Hoopidea: Striking Out Tanking

Image via Loren Javier on Flickr

On the first day of the MLB season, I just want to say: I don’t like baseball. I don’t like the fact that there’s no cap. I don’t like the fact that there are a bajillion games. I don’t like the fact that the playoffs feature very few teams. I don’t like the fact that fans of other sports have no other options of what to watch on TV in the summer. HOWEVER, I’ve got a friend (Hey Chewy!) who loves it. We got to talking about tanking the other day (as one does in DC when all of the teams are terrible at the same time), and he got me to come around on two things baseball does well and that I wished the NBA did as well as the MLB: Drafting prospects and using its farm system. As we were talking, my friend had a great thought:

Well, you don’t really get tanking at the end of the season in baseball because the draft is in the middle of the season. If the NBA moved to this system, then I think they should still draft for 2012-13 season (current system) and then decide the pick order for 2015-16 season (no lottery; random). Then:

1) In 2013: draft for 2013-14 and determine draft order for 2016-17; and
2) In 2014: draft for 2014-15 and determine draft order for 2017-18.  Beginning in 2015 teams will already know their draft order far in advance so they’ll be able to plan, and they’ll be random-lottery-selecting the draft order 3 years down the road.

This way you know your slot and your picks three years out. It gives teams rebuilding windows rather than rebuilding every year and doesn’t reward teams for tanking.

Draft in the middle of the season and pre-rank your picks a year or two in advance! You can’t tank midseason, because you destroy your chances at the playoffs, and you can’t at the end of the season, because people won’t come to your games. Your draft picks are based on the years prior, and you can’t tank for those because they have to spend time in your farm system to be able to have an impact on your team. So you’d have to tank several years in advance, but then you’d have to be able to scout really young players well, and that probably wouldn’t work because of things like aging. And school. And injuries. And puberty.

The idea was so simple that it’s kind of perfect. But it couldn’t be that simple, right? How would I know, though? My baseball knowledge ended with Jose Mesa’s blown bottom of the 9th in 1997. Thankfully, Chewy took the time to dumb down the finer points of the MLB draft for me:

The MLB draft system is unlike any other drafting systems in place in US sports: it occurs during the first half of the season, there are dozens of rounds, HS players are prominently involved and players have the option to not sign AFTER being drafted if they want to go to college… There were 1530 players taken in the 2011 draft; that’s the equivalent of 6+ years of NFL picks and 11 gallons of whatever Mel Kiper uses in his hair.

[Ed. note: Helpful Analogy Alert!] And while the MLB draft system is unique from other sports, it does closely mirror one other industry: Wall Street.  Regardless of the sport, when you have a hot draft pick (or stock pick) that people are salivating over, the demand is through the roof and the value soars before anything even happens.  It’s speculating at its finest and the same sort of speculation/valuation/ROI happens with every league.  The difference between MLB and the other leagues is that draft picks need time to develop into everyday starters (similar to how some stocks need time to mature and find their value within the market); but the John Walls, Peyton Mannings and Alex Ovechkins of the world are pushed into service right away… or close to it.  Between roster sizes, expected playing career lengths, salary caps and knee jerk fan bases, the NBA, NFL and to some extent the NHL have an entirely different outlook and process for drafts.

Also like a Wall Street firm: if your hot picks turn out to be flops, you can hide your losses in the farm system the same way firms write hide or bundle their garbage.  It’s like a write-off.  If that’s not enough of an analogy: teams can’t treat their toxic baggage like Wall Street does and bundle them together to pawn off for pennies on the dollar to another team where they’ll become worth something. At least that’s the hope.  In reality for every Josh Hamilton (a foreclosed home purchased at a bank auction but happens to be sitting on top of an undiscovered oil field), there are 50 Elijah Dukes out there (pretty much any home for sale in Florida or Nevada).

Beginning this year teams will have a pool of money to spend from for their draft picks in order to reign in the speculative free spending of the past few years.  Teams can still use more than their allotted money on a pick, but they’ll have to pay a hefty tax to do so.  In many ways it’s like the proposed CEO pay limits for Wall Street firms.  Those that don’t play within the new rules will have to pay extra.

There are other intricacies in the MLB drafting system that I’m not sure would go over well in the NBA in the next CBA session: You can’t trade picks, supplementary draft rounds (been there, done that!), extra picks for failed contract negotiations, and compensation picks that leave via free agency [Chewy also notes, “Elias Sports Bureau (the Moody’s of baseball) determines the value of players and whether teams receive zero, one or two extra picks.  Yes, baseball has rounds between the rounds because 50 rounds wasn’t enough to begin with.”].

Now the MLB and the NBA are really different leagues. The team sizes, payrolls, number of games, and countless other things are different. But the expanded use of the farm system? The NBA’s already working on that with D-League expansion. Reigning in free-agency-frenzy, where small markets (and most importantly small market owners) feel jilted that their town wasn’t sunny enough to keep a player happy? Well the new CBA tried to fix that (and really whiffed, IMO). I don’t always think that comparing rules across professional leagues is a helpful exercise, but I do think that sometimes thinking outside the Hoop can lead to a pretty solid #HoopIdea.

A special thanks on this post to my friend Chewy. If you’re a Nats and/or Capitals and/or Saints fan and/or you live in DC and/or want to follow a pretty funny dude, you can find him on Twitter at @CapCityChewy.

Amin Vafa

Amin grew up in Cleveland, lives in DC, and somehow still manages to love watching professional basketball.