The NFL has managed to create and maintain a firewall between the late-season struggles of non-playoff teams and the benefits that flow from landing higher in the draft order. The NBA has not.
Tanking has been an open secret in the NBA, with teams deliberately taking steps to better position themselves for key incoming talent — and with the NBA struggling to keep it from happening.
The Mavericks, who five years ago drew a $600,000 fine for owner Mark Cuban’s comments about tanking, find themselves once again under scrutiny of the NBA. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com, the NBA is looking into the decision of the team to rest several key players for a Friday night game that, with a loss, eliminated the franchise from a long-shot-to-the-championship playoff berth.
“The NBA commenced an investigation today into the facts and circumstances surrounding the Dallas Mavericks’ roster decisions and game conduct with respect to last night’s Chicago Bulls-Mavericks game, including the motivations behind those actions,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said Saturday afternoon, via MacMahon.
The Mavericks announced late Friday that several key players would miss a game against the Chicago Bulls, ostensibly for precautionary reasons but possibly to ensure that the Mavericks miss the postseason. Another key player, Luka Doncic, exited after only 12 minutes.
Coach Jason Kidd seemed to acknowledge the strategic nature of the decision after the loss.
“It’s not so much waving the white flag,” Kidd said after the game, via MacMahon. “It’s [that] decisions sometimes are hard in this business. We’re trying to build a championship team. With this decision, this is maybe a step back. But hopefully it leads to going forward.”
Last year, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called tanking a “serious issue” that has triggered “hundreds” of meetings.
With the presence of seven-foot, four-inch French phenom Victor Wembanyama in the next draft class, tanking to achieve the best shot at him via the draft lottery has become a major issue.
“We put teams on notice,” Silver said in October 2022. “We’re going to be paying particular attention to the issue this year.”
In the NFL, the temptation to tank is real. The Texans blew a chance at the first overall pick in the 2023 draft by winning a meaningless Week 18 game over the Colts. The Bears, who lost a meaningless Week 18 game to the Vikings, realized a major haul of picks and receiver D.J. Moore by trading out of the spot that Houston’s win delivered.
The NFL insists that teams try to win every single game. It’s baloney, but that doesn’t keep the NFL from insisting that teams try to win every single game.
And while a draft lottery would become a major, money-for-nothing offseason tentpole for the NFL, the league has resisted doing anything that would draw a line, straight or dotted, between late-season losses and April wins.
But what about those situations when tanking either obviously happened or was clearly attempted? The league ignores it (as it did when the Bucs tanked in the second half of a Week 17 loss to the Saints in 2014) or tells us these are not the droids we’re looking for, as the league did when it accepted and repeated the notion that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was joking when he offered former coach Brian Flores $100,000 per loss in 2019, when Ross wanted to lose enough games to get quarterback Joe Burrow.
Funny joke. I’m still looking for the punchline.
The joke will be on the NFL if/when a tanking controversy ever sparks a major investigation into teams not putting their best players on the field in order to best position itself for a player who could transform the franchise for years. The only way to solve the issue is to remove the temptation entirely.
It wouldn’t be that hard, if the NFL really wanted to do it.