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How to save the NBA: A Heresy.


by Jess Behrens

© 2005-2018 Jess Behrens, All Rights Reserved​

The NBA is almost dead. Ok, from a financial standpoint, that statement is patently false. But, from my vantage point, it's definitely flatlining on the emergency room table. And, the worst part is, it's absent heart beat mimics its problem: boring predictability. Raise your hand if you're excited about seeing the Warriors win another title? Ok, aside from your Golden State fans, that's 0 hands, which includes mine. Everybody knows what's going to happen. Golden State will win & the offseason, where [insert name here] will sign a mind-blowingly huge contract with [NBA Team Name], will be more interesting than the season. And I say this as someone who has loved watching Steph Curry play since he almost beat Kansas (MY team) in 2008.

I have a unique perspective on this because I've done quite a bit of work analyzing the NCAA Tournament using network analysis & evolutionary game theory. The NBA could learn a lot from the NCAA Tournament, and I've put together a couple of tables that illustrate some of what the NBA is missing. Those of you who have read my other blog posts about the NCAA Tournament will recognize Table 1, which show teams from other tournaments that are similar to Davidson. Gonzaga from 2018


Table 1. 2008 Davidson's Neighborhood, NCAA Tourney Network Analysis Project:

Index 13, Rank 62-64 & Index 20, Rank 58-60

shows up as the fly in the ointment. Why didn't they go further? Consider who they lost to, which you can see in Table 2. Teams in Table 2 from 2011 (VCU), 2014 (Dayton), & 2018 (Florida State) do


Table 2. 2018 Florida State's Neighborhood, NCAA Tourney Network Analysis Project:

Index 16, Rank 22-23 & Index 17, Rank 25

better than the teams from 2010 (Washington & Florida State) & 2012 (Cincinnati). As I describe in Chapter 9, 2008, 2011, 2014, & 2018 are Cluster Other/5 years, while 2010 & 2012 are Less Linear years.

For those of you who haven't read my other posts, a brief description is in order. What I've discovered about the tournament is that there are team archetypes that cross tournament years & that the relative strength of these archetypes in a given year can be successfully modeled using evolutionary game theory, specifically the Hawk/Dove game. This is because there are really two outcomes that must be measured in any given game: who wins & the strength of the experience for each of the teams independent of winning and losing. I believe that this same thing is happening in the pros; that the pro game, while having better talent, isn't fundamentally different from the college game. If correct, this would mean that pro teams, like NCAA tournament teams, divide into archetypes or species over the course of the regular season. Furthermore, the relative proportion of each of these species types within the overall population determines the champion.

Now, if you look at Table 1 & 2, you will see why I've included them. In Table 1, Davidson & Kansas are literally right next to each other; in 2014, Florida is in Table 1 & Dayton Table 2. Likewise, last season Gonzaga was in Table 1 & Florida State in Table 2; 2011 has only 1 team, VCU, in either Table 1 & 2. Thus, these two groups of teams have a significant history of competing against each other in recent tournaments. While a much more detailed discussion is located in my other posts, in general the winners of games between these two groups is related to the relationship between Hawks & Owls within these tournament years as well as the number of small conference champions that have clustered.

So, why do I bring this up in a post about how dead the NBA is? Because the NBA is basketball, or at least it used to be. And the format of the NBA regular season/playoff combination is what kills the strangely predictable, but wonderfully mystifying, aspect of the 'upset' in basketball. The NBA has structured itself so that the patterns you see in Tables 1 & 2, as well as throughout my other posts, are washed out. It's as if the league has said to the upset:

"Okay, okay....yeah, so the favored blew it and lost a game. But, we'll give them a mulligan (7 game series) so that we make sure what we believe should happen, actually happens. I mean, we all know who the best team is. We know the answer. So, that team HAS to win the championship."

The goal in the NBA, and what is unfortunately applauded by sports journalist, is its ability to rig its post season in favor of one club over another, and subsequently applaud that as somehow more 'basketball' than allowing the very real probability of the favored team being upset. And the Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, & Klay Thompson just figured that out. Their decisions are completely predictable. What I find galling is the notion that somehow this rigging of the post season is to be applauded; that all of those games, all of those extra chances for the 'real' champion to emerge, makes it all mean more. No it doesn't. It just rigs the post season in favor of super teams.

