As the NBA season has worn down, it is becoming apparent that some teams are not giving their all to win every game, and in fact purposely tanking games in order to improve their draft position in the hopes of nabbing one of the two budding superstars who may enter this year's draft -- Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.
This has been examined by Bill Simmons and the Michael McCann at the Sports Law Blog, but I think there missing one factor -- this tanking is an unintended consequence of the much-praised policy of the NBA imposing a minimum age for the draft.
I've written myself about how tanking is a bit of a sucker's game in the NFL. There does not seem to be a strong correlation between college success and success in the NFL.
McCann's article lists several factors for why tanking is prevalent in the NBA and not other sports. Basically, a single player can have a tremendous impact on a franchise, there is a greater differentiation on the impact of players at the upper levels of the game, and few people follow late season games for losing NBA teams.
There isn't a real great way to police tanking, so the greatest risk is a revolt from season ticket holders. The team is selling them an inferior product for full price, so the season ticket holders have to buy into what the team is dong. And in order for them to buy into it, they have to share management's value of the players at the top of the draft. And the age limit has helped make that happen.
As Simmons noted, the age limit helped lead to a wonderfully competitive college basketball season and NCAA tournament, with the quality of play at all-time high levels. Another benefit is that we as fans got to know wonderful players like Oden and Durant before they joined the NBA and hit the steep learning curve.
But at the same time, the high profile of these players has given the teams cover to pursue their tanking. We've all seen Kevin Durant and Greg Oden play, and it's hard to argue that it's not worth throwing away a few games for a better chance of grabbing them.
The lottery came about in the early 80's when Patrick Ewing, a player of undeniable talent and prominence was emerging from college. But not only was Ewing talented, he had a very high profile, having appeared in the Final Four three of his four seasons at Georgetown. And while he had a successful career, there are many players whose careers significantly overlapped Ewing's who had more success -- Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler. The problem wasn't so much that Ewing was talented, but that everyone knew how talented he was, and would thus be willing to accept their favorite team losing for a chance to grab him.
If Durant and Oden were coming straight from high school, we wouldn't know much about them, similar to LeBron James a couple years ago, when there was not this widespread tanking. But now we have seen Oden and Durant play, and succeed, against tough competition. They cannot be dismissed as hype, as the high school LeBron James could.
This doesn't mean the age limit was a bad idea, just that it has this unintended consequence that has not been accounted for. This can be addressed in several ways, including Simmons's idea of restoring the draft lottery to its original truly random origins. That had some unintended consequences as well, notably the Orlando Magic winning consecutive lotteries, but those were more acceptable than a half dozen teams spending half the season trying to lose.