For teams like 76ers and Pistons, an NBA relegation race would add spice to sunk seasons

It'll never happen, but it's still fun to picture what an NBA relegation race would look like, given the bumper crop of bad teams this season, writes Jonathan Raymond.
Detroit's Greg Monroe goes up and is fouled by Brandon Davies, left, of Philadelphia, during their NBA contest on Saturday night. Carlos Osorio / AP / December 6, 2014
Detroit's Greg Monroe goes up and is fouled by Brandon Davies, left, of Philadelphia, during their NBA contest on Saturday night. Carlos Osorio / AP / December 6, 2014

Realistically, it’s never coming to North American pro sports, but just imagine it for a second.

A game like Philadelphia v Detroit, the saddest matchup of the season that played out on Saturday night, instead transformed into a desperate battle for their NBA lives.

If relegation and promotion were institutions in North American sport, this year’s race at the bottom in basketball would be one to remember.

When the 76ers and Pistons met, they entered the game with the second worst combined record, 4-34, in history for teams about to play each other with a minimum of 38 combined games. A bit of an obscure stat, sure, but one that nonetheless illustrates just what kind of depths the NBA’s worst are plumbing this season.

The scary thing about Philadelphia is that after their streak of 17 straight losses to start the season, 2-18 represents a “hot” stretch that has them within three games of six other teams in the league – meaning seven teams are 5-15 or worse.

After last season’s display by the NBA’s bottom feeders, there was a lot of talk in the off-season about how to alter the draft lottery process to deter so-called “tanking” – that is, teams being constructed by management to perform poorly and reap the reward of a higher draft pick.

A change never came, with one hard proposal getting shot down in a vote by team owners, but with the way things are currently playing out, it seems inevitable the issue will be raised once again.

Still, while a change in the lottery process – particularly eliminating it altogether through one of a number of proposals – would remove the reward for losing, sports leagues in the rest of the world have a surefire way of keeping those at the bottom invested in winning: Relegation.

For a host of reasons, first and foremost the North American ownership model, the concept can be counted on to never be implemented in the NBA. But it’d be just the salve for some truly unwatchable play this year.

We would have the two largest media markets in the US, New York and Los Angeles, sweating things out as two of the league’s historically great franchises, the Knicks (4-17) and Lakers (5-15), fight off a trip to the second division.

The Eastern Conference itself is so bad we could see teams like Boston (6-11) and Indiana (7-13) simultaneously in a play-off race and relegation fight. Oklahoma City (6-13), owners of two of the 10 best players in the game, would worry that any more injury issues to Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant could see a title contending team drop to Tier 2.

Michael Jordan might fire everyone in Charlotte’s (5-15) entire organisation with relegation in sight.

Most importantly, it would mean teams are truly, wholeheartedly invested in every game. The 76ers hit a game-tying three on Saturday night with 13 seconds remaining to force overtime before going on for the win. In a world where every win meant something at the tightly-packed bottom of the NBA, imagine how huge that result would be for Philly.

Instead, it’s just one more game between two awful teams that, historical curiosity notwithstanding, didn’t really mean anything.

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Published: December 7, 2014 04:00 AM

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