Play to Win | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Play to Win 

The NBA draft is a broken system.

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I’m no expert when it comes to professional basketball. I played a little basketball in my teenage years, but it was nothing to brag about. Although I’m 6-foot-4-inches tall, I couldn’t even jump high enough to dunk the ball as a second-stringer on my high school team. Still, I’m a huge NBA fan, and an even more enthusiastic Jazz supporter.

With the gallant but inexperienced Jazz sliding into the lower echelon of the league this year, what had in the past been a mere irritation about the way the NBA draft is held blossomed into full-blown disenchantment. What kind of insane system encourages struggling teams to lose in order to get the best picks in the yearly June draft?

It seemed ludicrous that fans might end up hoping to lose during the later stages of a dismal season. What’s so great about a system where fans no longer root for a victory? Or owners, coaches and players—even though they won’t admit it—acquiescing to the possibility of a lower level of play in order to snatch the next LeBron James? What sense is there in intentionally inspiring a lack of motivation?

This year, I realized I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to do something. So, in a letter dated Feb. 13, 2014, I wrote NBA commissioner Adam Silver “Re. NBA draft selection proposal.” I also sent a copy to Jazz owner Greg Miller.

I know what you’re probably thinking. Why would men of this stature listen to a guy who can’t even dunk?
No, I wasn’t so dense to believe it would actually do any good. I guess it just made me feel a little better to get it off my chest.

I asked Silver to let me know what he thought, but I didn’t expect him to respond, and he didn’t. I considered my proposal unique. Although much has been said about the present lack of incentive to win, I hadn’t come across any idea like mine to solve the problem.

To my surprise, several weeks later, Salt Lake Tribune sports writer Gordon Monson wrote an article proposing different changes to the draft process, including an idea eerily close to the one I’d sent to Silver and Miller. I’m not saying I thought of it first; the idea may have been out there for a while now. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s far superior to the way things are currently being run.

My proposal was to take the eight teams with the worst records at the close of the regular season and have them participate in a single-elimination tournament similar to season-ending college division tournaments. The two top teams in the final game of the tournament would draft first, with the winner getting the top pick. The remaining teams would get the next six picks, based on their final records, including tournament games. Winning, not losing, would determine the order of the draft.

In many college tournaments, teams play on a neutral court, but to encourage the highest level of competition, home-court advantage would be offered to the teams with the best season-ending records. No longer would there be any motivation to slack off. No longer would the best NBA teams be the only ones desperately seeking wins up through the last game of the regular season.

And the concept would promote packed arenas for the teams playing on their home courts. What team owner wouldn’t support a draft system that excites fan interest, even when there’s no longer any hope of reaching the finals?

The one criticism I’ve received is my idea would make it less likely for truly horrid teams to rebuild their franchises. They would end up last in the tournament. That’s a legitimate concern, but I contend that there’s not that much difference between the worst eight teams—they’re all pretty bad. I would expect that competing at this level would, more often than not, give all eight teams a decent chance to prevail. There would still be other ways to improve, including trades and pursuing free agents.

What’s not to like about this system? Fans would have something to cheer about throughout the entire season—and beyond, during the single-elimination tournament. That, in turn, means higher ticket sales and more money for team owners to attract free agents and negotiate advantageous trades.

Yet another possible benefit has to do with minimizing the gap between the best and worst teams without encouraging substandard play. Teams that reach the NBA finals under the present system gain valuable experience because of the intensity of the competition, over and above what takes place in the regular season.

That gives elite teams that much more of an advantage the next year. My proposal, with an extra tournament for the worst teams, would help shrink that gap. The teams could experience at least some improvement, the kind that only the increased pressure of tournament play can provide.   

The time has come to discard the ping-pong balls. A lucky draft pick simply isn’t worth what it takes to get there.

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