A Look At Tanking

Down the stretch of the NBA season it seems that the issue on everyone’s mind is tanking.  The assumption is that Philadelphia purposely dumped its best players and is trying to lose to accrue ping pong balls for the lottery.  Many have called for the NBA to revisit the lottery system to see if there can be more done to encourage the bad teams to try harder for the final few months of the season or not make teams so quick to rebuild even in the off-season.  We’ve reviewed this issue before (most recently when the Celts 2006-07 appeared to tank for a shot at Greg Oden or Kevin Durant).  Not much has changed since then but time has flown by and this is a good opportunity to revisit the issue.  Before assessing the system and possible solutions, the obvious questions are whether tanking is a real problem and, if so, what alternatives do we have.  In order to try to address these questions, it’s important to understand how we got where we are.

Historically, the top pick went automatically to one of the worst two teams (whomever won a coin flip).  This changed when the NBA enacted a lottery system for 1985 after the Rockets were accused of tanking down the stretch of the 1983-84 season to grab Hakeem Olajuwon.  Those Rockets were 18-25 in late January 1984 but things fell apart and they finished up 9-28 the rest of the way.  The Rockets had some talent (Ralph Sampson, Lewis Lloyd, Robert Reid, and Rodney McCray) but gave major minutes to a totally shot Elvin Hayes down the stretch.  It’s funny to think that a 9-28 stretch sounds so bad.  By the 2013-14 Sixers standard, a 9-28 sounds positively Jordanesque but at the time the NBA felt that the guarantee of a top two pick was too much of an incentive to tank.

The original lottery in 1985 gave all non-playoff teams the exact same shot of landing the number one pick, regardless of record.  The Knicks won that initial lottery and were rewarded with Patrick Ewing.  Despite the equal opportunity lottery, the Knicks were legitimately bad at 24-58, the third worst record in the NBA.  In case you are curious, here is how that initial lottery shook out (the record of the team and who they ended up getting are also listed):

  1. Knicks (24-58): Patrick Ewing
  2. Pacers (22-60): Wayman Tisdale
  3. Clippers (31-51): Benoit Benjamin
  4. Sonics (31-51): Xavier McDaniel
  5. Hawks (34-48): Jon Koncak
  6. Kings (31-51): Joe Kleine
  7. Warriors (22-60): Chris Mullin

A review shows that this equal opportunity method was a mixed bag here.  The two worst teams in the East ended getting the top two picks but the Warriors had the worst record in the NBA (tied with the Pacers) and they ended up last in this lottery system.  Ironically, the Warriors ended up getting the second best player in the lottery anyway.

After two more years of moderately bad teams getting the top pick (Clippers won in 1986 with a 32-50 record and the Spurs got David Robinson in 1987 with a 28-54 record), the system was changed so that only the top three picks were lottery eligible (and the remaining picks were arranged by record).  So, the moderate bad teams still had an equal shot at the top three picks but the bad teams were guaranteed to pick near the top, even if they lost the lottery.  In 1989, the NBA decided that the lottery would be drawn by ping pong balls and would be weighted to favor the worst teams and give the teams that just missed the playoffs a very slim chance of getting a top three pick.  Since 1989, the worst team in the NBA has won the lottery only three times (the 1989-90 Nets who got Derrick Coleman, the 2002-03 Cavs who tanked for LeBron James, and the 2003-04 Magic who did not intentionally tank but ended up getting Dwight Howard).    Overall, since 1989, there have been 25 lotteries and the really bad (bottom three teams) have won the top pick 13 times, which is about as often as the less bad teams have won the lottery (ie any other non-playoff team).

Is tanking an actual problem?  This is more of a philosophical question than an empirical one.  Tanking means many things to many people.  Commissioner Adam Silver recently said that tanking doesn’t exist but acknowledged that “[w]e have a system in place that encourages teams to rebuild.  They are responding to the incentives that are built into the system. If the incentives aren’t right, we have to change them.” Silver also noted that rebuilding doesn’t guarantee success (see above for the number of terrible teams that couldn’t grab that first pick).  So, teams that aren’t obviously contenders are faced with a quandary: do you invest money on trying to be a lower rung playoff team or just eliminate that option and go for a lottery pick?

