Does the NBA Have a Tanking Problem? League Warns Teams after Mark Cuban Fine

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has waded into the debate over tanking, in a memo sent to the league’s board of governors.

Silver criticized the practice and suggested the behavior of teams towards the bottom of the league will be closely monitored between now and the end of the season.

“The integrity of the competition on the playing court is the cornerstone of our league,” Silver wrote in the memo, which was obtained by USA Today’s Sam Amick.

“It is our pact with the fans and with each other, the fundamental reason we exist as a preeminent sporting organization, the very product that we sell. With everything else changing around us, it is the one thing in our league that can never change. We must do everything in our power to protect the actual and perceived integrity of the game.”

GettyImages-897860466 Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (centre) admitted his team might be better off tanking this season. Getty Images

The debate over tanking, the advantages it allegedly brings and the ethics surrounding it, has been going on for years, but it has been catapulted in the spotlight over the last couple of weeks.

Last week, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for suggesting his team would be better off losing between now and the end of the season to improve their chances of success in the draft lottery.

Speaking to Julius Erving on the "House Call with Dr. J" podcast on February 18, Cuban admitted the Mavs had something to gain from tanking.

"[NBA Commissioner] Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that [...] but being transparent, I think that's the key to being kind of a players' owner and having stability," he said.

The NBA sees tanking as a threat to the league and has already taken steps to discourage teams from throwing away their season in a bid to secure high-end draft picks.

This season marks the final year when the teams with the league’s worst three records have a different chance of winning the draft lottery, with their odds standing at 25 percent, 19.9 percent and 15.6 percent in descending order.

From next year, however, the three teams at the bottom of the league will each have a 14 percent chance of winning the lottery. 

To put things into context, the current system also gives the team with the worst record in the league a 64 percent chance of landing a top-3 pick.

Eight teams are currently on track to win fewer than 30 games this season, which would be the first time such a thing has happened in an 82-game NBA season.

Admittedly, eight teams ended with a win percentage below 35.3 percent—which equals 29 wins—in the 2011-12 season. However, that season was shortened to 66 games due the lockout between team owners and the players.

The current bottom eight teams—the Knicks, Bulls, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Magic, Kings, Hawks and Suns—are within 2.5 games of each other and have a combined record of 2-23 since the All Star break, with one of those wins coming in a game between Sacramento and Orlando.

“We have been careful to distinguish between efforts teams may make to rebuild their rosters, including through personnel changes over the course of several seasons, and circumstances in which players or coaches on the floor take steps to lose games,” Silver added.

“The former can be a legitimate strategy to construct a successful team within the confines of league rules; the latter — which we have not found and hope never to see in the NBA—has no place in our game.”

Earlier this week, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that NBA executives suspected multiple teams were using their analytics departments to put out line-ups that maximize their chances of losing. Silver warned the NBA could come down hard on teams found guilty of deliberate tanking.

"If we ever received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office,” he said.