A fix for tanking: The double-edged lottery sword

Julien Rodger is a writer who enjoys NBA theorizing.  You can find him at his twitter account @ASFWJrodgerII or personal blog asubstituteforwar.wordpress.com.

On Grantland.com Zach Lowe wrote an article about “The Wheel”; a very creative idea proposed within NBA circles to create a tanking-free lottery system by giving teams a 30 year set draft pick distribution. I highly recommend reading it.

While the idea has strengths and weaknesses, the important part is it shows the NBA is serious about changing the lottery rules. A change to eliminate or reduce tanking would be beneficial for the NBA. The problem with tanking isn’t that it works, but that it creates a moral hazard for hiring general managers. Because being bad is seen as the next best thing to being great, incompetent general managers can keep their job for years under the guise of “Hey, I’m doing a great job, have you seen the high draft picks I’m securing?” Without the “reward” of tanking, general managers would be forced to show they can build competent rosters, making it easier for teams to see who can’t quickly and replace them.

Here’s a review of the present system, followed by a simple idea that the NBA may consider.

In the present system, out of 1001 ball combinations, teams are distributed combinations according to team record. The worst team in the league for example, has 250 combinations for the 1st pick, or about 25%, along with a 21.5% chance at the 2nd pick and 17.8% chance at 3rd. Picks 1, 2 and 3 are selected, before picks 4 through 14 are arranged by worst record. The odds for each team and each top 3 pick can be found at Wikipedia.

My idea is this:

Instead of drawing for the top 3 picks out of the machine out of the 14 lottery teams, draw 6 picks. Except make the first 3 picks drawn 14, 13, and 12.  Then – after you have picked the last picks of the lottery – determine picks 1, 2, and 3.  In other words, the worst teams in the league having the most ball combinations ends up both a blessing and a curse. More combinations for all 6 drawn picks, means they have the highest chance at picking 14 to 12. If they “survive” that, they have the best chance at picking 1 to 3. Thus if a team tanks, they are simultaneously increasing their chance to hit it big (i.e. staying on top of the lottery) and to roll snake eyes (i.e. end up at the end of the lottery).

Not only would finishing with a league worst record just to pick 12 through 14 make the season not worth it, but as importantly, it would be a source of embarrassment. The already anti-tanking media would gleefully crow about the team for whom it backfired, if it did. While during the season beat writers and “sports hypochondriac” fans would warn about the consequences of being one of the worst 2 or 3 teams in the league, instead supporting just being one of the worst 6 or 7 teams, where the risk of falling back is a lot less. If a general manager like Philadelphia’s Sam Hinkie or Orlando’s Rob Hennigan wanted to blatantly tank, they’d be risking the egg landing on their face, hurting their chance to keep their job in the long run. The most powerful effect for this plan may be owners or general managers wanting to avoid embarrassment, hearing “They’re all gonna laugh at you” Carrie-style in their heads when envisioning the worst case scenario during the lottery.

Despite this, the highest draft picks still go to the worst teams who need it. Consider last year if the teams who won a lottery spot Cleveland, Orlando and Washington picked 14th, 13th and 12th respectively. If they were then out of the mix for the top 3 picks, the teams with the best chance at a top 3 pick would be teams like Charlotte, Phoenix, New Orleans and Sacramento, who still had very bad records. No matter who got picked 12 through 14, more bad teams would take their place for best odds at 1st to 3rd. This maintains the NBA’s incentive to give struggling franchises star players to keep them surviving financially. As for the teams that fell to picks 12 through 14, a late lottery pick isn’t a death sentence. If they drafted a steal like Roy Hibbert, Ty Lawson or Eric Bledsoe they can still come out as winners.

Unlike the proposal in the Lowe article, this proposal is not a huge departure from the status quo.  And it may be just enough to stop teams from tanking.

- Julien Rodger

Comments are closed.