Following a miserable winter, fans of the Phoenix Suns have been rewarded with the No. 1 pick in next month’s NBA Draft.
Fans of the Memphis Grizzlies, whose team had a better record than only the Suns, will have to wait until the fourth pick to see who their front office will pick.
Since the NFL instituted the first professional sports draft in the mid-1930s, the rule of thumb is the team with the worst record gets to pick first in an effort to help said team improve faster. As other pro leagues instituted their drafts over the decades, that philosophy has generally been followed.
But when the perception arose in the early 1980s that certain NBA teams were trying not to win, otherwise known as “tanking”, in an effort to secure the top pick, the league instituted the lottery in which all of the non-playoff teams would draw their draft position based on chance. The procedure has been tweaked through the years, but is still in place today. The NHL also has a lottery.
But despite the “success” of the lottery, it appears more teams in more leagues are using the tanking-now-to-win-championships-later- philosophy, not just in the NBA, but in Major League Baseball as well. Brought to you by some of the too-smart-for-me minds which brought us Moneyball, extreme shifting and sabermetrics, teams have determined if they can’t win a championship now, even it the team can still be a playoff contender and post a winning record, it’s better to blow up the building and start all over, even when re-construction will take several years.
Unfortunately, it seems to be working.
The Philadelphia 76ers made it to the second round of the playoffs after putting their fans through years of the torture chamber called “the process” by the team’s president, who’s no longer with the team. Make note of this: Whenever a coach at any level says “it’s a process”, it’s another way of saying “winning ain’t going to happen anytime soon”.
Baseball execs have also taken note. After years of trading every good player they had with the exception of Freddie Freeman, the Atlanta Braves are off to a good start in the National League East.
In fact, baseball is fast becoming a game of teams with lots of wins or lots of losses. Not as many “average” teams. The good teams are racking up the wins against the teams seeking rock bottom, either for economic reasons or to improve draft position.
Back-to-back No. 1 picks several years ago landed the Washington Nationals Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The Nats are now a perennial contender in the National League. The Cubs, while at rock bottom, took Kris Bryant at No. 2 and won the World Series. At the same time, the Houston Astros were ever worse and had the top pick twice. They are the defending World Series champs.
Can’t say the Nats and Cubs tanked. In the case at Wrigley Field, there were ownership changes and economic issues. But the Astros definitely burned down the building to rebuild.
But is it a good thing to lose in order to win later?
I say no. And I have a solution which all but eliminates the incentive to lose.
By the way, I don’t think pro players ever go out on the field, court or ice with the intent to lose in order to be better later. It was suggested a few years ago the Titans should lose the final game in order to secure the No. 1 draft pick. But if you’re the starting quarterback on such a team and you, whether deliberate or not, played bad enough to lose and your team drafts a QB No. 1, you just played your way out of your job. Think of DeShone Kizer with the Cleveland Browns, who essentially lost his position to Baker Mayfield.
Now, back to my solution:
Instead of awarding the worst team in the league the No. 1 pick, give it to the best team which failed to make the playoffs. That way, bad teams have incentive to play good enough for the top pick. If a team is so bad it can’t escape the cellar with what they have, there’s this thing called free agency. Besides, teams as bad as the Browns have been this century often don’t know what to do with a No. 1 pick, anyway. The Grizzlies haven’t had a good first-rounder stick since current star Mike Conley was taken fourth overall – back in 2007.
Mediocrity would be considered a good thing again as it could get you a top-10 pick.
The only drawback I see is if a team needed to win the final game to get the final spot in the playoffs, where it would likely face the best team in the first round and the probability of instant elimination, the front office might root against their guys for the top pick over a short-lived playoff appearance.
But even that beats night-after-night of losing before a discouraged fan base while the front office counts the losses and the days to the No. 1 pick.
Let’s award winning from top to bottom, rather than a gaping chasm where mediocrity used to be.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 615-444-3952, ext. 17; or by email at [email protected]