the bigger problem: we need a better prize than the No. 8 seed. The chance at a meaningless playoff spot and a five-game playoff loss isn't enough to make fans care, and it probably wouldn't matter that much to the teams themselves. Even if you throw in a cap exception or an extra second–round pick, how does that move the needle for any franchise looking to build a title winner? Today's fans are too smart to root for their team to cost themselves valuable draft position.

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2. Adam Silver and the NBA are listening to these ideas. League sources recently told ESPN's Zach Lowe that the league has seriously considered a modified version of the Simmons proposal. As Lowe reported, the plan calls for: "two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eighth seed, with the winner of that single game nabbing the seventh spot, sources say. Meanwhile, the ninth seed would host the 10th seed, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the final playoff spot." 

I'm not a fan of this idea. We'd be robbed of the novelty that comes with, say, throwing the Devin Booker Suns into a high-pressure tournament, and the mediocre matchups we'd get instead (Heat-Pistons, anyone?) aren't particularly enticing. It's cool that the league is open to experimenting, but this idea undermines the regular season without enough payoff to make it worthwhile. 

3. It makes sense that the NBA would explore new ways to sell the game, especially now. The league is funded in large part by TV money, and as new media changes the landscape for companies like the ESPN, the financial baseline of the future is uncertain. "That’s the question of the hour," NBPA President Michele Roberts said of the league's media rights in a recent interview with Paul Flannery and SB Nation. The league's current TV deal expires in seven years. "Millennials," Roberts explained, "if they’re buying anything, they’re not buying these packets. They’re buying à la carte​. That alone is going to make it impossible to replicate the kind of deal that was negotiated in 2014. What everyone’s trying to do is figure out new ways of generating the same revenue consistent with the way people are now ingesting the game." That's one reason legalized gambling on pro basketball games (and an attendant integrity fee) is now an NBA-sponsored movement. It's also why the league might look into some kind of tournament that could be sold on its own, separate from the playoffs or the regular season.


4. Meanwhile, there's tanking. I've never been one to soapbox on the integrity of the game—in my experience, the people who complain loudest about tanking are generally not real NBA fans to begin with—but it's getting out of hand this year. As of Tuesday, the bottom nine teams in the league were a combined 3-22 since the All-Star break. None of them are incentivized to win over the next six weeks, so it's only going to get more egregious. Veterans are being benched, younger players suddenly have free reign, and most amazingly, "inverse analytics" are apparently a thing now. It's a bad look for the league. It may also skew legitimate outcomes—with playoff races tight in both conferences, teams that play the most Tankathon contestants have a clear advantage down the stretch.

Deterring tanking was one of the reported goals of the tournament model floated last week, and it's why the league passed NBA lottery reforms that will slightly alter incentives next season. And while it's probably too early to call next year's reforms a failure or pass judgment on the impact of a hypothetical play-in tournament, neither option will alter the basic math driving today's behavior: teams without two or three stars don't really have a chance to win a title, and the simplest way to find those players is to lose as many games as possible and replenish rosters through the lottery. 

5. The biggest problem with the current system isn't bad optics or a few skewed playoff races. What should really concern the league is a team like the Utah Jazz. They've been one of the best stories in the league this year—losers of the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes last summer, winners of 11 straight earlier this month—but they're careening toward the worst possible outcome for this season. For a young team in need of elite pieces around Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, narrowly missing the playoffs gets them no closer to luring a star in free agency and makes it much harder to find another star in the draft. 

From a league-wide perspective, this hurts in two ways. Obviously, it's a damning indictment of the current system if one of the best stories in the league would've been better off punting the season. But more importantly, the entire league would be better off if Utah could add a player like Luka Doncic next to Mitchell and Gobert. Doncic would be in a better position to succeed, Utah would be in a better position to mount a real challenge in the West, and the NBA would have a better shot at adding another great team to optimize interest. Instead, a player like Doncic will likely go to a team like the Kings or Magic, two teams that have had no idea how to win for almost a decade. 

6. There only two ways to eliminate tanking. The first is to eliminate the draft itself. That approach would mean seismic changes to not only how rookies are acquired, but also how free agency works (you'd likely need a hard cap to make it work). Eliminating the draft not a horrible idea, but it's not the best idea.

The best idea is the lottery tournament. How do you grow revenue, create more title contenders, eliminate the incentives to tank, and put together a kick–ass 10–day tournament that basketball fans will watch every single year? Teams who want the No. 1 pick can play for it.

