Tanking used to work in the NBA

We’ve been talking a lot about tanking in the NBA recently. Devin’s decided to go a completely opposite direction and instead, gives us a history lesson.

Recently I wrote about how tanking doesn’t work in the NBA. While the evidence supports this conclusion, it also supports another conclusion: once upon a time, tanking actually worked.

First, a recap. Since 1985:

  • After four years — the amount of time on rookie scale contracts — about 31% of teams with top three picks hadn’t made the playoffs even once.
  • Almost 26% of these teams’ best showing was only the first round.
  • A further 22% of these teams topped out in the second round.
  • Only 17% of these teams have managed to do better than the second round
  • Only two teams have managed to win an NBA championship within four years of drafting their top three pick (Tim Duncan and Darko Milicic, who barely played during that season
  • Only five players taken in the lottery have ever won a championship with the team that drafted them (Duncan, Milicic, David Robinson [11 years], Sean Elliott [9 years and after being traded away and reacquired], and Jason Kidd [16 years and after being traded away and reacquired])

But remember, this data is only for the lottery era — from 1985 until present. How did “lottery picks” — players taken within the top three picks — perform prior to 1985?

Table 1: Results within 4 years of drafting a top three pick (1966-1984)

Criteria Absolute Percentage
Total # of players: 57 100.00%
Teams missing playoffs: 8 14.04%
Teams losing in 1st round: 8 14.04%
Teams losing in 2nd round: 20 35.09%
Teams losing in Conf. Finals: 6 10.53%
Teams losing in NBA Finals: 9 15.79%
Teams winning Championship (1st 4 years): 6 10.53%
Teams winning Championship (career with team): 10 17.54%

Before 1966, the NBA had a territorial draft rule which allowed teams to take players within their catchment area. This makes data from before 1966 different enough that we can’t include it in our sample, as some years there was both a number one pick and a territorial selection. But the period from 1966-1984 had 57 top three picks, and the results are clear: these players made a difference. Only 14% of teams drafting in the top three missed the playoffs during each of their draftee’s first four seasons. Only 14% of these teams’ best showing was in the first round. And a full 35% of teams managed to hit the second round at least once during their draftee’s first four seasons. About 37% of these teams managed to do better than the second round, with about 11% of these teams winning an NBA championship during at least one season. Going even further, about 18% of these teams won an NBA championship with their top three draftee at some point during their player’s career.

Table 2: Results within 4 years of drafting a top three pick

Criteria Percentage (66-84) Percentage (85-2011)
Total # of players: 57 81
Teams missing playoffs: 14.0% 30.9%
Teams losing in 1st round: 14.0% 25.9%
Teams losing in 2nd round: 35.1% 22.2%
Teams losing in Conf. Finals: 10.5% 3.7%
Teams losing in NBA Finals: 15.8% 11.1%
Teams winning Championship (1st 4 years): 10.5% 2.5%
Teams winning Championship (career with team): 17.5% 6.2%

All this can only lead to one conclusion: from 1966-1984, a top three pick was more useful than it is today.

But why is that? There are several factors leading to this discrepancy:

  • On average, top three picks have been playing on worse teams in the lottery era than they did pre-lottery, which means they don’t advance as far into the playoffs
  • There are more teams in the NBA today than there were in the past
  • Players are entering the league at younger ages than in the past

Editor’s Note: We’ve definitely hit differences in the league over time and differences in the draft over time before.

The teams are worse
Before the lottery was instituted in 1985, draft order was determined with a coin flip. The worst team in each division would compete, with the winning team getting the first pick and the losing team getting the second pick. Because the teams that were participating in the coin toss were the worst teams in their respective divisions, it was possible for the team with the second-worst record to be shut-out if they played in the same division as the team with the worst record in the league. That means that this coin toss wasn’t really “fair”, in the sense that the worst teams weren’t always participating. For example, in the 1967-68 season, the four teams with the worst records in the league were the San Diego Rockets (15-67), the Seattle Supersonics (23-59), the Chicago Bulls (29-53), and the Baltimore Bullets (36-46). But because the Rockets, Sonics, and Bulls all played in the Western Division, the coin toss was between the Rockets and the Bullets. The Rockets won the toss and picked first, while the losing Bullets got to pick second, and the Sonics and the Bulls were left picking third and fourth, respectively. While this was relatively unfair, it would have been even more so had the Bullets won the 50-50 coin toss.

But the draft lottery changed this. Since 1985, all of the teams that miss the playoffs have a chance at winning picks one through three. Since 1990, this process has been weighted, which means that the worst teams have higher chances of winning picks one through three than the best non-playoff teams. This weighted system is much “fairer” than a coin toss — “fairer” in the sense that it is more likely that the worst teams will end up with the better picks (although the draft remains an inherently unfair process). This means that the top three picks are now more likely to end up on the worst teams than they were in the past.

There are more teams

In the 1965-66 season the league had eight teams; assuming that the teams were of equal quality (obviously wrong, but stay with me), that means that each team had a 50% chance of making the playoffs (4/8) and a 12.5% chance of winning the championship (1/8). Last season the NBA had 30 teams; assuming that the teams were of equal quality, that means that each team had a 53.3% chance of making the playoffs (16/30) and a 3.3% chance of winning the championship (1/30). That means that, while it’s now slightly easier to make the playoffs, it’s also much harder to win a championship. It also takes more wins to advance deep into the playoffs: in the 1965-65 season a team only had to win seven games to advance to the Finals and only eleven games to claim the title. Last season a team had to win twelve games to make it to the Finals and sixteen games to win it all. In the past, winning a championship was much more a factor of random chance due to the small sample size. Bad and mediocre teams had a much better chance of doing well in the playoffs than they do today, which means that draftees had a better chance of doing the same.

The players are younger

Today’s players enter the league at younger ages they did in the past. Prior to Spencer Haywood in 1971, potential draftees had to wait until four years after their high school graduation before they were eligible to join the league. Haywood famously challenged this in court, and from then on an increasing number of players have entered the league before their 22nd birthday. While the NBA re-instituted a higher minimum age in 2005, the best NCAA players still enter the NBA before they’ve graduated college, so players are still younger today than they were before the lottery was put in place. This can be both a blessing and a curse for today’s teams. It’s a curse because 18-20 year olds are about four to six years off their most productive years, meaning that the team that drafts these players may not get the full benefit of drafting these players. But before anyone uses this argument to support increasing the minimum age restriction, it’s also a blessing. Sometimes these players are very productive even before their prime seasons. In the past, these very productive seasons would be “lost” to the NBA, as the young players would be playing in the NCAA or somewhere else. But I’d much rather that these excellent players play in the NBA.

Summing up

Once upon a time, tanking actually worked in the NBA. Teams knew this, and one famous bout of tanking drove the league to create rules aimed at preventing tanking. It didn’t exactly work — teams still try to tank to this day — but at least tanking is no longer an effective strategy.

-Devin

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