In entertainment, the ending should be paramount. The end is when we find out that The Usual Suspects’ Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze (spoiler alert); when Charlton Heston sees the beach-buried Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes (spoiler alert again); when Bill Murray leads his proud platoon to Europe (ok–bad example). In the NBA, the end of the regular season is less-than-meaningless. Fix it through draft reform by establishing draft order at the halfway point instead of the end of the season.
As the season winds down, the NBA’s eight to ten best teams generally know they are going to be in the playoffs, and their only incentive to win involves marginally improving playoff seeding. Another group of teams might fight to make the playoffs (and get steamrolled in the first round), or decide that it is in their best interests to miss the playoffs for a chance at winning “The Lottery.” Fight for a near-certain bludgeoning in a playoff series, or take a chance at winning the lottery and selecting LeBron, Zion or Andrea Bargnani (again, bad example). Too often the answer is simple: go for the lottery.
For teams outside the bubble, the more they lose, the better their chances of drafting a transformational player. The more they lose, the better the draftee, or the better they can make a trade package.
Setting the draft order after 41 games removes winning disincentives (unless a truly brash team decides to tank the first half of the season). For context, look at the last two seasons. In the 2018-2019 Western Conference, there were six teams at the mid-season point that were within three games of the playoffs. The Jazz, Kings and TWolves were all two games back, and the Grizzlies, Mavericks and Pelicans were all three games back. In the Eastern Conference, the Pistons (1GB), Magic (2) and Wizards (3) all were in a position where a strong second half of the season would have put them in the playoffs.
The 2019-2020 season paints a similar picture. In the Western Conference, every team but the Warriors was within four games of the eighth seed at game 41 (Spurs (1GB), Suns and Blazers (2), TWolves, Kings and Pelicans (4)). The Eastern Conference had three teams within four games–the Hornets (3), and Bulls and Pistons each four games back.
Unleash the competition by removing the playoff “penalty.” Perhaps the season might start slow–but the beginning of any sports season starts with enough excitement. Removing the playoff penalty turns the second half into an Apolo Ohno speed-skating race, with all competitors exploding towards the finish line. San Antonio–at the halfway point, you were 1 game out of the playoffs, so you are in the lottery. That’s written in ink–now go make a sprint-push for the playoffs and get the best of both worlds: a playoff berth and lottery ping pong balls. No more resting veterans or creating fake injuries. No downside to winning. And by the way, think of a trade deadline where that year’s draft order is already set–more deals? Maybe, but definitely less insane draft pick protections.
Complicated draft reform ideas abound, but the best solution is the simplest: set the order after 41 games to incentivize teams to win, and let us enjoy the shock of finding out who Tyler Durden really is.
Ken DeStefano is a career labor and employment lawyer, TheDraftClass.com writer, competitive open-water swimmer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.