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Reworking the NBA Draft to Address Tanking

Dave Deckard of builds on the work of Henry Abbott and Truehoop, suggesting revisions to the NBA Draft process to minimize the effect of tanking.


This week the always avant garde Truehoop blog has been looking at the issue of tanking.  They've asked several economists to come up with solutions to the tanking problem, acknowledging that the draft is supposed to foster competitive balance but implying that tanking is a serious enough issue that preventative measures need to be strengthened even if that balance gets marginalized in the process.

So far they've come up with three proposals:

1.  Arup Sen and Timothy Bond have suggested a credit and auction system wherein teams get to bid for draft order.  While commendable for being outside the box (it made me pause for a while) and for bringing a whole new mechanic to the game, the system would be too arcane for the casual fan, and maybe even league execs, to negotiate.  Sen and Bond admit in their piece that the system for assigning credits would involve a "complex formula" which would include interpretive factors such as a team's first half performance versus second half.  (What if a team didn't tank in the second half but their star got injured?)  Transparency would be a huge issue.

The wheels really come off the wagon when trades won't involve future draft picks, but future credits for bidding.  Figuring out equity there would be a nightmare.  Plus there's the difficulty of logging onto your favorite blog on Monday morning and seeing your second best player was just traded for 63 credits.  Who can get behind that?  (Or oppose it, really?  What does it mean?)

2.  Brian Soebbing offers up a tournament for draft position. There's something inherently satisfying about matters being decided on the court instead of by ping-pong balls.  The obvious issue here:  a team that stinks enough to win 9 games out of 82 will also stink enough to lose that tournament and draft 14th.  Besides, if you had the choice between squeaking into the 8th playoff spot in 2014--losing four straight to the #1 seed--or having a really decent chance to win a tournament for the #1 overall pick and an overwhelming shot at finishing Top 4, which would be smarter in the long run for your franchise?  This proposal wouldn't fix tanking, it would just alter the level at which it occurs.  Now we're not talking about losing relatively meaningless regular season games among lowlife teams, but franchises which should be playing meaningful games to get into the playoffs instead trying to lose their way out of them.

Part of me wants to modify this competitive idea so it's more GM-centric...reward smart GM's with bad teams.  Maybe take sealed predictions before the season and unseal them on Draft Position Sunday.  Whichever GM got closest gets to pick first.  That could be fun, eh?  It has no chance in hell of happening, of course.

3.  Brad Humphreys gets more radical yet, advocating abolishing the draft entirely, making all incoming players free agents.   He admits in his piece that critics would howl about competitive balance and large-market teams.  Consider me a howler.  If you still had rookie scale contracts guys with a reputation coming out of college would gravitate to places where they could make bank on their name through endorsements.  If you didn't you'd immediately gum up the cap with teams overspending on 19-year-olds.  Plus Draft Lottery Day and Draft Day have become like national holidays for fans of suffering teams...the one time you get to feel good and the only time the national media pays concerted attention to the league between the Finals and Christmas.  You lose that by folding the process into free agency.

I understand that all four men are learned economists, coming at the issue from a particular point of view.  I'm not an economist.  I cannot match their efforts or their conclusions via my more humble approach.  Then again, I'm not sure all the issues in play can be solved through economics alone.

My problem with most anti-tanking suggestions is that they fall heavily on the reward end of the equation.  Teams who lose games intentionally don't get any cookies for doing so.  Fewer cookies equals less tanking.  But what about the teams who aren't losing intentionally?  Reward-robbing solutions don't distinguish between franchises who are hurting the sport and franchises who are just hurting, period and really, really need a cookie.  A few people abusing the ER facilities at a hospital doesn't mean you should stop treatment for everybody.

On a slightly tangential, but also related, note...the rewards tend to even out over time anyway.  Yes, teams that draft high get a huge and immediate boost while their prized youngsters are under rookie contracts:  talent, publicity, performance-to-price ratio.  But there's no guarantee they'll be able to keep those players forever.  If that team can't build around their new draftee they're likely to lose him.  Look at the elite players in the league.  How many of them are still with the team that drafted them unless that team has won titles or at least gotten to the Finals?  Does it matter now that Chris Paul started his career with the Hornets, LeBron James with the Cavaliers, or even Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets?   I'd argue it's better to reward wrongly occasionally than it would be to eliminate aid to struggling teams.  It may take time, but it comes out in the wash in the end.  Would the league be better off if LeBron and CP3 had never been with their original teams in the name of tank-prevention?

Tanking is a problem.  Even the potential for tanking is a problem.  But the solution to that problem isn't eliminating, or even curtailing, the reward system.  Rather the league needs to make the rewards harder to qualify for.  The issue isn't that bad teams get good picks.  The issue is that it's relatively easy for a team that doesn't see a bright future to get bad quickly for a single season and reap an immediate reward, potentially bouncing right back on its feet with a shiny new superstar.  That's why tanking seems viable.  Reward isn't the only factor in play.  Time and a team's ability to instantly control its destiny (at least as far as draft odds) count too.

