Thoughts on Tanking and the Lottery

Published: April 9, 2012

Ryan talks tanking and some ideas of how to stop it.  That’s in the future, of course, because right now we here at Hornets247 love the tank.

In case you haven’t seen it, our ESPN Truehoop Network brethren have been running a series called HoopIdea which addresses issues, perceived or otherwise, with the way the NBA goes about its business.  Right now, HoopIdea is primarily focusing on flopping and the Draft system.  The discussion has revolved around whether it’s fundamentally right that rookies are required to go to bad teams that frequently remain bad for a long time – and also focusing on the way the current Lottery system does encourage tanking.

Now, I’m not going to get into the discussion about whether the lottery system is unfair, non-capitalist, and un-american because it rewards teams with talent for being terrible year after year and gives inept teams no incentive to improve.  That could be an entire post on its own.

Instead, I’m just going to focus on and issue near and dear to all our hearts these days:  tanking and the playoff/lottery setup.   I mean, let’s face it.  The Hornets did tank for much of the season.  And most of us want them to.

The premise behind most of my thoughts is simple.  If you want to stop teams from tanking for the lottery, you need both a carrot for teams to field their best team and a stick to make it hurt not to.

Stick Idea #1

If you want teams to stop tanking, you need a little punitive incentive not to tank.  So keep the current system with every team in the lottery getting a chance based on their record to land a top three pick.  However, you make one modification:

The two worst records get no chance to move into the top 3 of the draft and pick fourth and fifth.  Period.  All other teams in the lottery get odds based on their record for the top 3 picks like today.

Since most drafts only hold 1-2 sure things at the top of the draft, those bottom two teams would desperately try to win enough to get that third spot – which makes the four teams above them try to win to stay ahead of them. which pushes the teams above them, etc.  Ergo, the end of tanking.

This is my preferred stick.  Simple yet effective.

Stick Idea #2

Perhaps you think the above solution is too punitive.  Instead, we could apply a graduated punishment by setting a benchmark for an “acceptable” number of losses.  For every loss a team exceeds that threshold, they lose 2% off their lottery chances to be spread out amongst those above the number.  Say, acceptable losses is set to 57.  If a team has the worst record in the league and finishes 15-67, they don’t get a 25% chance, they get a 5% chance.

I like this less because it requires someone to decide arbitrarily what are acceptable losses, and teams would strategically gun for a specific number to maximize their chances.  It makes it harder, but I think tanking would still exist.

It would be fun, however, to start referring to teams below the threshold as “unacceptable losers.”

Halting Tanking:  The Carrot

I’ve always been fascinated by Bill Simmons’ Entertaining as Hell Tournament idea.  For those of you not aware of what it is, it’s worth reading about in all its glory, but here’s a summary from that piece:

My Entertaining as Hell Tournament — the top seven seeds in each conference make the playoffs, then the other 16 teams play a single-elimination tournament to “win” the no. 8 seeds. This would discourage tanking for lottery picks, reward late-bloomer teams and generate extra interest because, again, this tournament would be entertaining as hell. All 14 games would be televised — eight in Round 1, four in Round 2, then a doubleheader final at Madison Square Garden to decide the no. 8 seeds — over a week as the other 14 playoff teams regrouped and rested up.

I think the idea is superb, but I think you could make some minor changes and go even further because I’m not sure it actually helps with tanking.  I mean, even if you finish last, you still have a shot for the playoffs!  Here’s my idea:

  • The sixteen teams that finished 13th through 28th in the league get seeded by record into a two-round sudden death tournament lasting four days.  The “final four” left from this tournament get seeded into the real playoffs as the 7th and 8th seeds in each side of the bracket.  This gives the opportunity for upsets and underdogs, which is the best part of march madness.  It helps those teams that suffered injury, or that are making real efforts to improve at the deadline or via development.  It also will prevent teams from cutting expensive veterans after the trade deadline, because hey, who knows what could happen?
  •  The top 12 teams get seeded into the playoffs 1-6 in each bracket.  This gives those teams a nice four-day bye, and rewards them for, you know, playing hard all season.
  • The last 2 teams in the league?  They are left out.  Stop sucking, guys, or maybe we’ll start considering relegation.

