How I would solve the NBA's tanking problem

Thursday November 14th, 2013

Under the current system, the NBA's worst team (currently the Jazz) would be rewarded in the lottery.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

One of the most successful coaches of the last 50 years just took a stand against ... losing.

OK, perhaps the stand was not that bold. But it was the way Mike Krzyzewski said it that stood out. He was asked about NBA teams tanking their seasons for high draft choices, which they can use on Duke's Jabari Parker, Kansas's Andrew Wiggins, or Kentucky's Julius Randle, all of whom made my hoops-nerd heart skip a few beats Tuesday night.

Coach K's response:

"As an American, I wouldn't like to think that an American team would want to lose or create situations where you would want to lose," Krzyzewski said. "I can't even fathom -- I can't go there. I can't believe that that would happen. Maybe I'm naive and I'm going to go read a fairy tale after this."

The NBA has a tanking problem. As with most NBA problems, it is not quite as big a problem as it appears. To some extent, it is a problem of perception -- there really aren't many teams that you can fairly accuse of tanking. Some of them are just bad.

But still, even the perception is a concern for the league. It gets to the heart of the biggest criticism of the NBA: That teams don't take the regular-season as seriously as teams in other sports.

I have a solution to this, and it involves a tweak to the lottery. I will explain that in a minute. But first, let's define "tanking". It is one of those terms that people throw around too easily, and we need to distinguish it from patience.

PATIENCE: Management understands the team may not win in the short-term, but the long-term plan is more important.

TANKING: The team is actively trying to lose.

This is a subtle distinction, but it is an important one. More than ever, smart sports fans understand the value of patient management. (Fans are not so patient with coaches, but that is another column). You don't want your team blowing its future payroll by overpaying a player who is just past his prime. You don't want to trade future first-round picks just to get the current team to .500. You want management to let young pitchers develop, to find the quarterback of the future and nurture him, to stockpile young talent and draft picks instead of just big names. You want patience.

ROSENBERG: NBA teams can't go wrong with Wiggins, Parker, Randle

Tanking is different. Tanking is when management tries to assemble the worst possible team, and even sabotages its lineups in an effort to lose games. In the NBA, teams tank so they can get the highest possible draft choice, thereby landing a franchise player. You don't see it as much in other sports because one player means more in basketball, and there is usually a big drop-off from the top of the NBA draft to the rest of it. There are years when the No. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 picks in the NBA Draft, combined, are not worth as much as the No. 1 pick.

Krzyzewski is right: Tanking is un-American, and rewarding it is unseemly.

And yet ... well, that is what the NBA lottery does. It rewards teams that try to lose and punishes teams that try to win. To understand the extent of the problem, just look at the odds for the 2013 lottery:

2012-13 NBA Draft Lottery: Final standings
How the 14 worst teams finished
TeamRecordOdds of No. 1 pickOdds of top-3 pick
Orlando20-6325.0 percent64.3
New Orleans27-558.829.2

* Oklahoma City actually had this choice; the Raptors dealt it to Houston, which traded it in the package for James Harden. But for the purposes of this discussion, let's call it Toronto's draft choice.

Imagine you are a general manager. What does that chart tell you? It says that if you will be bad, you should be REALLY bad. The Magic, which torpedoed their season after Dwight Howard stopped flipping coins and finally decided he really truly did want to be traded, was six times as likely to get the top pick as the Pistons and Wizards. Orlando also had a 64.3 percent chance of getting a top-three pick, and a 100-percent chance of getting a top-four pick. The NBA clearly rewarded Orlando for being awful.

Sure, sometimes teams toward the bottom of the lottery jump to the top when the ping-pong balls pop out on lottery night. But in the past few years, quite a few teams looked like they were trying to get one of the three worst records in the league.

It is now commonly accepted in the NBA: You either want to contend, or you want to "bottom out" ... there is no virtue in simply being just "pretty good."

How did this happen? When the lottery began, in 1985, the big prize was Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, one of the greatest college players of all-time, and a guy who was already as marketable as almost every star in the NBA. The NBA was worried teams would tank to get Ewing. The lottery was invented. Seven non-playoff teams all had an equal chance at Ewing. There was no benefit to being extra stinky.