What you see in Tables 1 & 2 must happen in the pros, it's a natural outgrowth of competition and the fact that it is as much about experience as it is about winning. The current form of the NBA is designed to eliminate the possibility of surprise precisely because it is trying to build dynasties that transcend eras, forgetting that the uncertainty of a dynasty is what makes its existence meaningful.

The NBA game isn't that different from the college game. But the mad dash for cash, and all of the shenanigans that go with that, have killed the very uncertainty that made the game so great back when Michael was tattooing 63 points on MY Celtics in 1986.

I don't even need to point to the 'tanking' strategy that has become so common, especially not when Stephen A. Smith does a better job than I could. Just a side note: I agree with both of these journalists - the strategy sucks, but it makes so much economic & competitive sense that I understand why owners do it.

And that's where I come to my overall heretical & prepostorous point; what I believe is the best solution to kickstart the NBA's heart; to bring it back from the edge of competitive death:

Re-draft the Top 160 (32 teams x 5 players) every summer, during summer league play, in Las Vegas. That's the top 5 players at each position across the league. And let the players help in the selection process of other players as the draft proceeds. Make it more like a pick up game where every year, Memphis, Portland, Minnesota, and every other small market team would have a REAL chance to put together a team that could win it all.

Re-drafting each year would emphasize different, more team based traits in players, while allowing new players to step up and shine because the talent would be more evenly spread across the league. Everybody's quality of play would increase. Year over year changes would expose developing players to the experience of playing with different talent, forcing everyone to expand their game. Within the league, the talent is a shared resource and re-drafting the top players each year would treat them that way.

Of course, I know this modest proposal is anathema to every single owner in the league. Re-draft the top talent every year? They wouldn't go for it in a million years. This is where I think the league should step in and save the game from itself. And to make the above proposal work, the NBA would also have to do these other things:

  1. Pay all 160 top players out of the league & base it on receipts that span the past 5 years across all 32 teams. Stronger, deeper competition = more interest &, presumably, more receipts. Players in this top group would receive a 1 year GUARANTEED base salary from the league commensurate with his spot among the top 160 players. Extras & incentives would be applied to this base salary based on the TEAM's performance in that year and every player would receive the same bonus. Shoe deals and the like, including jersey's, etc., are completely the prerogative of the player.

  2. The top 160 players in the league are decided by a vote that includes all the players/coaches in the league during that year & a set of selected journalists. This is similar to how the Heisman Trophy voting works. At the end of every season, the voting is done for the next year, and everything is set prior to the NBA rookie league in Vegas.

  3. No rookies are allowed to be included in the Top 160 players, so the college draft works just as it does today. This allows the teams to focus on what they should be focused on: developing rookies, & really all players, so that they can make their way to the top 160. In fact, it may be a good idea to have rookies wait a few years (2 or 3) before they can be included among the top 160 players. This gives them time to develop & the owners the opportunity to build their franchise/name with future stars. The important thing here: the Top 160 has to be earned.

  4. Players who fall out of the Top 160 fall back to the team that they were on before they were grouped into the Top 160. This would, of course, leave some teams with too many players, leading to a rich and speculative market among owners on players outside the Top 160. Personally, I believe this is good and is what the teams should be doing because it is about building an attractive destination for the top players in the league at the next draft. It may be necessary to coordinate maximum contract length among players not in the Top 160 such that when a player falls out of that group, they are worked back into the league relatively easily. All of these things would need to be part of the negotiations with the players association.

  5. Re-structure the playoffs by seeding it as a league, not based on division. Instead of 7 game series' in each round, make the early rounds have fewer games, between 3 or 5. Only move to 7 games in the later rounds. This would allow for more upsets and make each game mean more. Especially in the early rounds.

I believe these changes would dramatically improve the quality of the game, kill the 'tanking' problem, & lead the league into new, more profitable territory that has greater room for growth. Can you imagine the buzz that would go with trying to figure out where Lebron was going to go next season? And, who would be picked with him? I think the strategizing & all that would go with it would actually be good for the league, rather than a destraction from it.

So there you go. That's my heretical view, based not in a dominant NBA career, but in the valuable experiences & lessons I learned from all of the countless, completely normal basketball I did play (aside from a few stellar pick up games against a few top Division I athletes while in college). And let's face it: very few of us ever played in the NBA, but a lot of us played average basketball. And we are the ones who are watching the league self-destruct.

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