Ideas on Tanking?

April 6th, 2012 by Kevin Hetrick

I’m not a huge fan of the NBA’s current lottery system.  Hoping for abject failure as the road to success doesn’t make sense to me.  ESPN’s True Hoop Network recently posted a week’s worth of articles on ending tanking.  There was one idea that I thought was particularly interesting.  In a presentation at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Adam Gold presented a concept where the team that wins the most games after they are eliminated from playoff contention, gets the first pick in the draft.

For the article at ESPN, see here.

I really like the idea, with one tweak; set the baseline as the “median playoff team” instead of “out of playoff contention”- i.e. the team with the NBA’s 8th best record.  The presented concept places too much importance on the strength of a team’s conference.  A thirty win team in a strong conference would start racking up opportunities to improve their draft position far in advance on a thirty win team in a weak conference.

To make this more clear, I’ll address how the idea would impact the race for the #1 pick during this season.  The basic idea (slightly modified, but totally stolen from Adam Gold) consists of: once a team has enough losses that they cannot surpass the win total of the NBA team with the 8th most wins, the “draft positioning clock” starts for them.  The team with the most victories after their “draft positioning clock” starts, gets the first pick in the draft.

For this season’s draft race, the LA Clippers will be the “8th best team baseline”.  Using their record over the last few weeks, here is the list of teams that would have started their clock, including the date, number of remaining games as of that date, and record after 04/04 games.

  • Charlotte starts on 03/25 and had 20 games left.  They are 0 – 6 since.
  • Washington starts on 03/27 and had 17 games left.  They are 1 – 4 since.
  • New Orleans starts on 03/29 and had 16 games left.  They are 1 – 3 since.
  • Cleveland starts on 04/04 and had 15 games left.  They are 0 – 1 since.
  • Toronto starts on 04/01 and had 14 games left.  They are 3 – 0 since.
  • Sacramento starts on 04/03 and had 13 games left.  They are 0 – 1 since.
  • New Jersey starts on 04/01 and had 12 games left.  They are 0 – 2 since.

So Toronto completely takes the driver’s seat on the road to the first pick.  Charlotte squanders a good chance to get a leg up.

Based on this scenario; Phoenix would be the last team to be mathematically eliminated from besting the median playoff team.  They end up with approximately 5 games to stake their claim to a high draft pick. (Edit: One other aspect that appears to be a benefit of indexing to the NBA’s 8th best team instead of to “playoff contention” is that it’s harder for borderline playoff teams to “game” the system.  If a team on the borderline of playoff contention rests some players with ten games left in the season, in order to become mathematically eliminated from the 8th best team, then plays those guys again to try to win many of their remaining games, they could end up making the playoffs, hence becoming eliminated from the top of the draft).

I think the idea is interesting and wanted to bring it to Cavs:the Blog readers for your thoughts.  Surely there are imperfections, but it gives the worst teams a solid chance at the highest pick, while continuing to make wins more valuable than losses throughout the last month of the season.  I definitely like it better than awarding the best picks in the draft by incentivizing teams to field subpar products, multiplied by the anarchy of  a ping pong ball bounce.