So, all of that isn’t much of a deviation from Simmons’ tournament.  However, now we assign further prizes based on performance in the tournament:

  •  The four teams that win the “Elite eight” round get playoffs as detailed above.
  •  The four teams that lose the “Elite eight” get an 11% chance at a top three pick.  (That uses up 44%)
  • The eight teams that made the tournament but lose in the round of sixteen earn a 7% chance at a top three pick.  (That uses up 56%)
  • Then we apply Stick #1, and the two teams that missed everything get a 0% chance at a top three pick, and will be picking 4th and 5th.

The only worry is there could be teams that would lose in the round of 8 intentionally to get a 11% chance of winning the lottery.  Can you imagine the outrage about a team forgoing the playoffs for a 11% chance at a super-duper-star prospect?

Still, in the end, this rewards teams for keeping their best players engaged and happy, allows bad teams to still have a chance to improve, gives everyone an exciting tournament, and applies some punitive pain to being absolutely inept and/or tanking.

What do you think?


  1. Jason Calmes

    April 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

    How about a system that discourages poor performance in multiple years?

    If you get selected for top 3 in year n, you have no chance for it in year n+1. Perhaps you aren’t eligible until you make the playoffs or that player is not on your team.

    A justifiably horrid team has no choice but to be horrible, but one with a choice would have the table slanted after striking gold.

    • jmbell

      April 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm

      I like this idea. I don’t like the ones mentioned in the blog because a 5% chance for being the worst team doesn’t seem fair. There are still teams that stink because the causes mentioned in the comment below this one.

    • Randy Mexico

      April 14, 2012 at 11:07 pm

      I was initially thinking something very similar. But Hoopsworld brought up the point that some teams are just badly managed, and can always go back to the well of talent in the draft every 4 or 5 years, when their crop of selections either leave, or turn out not to be that talented and they blow it up and tank again. Hot new talent means ticket sales and hope. Then in another 4 years, things fall apart again. THIS is what we’d also like to discourage. A team might have bad luck and need the draft for two years – I think that’s fair. A badly managed team relies on it to keep the team profitable.
      Ryan’s idea is probably better than this, but how about saying a team can pick top 5 twice in a row, but can’t for another 6 years? It takes away the option of keeping a team profitable by reloading every 4 years. IF they have to wait 6 years, well, the fans won’t wait around for that. Bad management gets sunk. They are forced to make smarter signings, spend money on free agents, trade, and try to get good the old fashioned way. Or find good talent at pick #6, their best option for a few years.

  2. Chuck

    April 9, 2012 at 10:40 am

    The biggest problem isn’t tanking, it’s poor management, drafting, and decisions that lead to teams being in the lottery then still sucking. I’m looking at you Washington, Sacramento, and especially Charlotte. There are other teams like the Hornets, Blazers, and Jazz who after getting top picks have immediately jumped into playoff or even title contention.

    I agree that some sort of penalty for teams that are in the lottery year after year is the best solution. I remember some study years back that followed the Clippers (of course) and said that the most profitable season for them was one in which they were mid-lottery with a small payroll because they still sold out while in the playoff chase and offered the hope of playoffs to the fans, but they didn’t have the TV/arena expenses (or something like that) that didn’t come with more games. This incentivized cheap owners/scumbags like Sterling to keep his team out of the playoffs so he could line his pockets with money to finance his good old fashioned racism

  3. da ThRONe

    April 9, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Ok so we want to punish awful teams by making them even more god awful? Until the league creates a set number teams can spend on salary certain markets will always have a smaller margin for errors.

    Really what is tanking? Getting young players experience when it’s clear the post season isn’t a goal anymore? I can assure you the coaches and players whos jobs are on the line aren’t out there losing on purpose.

    I think most of the league’s problems stem for a regular season that’s entirely too long. Far too many meaningless games. Personally I’m not a fan of the lottery. If Charlotte is the worst team than they should benefit from having the most help. I hate to always point to the NFL, but most often than not they get it right.

