Hi! Yes, I am still aware this blog exists. I’ve never talked about sports here, but they’re “fair game” (sorry) so here we go! I actually want to talk a little about the NBA draft, which is probably not a topic of big interest to most of you but it’s pretty interesting and a good example of unintended consequences and how constantly tinkering with something trying to make it better ends up making it much worse (i.e government).
In the all the major sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) the draft has always served as a way to make the worst teams better by giving them the highest pick. The team that finishes a season with the worst record gets the highest draft pick, and the best team gets the lowest draft pick as a way to help bad teams out and strive toward a balance of power. That was how the NBA did it until 1984, when Hakeem (Akeem at that time) Olajuwon was coming out of school. The Houston Rockets got the first pick that year and selected Olajuwon, but there were widespread accusations that the Rockets “tanked” (lost games on purpose) in order to give themselves a worse record and a chance to draft first and take Olajuwon. In order to prevent tanking the NBA went to a lottery system the following year, whereby all the teams that didn’t make the playoffs were essentially thrown into a hat and the draft order determined randomly. That completely eliminated the incentive to tank, since a lottery team’s record had no bearing on its draft order.
I should clarify exactly what tanking is. It’s not the coaches and managers saying to the players “Hey guys, we want to lose some games so make sure you miss some shots and let the other guys score”. What actually happens is a team sits down its better players and plays the guys who aren’t as good, thereby lowering the team’s chance of winning. So the individual players are still trying their best, but their best isn’t as good. Usually this is done with one of two excuses: a team will either say that since they’re not making the playoffs anyway they want to play their younger players to see if they’re any good or they will say a starter is “injured” and they’re just going to rest him for a number of games.
So with the draft lottery in place the incentive for tanking was gone but now there was a new problem: the worst teams weren’t necessarily being compensated for their bad years. The best team that didn’t get into the playoffs could get the #1 overall pick, and the worst team in the league might get stuck with the #6 or #7 pick. So to try to achieve both the goals of parity and integrity of the games (no tanking) the NBA went to a new system where the first three picks were determined randomly but after that the remaining teams drafted in reverse order of finish. So if you had the worst record, you can could draft no lower than #4 (if three other teams got picked ahead of you), the second worst team could finish no lower than #5, etc. This was the best system the NBA had, because it met both the goals of the draft. Tanking no longer gained much for a team, since the best they could do was get themselves into the #4 position*, but the worst teams still got generally higher picks.
* In basketball the #1 pick is worth exponentially more than the #4 pick or even the #2 pick for two reasons. One is that a single guy can make all the difference for a team. Getting a superstar doesn’t guarantee a championship, but almost every championship team over the last 30 years has had one or more superstars on it. The other reason is that there is usually one (at the most) superstar type player available in the draft, and you can only get him with the #1 pick. There have been plenty of #1 picks that have been busts and plenty of great players have went with lower picks, but LeBron James, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Derrick Rose, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’ Neal were all #1 overall picks.
To be continued in a part 2 coming soon!