The NBA made about $7 billion last year, so it’s not exactly “broken”. Nonetheless, all games need periodic improvements in design, and the bigger the incentives to win the game, the more players will be incentivized to work around the rules in unconventional ways. For example, the largest tournament for the videogame Overwatch gave out $300,000 in prize money last year, and it receives updates and tweaks to gameplay every month to keep it balanced.
Last year, the Golden State Warriors saw their franchise value soar to over $3 billion according to Forbes, an increase of about $450 million. How important is winning to this equation? The league’s 10 least valuable teams (according to Forbes) had 4 winning records last year, with the best being 2 games above .500. None have won a championship since Detroit won in 2005, none have made the Finals since Detroit in 2005 either. The San Antonio Spurs are the most valuable small market team (and 11th overall) but have won 5 championships in last 20 years.
Therefore, teams have a massive incentive to exploit the rules to win. It is the job of the game designers, the NBA, to determine what the correct rules are for creating a well-crafted, competitive game. I will be offering three major reforms to improve the game.
The Obvious: End the Draft Lottery
A major problem in recent years has been the rise of “tanking”, where teams that aren’t going to win a championship lose on purpose to get better draft spots. This is excellent strategy, but makes for boring games. The NBA is acutely aware of the problem, and has implemented a series of fixes to try and deal with it, all ineffective. The first was a lottery system, where the worst team was no longer guaranteed the best draft pick. This lottery system has been tweaked over time to reduce the chances of the worst teams to get the best picks, yet of course those teams still have the best shot to get the best pick; the incentives haven’t changed, losing more games still, on average, increases your draft spot. In 2019, the first 4 picks, as opposed to the current 3, will be determined by lottery. Still, the incentives remain unchanged; losing more games is better for your franchise’s future.
There is a simple solution to this: draft futures. Instead of the worst team drafting a player, they pick a draft spot, where the draft spot is determined by another team’s win-loss record in the following season. For example, say the Phoenix Suns are the worst team this year (2018). At the beginning of next season, they get to pick who they think will have the worst record in April 2019. Suppose they think it will be the Brooklyn Nets. Then if the Nets finish last in 2019, the Suns will get the first pick, but if the Nets finish 8th to last, the Suns will pick 8th.
This would immediately solve the incentive to tank, as your worse record helps another team (distinct from the obvious losing games helps the opposing team). Each team would then be incentivized to win as many games as possible since their loss directly benefit other team’s draft location. Bad teams would still be rewarded, although it would be much less direct than right now; they’d have an opportunity to get a good draft pick in two seasons, depending on how well they could pick the worst teams next year, which is inherently difficult. Teams would have to barred from picking themselves of course, but it would significantly improve competitiveness in the bottom half of the league, as losing games would no longer help you the following year.
This system is similar to simply pushing off the draft reward for poor records by one year, but the added randomness of the draft futures ensures that any single loss is far enough removed from any benefit to your team, while providing a concrete benefit to another team, so as to disincentivize losing.
A draft future could also be traded, just like a draft pick, and in fact, it would be pretty easy to convert draft picks to draft futures; if a team is owed a first round draft pick in 2021 (say the Miami Heat owe the Phoenix Suns a first round draft pick), then at the start of the season in October 2020, Phoenix would pick in Miami’s place what team they want their pick tied to (say Brooklyn is taken so they pick Atlanta). The record of Atlanta would then place where Phoenix picks in the 2021 draft (e.g. Atlanta finishes 13th in the league, so Phoenix picks 30-13=17th). The timing of the trade can also be arbitrary. Say Miami lucks out and this season they selected Memphis because most people thought Memphis would be good, and Miami had a late pick because they were pretty good last year. But it turns out Memphis is terrible, and Miami wants to add a piece to make a playoff push; Miami could then trade their Memphis draft future to another team who is interested in draft picks and pick up a role player.
This is a clear improvement over our current system, and I have no idea why Adam Silver is still messing around with lottery percentages in an inherently broken system that incentivizes losing.
