The issue arose before the NBA season began, then lingered all throughout like a dark storm cloud that never retreated.
The term “tanking” became a part of the daily discussion involving the league, often overshadowing anything that took place on the court.
Danny Ainge would walk down the street in Boston and be told that his Celtics shouldn’t win too many games this season, that they should play for the draft instead, i.e. lose.
“It’s not just that I get tired of hearing it, but coaches that are trying to be their best, players that are trying to be their best — they’re hearing it. They’re hearing it every single day,” said Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations. “There are too many arenas that I go into where there are no ‘fans.’ ”
It’s an odd dynamic, rooting for failure, but it’s also the function of the NBA Draft lottery, which offers teams that finish with the poorest records the best chance at landing a top pick. Because of that system, teams can lose when they win, win when they lose, and fans who drool over top prospects cheer on defeats when it seems like their team has nothing else to play for except the promise of tomorrow.
The 2014 NBA Draft lottery will take place Tuesday in New York City. The Celtics have a 10.3 percent chance at the top pick, and a 33.4 percent chance at a top-three pick. Their tomorrow could be bright, if a little luck comes their way.
But there might come a time in the not-so-distant future when luck isn’t a factor, when losses no longer equal better odds at a top draft pick.
Since the lottery was created in 1985, there have long been calls for tweaks, changes, or even a new format, but those calls were never louder than during this past season, when numerous front offices constructed teams that had no chance at competing, thereby ensuring an awful record and a stronger chance at potentially landing one of the elite prospects in next month’s draft — perhaps Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, or Joel Embiid.
“[Tanking] has always been there,” Ainge said. “Maybe it was talked about more this year and more people caught on to the principle of it.”
Last December, it was revealed that Celtics assistant general manager and team legal counsel Mike Zarren created one idea that is being discussed among league officials.
Zarren’s idea, or at least the version that Grantland.com wrote about in the first public report on the proposal, is to eliminate the lottery and replace it with a revolving wheel that would give a specific first-round draft slot to each team over the next 30 years. Teams would know exactly where they’d be selecting over that span, and they’d be guaranteed one top-six pick every five seasons and at least one top-12 pick every four seasons.
“It would allow for more certainty in team decision-making; you’re not subject to the lottery, moving up or down; and it eliminates the fan perception that teams should be losing,” Zarren said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March. “I think those three are all significant benefits.”
Zarren said he had received “really positive feedback from a lot of people. Some people don’t like it, and then I talk to them and they like it. Some people, it’s the other way around.”
He added, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to it. People at the league are studying a bunch of different things. They’ve been very receptive to new ideas. These are decisions that are up to the owners. There’s a lot of work that would have to be done on the business side to see if this makes sense.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at the conference that when he first looked at Zarren’s idea, he thought, “Wow, that solves all our problems and teams can plan for the future. They have absolutely no incentive to do anything but win the maximum number of games per season. They know where the draft pick is coming from.”
Silver said teams raised criticisms, such as the possibility that a college prospect could stay in school until the team he wants to play for has a top pick.
“The idea is to avoid that problem entirely, because it could become a problem, you just put the top three picks in a hat,” Zarren said at the conference.
There are other criticisms, though.
“Right now, throwing in a first-round pick in a trade is like gold because maybe it has a chance to be something,” said an Eastern Conference executive, “but if I’m going to throw in the 2017 first-round pick and I know for a fact that it’s going to be the 25th pick, that’s like dirt. I feel like the wheel idea, there’s too much transparency on how the first round goes.”
The executive added, “I think the lottery has to exist, but . . . I don’t really know how. The really bad teams, they deserve those players. There’s a reason they’re bad. The basis of the idea is the worst teams get the best players. And eventually, they’ll be the good teams. The problem with that is, how do you keep a team from on-purpose becoming a bad team for good players? I don’t know if there’s any way of ever getting rid of that.”
A Western Conference executive was more blunt with regards to Zarren’s idea, saying it is “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I’ll say it again: I think that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
Said the executive, “There’s never going to be a perfect format. [The current format] is the best way. It gives every team a little bit of a chance to get to No. 1 if they’re a poor team. They have an option of trading to a team for a player of value. I think it’s the fairest way right now. I haven’t heard a better solution.”
In a recent e-mail to the Globe, Zarren wrote that his concept has changed significantly since it was introduced two years ago, and that the most likely version wouldn’t look much like what was published on Grantland. He added that he has been asked not to make any further public comments on the subject.
Even still, there’s a strong push for change. At the conference, Silver, who replaced the recently retired David Stern, joked, “Even in the short time I’ve been here today, I’ve been handed a few business cards [and told], ‘I’ve got a better idea.’ ”
Silver added, “I’m open to taking a look at it.”
One Eastern Conference executive echoed others by saying that he’s hopeful the forward-thinking Silver, who already has proven to be aggressive in his first few months after replacing Stern, will change the lottery.
“I do think Adam is seriously looking at it and he will change that whole scenario up, which will be interesting,” the executive said.
A belief among many in the NBA, including Ainge, is that a new format would, ideally, eliminate the incentive for losing.
“I think that everybody feels like that is something that we all don’t like,” Ainge said. “But what is a fair way to do that? Mike’s wheel option is intriguing. I think it’s something that should be considered, but I think we should be open to some other ideas also. I like Mike’s wheel option better than the current system.”
The current system, Ainge said, “hurts the integrity of the game, even though I understand it gives hope to those teams that are struggling. I just don’t like how it questions the integrity of the performance of the coaches and players.”
Speaking at the conference, Stan Van Gundy, recently named head coach and president of basketball operations for the Pistons, railed against so-called “tanking” efforts by several teams, namely the Philadelphia 76ers, who finished with a 19-63 record, including losing a franchise-record 26 consecutive games at one point, tying an NBA record.
“Look, when you watch a sporting event, the No. 1 thing you want is, you want to know that both teams are trying the best they can to win,” Van Gundy said. “Now, that’s not going on right now. Now it is with coaches and players, maybe, but not with front offices. You try to put together the best roster possible, not what Philadelphia is doing right now.
“Adam Silver can say there’s no ‘tanking’ going on, [but] if you’re putting that roster on the floor, you’re doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose.”
An Eastern Conference executive posed a question about what could happen if the 76ers are successful in a few years.
“The problem will be when, 2-3 years from now, when all these great players that Philadelphia drafts, if they turn into something, and all of the sudden they’re one of the best young teams because they’ve got all this young talent, is that the new blueprint?” the executive asked.
“Do you have to go through a couple years of really being bad to get the good players? That’s what I’ve wondered, are we setting the tone that this is the only way to get to the promised land. I don’t know.”