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Sports / Basketball

How to Fix the Tanking Problem

The NBA should relegate some teams to the G-league.

Every fan knows the drill. Thirty-or-so games into the NBA season, fans have a solid idea of whether or not their team will be competitive for a playoff spot. It is around this time that the hopeless teams find the same recurring comments under their social media posts: “TANK FOR [insert top incoming draft prospect]!!!!!” This was especially prominent last year, with Zion Williamson coming in as arguably the top draft prospect since LeBron James. Every fan wanted Zion on their team, and it reached a point where fans of mediocre teams were advocating for their team to lose in hopes of landing Zion. 

The NBA draft lottery system works as follows: at the end of the season, the bottom 15 teams are entered into a lottery. The fewer games a team wins, the greater chance they have at landing a top pick. The New York Knicks, for example, finished with the worst record in the NBA last season at 17 wins and 65 losses, so they had the best odds to land the number one pick. However, this chance was still only 14%, and the pick ended up with the New Orleans Pelicans. Nonetheless, the Knicks’ record was bad enough that they ended up drafting at #3 overall.

The system is somewhat of a decent deterrent against tanking, as the worst team is not guaranteed the top pick. However, there are so many games in the NBA regular season that once teams reach the point of no return, those near the bottom have more incentive to lose than to win. Any time teams are not incentivized to win and fans are rooting for their own team to lose, something is wrong. 

How can this be fixed? Easily: by incentivizing winning. Just ask Aston Villa FC, who placed seventeenth out of twenty teams in the English Premier League last season. While seventeenth place is not great, it is a whole lot better than eighteenth. Bournemouth, who finished just one point behind Aston Villa, is playing in the EFL Championship this season, the second most prestigious professional football (soccer) league in England. Meanwhile, Aston Villa retains the privilege of fighting against the top talent in English club football on international television as a member of the Premier League, where the bottom three teams are relegated to the EFL Championship each season. Every team in the Premier League is at risk of relegation; no one is safe. The teams near the top fight for the trophy as well as spots in the Champions League and Europa League—both are composed of the top club teams across all of Europe—and the bottom fight for their survival. With all these incentives, almost every game is competitive because almost every game matters, even near the end of the season. It keeps the EPL entertaining top to bottom, from start to finish, each and every season.

This is what the NBA needs. Incentive at the bottom would eliminate the problem of tanking at the source. American professional basketball needs a relegation-promotion system between at least two leagues. This is especially convenient in the NBA because there already are two leagues! The G-League, formerly known as the D-League or Development League, is a tier down from the NBA, where teams are overwhelmingly young and the emphasis is on player development rather than competition. G-League programs are paired with regional NBA teams, who have priority in shifting players with their respective G-League partner. While this is strong for individual development, player improvement can continue through a relegation-promotion system between the two leagues via increased competition. Competitive play produces better teamwork and better efforts than the current G-League system, which incentivizes individuality. A promotion-relegation system would allow for stronger competition in both leagues and create more opportunities for developing players while still maintaining the emphasis on player development in the G-League. 

A relegation system would also be a positive business venture for the NBA. Incentivizing winning near the bottom will attract more fans to watch those games—at home and eventually in the stadium—makes the league money through ticket sales, TV ratings and merchandise. By giving teams a reason to win every game, fans are given a reason to watch every game. Many more viewers would tune into a Pistons-Timberwolves game if both teams were playing for their spot in the league. There’s a lot more money to be made in such a model compared to the current system.  

There are obvious differences between professional basketball in the U.S. and professional football in England that could lead to opposition of a relegation system. First, the Premier League doesn’t have a draft, but rather brings in players either through their own development teams or through signing players from other teams or leagues. A relegation system in the NBA would likely require overhauling—or even completely abolishing—the draft process. Perhaps the draft could remain intact but the lottery would include both leagues? Maybe the system could replicate the Premier League, where teenage players are signed to youth academies and can be pulled up to the NBA when they develop. What we do know is that the benefits of the current draft lottery system are immensely outweighed by the costs of incentivizing losing.

Another obstacle would be the financial side of the transition. The NBA is a lot more particular about its markets than the EPL. The thought of Portland, Maine being home to an NBA team feels ludicrous for this reason – there’s “no market” for an NBA team in Maine. But this does not have to be the case. Adding the possibility of promotion to the G-League would expand their market far beyond its current limitations. G-League teams would be bought out by wealthier owners, and the money pumped into the secondary league would allow these teams to sign big name NBA players, pay them fair salaries, and build strong, independent programs. Ticket sales and merchandise for these teams would skyrocket, and the NBA would undoubtedly benefit financially in the long run. Who’s to say Portland, Maine couldn’t attract NBA stars? While many pundits would scoff at the idea, it would undeniably be a whole lot of fun to expand the competitiveness within the two leagues and let the scenario play out in real time. 

There might be a seemingly insurmountable number of logistical and technical obstacles on the path to a relegation system in the NBA, many more of which were not mentioned. However, in the long run, everyone would benefit. Fans would get to watch more competitive basketball, more small-market regions would benefit economically and socially with expanding G-League teams, and the entirety of the systemic overhaul would eventually lead to positive business for the league. From both a financial and a fanatic perspective, a promotion-relegation system in the NBA makes sense. And besides, who doesn’t want to see the Maine Red Claws tip-off against the Los Angeles Lakers?