Don’t Be a Fool: Tanking Is Not Dead
Tuesday night’s NBA draft lottery was the first in a new era, after the NBA decided in 2017 to smooth the lottery odds in an effort to curb tanking.
Contrary to what Rudy Gobert might tell you, what the first Ping Pong Palooza of the NBA’s Smooth Era proved definitively is that it’ll take more drastic changes than that to fully eradicate tanking like Adam Silver hopes.
Three teams jumped at least half a dozen spots—all from the Western Conference, by the way, so good luck to the franchises actually trying to make the playoffs out there—with the Pelicans, Grizzlies and Lakers climbing up to first, second and fourth, respectively.
In March, I tweeted a thread beginning with an extremely fancy line graph, which I made in PowerPoint and have shared several times since the new lottery odds were finalized.
Much of the attention throughout this season seemed to center, as it often does, on the teams at the very bottom. Many felt that the biggest change from the smoothing process was that the teams with the three worst records not only saw a sharp decrease in their percentage changes, but were also given equal footing. There was zero advantage to finishing dead last, as the Knicks, Cavs and Suns were each given a 14% chance at the top pick and a 52.1% chance of staying in the top four.
But I thought it was also important to note the consequences of giving teams in the middle of the lottery improved odds of jumping into the top four. That some of those teams actually had more incentive to tank than they would have in previous seasons. Not to turn this entire post into a compilation of my old tweets, but in that March 6 thread I did note that fact was potentially meaningful to teams like, say, the Pelicans and Lakers (among others).
From that point through the end of the season, the Pelicans went 3-13. They went from having the ninth-worst record in the league, sitting just half a game behind three other teams, down to the seventh spot in the lottery by virtue of winning a three-way tiebreaker. That stretch of losing basketball included maybe the most perplexing seven seconds of the NBA season when they, well, just watch how they gave away one game against Phoenix…
In case my position isn’t clear, I’m not really against any of this. (My takes are easy to find.) Also in March, The Crossover ran a roundtable discussion called “Should the Lakers Shut Down LeBron James?” and I reiterated some points with an important Lakers twist:
Yes, of course the Lakers should shut down LeBron. I don’t like it, and I understand every argument against doing it, but given the current rules that govern the league and the willingness that other teams have shown to disregard short-term competitive integrity in pursuit of long-term contention, they should shut him down.
The league may have reduced the incentive to tank at the very bottom of the standings, but any spots on that graph where the red line is above the blue line (slots 5-12 in the lottery) now have a better chance of jumping into the top three, or coming away with the No. 1 overall pick, than they would have last year. For example, a team in the eighth spot has a 6.0% chance at the top pick, whereas last year it had a 2.8% shot. That’s a huge edge in an industry getting smarter about probability and fractions of percentages. The Lakers have even more incentive to tank than they would have last March, and—unfortunately—it’s the right move.
After that point the Lakers went 3-6 in the nine games LeBron sat out, and lost a few others he played in after they announced that his minutes would decrease.
I’d hate to accuse the Lakers or Pelicans of doing anything nefarious, except that their front offices might be proud to say it worked. And their teams have been rewarded handsomely.
The new rules haven’t ended tanking, they’ve merely shifted some of the incentives down the graph. There is more reason to shoot for the middle of the lottery, and we’ll think about this the next time a team gives up in the middle of the season—either by holding players out of games or being more willing to trade them away.
Now here’s the fun part: None of this is new information. We knew it Tuesday morning. We knew it the final night of the regular season. We knew it the day the new lottery odds came out in 2017. That’s when I made the PowerPoint graph.
But Tuesday night proved it. Tuesday it went from abstract math to the real thing. We went from red and blue lines on a graph to Mark Tatum pulling Lakers and Pelicans logos out of envelopes after the commercial break.
Sometimes you have to see it to believe it. We certainly saw it on Tuesday night, and we’re likely to see it again.