(Continued from the previous post)
But they couldn’t leave it at that of course. The worst teams thought that they should have a better chance at getting that #1 pick, so they went to a weighted lottery system. Under this system instead of each team having a 1 in 7 or 1 in 9 (depending on how many non-playoff teams there were at the time) chance of getting the #1 pick each team’s chance is weighted depending on where they finish. The details are a little complicated, but basically the worst team has a 25% chance of getting the #1 pick, and the best non-playoff team has a .4% chance. That’s the system that is still in place, and it’s the worst possible system. Now teams are not necessarily compensated for their bad seasons, since they are not guaranteed the highest pick, and the incentive for tanking is higher than ever, which was originally what the draft was supposed to eliminate! That’s because now each team has a higher chance of winning the lottery the worse they finish. The NBA puts together 1,000 ping pong balls and the worse you finish the more ping pong balls you get.
So that means there is more incentive than ever to tank because now tanking doesn’t just give you a chance to move up a pick or two if you lose a few more games; it gives you a chance to move all the way up to the #1 pick! Back before the lottery started and the draft order was strictly based on record, if you were slated for the 7th pick in the draft tanking could only possibly move you up a spot or two, to the 5th or 6th pick. Possibly worth it, but possibly not (there is a price to be paid for tanking: every game your players lose fosters an environment of losing that gets harder to turn around with each additional loss, especially if it’s clear that management has given up as well). But now every time the 7th or 9th place team loses a game and gets more ping pong balls in the lottery they’re increasing their chances of getting the #1 overall pick! It’s almost irresponsible to NOT tank at that point.
So after years of struggling to find the right system to reward the worst teams and at the same time preserve the integrity of the league, the NBA finds itself right back where it started, with its non-playoff teams tanking in order to improve their draft position. Only now they’ve created an incentive for everyone, not just the worst two or three teams. I don’t know of any proposals to revamp the lottery yet again, but there is a lot of buzz about the tanking that’s going on (as I write this Cleveland just announced they would “shut down” their star point guard Kyrie Irving for the rest of the season due to a lingering knee injury that he’s been playing on just fine but now needs to be shut down for some reason) so maybe something will change yet again.
It all comes back to incentives; whatever you award people for doing is what they’ll end up doing. Another good example of tanking happened in the 2012 Olympics. A new format was introduced for the badminton competition, whereby instead of a knockout style tournament it was a round robin. Because of the format it was possible to get an easier game by losing than winning, so four different teams were trying to lose games at various times, including one match where both teams were trying to lose. The tanking was so blatant that fans were booing the matches, and all four teams were eventually suspended for it. But when you have a format where you’re better off losing, and athletes are encouraged to win the gold above all else, it’s only natural they would lose games on purpose if it benefits them. Their problem was they made it a little too obvious; they don’t have years of practice tanking like NBA teams do 😉
Well I hope you weren’t too terribly bored by this jaunt through a small part of NBA history! Thanks for reading.