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?


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