Tom Ziller and Michael Baumann on Tanking and the Overblown Talk of the Tank

Tom Ziller, writing for SB Nation, on fixing the NBA Draft in a simple way:

According to vast, detailed reporting by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, the NBA is keen on changing the draft lottery system to inoculate the league from the scourge of deliberately horrid basketball offered up by a handful of squads. Some massive edits are apparently on the table, fixes that would fundamentally change the NBA and how team-building works. More than fixing this specific problem — one many fans (myself included) don’t seem to mind too much — the proposed reforms would upend strategies employed by GMs over the past two or three decades.

I think we can go smaller.

There are serious but sensibly small reforms that can fix the tanking problem without causing a cascade of unintended consequences. I’ll walk through my ideas by identifying the specific problems to be fixed. But in the spirit of TL;DR, here’s the quick version:

Deflate the odds at the top of the lottery, determine more picks in the hopper and include every team in the derby.

Now, the specifics.

PROBLEM: There’s a strong incentive to lose because the NBA draft lottery rewards the worst teams.

SOLUTION: Decrease the value of those rewards.

I’m ambivalent to arguments that demand greater incentives for winning. There are plenty of incentives to win already! That’s why the vast majority of NBA teams enter the season intending to compete for the playoffs or a championship. There are way, way more teams preparing to win than designed to lose. Unfortunately, those preparations often go awry (hi, Detroit) or injuries wreak havoc (hi, Lakers).

The incentives to win are not a problem. It’s the incentives to lose that are too strong.

This is where all of the ideas come from: making the worst record in the league less valuable. This is how we get Mike Zarren’s very interesting, but problematic Wheel. (The problem: by socializing the infusion of college and international talent, existing advantages for high-revenue teams will become more important.) This is how we get the idea that the draft should be eliminated, with 20-year-olds entering the league as free agents. (The problem: teams now have an incentive to hoard cap space instead of winning now.) This is how we get the idea that all 14 lottery teams should have equal shots at No. 1 (moving the tank tipping point to the playoff fringe, which would be horrible) or that even all 30 teams should have equal shots (see above regarding socializing the infusion of college and international talent).

But there are saner, more predictable solutions. We’ll get into that after we talk about some additional problems. But the basic solution here: make that very bad record less valuable.

To read the rest of Ziller’s piece, click here:

Michael Baumann, of the excellent Sixers blog, Liberty Ballershas written a unique and cerebral explanation of how Sam Hinkie has a lot in common with political theorist John Rawls. Stan Van Gundy is referred to as a “mechanism.” This is absolutely spectacular.

One of the most persistent and important questions in political theory is this: how would the most just society look?

John Rawls was a 20th Century American political philosopher who approached that question from the outside, specifically, by posing the question not to people living within the system already, but by creating theoretical constructs called the original position and the veil of ignorance. The original position is an imaginary pre-societal point at which we design the values and mechanisms of the society we will later inhabit. To prevent the future denizens of this society from each attempting to mold it to his own advantage, Rawls imposes the veil of ignorance, a constraint that prevents any one person from knowing what place in this society he will inherit.

In short, Rawls restated, in more formal language, the sentiment of “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” or “check your privilege” for the philosophy department at Harvard. The outcome of this thought experiment, Rawls suggests, is a society in which any economic or social inequality serves to benefit the least advantaged member of society, or where the worst off in relative terms will be best off in absolute terms–the maximin rule.

All of this relates to the Sixers and their approach to the forthcoming draft.

I have a problem arguing my unwavering support for the Sixers’ current course of action to people who come into the discussion with the assumption that the Sixers’ rebuild is wrong. (And if you think this is entirely about my getting defensive because I’m a Sixers fan, go find anything I’ve written about the Houston Astros in the past 18 months.) This is because the most strident critics of the Hinkie Rebuild come in with two premises I won’t grant for the purposes of argument: 1) that the goal of a team is always to win games in the short term 2) that the NBA, as a system, trends toward parity or equality.

The NBA is just like the world at large in that its 30 teams have been placed at different points on a scale of utility. The Lakers have history, wealthy ownership, a massive media market and a city that’s enticing to free agents. Teams like the Bobcats and Sixers have less enticing surroundings and the disadvantage of not even being the most popularbasketball team in their respective media markets. Even the NFL, whose hard salary cap, greater interchangeability of talent and overwhelming financial might can shoehorn even the New York Giants and the Jacksonville Jaguars into a rough state of pareto optimality, suffers these issues. If the NFL isn’t crudely egalitarian, how can we expect the NBA to be?

That necessitates controls–Zach Lowe called it “charity,” but I prefer to call it a welfare state or democratic socialism. Charity assumes social stratification and a calcified order of inequality, while the welfare state or democratic socialism is Rawls’ difference principle put to work. The best sports leagues aren’t crudely egalitarian–otherwise they’d be almost completely random–but neither should the deck be stacked so heavily in favor of the naturally advantaged that access to the ultimate goal (championships, not regular-season wins for their own sake) is practically restricted to the few.

But sometimes the mechanisms that support our society are ugly, and when they are, you’ll see waves of critics, who are either unaware of the benefit they themselves derived from such mechanisms (Stan Van Gundy), or in the camp of those who would benefit from the inequality an unrestricted system would create (Bill Simmons, more in his role as a Celtics fan than as a national columnist) decrying that ugliness and insinuating that the root cause of that ugliness is not the systemic disease of inequality, but the remedy that reduces its effect. It’s like vaccine denialism–even if vaccines did cause autism in a small number of cases, which they don’t, they still prevent smallpox, pertussis and measles in large numbers. And because we’re unable to see the larger picture, or look at the world from the original position, we forget this.

To read the rest, click here:

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