Tanking in the NBA has been a subject of debate, in particular during the 2013-14 season when multiple teams, most notably the Philadelphia 76ers were rebuilding themselves in anticipation of a draft class which was headlined by Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid.
More on the NBA Draft Lottery
More on the NBA Draft Lottery
The 76ers in particular have rebuilt their roster not only with youth, but also with minimum contract-level players who have a cap hit well under the salary floor of $56.759 million. While the Sixers will pay the amount of the minimum salary and distribute the difference between that amount and their cap hit to their players this season, it's still obvious that they have no interest in paying a maximum salary to anyone right now.
The NBA's owners weren't pleased with Philadelphia and proposed significant draft lottery reform which would lower the incentive for teams to tank for the hope of getting high draft picks later. After a scheduled vote on Wednesday, the measure did not pass -- 17 teams did vote in favor of reform -- but it was far short of the 23 needed to make it a new rule. Who were the 13 team owners that voted against reform? Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski has an unofficial list, which includes three WNBA team owners:
Here were the 13 "No" votes, sources told Yahoo: PHX, PHL, OKC, NO, DET, MIA, MIL, San Antonio, Utah, Wash, ATL, CHA and Chicago.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) October 22, 2014
The three WNBA team owners who voted no are Robert Sarver (Phoenix Mercury), Peter Holt (San Antonio Stars), and Ted Leonsis (Washington Mystics). From a WNBA fan standpoint, it's not surprising to see why Sarver voted no. More on Sarver's WNBA team later. For Holt, the Spurs' circumstances in how they drafted Tim Duncan could be used as a self-serving reason to vote against reform. And for Leonsis, his Ten Point Rebuilding Plan certainly showed how the Wizards took advantage of multiple top draft picks after several awful seasons to become an Eastern Conference contender on paper. Seeing Leonsis vote any other way would be hypocritical, as SB Nation's Mike Prada astutely noted below:
Given how the Wizards rebuilt their team, they should have voted against lottery reform. Glad they did.— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) October 22, 2014
The WNBA is about to enter a 2015 season which will come on the heels of a 2016 draft class which is headlined by UConn forward Breanna Stewart. Stewart won multiple National College Player of the Year awards and played on the USA Basketball women's national team in the 2014 FIBA World Championships. One team -- which presumably misses the postseason -- will get the chance to draft her. She would be expected to be a franchise game-changer once she enters the league.
Tanking has also been a hot topic recently in the WNBA. The Mercury (allegedly) tanked in 2012 by sitting out Diana Taurasi in order to increase their chances for a
"Three to See" Big Three pick. In addition, multiple key players were also injured and sat out most of the season. The strategy worked since they won the right to draft Brittney Griner in 2013, who helped them win the 2014 WNBA title. Many WNBA fans despised the situation that Phoenix got into and may feel sympathetic with some form of draft lottery reform, like what was proposed in the NBA.
Despite the situation in Phoenix during 2012, I don't think that the WNBA needs to consider anti-tanking measures. Generally speaking, playoff caliber teams aren't going to tank when fully healthy. Even the Mercury still had multiple injured players on the roster in 2012 like Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree, in addition to Taurasi.
Even though the WNBA has its share of bad teams, no team has openly tanked or willingly chose to tank multiple seasons in a row to get a superstar player, a la the Philadelphia 76ers. The Tulsa Shock currently has the league's longest streak of missing the playoffs at five, but they were forced into this position since their relocation from Detroit, and turnover of their roster.
Tanking may be controversial to fans, but it isn't immoral. It is a business decision where a franchise realizes that its best chance to contend is in the future and not the present, nothing more.
Professional basketball -- men's or women's -- is a game built around superstars. Nearly every NBA championship team has done so with a superstar on the roster. While the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons are the one championship team without such a player, they are an exception to the rule, rather than a model to follow when it comes to team building.
In the WNBA, most of the teams that have won championships in recent memory were juggernauts based on their talent. The Mercury (2007, 2009, 2014), Seattle Storm (2010), and Minnesota Lynx (2011, 2013) were all among the league's most talented teams when they won their championships.
The premise that "you need a superstar to win it all" also holds true in the Eastern Conference, where the Indiana Fever (2009, 2012) and Atlanta Dream (2010, 2011, 2013) combined for five of the last six championships in their division, thanks to the fact that they had superstar players Tamika Catchings and Angel McCoughtry respectively. Simply put, a WNBA team is either a have or a have-not when it comes to being a championship contender.
Of course, there are some major differences between the NBA and WNBA when it comes to building a title contender. One obvious difference is money and the salary cap. The NBA operates under a soft cap of $63.065 million, but with a luxury tax level of $76.829 million. In the WNBA, there is a flex cap with a salary floor and ceiling that is much narrower. In the 2013 season, the salary cap was $913,000, while the floor was at $869,000.
Another major difference between the two leagues is that the WNBA has the core player exception or franchise tag. Teams that have younger franchise players can core their top stars in an attempt to prevent them from testing the open market. Currently, WNBA players can be cored for up to four seasons.
With the core player designation, some top WNBA players can expect to be with the same franchise for over 10 years, which may effectively keep them with one team until they are past their peak. The NBA doesn't have such a rule, which allows for offseasons when superstars like LeBron James (2010 and 2014) and Kevin Durant (2016) reach unrestricted free agency and did or at least could change teams while in their prime.
The few superstar players who do change teams, like Cappie Pondexter in 2010 and Tina Charles in 2014, did so when they hit restricted free agency after four years in the league. They also gave clear intentions or perceptions that they would be willing to sit out a season if they did not get their wishes. These barriers lead to one conclusion when it comes to acquiring top talent: The draft is the only realistic way to get franchise players in the WNBA.
Franchise players can make a team relevant in the championship picture, and in some other teams' cases, they can extend a championship window. The latter holds true for the Mercury, since there is a good chance that they would not be a legitimate championship contender in 2014 if they did make the 2012 Playoffs.
And for teams with no franchise player like the Mystics, their decision on how to approach the 2015 season will determine the fate of their current rebuild. For the record, I think they are better off tanking 2015. If things play out right, 2016 could be a special year in the nation's capital.
Tanking, or missing the playoffs in the WNBA for draft picks is a necessary part of the team rebuilding process given the rules the league has to abide by. Franchise players just aren't readily available any other way.