Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sympathy for the Tanker

I Want This On A Shirt
So the NBA has been running things in one way -- a modified draft lottery for teams that don't qualify for the playoffs -- for decades now. The act of building an NBA title contender is one of the hardest things to do in American sports, with teams spending generations just puttering around, with no real whiff at contention. Unless you get your hands on some truly breakout talent, either through lottery magic or a great dice roll of an international or unheralded player, or have a warm-weather mecca for free agents, or a historic big market franchise, you are, well, mostly damned.

Sixers GM Sam Hinkie is blessed with several advantages, and many crushing disadvantages, in his pursuit of a contending team in town. The former include patient owners who either see the advantage in taking the long view on franchise building, or just want to slash and burn for equity building. The latter include a cold-weather taxed city and state, with a notoriously difficult fan base and media (honestly, there is no worse town in America when it comes to trollish douchebag sports radio and TV). So he has, with a clear eye towards building something actually special, chosen to go all-in for the distant future, as the rules have allowed for, well, decades. The only difference here is that he's got a long enough leash to do it for more than one year, and has been relatively open about his methods.

Now, I get that it's not exactly a healthy thing for a league to have teams that aren't trying to win, and that the commissioner and league are well within their bounds to change the rules. And that's exactly what they are doing, with proposals abounding to change the lottery so that teams can't "win" too often. (We'll leave aside how the league has clearly done everything possible to favor Cleveland. How people aren't rooting against that team yet, I'll never know.) Personally, I suspect this will just turn into the same thing but with Extra Tricksiness; it's one thing to make sure the Sixers' pick isn't solid gold, but quite another to make sure the Pelicans and Magic (to name two teams that have moved picks to the Sixers for marginal benefits) can't have their moved assets come up a winner.

But the real point to make here is the how and when of a rule change. When I run my fantasy leagues, and an owner finds some innovative loophole to gain an edge (and hey, sometimes that's me, too), I do what every commish should do: I applaud, sincerely and without rancor. It's hard work to find an out after so many years and minds firing away at a puzzle, and innovation comes from the margins, always. We also then finish out the year and allow the loopholer his or her full run of benefit. Only after the year is over, and before the following draft, are rule changes discussed that can close the barn door.

By discussing lottery changes now, with the Sixers clearly drafting for the long term and treating the 2015 draft as if it were the same as the 2014 one, the NBA is, well, unfair. They are changing the rules after the game has started, and whether or not you agree with their goals in doing this, it's wrong.

And, well, they're going to get away with it, because no one else in the Association is going down this path, and playing Hinkie's long game. Perhaps no team should, since revenue is shared and the people choosing to go to Sixers games before 2015 at the earliest are clearly just doing it for future cred points, but that's neither here nor there.

The simple fact of the matter is that Hinkie and the Sixers are trying to build a true championship contender, and are so committed to the prospect that they are suffering through years without hope. (Their fan base is actually OK with it, maybe for no other reason than to prank Ruben Amaro Jr., but honestly, the Sixer fans in my world are happier than the Phillies and Flyers people.) And the NBA is saying nope, you can't be honest about what you are doing, you have to either do stuff that doesn't work as well, or lie.

If you seriously want to make sure that teams do not tank, you need to have a second league and promote and relegate teams. Otherwise, this is all just protecting the status quo... in a league that really, seriously, doesn't need to do that.

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