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Economics Study Says Tanking for the NBA Draft Doesn’t Work

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“Tear it down to build it up” is conventional, but maybe not wisdom.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

On the morning of the 2018 NBA Draft it’s easy for 25-odd NBA franchises to look with envy upon the coveted holders of the Top 5 selections. As dreams of Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic turning around terrible franchises dance through heads, NY Times writer Michael Powell offers a cautionary study that says, in essence, tanking to the top doesn’t work.

Powell cites data from a two-year old article by Akira Motomura, an economics professor at Stonehill College. Among the conclusions:

It’s not clear that it’s much better to draft fifth than 25th. There was the barest difference in performance, perhaps 5 percent, between players picked at the top of the draft and those selected at the bottom.

Much like marine biologists looking at a particularly unfortunate river bottom, the economists found “dead zones” in the early and middle parts of the draft’s first round. These are waters where the decision-making is so mediocre and the talent pool so murky that many teams emerge in worse shape than they entered.

The article deserves critical reflection. Doncic, Ayton, and their cohort Marvin Bagley aren’t going between 5-25. First overall picks often alter franchise trajectories. That said, Portland Trail Blazers fans might be heartened to read conclusions like...

...this study found that a team that achieves high mediocrity — say, 45 wins — is better off bringing in the best possible minds and carefully adding talent, rather than engaging in a tear-down. Those teams trend up more often than drift down.

As Motomura’s study noted: “Very good organizations and G.M.s develop successful franchises that win more, even if they pick late in the first round.”

The Blazers hold the 24th pick in this year’s draft. ESPN television coverage begins at 4:00, Pacific today.