  4. Jay Dogon

    April 9, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Those true hoop guys were tripping with that all 30 team lottery idea. That makes no sense. The team that just won the title should have no chance at anything above the last pick of the first round. Plus the tanking problem is overrated especially because the Lottery shows teams that even if they tank they’re not guaranteed the #1 pick.

  5. nicks65

    April 9, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    I’m not trying to be coy, but I need to ask a few questions.

    What is the problem with tanking that we are addressing? Are we saying it is unfair to fans, or unfair to rookies coming in to the league because they are forced to bad teams?

    I can’t think of a way to reform the Lottery or Draft system that will keep teams from acting in their best interest for a draft pick, and I can’t think for a drastic overhaul that really makes sense. I guess I need a thesis statement or main problem that is being addressed. I promise that if I get that I will have more constructed thoughts.

  6. kempleton

    April 9, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    The solution to all problems is honesty. Just go out and play to win. You are not good enough to win? You try but cannot win? Then, you deserve to get the most ping-pong balls.

    I propose the following as a potential solution to the problem. Do not change anything in regards to the draft. However, change the revenue sharing system according to the number of wins as well! This would make every owner, every GM, every coach and every player that they have to win each game until the last one. Every team should honestly play their best to win until the final buzzer of their season. May that buzzer be in a playoff game or not.

    You still cannot win? Are you still the worst? Well, you unfortunately get less money. But(!), you can get a better player in draft and increase your chances of getting more wins and more money next season. That’s your reward! Of course, there are owners out there who care less about money but let’s not forget that most of them are the owners of playoff teams anyways. Those playoff teams will get their 16/30 shares according to the existing revenue sharing system. The remaining 14 teams will have a modified distribution system with more revenue going to #17 and less to #30. Care more about money? You’d better win. Still cannot win? Sorry. But, you’ll get to pick first! 🙂

    I do not think it would be fair to a bad team to force them to get the 4th pick at best.

    It is common in any other league in the world that if your team loses the chance for a playoff, or a championship, etc. The remaining games might become meaningless and You wouldn’t want to risk injuring your star player and you may give them an extended rest then needed. The problem here in the NBA is, this action is possibly rewarded by increasing your chances of getting better young talent. However, in certain leagues the end-of-league earnings are distributed according to the standings. So, the worst team gets the least revenue-share.

    We do have that situation in front of us: Cleveland shut Irving down. They want to keep their star player healty. Result? The Cavs keep losing. If things go at this pace, We will pass CLE and they will get a better chance for a Top3 pick in the draft! Well, maybe we really are a better team than Cavs and they deserve to join Washington and Charlotte at the bottom. Who knows?

    However, now that both Cleveland and We are out of playoff race. What is our reward for more wins? If you reward the losing team, of course, people will try to tank. 🙂 But, giving the bottom two teams no chance for top3 pick sounds harsh to me.

  7. NOH Domination

    April 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm


  8. David

    April 9, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    This is way too easy. Just give every team an equal chance to win the top 3 picks in in the draft. Every team has a 7.7% chance. You pick 3 teams, and then picks 4-13 fall in order of worst remaining record. Therefore, Charlotte would be guaranteed at least the 4th pick, but will have an equal shot at a top 3 pick as Minnesota (new Orleans) or Milwaukee. Teams won’t tank for the 4th pick.

  9. David

    April 10, 2012 at 12:15 am

    Everybody makes mistakes

    • Jason Calmes

      April 10, 2012 at 12:37 am

      Yes, but how many admit them? How many of those will reverse course completely, should that even be the ideal choice?

  10. Pingback: lottery balls: The 2012 tank thread - Detroit Pistons Forum

  11. Chris Woodrow

    April 16, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Ryan, I saw this on HoopIdea’s Friday post, and it really stuck with me. By itself, Stick #1 is a GREAT idea. I’d push that alone, because it’s so simple. Easy to understand, hard to argue against.

    4th and 5th, while not being the greatest picks, are certainly valuable. Valuable enough that any team that “tries” should be able to avoid last place the next year. If not, you could implement a two-year rule: you remove the penalty after two years of bottom-feeding.

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