Now I’m on a roll, so let’s get to the NBA.
This league is in very good shape. The players’ union and the owners are getting along great, a new TV contract has just upped the salary cap to nearly $100 million per team for a 15-man roster, and there are lots of young superstars like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Steph Curry and others to compliment established long-time superstars like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmello Anthony and Chris Paul. But there are things that can take it up another level.
1. Expand. You will notice a theme. I recommend all the leagues go to the 32-team setup of the NFL. It makes most of the other things fall into place very easily. Who gets the 2 new teams? Not sure. Kansas City has a facility in place, Seattle has a passionate fan base, and Seattle and St. Louis are down 1 team in the city thanks to a greedy owner moving the squad to another city. Mexico City has the population. So there are several possibilities. I’d say Seattle definitely gets one.
2. Shorten the season. Once you settle on 32 teams, organize them into 8 divisions of 4 teams each. Each team will play the 28 teams in the other 7 divisions twice, one home and one road. That’s 56 games. Each team will play the 3 teams within its own divisions 4 times, 2 home and 2 road. That’s 12 games, for a total of 68 games. Right now, a championship team plays between 98 and 110 games, depending on how many games its 4 playoff rounds go on top of the 82-game regular season. Under my plan, the championship team plays between 94 and 102 games. That shortens the season by nearly a month. Perhaps it could also eliminate the new, unsatisfying practice of superstars sitting out of games because their coaches are scared they won’t be fresh for the playoffs.
3. Eliminate the draft lottery. Some history here… If you watched the NBA in the early 1980s, you would think there were only 3 teams – the LA Lakers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. They were the only ones that ever got on TV and the only ones that ever won the title. But there was one other contender, the Houston Rockets. They made the finals in 1981 behind the mega-monster Moses Malone. But he left the next year as a free agent to sign with Philly. The Rockets went 14-68 in 1982-83. The silver lining was the chance to draft Ralph Sampson, a 7-foot-4 inch tower from Virginia. There were rumors that the Rockets were “tanking” – losing games on purpose – near the end of the season so they would have the worst record and be assured of that #1 draft pick. With Sampson in tow, the Rockets went out and had another terrible year in 1983-84, and managed to secure the #1 pick for the second year in a row, enabling them to draft future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuan from the University of Houston. Other teams were even more certain the Rockets had tanked again. Something had to be done, they complained to Commissioner David Stern, or they might do it again next year so they can draft Patrick Ewing from Georgetown and put three 7-footers out on the floor every night. So something was done. The draft lottery was created for the 1984-85 season. The 7 teams in the 23-team league that did not make the playoffs would have giant cards with their team logos put in envelopes and into a large drum. Stern would spin this drum a few times, then pull the envelopes out one at a time, then place them on a big board for draft positions 1 through 7. Then he started with position 7 and opened each envelope. Houston had made the playoffs with their new “twin towers” and were not part of the lottery. Golden State, which finished with the worst record, go the 7th pick. There was no evidence the Warriors had tanked, so this seemed to be an unfair punishment. The New York Knicks won the lottery and the chance to draft Ewing. Conspiracy theories were born immediately. Was it truly random that the team in the nation’s largest TV market got the #1 pick and the can’t-miss prospect? Did the Rockets really tank the last two years, or was that the imagination of a few paranoid team owners? And why the hell does a 23-team league have 16 teams make the playoffs after a 6-month season anyway? The controversy simmered as the league expanded to Charlotte and Miami in 1988, to Minnesota and Orlando in 1989, to Vancouver and Toronto in 1996, and to Charlotte again in 2004 after the Hornets moved to New Orleans, bringing the league to 30 teams. In response to the conspiracy theories, the true lottery was reduced to the top 3 draft positions – the top 3 positions were drawn in a separate room from the broadcast, and the remaining non-playoff teams set in inverse order of record. Eventually, instead of drawing cards out of a drum, the system became weighted, with numbers drawn out of a drum like normal state lotteries, and more number combinations assigned to the worst teams, and still drawing only the top 3 slots.
The conspiracy theories never went away. When the Hornets moved from Charlotte to New Orleans over a new arena dispute, the NBA moved quickly to give Charlotte a new team because the Hornets had set NBA attendance records during their best years in the 1990s. The team was given to former BET top dog Robert Johnson and named the Bobcats. Despite the normal awful won-loss records routinely experienced by expansion teams, the Bobcats never won the lottery. Their luck hit bottom in the 2012 lottery. The season had been shortened to 66 games by a labor dispute, and the Bobcats went 7-59, including a 23-game losing streak to end the season. It was the worst winning percentage in NBA history, even worse than the 9-73 season of the 76ers in the early 1970s. But they were poised to get Anthony Davis, a 19-year-old freshman from Kentucky, who had won the national championship and displayed all the skills necessary to challenge LeBron James for title of world’s best basketball player. But the Bobcats didn’t win the lottery. New Orleans, which had changed their name to the Pelicans, won and got Davis to rebuild the franchise that had disintegrated a few years after leaving Charlotte. The Bobcats settled for the #2 pick, which they used to draft Davis’ Kentucky teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Even people far away from Charlotte were now convinced the lottery was fixed. After the Hurricane Katrina disaster, New Orleans is a small city, with barely enough of a population to support two major professional sports teams. But it is still a famous city, and is still one of the best party places in the country. Gotta get something for New Orleans, the conspiracy theorists opined. Who cares about Charlotte? It’s just a bank town. Nobody ever visits there, people just work there. Ain’t nothing to do. They don’t need a player this good. Charlotte, already suffering from a massive inferiority complex with Atlanta, gobbled it up. Yes, I did too. And I still believe it. I also believe the NFL tried to influence Super Bowl 50 against the Panthers in favor of golden child Peyton Manning. But I digress.
Not only is there a perception the NBA draft lottery is fixed, it is useless. If the Rockets really were tanking in the 80s to get Sampson and Hakeem, instituting the lottery didn’t end the practice. The 76ers have been tanking just to accumulate top draft picks for several years, only just becoming competitive this season. This 2016-17 is the first time they have tried to be competitive in 3 years. We didn’t talk about it much here, but the Bobcats were probably tanking in 2012 – we had a stripped-down roster and a decrepit head coach that actually fell asleep during a game and tried to fight a disgruntled player in the locker room. This lottery is no deterrent. Get rid of it.