(We’ve got another guest post from our very own Kazzy!)
(Note: This article will not touch on the ethics of an amateur draft system only because I do not consider myself knowledgeable enough on labor, economics, and other related areas to appropriately address that topic. This is not to say that this is not a topic worth discussing, and I encourage/welcome anyone who would like to take on such a task in either their own post or in the comments. This article concedes the draft as an acceptable practice for dispersing amateur talent in professional sports.)
Set off in part by a recent rant by current ESPN broadcaster and former head coach Jeff Van Gundy, the issue of NBA teams tanking to improve their draft position is back in the news. Van Gundy’s primary objection is that “tanking” (or deliberately losing or putting the team in a position to be non-competitive) devalues the regular season and its apparent acceptability by the league, media, and fans creates perverse incentives for the individual organizations. In a radio interview, he states:
I think a huge problem in the NBA is developing with the undervaluing of the regular season. Teams tank. Not just the last 10 games. Now they’re tanking seasons. I think we’re building a huge problem in the NBA where the media, the teams, the owners of the team, are all — they’re not saying it, but they’re doing it — they’re devaluing these regular seasons. So I ask the question: If no one thinks it’s valuable, why would you advertise, why would you watch, why would you buy tickets?
Why would a team tank? Well, the NBA (and most American professional leagues) use a draft system for distributing amateur talent into the league. The structures vary (and I’ll get more into this in a moment), but the basics are the same: teams are assigned a specific order and select the exclusive rights to amateur players (generally college players, but sometimes high school and international guys) via this order. In the NBA, the order for the 14 non-playoff teams is determined via a weighted lottery. Numbers are drawn at random with the team with the worst record being given the best odds (25%) of receiving the first pick and the team with the best record (out of those 14 non-playoff teams) the worst odds (0.5%). The lottery is used to determine the top 3 picks only, with the rest of the team slotting in in reverse order of finish. This guarantees that the worst team in the league receives no worse than the 4th pick, the second-worst team no worse than the 5th pick, and so on. Van Gundy and many others decry this system as incentivizing losing for bad teams, especially in years where there is expected to be elite talent at the top of the draft. Their argument seems to make sense. If losing one or two extra games can move you from the 4th worst record (11.9% chance at 1st pick) to the worst (25%), why wouldn’t you do it? You’ve just more than doubled your chances at getting the next LeBron James, Tim Duncan, or Derrick Rose (all former #1 picks).
Clearly something is wrong, no? Well, yes and no. I have a few problems with the position taken by those in the Van Gundy camp, as well as some issues with many of the proposed solutions.
While Van Gundy is specifically an NBA analyst and is paid and expected to talk about the NBA and only the NBA, many others pushing the “tanking” meme work more broadly in sports journalism. Their almost-exclusive focus on the issue of tanking in the NBA is questionable. The two biggest major professional sports (the NFL and MLB) all have a far worse system if we want to talk about issues of tanking, with draft order being set entirely by reverse order of finish. Where in the NBA, having the worst record gives you a 25% chance of the #1 pick and a guaranteed top 4 pick, the NFL and MLB guarantee the #1 pick to the worst finisher. While the structure of MLB and MiLB make tanking a questionable approach (the immediate impact of draftees is much more limited in this sport), the issue is very real in the NFL (see: the Indianapolis Colts supposed “Suck for Luck” campaign). So, the hubbub by many sports writers make about tanking in the NBA and the relative silence (or outright embrace) of it in the NFL is questionable. While there are some differences of both degree and kind between the two leagues that makes this a less than apples-to-apples comparison, I think it is primarily a result of a broader media bias in favor of the NFL as compared to other sports. Still, if tanking is an issue in the NBA, it is a much bigger potential issue in the NFL.
But that isn’t enough to say that it isn’t an issue in the NBA. The “But he does it, too!” argument is a bit of a silly one, at least if it is all there is to rebut. So let’s look exclusively at the NBA and try to answer two questions: Does the NBA lottery and draft system create perverse incentives for teams? If so, do any of the proposed solutions appropriately address its issues?
Looking anecdotally, it would be hard to argue that many teams aren’t make questionable personnel decisions at the end of the year that would be hard to justify for a team going all out to win every game. In a tongue-in-cheek article laudatory of the practice, Grantland.com’s Jay Caspian Kang (a must read for diehard NBA fans) outlines each supposedly-tanking team’s “strategy”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how interested I’d be in attending or even watching a game in which at least one team was benching its better players or otherwise didn’t seem too interested in winning. While some of the actions could (possibly justifiably) be defended with the argument that it is better to rest injured players so they can heal for next year than risk further injuries in an already lost year, many are pretty obviously BS. I think it is fair to say that tanking is really happening in many instances, generally as part of a long-term strategy that is willing to forgo short-term success and money.
So what to do about this? Van Gundy and others have suggested a system where the better non-playoff teams are either assured of or receive better odds to win the rights to the #1 overall pick. Is this really a better system? On its face, it would seem to be. Losing more only means a likely worse pick, so teams would be more likely to push for wins even with no chance at making the playoffs. But this system creates its own perverse incentives, ones I believe to be far more troubling than those of the current system.
The NBA, moreso than any other professional sport, does the best job of crowning the best team as champion (I realize this is a bold statement to make without support, but supporting it would be an entirely other column that I’m happy to write if people are interested… for now, just trust me). Unlike the NFL and MLB, where wild-card and other lower-seeded teams have won championships in recent seasons, such does not happen in the NBA. Let’s look at the final regular season ranking of the last 10 NBA champions: Dallas (#6), LAL (#3), LAL (#2), Boston (#1), San Antonio (#3), Miami (#5), San Antonio (#2), Detroit (#6), San Antonio (#1), and LAL (#2). None of these teams had worse than the 6th best record in the league or the 3rd worst record in their conference. Their average league-wide finish was 3.1. Furthermore, do you know how many times the #8 seed has beaten the #1 seed since 1984 (when the playoff field was expanded)? Four. Four times. Four times out of fifty-six. And only one of these teams, the 1999 Knicks, won another playoff series (that Knicks squad made it to the NBA finals, losing to the Houston Rockets; this was a bit of an aberration given the strike-shortened season).
So, basically, unless you are a top five team in the NBA, your odds of winning the championship are very, very slim. If you are the number 8 seed, meaning the last team in in your conference, they are even slimmer still. So answer me this: if one loss can mean the difference you from being the #8 seed and facing almost guaranteed elimination at the hands of a juggernaut in the playoffs -OR- being the best non-playoff team and being either guaranteed the #1 pick or given the best odds at it, what would you rather your team do? What would any responsible, intelligent NBA executive advise his team to do? Don’t we have a much worse system, much worse incentives, and a much more devalued NBA season if teams are actively trying to avoid the playoffs?
Tanking in the NBA is a real issue. It is hard to justify selling expensive tickets to fans for a deliberately inferior product. But it is not the threat to league credibility that many, including Van Gundy, have made it out to be. The worst record does not guarantee the #1 pick, as it does in other sports. Getting the #1 pick does not guarantee picking the best player (paging Greg Oden). Positioning a struggling team to improve its long-term odds of being successful is a prudent strategy (I would only take issue if teams were actually deliberately throwing games… such as instructing players to miss shots on purpose). And the proposed solution only makes matters worse. Perhaps there is a better solution that mitigates the downsides of the current system without imposing a whole new set of far worse downsides, but I haven’t seen it yet. So what’s the matter with the NBA Draft? I’d argue that any issues with the draft are actually broader league-wide issues and that folks like Jeff Van Gundy are a bit too interested in being sanctimonious.