The Difficult: Shortening the Season
Teams are resting their players during the regular season. The Spurs famously benched their top four players for a primetime game against the defending champion Miami Heat in 2012, and were fined $250,000. The argument is that resting star players takes away from the competitiveness of the regular season, in a manner similar (although lesser in magnitude) to tanking.
I wrote two and half years ago why the NBA should shorten their season by looking at the mathematics of winning percentages. The takeaway was that all good teams in the NBA make the playoffs easily, and so much of the regular season can be shortened without losing the best teams in the playoffs. It’s still accurate and useful to read. However, I glossed over perhaps the most important point, which is that players are already resting anyway, and if they’re not resting, they often miss games because they are hurt. Reducing the length of the season would help both of these issues.
Nonetheless, this is very difficult to implement. I would advocate for fewer games so that road back-to-backs (two road games in two nights) could be eliminated. Studies have shown that players are 3.5x more likely to get injured in road back-to-backs. This would only require the elimination of about 8 games, but that’s about 10% of the NBA season, and owners would not be happy. Ticket and concession sales aren’t the bulk of NBA revenue, but TV revenue would decline as well with 10% fewer regular season games. However, the regular season games would be better quality on average, with fewer players missing games due to rest or injury.
It’s frustrating because obviously there are too many games in an NBA season; if players are resting, it’s because they aren’t necessary to win the game, or the loss of a game isn’t important enough to warrant the risk of injury. Doing well in the playoffs is more important for teams, so it makes sense that they would sit out some regular season games. At the very least, the league should stop penalizing teams for resting their players; teams are penalized by losing the game. If the losses don’t mean enough, then the season is too long. It’s just that simple.
The Insane: End of Game Sudden Death Rules
This is my most controversial problem. The end of NBA games are often not basketball; they are exploitation of the rules to stop the clock by fouling, and then efforts to score as quickly as possible. This effectively stops any actual basketball play on one side of the floor. It’s also boring to watch as a spectator as the game goes from something exciting and athletic to one guy just shooting free throws, and the game slows way down.
This proposed new system works like this: instead of having a timed period of basketball, the first team to reach a certain score (higher than the current higher scoring team) wins. For example, let’s suppose we use this method in overtime. Instead of having a five minute overtime, it would be three minutes, but at the end of three minutes, the Sudden Death score would be score of the team in the lead + 7. So if after three minutes of overtime the score is 100-99, then the first team to 107 wins. But if the score is 110-100, then the first to 117 wins. This favors the team already winning as it should, but disincentives fouling, as you want to keep your opponent from scoring at any cost.
Maybe this isn’t a problem and shooting free throws at the end of games is fine. But I think there is room for improvement. Exactly when and how this is implemented is difficult to say. Perhaps this should be implemented during overtime, perhaps at the end of regulation. Certainly it should be tried in the G-League or All-Star game first, as it’s a radical change. The exact numbers and implementation are hard to know. Perhaps the Sudden Death score should be +10 instead of +7. Perhaps it should only be used if after the first overtime is completed and we are still tied. Perhaps it should be used to shorten overtime. Perhaps it would be a good replacement for the end of regulation. I’m not sure, but I suspect in specific areas where long games are undesirable because they are just exhibitions, such as preseason or the G-League, I think this could be a useful tool to call a winner at the end of regulation. It also might be useful for preventing serial overtimes, although perhaps such a rule is undesirable in the playoffs.
I think such an option has to be seriously looked at though, because intentional fouling at the end of games really changes the game dynamics and stops all the action.
A fix for the draft lottery has to be implemented as soon as possible, and the current proposals do not go far enough. Draft futures are a pretty good approach that would definitely reduce the incentive problem teams face for the draft, without straying too far from the fundamental purpose of the draft, which is to create parity. Season shortening is vital but may not be able to overcome owners’ interests in having as many games as possible. Sudden Death is radical but radical ideas need to always be considered. Basketball is younger than most other sports, and significant rule changes have occurred even more recently; the three point line was only implemented in 1979. Changing intentional fouling at the ends of games is much less radical an idea than that.