Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Solving Tanking Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel

By Ross Lancaster

In the NBA season, the Christmas season seems like a natural measuring tool. While it certainly isn't the time for reflection that the All-Star Break is, it is the time by which teams have usually played about a third of their games. Christmas Day is the only time until the playoffs when nationally televised games can be seen from midday to midnight.

So with all those games that day, plus the steady slate of games each night in the weeks leading up to New Year's, it would be understandable if the draft was the furthest thing from your mind. However, with this year's draft class, plus the number of mediocre-to-bad teams in the East, tanking and how to fix it is already being talked about.

Even though it was so close to Christmas you may have missed it, Grantland's Zach Lowe (my favorite NBA writer, bar none) recently released the details of an extravagant new plan proposed to the league in the hopes of eliminating the tanking issue once and for all.

To make a long story with some semantics much shorter, the proposal involves a "wheel" of draft selection spots that would prescribe a team's first round draft position every year for the next 30 years. In Lowe's words, the proposal “has gained initial traction among some high-level NBA officials — to the point that the NBA may float the proposal to owners sometime in 2014, according to league sources."

On its face, the wheel would be a totally egalitarian way to decide draft position. Every team would end up with about the same average draft pick over 6-, 12- and 30-year spans. All the incentive or disincentive structures for tanking would disappear overnight. However, it would introduce the possibility of making the strongest teams into mega-dynasties and the weakest into some of the most moribund franchises in pro sports. It would also be the most radical format of any pro league that conducts a draft for competitive balance.

If we're being completely honest with ourselves, it's easy to see that something this unorthodox hardly has any chance of seeing the full light of day. It would be much too controversial, and it's hard to see owners agreeing to something that could potentially devalue teams' brands and competitive potential.

But one question that I don't see posed in the tanking debates is the one of, "Is the current system really all that bad?"

Whenever tanking comes up, there's usually an element of determinism involved in the arguments of those who say that a completely different system should be used. In the case of tanking, a very bad team finishing in a certain position relative to the rest of the league doesn't guarantee that it will pick in that spot, of course.

Think back to the 2011-12 66-game lockout season. The Bobcats tanked their way to a 7-59 record, losing their final 23 games. Under the NBA system, the Bobcats could finish with no lower than the fourth pick. Charlotte "lost" the lottery and got the second pick. Under the NHL draft lottery system, the Bobcats could pick no lower than second. And in the NFL and MLB systems, the Bobcats would be first. Furthermore, the most likely outcome for the Bobcats in 2012 of any pick was that fourth pick, which had a 35.7 percent chance of happening.

Put another way: If you are one of the absolute worst teams in the NBA, you have the least amount of incentives to tank than in any major North American sport.

However, there is a massive problem with the draft lottery. Once you get below the top five teams or so, the odds become stacked in favor of a team drafting exactly where it finished the season. This chart on the Bobcats' website lines up how the percentages work.

Let's take an example of how this can mess up the draft and encourage tanking with an example from last year. After a March 22 win in Atlanta, Portland was 33-36 and only 2.5 games behind the Lakers for the last playoff spot in the West. Were the season to end that day, the Blazers had a 96 percent shot at picking 13th, exactly in line with their record. Portland failed to win another game, and quickly fell out of playoff contention.

Once the Blazers lost their fifth or sixth game in a row, there was truly no point in winning another one. Portland moved "up" to the 10th-worst record in the league, and picked there, as it had an 87 percent chance at doing so in the lottery. Golden State's fall from 20-26 in March 2012 to 23-43 at the end of the season to nab the sixth pick and Harrison Barnes is another example of this phenomenon.

So what needs to be done to preserve competitive integrity? It's simple. The NBA needs to just manipulate the odds somewhat so that a team isn't nearly as locked into it's draft position from the fifth pick or so down to the 14th. That's it.

In Portland's case, if the odds of picking 10th last year were, say, 55 percent instead of 87 percent, the incentive for tanking plummets, since the Blazers would then have a 9-in-20 shot of picking in a different spot than their record would dictate.

For this season, with one of the most impressive draft classes ever all but certain to appear in June's draft, speculation about tanking arose before even a game had been played. And now, Phoenix, one of those teams that people said would be better off tanking, looks like a solid contender for a playoff spot and perhaps more following a demolition of the Clippers on Monday night.

Perhaps the tanking talk has cooled down for now, what with the middle of the season in full swing and the knowledge that teams like the Jazz and the Bucks are going to be losing no matter what. However, once playoff positions get more settled, the issue will come back again. It certainly doesn't have to be that way, and no radical change is necessary.

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