The NBA Draft And Tanking

Hamed Qashmar takes up the discussion of tanking, and its growing problem in the NBA. A variety of different proposals are shown, as well as examples of failures and success stories of tanking.

The NBA’s draft process has been a hot topic for discussion over the past few seasons due to the rise in tanking. Tanking occurs when an NBA organization intentionally sets itself up to lose games in order to increase their chances of winning the NBA’s draft lottery. Teams like the 76ers, Lakers, and Timberwolves have been a few of the teams to utilize this unorthodox and frowned upon tactic. Tanking damages the NBA’s image and compromises the legitimacy of the NBA’s competition. In order to fix the issue of tanking, the NBA must introduce changes to the draft process; the current draft process incentivizes teams that lose intentionally. Some proposals include: eliminating the lottery and using a wheel instead, evening out the current lottery odds, and even using a tournament. These are all possible solutions; however, there is no way of completely eliminating tanking, but it can be limited.

Tanking is not new to the NBA; in fact, the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA’s model franchise, were the first to benefit from tanking. After coming off of a masterful 59-win season in the 1995-1996, the Spurs finished third to last in the NBA with an abysmal 20 wins and 62 losses in the following season. The Spurs’ hall of famer David Robinson missed all but 9 games due to a broken foot suffered in a preseason game; however, he made a return after the first 18 games of the season, but he only played in 6 games before being shut down for most of the season. It was widely believed that Robinson could have played for a majority of the season had the Spurs allowed him to. San Antonio had other plans in mind. They had just hired Gregg Popovich, who is considered to be one of the all-time greatest coaches, and Tim Duncan declared his eligibility for the upcoming draft and the Spurs wanted in. Duncan was considered to be a franchise-changing player, and he has clearly lived up to and surpassed those expectations (Alvarez). Nonetheless, the Spurs’ went on to win 5 NBA tiles and have been the most consistent team over the past 15 years. NBA teams have been trying to duplicate their success ever since, but not every team can have the luxury of having a hall of fame coach and three unselfish future hall of famers.

Ever since the Spurs’ success in 1997, the NBA has seen many teams try to follow their lead, but only a few have had any success. Over the past few seasons, the number of tanking teams have dramatically risen, and the new innovative commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, has taken note of this and already has plans for ending or limiting tanking. During the 2014 offseason, Grantland’s Zach Lowe reported Silver’s draft proposals. These changes were based on evening out each team’s odds of winning the first pick. Typically, the four teams with the worst record held a 25%, 19.9%, 15.6%, and 11.9%, respectively, at acquiring the number one pick. The worst team would pick no lower than 4th and the second team would pick no lower than 5th and so on. However, in the reported proposal, the NBA would even out the odds to 12% of winning the first for the bottom four teams, and the worst possible pick for each team would be the 7th pick. The four best non-playoff team’s odd would increase from 0.005% to 0.5%, 0.006% to 1%, 0.007% to 1.5%, and 0.008% to 2.5% (Lowe). This redistribution of odds would serve to further level the playing field for winning the number one pick and would steer teams away from tanking because the odds are not as favorable. Furthermore, this would also silence conspiracy theorists who claim that the draft lottery process is fixed by the NBA in order to favor certain teams, a la the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs won three of the previous four lotteries despite their miniscule chances of 0.00012% or a 1-in-10,000 chance of winning those lotteries (Scott). Some of the teams utilizing the tanking strategy, like the Philadelphia 76ers, have already voiced their dislike for the proposal because it would render their tanking efforts useless, which is the plan’s intent.

Bleacher Report’s Randolph Charlotin suggests to completely eliminate the draft and instead have the non-playoff teams participate in a tournament. The team who wins the tournament would be awarded the first pick of the draft and runner-ups would be awarded picks based on where they finished (Charlotin). This would promote competition among teams, but the tournament yields many flaws that would deter NBA teams from opting into it. Firstly, Charlotin’s tournament would add another 14-21 days to each team’s seasons. Teams and players (most notably LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki) have been complaining about the season’s length and the spacing of the schedule, so adding more games would push teams away. Secondly, teams who are legitimately bad would not benefit from this because it is likely that the best of the worst teams would be winning the tournament. This would keep bad teams stuck in a cycle of losing for many years. Their best option would be improving through free agency, but some of the small-market teams do not have the salary cap to sign top tier players. In this case, the tournament would mostly benefit teams that are a player or two away from making the playoffs.

The most intriguing, perhaps the best, proposal was made by Mike Zarren, a Boston Celtics executive. He proposed the “wheel” at the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (Ding). The wheel would predetermine each team’s pick for the next 30 years, regardless of their in-season performance. This may seem farfetched at first, but it makes the most sense of the proposed strategies. The wheel uses complex algorithms and formulas to ensure that no team is favored over the other. Each team is assured one top-six pick every five seasons and at least one pick in the top-12 every four years (Lowe). Each team’s picks will be set in stone for the next 30 years and teams would be forced to put their franchises in the best possible position to win each game since they know where they will be drafting and there is no use in tanking. This serves to help create a better competitive balance because both large-market teams and small-market teams would have to draft smartly and plan the way they want to shape their rosters based on their upcoming draft selections. However, small-market teams would have to use trades to their advantage to compensate for their monetary deficiencies. In spite of projected rise in salary cap, large-market teams will sign max players and are more than willing to pay luxury tax. A luxury that small-market teams will still be deprived of. With a more leveled playing field in the draft, savvy organizations, like the Spurs, will thrive in building their rosters, and there would be no motive to tanking.

All in all, there is no definite way to stop tanking, it can only be limited. Teams have been emulating the Spurs’ tanking strategy, but few have found success in it. Fixing the draft process is the best way to limit tanking; and of all the theories and proposals out there, the wheel is by far the best. The predetermined draft selections derived from algorithms ensures no teams is favored over the other and in turn forces teams to compete in each game every year. The wheel is the NBA’s best shot at minimizing tanking and restoring the NBA’s completive balance.

By: Hamed Qashmar


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