Something funny was going on right under David Stern's nose, and the NBA commissioner pretended not to notice.
The outcome of several games late in the regular season seemed almost predetermined to many league observers, a group that included bookmakers and gamblers.
And the issue had nothing to do with the wild conspiracy theory that some games are scripted in the smoky back rooms of Las Vegas sports books. The questionable practice of tanking games to gain a more favorable position in the draft lottery falls squarely on the powerful people inside a few NBA franchises.
For some teams, the last month of the season disintegrated into a comical attempt to cover up a desire to lose -- and hopefully win the right to a higher draft pick.
"That's something the NBA has to address," MGM Mirage sports book director Robert Walker said. "This happens every year, but maybe not as rampant as it happened this year. It's a sad system when you are getting rewarded by losing."
If Stern truly is concerned about the integrity of games involving a potential Las Vegas team, and the influence of legal sports wagering on those games, he might want to stare into a mirror.
The funny business recently on display in the NBA was noticed in Las Vegas, but it was an inside job executed by teams such as the Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Star players sat out with minor injuries while their teams were blown out. Sports book directors lowered betting limits. Gamblers sniffed out the winners as point spreads moved.
One example was Boston's 92-84 loss to Charlotte on March 21. The Celtics, 8 1/2-point home favorites, led by 15 points at halftime. But coach Doc Rivers left all five of his starters on the bench as his team blew the lead.
Boston was headed for the draft lottery, and it stood to benefit more by losing. Questioned about his strategy, Rivers said, "I was not throwing the game, or anything like that."
On April 11, the Timberwolves announced 7-foot All-Star Kevin Garnett would be out indefinitely with a quadriceps injury. The timing of the injury fueled speculation the team was trying to secure its draft pick. Minnesota needed to finish with one of the league's 10-worst records to keep the pick; otherwise it would have gone to the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Timberwolves, playing without Garnett, were routed 110-91 by San Antonio on April 13. The Spurs opened as 10 1/2-point road favorites and the line moved to 12 1/2. In the April 18 season finale, Memphis blew out Minnesota, 116-94. The Grizzlies, with the league's worst record secured, moved from 3 1/2-point road underdogs to 2 1/2-point favorites.
"I definitely was playing against Minnesota, Memphis and Boston. It was very apparent to the betting public that those teams were tanking games," said handicapper Jim Kruger of vegassportsauthority.com.
"I followed the tanking late in the season, and it really helped me go on a great streak. Many times in the first half of a game, the tanking team would be competitive before collapsing in the second half."
Walker said he protected MGM Mirage books by lowering the betting limits on some games, treating the final weeks of the season like the NFL preseason or Week 17, when some teams rest key players.
"When we're not confident, we can lower the limits," Walker said. "There were some dramatic (point spread) swings."
While the Timberwolves sat Garnett and the Celtics rested star Paul Pierce, the Bucks shelved leading scorer Michael Redd for the final six games because of a knee injury.
Milwaukee closed the season 3-13, including 2-2 in the last four games after its lottery position was guaranteed.
The Bucks lost 121-107 to Washington on April 1. The Wizards opened as 3-point road favorites and the line closed 5. Eight days later, Milwaukee put an unrecognizable lineup on the floor in a 117-94 loss to Orlando. The Magic opened as a 3 1/2-point road favorite and the line closed 6.
Smart bettors were ahead of the game, and Doug Kezirian was one. Kezirian, the sports director at KTNV-TV (Channel 13), handicaps the NBA and observed betting lines moving against the Bucks and other similarly unmotivated teams.
"When posting lines, oddsmakers target a 50-50 game. After all, they profit from the juice, and that's maximized with similar interest on both sides. But with some of these NBA games, they could not make the line just," Kezirian said. "There was just no way to forecast a disinterested team's performance, especially when the coach indirectly benefits from a loss.
"As the season's end drew near, a handful of teams barely showed up for warm-ups, while others competed every possession with playoff position on the line. That allowed astute handicappers free reign."
With Ohio State's Greg Oden and Texas' Kevin Durant representing the top prizes in a deep draft class, the stakes were high for the NBA's lowest-ranking teams.
"This was the most ridiculous regular season in recent memory," said Kezirian, who called several of the NBA games in question "essentially fixed."