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Adam Silver defends Sixers rebuilding strategy, but admits perception of tanking is an issue

Mar 2, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

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BOSTON – Stan Van Gundy had plenty to say as part of the basketball analytics panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference on Friday, and a portion of his comments took a shot at the NBA’s current draft system, which seems to be incentivizing teams to lose games.

The draft lottery and the subject of tanking were topics that came up repeatedly during the two-day event, and Van Gundy made it clear that whatever was going on this season in Philadelphia wasn’t, in his opinion, intended to win as many games as possible.

“Not what Philadelphia is doing right now, which is embarrassing,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t care, Adam Silver can say there’s no tanking or what’s going on — if you’re putting that roster on the floor, you’re doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose.”

Former Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo actually admitted to trying to tank a couple of seasons ago, but he didn’t get the desired results.

“Admittedly, I will say, I tried to tank a couple years ago,” Colangelo said. “And I didn’t ‘come out and say, ‘Coach, you’ve got to lose games.’ I never said that. I wanted to have him establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that, but I wanted to do it in the framework of playing and developing young players, and with that comes losing. There’s just no way to avoid that, but I never once said, ‘You’ve got to lose this game.’ “

And this is where Commissioner Silver’s definition of tanking seems to be different than the one the rest of us ascribe.

Silver appeared at the conference on Saturday afternoon, before heading to Philadelphia for Allen Iverson’s retirement ceremony later that night. While he chooses to label what the Sixers are doing as rebuilding rather than tanking, he did admit that as long as the public perception is there that this is going on, then the league needs to continue to keep an open mind as far as making changes to the process.

“I don’t agree with Coach Van Gundy at all,” Silver said, via CSNPhilly.com. “It is an insult to the entire league suggesting these guys are going out on the floor and not doing their very best to win games.

“Now if Coach Van Gundy is addressing appropriate rebuilding which every organization goes through and not just in sports,” Silver continued. “In any business you look at short-term results and long-term results. This organization is planning for the future and building from the ground level up.”

“I don’t want to ignore the issue that the chatter is out there,” Silver said. “If there is a perception out there that teams need to be bad to get good, we need to address it.

“We have a draft lottery in place. The purpose was to take the incentive away from teams potentially losing games in order to get a higher draft pick. We have tinkered with it over the years and if we need to adjust it again then we will.

“I am concerned about the perception,” Silver said. “I am not concerned about what is happening in Philadelphia.”

Silver has maintained that he will continue to take a fresh look at the draft — one detailed proposal put together by Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren was a “wheel” concept, where picks would essentially be pre-assigned in perpetuity so that a team would know its place in the draft regardless of its won-loss record. But as Silver mentioned at Saturday’s conference, this plan is not without its flaws.

“When Mike first showed it to me, I thought, ‘Wow, that solves our problems,’ ” Silver said. “Teams can plan for the future, they have absolutely no incentive to do anything but win the maximum number of games per season, they know where the draft pick is coming from.”

“But [what] surprised me was when teams said, ‘Hold on a second,’ ” he said. “There’s a belief that certain markets have advantages. That players may choose to be on the coast, be in a larger market as opposed to a smaller market. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, but that’s the perspective. The concern by some of the teams was that if a player going into college or coming out of high school … Say that he knows the hometown team here, the Celtics, has the No. 1 pick in two years. I’m going to wait those two years to come out, because I can game the system as a player. I can choose to be a Celtic.”

The core belief Silver has (or at least continues to express publicly) that teams are rebuilding instead of tanking isn’t exactly accurate, at least not from where the fans are sitting. Everyone agrees that players and coaches aren’t intentionally trying to lose games. But when a GM puts a roster on the floor that has little chance of competing (and trades away his best players midseason for more spare parts), that’s where people believe that the league incentivizes losing with the way its system is currently structured.

To his credit, however, Silver seems truly open to making the necessary changes to fix it.

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