The act of blowing up a team to rebuild is a legitimate decision but is, on some level, tanking to fans, who are well aware that winning is not a short term priority.  The other type of tanking usually requires more overt acts mid-season that signal a lack of desire to win like trading good players for almost nothing or sitting good players with nebulous injuries (like playing old vets with no future major minutes instead of taking shots with youngsters who might develop).  In either case, it is clear that many teams have chosen to get off the adequacy treadmill and try to rebuild through the draft.  Even though getting a high draft pick is far from guaranteed in this system, a top six pick is and that is enough of an incentive for the teams not to compete most of the time.  It does make sense.  Why should Philly have tried to compete with a tepid core of Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, and Jrue Holliday when the other option was sucking and getting a shot at a top pick?  But there is a perception problem.  A number of teams are actively rebuilding and have no incentive to try at this point.

So, the system encourages rebuilds and too much rebuilding can be a problem.  Let’s compare relative merits of the proposed solutions:

-All non-playoff teams get an equal shot at all the picks:  The old system from 1985-87 was clearly worse.  It eliminates the incentive to lose to accrue ping pong balls but it does not eliminate the incentive not to compete.  For example, the Knicks, Hawks, and Cavs are in a death match to make the playoffs right now to earn the right to be trounced by the Pacers or Heat.  If the reward for missing the playoffs, by even one game, was a significant shot a top pick, why should these teams even try to make the playoffs? (I know the Knicks lost their pick but that is a story for another day).  Out West things would be even hairier.  The Suns, Grizz and Mavs are all pretty good teams and the one that misses the playoffs, under this system, would just as likely win the lottery as be playoff afterthought under this system.  I would think that folding from a playoff race on purpose is worse than the current system that creates a few terrible teams.

Another aspect of the current system is that it does favor the bad teams.  Bill Simmons wrote in his recent column that he favored returning to this system because he saw no reason to protect the exceptionally bad teams with better draft odds: “if you want to avoid the bottom, make better picks, make smarter trades and spend your cap money wisely….I’ve joked before about being an NBA Republican, but seriously, why enable these losers?  If you can’t produce a winning franchise, sell it to someone else.”  Putting aside the new tanking that would result from this system that we noted above, this is wrong-headed.  I am making no political statements with this retort but Simmons is missing the point of the lottery system.  The point isn’t only to reward the bad teams to protect them from themselves.  The point is to make sure that fans have a reason to stay engaged.  Total hopelessness drives away all interest and hurts the value of the team.  The NBA is not really a place for social Darwinism.  If a team is totally hopeless it hurts the whole league.  While I get that it seems silly to keep giving crappy teams high picks until they fix their incompetence, the alternative of having dead teams seems worst.

-The randomly assigned pick method:   Grantland’s Zach Lowe reported that one NBA executive has floated a proposal of replacing the current system with one in which each of the 30 teams picks in a different randomly predetermined spot each year every 30 years, regardless of record.  Each time would get the top pick once over that time period but where a team picked would be completely independent of how it played during the season.  This system would completely eliminate most incentive to tank for a draft pick of course but has other logistical issues.

If the draft picks have no relationship to the team’s record, inevitably good teams will have years where they are assigned great picks and bad teams will be stuck taking a late draft pick. The scenario is inevitable and seems even less fair.  For example, what if the method were in play this year and Miami could take Joel Embiid while Milwaukee is stuck in the back of draft.  The entire rest of the league and fans would go ballistic that Miami was re-loading and Milwaukee fans would be even more despondent going into next season. In the abstract, this method is a somewhat fair solution to the problem but does not acknowledge that method will surely generate more complaining than even the current system.

-Reset records?:  So fixing tanking is difficult because conflicting goals are in play:  we want to help the worst teams win but we don’t want them to try to lose.  What is the best way to balance this tension?  Racking my own brain, I thought about a potential method for getting bad teams to try a little more.  One idea is to assign a date like the trade deadline and have the non-playoff teams earn their draft picks through won-loss record.  In other words, after the trade deadline, the non-playoff teams are essentially 0-0 for the purposes of a draft competition.  The team that plays best from that point forward earns its top pick.

This is also an imperfect solution.  Picking a date to reset records seems arbitrary but the competition would encourage all teams to: (1) try hard for the remainder of the season and not sit good players, (2) not dump decent/good players for little return at the trade deadline, and (3) would keep fans engaged.  On the other hand, this competition could reward better teams and a team competing for the playoffs might still have incentive to just miss the playoffs if it knows that it would be guaranteed a top pick if it comes up just short.  If forced to choose, I would probably keep the current lottery system but I like the idea of reset and think it might make more sense than the random 30-year plan.

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