And About All This Tanking

NBA tanking is always a popular topic. I don’t think the league cares about it quite as much as some fans, but it is a big deal. I am generally not opposed to tanking. A team may fairly conclude that it’s better off starting over than throwing good money after bad on a non-competitive roster. More importantly, I think the league is generally best off not dictating strategy to individual franchises.

With that as a caveat, I think the league has a duty to limit (not eliminate) tanking as a long-term strategy. Sam Hinkie’s infamous “The Process” is not good for the business of basketball, even if one might reasonably conclude that it was the best strategy for the Philadelphia 76ers. Hinkie’s strategy was built on economic theory. In essence, if one is allowed to lose a bet, but then bet double-or-nothing in perpetuity, he should continue betting until he wins. Hinkie applied this thinking to the draft. Keep betting (i.e., being bad enough to guarantee good odds of winning the draft lottery) until you win (i.e., land franchise-altering talent).

Although Hinkie is no villain–in fact, the Sixers appear to be improving–the league should be highly motivated to identify and limit perverse incentives to forego improvement. Bad franchises need to acquire young talent at the expense of winning, but they also have a duty to develop talent for long-term competitiveness. They shouldn’t be allowed to bet double-or-nothing in perpetuity without penalty.

As structured, The NBA’s draft lottery distributes the odds of getting the top pick too finely. There’s really no good reason that two teams whose records vary by a game or two should get different mathematical odds of having the chance to draft Tim Duncan (versus Keith Van Horn). Yet that’s what we have, and the consequence is perverse incentives to actively sabotage late-season games so as not to “lose ground” on other bad teams. This is not just “playing the kids.” I’m talking about benching a kid who is playing well in order to lose.

I would offer two basic reforms:

Reform 1: Tier the Ping Pong Balls

Rather than distribute ping pong balls weighted precisely by record, I would place the worst teams in the same tier and assign them all the same probability. There’s no real downside to this.

  • Tier I: Worst 5 records
  • Tier 2: Other lottery teams

The lottery would still feature names drawn at random, but here’s the kicker. I’d give the commissioner the power to expand Tier 1 to include 8 teams or 10 at his discretion. I’m all for go-nowhere teams developing young players at the expense of winning, but the point is to create conditions where a one or two game difference in record doesn’t change the odds of getting a good player. That should cut down on perverse incentives.

The Draft Should be a Hand-Up, Not A Way of Life…

The other change I’d implement is a three (consecutive) year limit on appearing in Tier 1 for each franchise, excluding traded picks. Again, you shouldn’t get to tank in perpetuity. So for example, if the Sixers were a Tier 1 team for three seasons they’d be in Tier 2 in the fourth (unless they made the playoffs). However, if they traded their pick to Portland the Blazers would get a Tier 1 pick if Philly finished with a bottom five record.

To be clear, I would not bar a team from winning the draft lottery for four consecutive seasons if the ping pong balls fell their way. Random chance would still be random. Rather, my intent is to limit tanking as a long-term talent acquisition strategy.



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