When David Stern retires next week, he probably won’t have many regrets concerning his 30-year term as NBA commissioner. During his time in office, the league went from near bankruptcy to being one of the most successful operations in professional sports.
In 1984, league revenues were just more than $100 million annually and there were teams that had fallen behind on their payrolls and were in danger of being shut down. Last year, the NBA’s revenue was $5.5 billion.
The first team sold during Stern’s term was the Denver Nuggets, which changed hands in 1985 for $20 million. When the Sacramento Kings were sold last year, the price was $534 million.
So, yes, business has been good, but Stern does leave office having failed in one competitive aspect of the game that has bugged him throughout his career.
David Stern hates tanking. He thinks it is bad for the players, bad for the franchises that lose in order to improve their draft position, and very bad for the overall image of the game. And, of course, he’s right on all counts.
Stern tried to fix the draft mechanism during the years to prevent tanking. The first year he was commissioner was also the last year the top pick was decided by a coin flip between the teams with the two worst records. After that, Stern instituted the draft lottery and has tinkered with it ever since. It still doesn’t work, because teams — like this season’s 76ers — still view tanking as the only way of getting off what Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard calls “the mediocrity treadmill.”
You can’t blame the Sixers, who traded away their best player for someone they determined wouldn’t play this season, then constructed a D-League bench that assured them of losing a lot of games. With a strong college draft coming, improving their odds of getting a top pick makes all the sense in the world.
But it stinks.
This is a miserable season for the coach, for the players, for the organization and for the fans to go through. It goes against everything sports and competition are supposed to be about. Building a team in order to lose is as cynical at it gets.
“We understand the nature of this year’s team,” coach Brett Brown said this week. “We just hope to gain some respect in the NBA fraternity, and mostly amongst ourselves. We want to be able to walk out holding our heads high.”
Brown coaches to win and the players play to win, but the roster isn’t capable of it most nights. At 13-28 before Wednesday night’s game against the also-faltering Knicks, the Sixers had the third-worst record in the NBA. There’s no guarantee they will finish that poorly — a total of 10 teams went into Wednesday’s games with 16 wins or fewer — or even that the vagaries of the lottery will reward them. The third-worst record gets you only a 15.6 percent chance of landing the top pick, and less than a 50 percent chance (46.9) of even getting a pick among the first three.
Beyond that, even if everything works as planned, there is the matter of being lucky enough that the 19-year-old phenom who eventually lands in your lap turns out to be a dominant player in the NBA. There’s no guarantee there, either.
Still, it is the handiest way off the treadmill, so teams tank. The ugly end of this regular season might be even worse than usual because the draft class is considered so good. If the Sixers play better and put together a modest run in the next few weeks, they will probably trade away one of their marketable veterans before the Feb. 20 deadline in order to put a stop to that foolishness. Good deeds will not go unpunished for long.
Fixing the mess with something other than ping-pong balls is something Stern couldn’t accomplish, but there are several theories out there about how it could be done. Here are some of the ones that have been proposed:
Reverse the draft order: That’s right. Best team picks first, worst team picks last. But get rid of the Bird Rule that allows teams to exceed the salary cap, and get rid of the rookie wage scale. Teams won’t be able to afford to keep their best players and the top picks.
Reward playing to win: Doctoral candidate Adam Gold speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference said teams should be ranked for the draft based on how well they play “after being eliminated from playoff contention. Not entirely sure how that would work, but he had a bunch of charts.
Use the wheel: The NBA has seriously looked at instituting a 30-year draft cycle in which every team’s draft position would be laid out for that length of time and is not affected by standing. Each team would pick first, second, third, all the way to 30th, at some point during that span, and would be guaranteed a top-six pick every five years and so forth.
Get rid of the draft: Everyone is a free agent. Sign with the team that is a good fit and has the money. This would also require a hard salary cap, and a sincere hope that someone good would still want to play in Detroit, Minneapolis or Toronto.
None of those solutions is perfect, but having teams set themselves up to lose on purpose isn’t perfect, either. In fact, it is awful and it is difficult to watch the Sixers being put through it. Maybe David Stern will take another look at this on his last day in office. After 30 years, he must have figured it out by now.