Image for article titled The NBA’s tanking problem is more perception than reality, and a relegation system won’t fix that

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During NBA Commish Adam Silver’s apology tour session with beleaguered Phoenix Suns employees this weekend, he was confronted with another concern. In addition to apologizing for suspended team Governor Robert Sarver and his decades of misconduct, Silver was also besieged by a flood of questions about the problem of tanking (cue eye-rolling).

This season, teams improving their position to draft the generational talent that is Victor Wembanyama are being cast as mortal sinners by holier-than-thou large market franchises. That attitude is a tradition as old as the modern draft. Unsurprisingly, Silver agreed, referring to rampant tanking as a serious issue that the league has put teams on notice about. Reportedly, Silver also pushed back against the idea of implementing relegation as a punishment, which is a departure from the usual invocation of European soccer as the deus ex machina for the league’s woes.

When the NBA has a problem, they look to Europe more than any other league. Need a solution for waning interest in the middle third of the season? Europe’s football cup model has the answer. Need to put out an ad for an exciting young phenom to fill the void LeBron will leave behind? Look to France.

If the NBA ever wanted to consider relegation, that ship sailed long ago. The league mismanaged that possibility in the mid-70s when they failed to forecast the long-term business sense of keeping the ABA around as a B-League instead of folding the franchises they didn’t absorb. Instead of the Pittsburgh Condors and Virginia Squires vying for promotion into the NBA, we’re stuck with the Magic velcroing themselves to the NBA floor.

The impending Tank Wars have consumed the attention of the NBA community at the onset of the season. Silver has depicted “tanking” as an offense against paying consumers. For most fans, it’s more hype than an actual problem. If Silver’s meeting had taken place in Indiana, Oklahoma City, or Orlando, fugazi concerns over tanking wouldn’t even be on their radar. As obnoxious as tanking is to large-market teams, it’s definitely not one worth upending the NBA’s entire model over.

The dog-eat-dog NBA hierarchy always creates haves and have-nots. Typically those have-nots are the small-market franchises in locations that struggle to attract first-class free-agent talent. It’s not a coincidence, we’ve never seen a small market dynasty. Instead, these franchises have to target phenoms who they can control for the first six to seven years of their careers before free agency.

Expecting losing teams to keep bad contracts on the payroll instead of whisking them away for economical, developing talent makes the Knicks seem logical. Is that really a world where NBA fans want to live in? Think the San Antonio Spurs regret shelving a recovering David Robinson in the latter half of the ‘97 season so they could draft Tim Duncan?

Instead of a young core featuring Jabari Smith, Tati Eason, Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Kevin Porter Jr., the Houston Rockets could have dumped Harden for a fringe All-Star like DeMar DeRozan, whose coattails they could have ridden to a 35-win season. The Rockets have embraced a youth movement. Following six consecutive winning seasons in which they struggled to breach the Western Conference Finals, Danny Ainge’s Utah Jazz have been derided as tankers for trading their grumpy centerpieces for a swath of picks and young talent. As of Sunday, they’re 2-0.

Stars on championship-contending teams like Golden State’s Splash Brothers or Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers are more likely to rest than the best player on a bottom-five team. Very few franchises purposely spend multiple years scraping the bottom of the barrel like the cellar dwellers like Oklahoma City, which resides in the NBA’s third-smallest market, has done for the third consecutive season.

Since trading Chris Paul in 2020 and stripping their roster down to its studs, the Thunder have accrued a 46-98 record, and with their No. 2 overall pick out for his entire rookie season, the Thunder roster is essentially last season’s 24-58 roster preserved in amber. But realistically, how many teams have adopted that super tank strategy over a stretch of multiple seasons?

The Orlando Magic aren’t tanking. Jonathan Isaac, their 6-11 wing who was last windmilling opposing shooters’ attempts at a prolific rate, hasn’t played in two years while he’s been busy promoting his brand on Fox News. Jalen Suggs, the heady point guard the Magic thought would serve as an uplifting force, bricked the way through his rookie season, shooting 36 percent from the field as a rookie and an egregiously bad 21 percent from 3. Paolo Banchero, the No. 1 pick in the most recent draft has performed like the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, but his exploits haven’t translated to wins — yet.

What exactly are the Magic supposed to do? In an ideal offseason, Orlando could have sold Bradley Beal on their upside and the joys of living near Disney World as a father of three. Small-market teams can’t reload. It’s almost a necessity for them to rebuild from scratch. If the feisty 2019 Clippers or the overachieving pre-KD/Kyrie Nets, who went 42-40 with Jarrett Allen, and Caris Levert weren’t in Brooklyn or L.A., they would have tanked long ago.

Besides, the obvious problem of there being no viable second-tier league for teams it sends mixed messages for relegation to even emerge from the Commish’s lips while rumors of expansion swell. Excessive tanking is more perception than reality. 

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