7. In the spirit of Simmons's Entertaining as Hell idea and the NBA's ongoing attempts to fight off the tanks, here are two brackets that I sketched out at my kitchen table Tuesday afternoon (apologies for the handwriting).

First weekend of the tournament:


Second weekend:



​8. Some notes on how it works... 

• On consecutive weekends at the end of the season, we have two separate fields of eight teams. We play these games in Las Vegas.

• That first weekend pits some of the better lottery teams against each other, and while these teams are all quietly mediocre, this time we've got much better stakes than the play-in tournament. (I don't care about watching the Pistons play the Knicks, for example, but what if they were playing for a chance at a top–five pick?)

• We're separating out the six worst teams from that first weekend because it's important to give the worst teams some measure of draft security. While they may not deserve top–five picks every year, teams like the Magic and Kings won't have any chance to improve if they're suddenly picking 13th and 14th. Plus, there's always the chance that a bad team gets hot and plays their way into a top two pick (NBA Cinderella!). 

• So we seed that first weekend based on record—the best lottery team (Clippers, currently) against the 7th-worst team (Nets), the Jazz against the 8th-worst team (Bulls), and so on. The losers of each round are then assigned a draft slot in descending order, from worst record to best record.

• From there, the two teams who survive the first weekend advance to the Lottery Championship Weekend.

• The second weekend follows the same pattern as the first (losers assigned a draft spot based on round and record). After three more rounds, the owner of the No. 1 pick is crowned. Pretty simple, right? 

9. It would take a heroic effort from Adam Silver to convince owners and players to buy into this model, but I think it's doable. If the tanking problem doesn't improve over the next few years, the league will have to get serious about finding answers and ensuring the competitive integrity of the game remains mostly in tact (particularly if it intends to integrate legalized gambling into the sport). If the new tournament comes with a shortened schedule, players should buy in as well. None of this will happen anytime soon, but it's not impossible, either.

Beyond the mechanics of actually making it happen, the model above prompts two follow-up questions, one from hardcore fans and one from normal, well-adjusted humans. First, for NBA addicts: Does a team like the Lakers play hard in the lottery tournament even if they don't have their pick? I answered yes in my five–minute sketch of the bracket—mostly because I love this young Lakers team—but it's anyone's guess. Generally, this tournament would clearly change the way teams value first–round picks in all kinds of unpredictable ways. It could depress the trade market, but as good teams play their way into top–five picks, we're just as likely to see an uptick in summer blockbusters. Trying to predict that behavior and game out various conspiracies—tanking in the anti-tanking tournament—would add another layer of chaos to all of this.

(Speaking of chaos, you may be wondering why Memphis made the Finals of the inaugural NBA Lottery Tournament. The answer is that the Grizzlies are obviously bringing Mike Conley back in mid-March to play for the No. 1 pick!)

10. The other question, the one coming from normal people: Why would anyone care? The answer there is simple and obvious in one respect—one great player in the draft can change the entire course of a franchise—and more interesting in others.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, technology has made it easier to follow basketball's peripheral stories (trade rumors, draft picks, prospects, free agency, KD burner accounts, etc.) and it's all spawned a meta-game that makes basketball addictive almost year–round. As the NBA has become more popular, more mainstream fans have become fluent in the language of team-building. How do teams plan for the future? What players can you add to a roster to give a superstar the help he needs? Is Doncic athletic enough to deal with NBA defenses? Will DeAndre Ayton protect the rim? Who's the next team to beat the Warriors? The draft is at the nexus of at least half of the most interesting questions fans are following all year.

This tournament takes that conversation from subtext to text. It takes a 30-minute special on TV and turns it into a 10-day battle royale in Las Vegas. It fixes widespread tanking. It would open another revenue stream. It could infuse up-and-coming teams with elite talent, and it adds another layer of intrigue for everyone else. How would late-stages Kobe have handled the lottery tournament? Could last season's Nuggets have played their way into Jayson Tatum to fortify the next decade? Would Carmelo still be in New York if this tournament existed, or would his Knicks career be even more frustrating than it already was? Would Chicago have traded Jimmy Butler if they knew he could carry their rebuilding team to a No. 1 pick? 

This tournament won't happen for a long time, but that's OK. There are lots of good questions to ask while we wait for the revolution.