Why tanking doesn’t work in the NBA

Summing up the successful top three draft lottery picks in one picture.

Over and over we hear it: losing NBA teams tank in order to secure a better position in the NBA draft and draft young talent — talent that they hope will eventually lead to an NBA championship. This is an observable fact that actually jives with conventional wisdom. But what is also true is that this tanking doesn’t actually work. Don’t get me wrong — tanking does help to secure a better position in the NBA draft. But this doesn’t mean that landing a lottery pick will actually help out your team. The proof is in the results accumulated over the past 27 years of the NBA lottery.

Table 1: Results within 4 years of drafting a top three pick

Criteria Absolute Percentage
Total # of players: 81 100.00%
Teams missing playoffs: 25 30.86%
Teams losing in 1st round: 21 25.93%
Teams losing in 2nd round: 18 22.22%
Teams losing in Conf. Finals: 3 3.70%
Teams losing in NBA Finals: 9 11.11%
Teams winning Championship (1st 4 years): 2 2.47%
Teams winning Championship (career with team): 5 6.17%

After four years — the amount of time on rookie scale contracts — about 31% of the teams with top three picks hadn’t made the playoffs even once. Almost 26% of these teams’ best showing was only the first round. And a further 22% of teams topped out in the second round. Only 17% of teams have managed to do better than the second round, with only two teams managing to win an NBA championship within four years of drafting their top three pick. Who were these two teams? In 1999, San Antonio won a championship in Tim Duncan‘s second season. And in 2004, the Detroit Pistons won a championship in Darko Milicic‘s rookie season. But Milicic only played in 159 regular season minutes that year. So we are being generous when we say that two teams have managed to win a championship within four years of landing a lottery pick.

Perhaps it takes more than four years for lottery players to have an impact on the team that drafted them? Well, only five players taken in the lottery have won a championship with the team that drafted them: the aforementioned Duncan and Milicic, as well as David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Jason Kidd. It took Robinson eleven years to win with his drafting team, and Elliott was actually traded away and then reacquired before winning his…nine years after being drafted. Jason Kidd was also traded away and then reacquired before winning a title with his drafting team, and that took him 16 years. So let’s break it down, in the draft lottery era a top three pick resulted in a title for:

  • Getting an amazing franchise player with a top three pick – San Antonio with Duncan and Robinson
  • Reacquiring a top draft pick – Dallas with Kidd and arguably San Antonio if you believe Elliot mattered
  • An already stacked Detroit Pistons that drafted a bench warmer

“Ah,” I hear you say, “it’s hard for top three picks to win a championship with the team that drafted them because so few franchises have won a championship during the lottery era.” This is true; only eight franchises have managed to win at least one NBA championship since 1985. But there’s a reason why only a few franchises have won an NBA championship: the NBA has a competitive balance issue. Teams that are good stay good, and teams that are bad stay bad.

And that brings us back full circle. Teams that win a top three pick in the draft generally do so because they are bad. One or two top three picks is usually not enough to help these franchises advance far into the playoffs because — even assuming you draft well, which is definitely not a given — it takes more than one or two good players to have a successful team. So to reiterate: losing to win is a bad strategy. Hoping the draft will get you a top player is a bad strategy. And it doesn’t matter how many times we go over NBA history, this has been the case.


In unrelated news: Dre’s brother Dan, who has been absent from the podcast, has a good reason. He’s been working with Blurred Pictures. They’re making a short film. If you want to help out a cool project you can check out their Kickstarter page here.

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