With the strong 2014 draft, the vagaries of injury, and a couple of timely trades a couple very popular franchises on either coast could potentially work the quick bounce-back this year.  Maybe that's intentional, maybe it's not.  But it would be pretty easy.  More to the point, it'll be pretty easy for NBA fans to point fingers and say, "This team is tanking...and it worked!"  Whether they are or aren't, that hurts the sport.

The real solution here is to weed out the teams that are short-term tanking for a long-term reward from the teams who are legitimately hurting over the long haul and need the help.  Another way to put it:  if you're going to fake it, you should have to fake it really convincingly and suffer all the same things a legitimately struggling team suffers in order to get your cookie.

This is why, as regular readers of this blog know, I have suggested making the league's lottery odds dependent on three years cumulative record rather than a single year.  Specifically:

--The 14 teams which don't make the playoffs qualify for the lottery drawing, just like the current system.  Only this year's record counts when determining which 14 teams enter the lottery.

--The lottery odds (ping-pong ball combos) stay as-is too.  Every lottery team still has at least a small chance for the #1 pick, the worst-off team having the best chance and the best-off team having an infinitesimal one.  You still can't guarantee yourself a high spot, just a better chance at one.  (Personally I hate the ping-pong balls but Lottery Day has become such an event for the league I don't see them changing it.)

--The big change:  the definition of "worst-off" and "best-off" among those 14 non-playoff teams is not determined by this season's record alone, but by cumulative records over the last three seasons.  If you were a contender for two years but suddenly dropped to the cellar this season you don't automatically ascend to the top of the lottery standings.  If you stunk the last three years--perhaps because you picked poorly but perhaps because you got screwed by the ping-pong balls--you're going to get more chances to get the higher pick.

Example:  A team that won 50 games, 50 games, then dropped to 20 this year would have 120 cumulative wins.  A team that won 35 each of the last three years would have 105.  The latter team would have better odds in the lottery drawing in the cumulative system, though the former team would finish in a better lottery position and likely have far better odds in the single-year system.

In a three-year cumulative system a team that's been good, or even average, over the last few years doesn't just have to lose enough games to finish behind this year's other bad teams.  Now they have to lose enough to overcome the gap between them and the legitimately bad teams over three years cumulative.  They don't have to finish 1 game behind an awful team to get better lottery odds than that team; they may have to finish 20 games behind.  That's a lot of losing even for the most industrious would-be tanker.  In the example above the team that suddenly dropped this season--possibly tanking--would have to go 4-78 or worse to finish in better lottery position than the other team.

This system would retain the competitive balance aspect of the draft.  It would be just as easily understandable to fans as the current system, because it is the current system...including the hope, the holidays for drawing and draft, the media attention, and everything the league likes.  But it would make tanking much less likely to succeed in the short term.  Any GM can say, "We're in a precarious position and next year's draft is strong.  It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to blow a year and have a good chance at a star."  It's going to be much harder for a GM to say, "We're probably going to have a good chance at high picks down the road but we have to commit to being bad for 2-3 years straight and we're not sure yet what those future draft classes will look like or how high the picks will be."  A general manager with a smart one-year tanking plan could be Executive of the Year a couple years down the road.  A general manager relying on a speculative three-year tanking plan is probably going to get fired.  He doesn't have enough control over the variables to make it work.

If you really do commit to tanking for three years then guess what?  After that third year you're not faking it any more.  You suck.  You tried to play crazy in order to get discharged early and in the process you really went crazy.  Was it worth it?

Some might object to long-term bad teams being favored because of legacy losses.  Again, though, the draft was designed to help out bad teams.  Helping out a long-term sufferer a little extra is less damaging than rewarding a short-term tanking team.  Also remember that any team recovering far enough to make the playoffs won't be in the lottery in the first place no matter how much they lost in prior seasons so it's not like you can get into the upper half of the league and still ride your past losses to lottery riches.

If the issue still chafes, weighting this year's record slightly more and the record from two years ago slightly less wouldn't be hard.  That way a team on the rise wouldn't be able to rely as heavily on having sucked a couple years prior.  But honestly, the whole purpose of getting a high draft pick is to select awesome players.  Even a perpetually stinky team is not going to get the #1 pick and say, "Let's pick a sub-optimal guy so that we keep this lottery losing roll going and have a better chance of getting next year's #1 pick too."  They're going to pick the guy they think will help win them the most games next season.  If that works out even a time or two they're no longer a bad team.  If it doesn't, well, they need more help than they thought.

I know we've talked about this before at Blazer's Edge but I figured getting it up in the air again would be nice, considering ESPN and Truehoop are working so industriously on the issue.  I admire their chutzpah and agree that something needs to be done.  Tanking will be rampant next season and that's really discouraging.  It damages the game and the reputation of the league.  But maybe the solution is more workable and closer at hand than people think.  No plan will be perfect, but I'm guessing this one would have the desired effect without eliminating the purpose of the draft or reworking it in a way the league would never go for.

--Dave (