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The NBA Will Never Introduce Relegation

MUMBAI, INDIA - OCTOBER 4: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks to the media prior to the game at the NCSI Dome on October 4, 2019 in Mumbai, India. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, By downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Before the Phoenix Suns' season-opening win over the Dallas Mavericks this past week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver spent an hour holding court with and apologizing to "hundreds" of team employees for the workplace misconduct that happened under team owner Robert Sarver, per a report from ESPN's Baxter Holmes. "I'm incredibly empathetic to what many of you have lived through," Silver said. "To the extent that you feel let down by the league, I apologize. I take responsibility for that." He also characterized the league's sluggish and inadequate initial response as a "failure of an overall system," which is about as close as he will get to stating plainly that he is a figurehead who works for the owners.

Speaking of those owners, out of the many interesting tidbits to emerge from the meeting, one has blown up and gained a puzzling amount of traction: relegation. The purpose of Silver's audience with the Suns staff was to semi-publicly eat shit for Sarver's actions, though he also answered a bunch of questions about all sorts of NBA-wide topics, including the degree to which the league is going to have to pretend to do something about the looming, shameless self-derailment for the chance to draft Victor Wembanyama. "We put teams on notice," Silver reportedly said. "We're going to be paying particular attention to the issue this year."

What does "on notice" mean here? The rewards for tanking are so obviously worth the short-term pain that, even if the league were to start fining teams for putting their good players on ice, losing on purpose is straightforward and bad teams would happily eat those fines because all that matters is getting a star on your team. But a meaningful structural change like relegation from the NBA would put an instant halt to tanking, and Silver, ever the European soccer fetishist, said the league office "thought about relegation as a potential solution to ensure the worst-performing teams are incentivized to compete." That is the specific clause within Silver's remarks that's gotten so much attention—probably because it's fun to speculate about the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks getting what they deserve and having to go down to the G-League—and not the very next part of the story, in which Silver said relegation would be "destabilizing" and "would so disrupt our business model."

It is worth stressing here that the NBA's attempts to deal with tanking, if pursued vigorously enough, run up against a contradiction. The commissioner of the NBA and whatever anti-tanking task force he assembles ultimately serve at the pleasure of the NBA's owners, owners who stand to reap the benefits (lower wage bill, revenue sharing, Victor Wembanyama) of losing on purpose. Tanking might hurt short term bottom lines, but the real financial boon of owning an NBA team is not in gate receipts, it's in the value of the franchise itself (the Utah damn Jazz just sold for $1.6 billion). If the NBA were to introduce relegation into the G-League, that entire economic foundation would instantly crumble. Why would you pay $1.6 billion for the Utah Jazz if they could potentially slide into the G-League? As Silver said, owners would never willingly cede so much value and—as they run the league—they will never be asked to do so.

I don't think relegation and promotion even makes much sense as a competitive framework for the NBA compared to the way it works in soccer, since the second division isn't parallel to the NBA, it's a feeder league with teams operated by NBA franchises. If the Sacramento Kings got relegated and the Stockton Kings won the G-League title and then got promoted, what would even be the point of distinguishing between the two? It's never going to happen. If only I could say the same about Adam Silver's other soccer-centric idea.

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