The Knicks won that lottery, of course, launching a thousand conspiracies. The NBA had accomplished its goal, though: It had eliminated the incentive to tank. The league stuck with its equal-chance lottery until 1990, when it acknowledged that, OK, some brands of stink smell worse than others.

The 1990 lottery was the first weighted lottery. New Jersey, the worst team in the league, had 11 chances to win it. Miami, the second-worst team, had 10 chances. The last team in the lottery, 41-41 Atlanta, had one chance.

This was the formula until 1993, when Orlando (which had gone 41-41 with rookie Shaquille O'Neal) won the lottery for the second year in a row. NBA commissioner David Stern made no secret of the fact he was not happy.

The next year, Stern changed the lottery again. It became even more unevenly weighted. The best team in the lottery, 41-41 Charlotte, had an 0.5 percent chance of winning it. The worst team, 13-69, Dallas, had a 25 percent chance. The league has expanded since then, increasing the number of lottery teams. But this is basically the same lottery we have today.

Stern had good reasons for everything he did along the way. Any lottery is much better than no lottery at all. Imagine if the worst team in the NBA automatically got the No. 1 pick this season, and got to choose among Wiggins, Parker and Randle next summer. Then you would see some SERIOUS tanking. Like, teams would call plays for their ball boys.

But the current lottery is still significantly flawed, because it places too great a value on being the worst team in the league. The lottery is constructed under the assumption that if Team A has a slightly better record than Team B, it is truly a slightly better team. This is built upon another assumption: Team A and Team B are both trying as hard as they can, all the time.

That's not really true. There are really two tiers of lottery teams.

The half-dozen or so worst teams in the league are generally awful. They all need the boost that comes with one of the top picks in the draft. Last year's seventh- and eighth-worst teams, Detroit and Washington (they had the same 29-53 record) would have needed at least nine more wins to earn a playoff bid, and for those teams, nine wins was a lot.

The second tier of lottery teams are teams that were in the playoff hunt, or at least had good reasons to believe they would be. Last year, Minnesota and Philadelphia were ravaged by injuries. Portland had a playoff-quality starting five but no bench. Teams in that tier of the lottery played most of the season without thinking about the No. 1 pick.

So here is your solution: The seven worst teams in the league all get the same chance of winning the lottery. Let's say they each have a 10 percent chance of winning it. Then the league weights the rest of the lottery. The chart above would look something like this:

2012-13 NBA Draft Lottery: My proposal
Evening the playing field for the top pick
TeamRecordOdds of the No. 1 pick
New Orleans27-5510

How would that change the behavior of teams? Well, the future is hard to predict, or at least hard to predict accurately. But I think it would accomplish the two primary goals of the lottery: rewarding the worst teams in the league, and discouraging tanking.

WINN: Michigan State outshines top picks at Champions Classic

The really lousy teams would still get the best shot at the top picks. But they would have no incentive to out-stink each other. That would mean that, when general managers constructed their teams over the summer, they would be more likely to add a player or two that would improve their team, because the downside risk (losing ping-pong balls for the lottery) would not be there.

This would also help take care of the perception problem. Once the season was underway, there would be no question: The players on the court would try to win. So would the coaches. This would make the worst teams more watchable, which would be good for fans, and good for the credibility of the league. There would still be bad teams, but that's true in every league. You just don't want anybody thinking it is good to be the worst.

The teams in the upper tier of the lottery would also be unlikely to tank. They would have too much to gain by making the playoffs, even as a No. 8 seed: at least two home games' worth of revenue, positive publicity with the fan base, playoff experience for younger players, and the once-a-decade chance of pulling an upset. That's not worth giving up for a two-percent chance at the No. 1 pick. That's why the bottom half of the lottery would be weighted -- you can't have teams bailing on a playoff race.

Oh, I suppose that in the final week or two of the season, teams that have been eliminated from the playoff hunt might tank, to slightly increase their lottery odds. But they would be tanking a game or two. They wouldn't be tanking the whole season.

Some general managers would still decide to rebuild by trading their best players for draft choices and young talent, and to free up salary-cap space. But that falls under patience, not tanking. You see similar moves in other sports.

Teams are like people; for the most part, they act out of self-interest. The NBA just has to make sure it is not in team's best interests to tank. A simple tweak of the lottery would help.

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