On “Tanking” – Did the Hornets do it? Did the 76ers prove that teams shouldn’t?

Published: May 31, 2012

Mason addresses the question of whether or not the 76ers success this season should lead teams to avoid losing games to improve their NBA draft lottery odds, and also questions the notion that the Hornets “didn’t try” as the season wound down. 

The question about the best way to build a poor to mediocre team into a legitimate playoff contender is one that encourages many different opinions. Recently, events have transpired that have fueled one of these opinions regarding the optimal way to make a team relevant again. The Philadelphia 76ers won four of its final five games to sneak into the playoffs as the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, finishing with a record of 35-31. Afterwards, the team went on to beat the top seeded Bulls in the first round and then push the Celtics to a full seven game series before finally falling. They could have merely laid down when they sat at a mere 31-30, but they fought to get into postseason play and certainly made the most of it. The question now being asked by some is whether or not a success story such as this year’s 76ers team supports the claim that NBA teams should never tank in order to improve their NBA draft lottery odds. To answer that question, I say absolutely not.

The main issue with this argument isn’t related to the high degree of luck that this year’s 76ers team experienced by seeing both Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah go down with injuries in the first round series. Instead, the main oversight is exemplified by giving credence to the “more than a few observers who felt the Sixers would be better served by missing the playoffs and getting into the draft lottery.” Sitting at 31-30, the furthest that Philadelphia could have fallen by “tanking” its final five games would have been the 11th worst record, with 12th worst being the most likely outcome. It seems far-fetched to suggest that the 76ers should have tanked their final five games in order to acquire a <1% chance at landing the top pick, which is what either the 11th (.8%) or 12th (0.7%) worst record would become. There very well may be people who believe this, but they clearly don’t understand the concept of risk vs. reward. The same goes for those who were content with the Rockets punting their playoff chances away. If I was a fan of that fringe playoff team, I wouldn’t be rooting for them to “tank” with five games remaining when they were on the playoff bubble. Those teams are hardly a legitimate example of why “tanking” should be viewed as a poor idea. Instead, think about a team like the Wizards; had they won 22 games instead of 20, they would have taken a 11.9% chance at the #1 pick into Wednesday’s lottery instead of the 19.9% chance they possessed instead. That’s a difference of 4% per WIN. The “tanking” strategy becomes a whole lot more intriguing with that kind of difference, does it not?

After all, what better proof of this notion is there than the Hornets’ good fortune in this year’s lottery? After trading Chris Paul, the Hornets could have made the initially proposed deal with the Rockets and Lakers, becoming a team very similar in caliber to ones like the 76ers or the current Rockets squad. The Hornets were roughly 27 times more likely than the Rockets to land the top pick in the NBA draft. Was it a likely outcome? Not by a long shot. Regardless, the Hornets’ ~14% chance to land that top pick instead of a ~.5% chance existed purely because of the team’s decision to accept the trade with the Clippers instead of with the Lakers & Rockets, and that fact simply cannot be ignored.

On a related note, there is another claim that I have heard concerning the Hornets’ effort level as the season came to a close that I felt the need to put to rest. Despite what some of the lottery-focused Hornets fans may have wanted, there is little data to support the notion that the team “didn’t try” or “tanked” in either the last dozen or so games of this season or the entire season in total. It was the opinion of many that, after the Chris Paul trade, the Hornets instantly became the worst team in the Western Conference, even before Eric Gordon’s injury was determined to be one of a long-term nature. Fifty or more losses in an abbreviated 66-game season was not only a possibility, but even expected by some. By comparing those expectations of the team with actual results, the Hornets in effect did the exact opposite of “tanking.” New Orleans posted a record of 8-6 in its final 14 games, finishing with 45 losses and ended up just one win behind Sacramento and two behind Golden State in the Western Conference. I’m not sure how it can realistically be said that the Hornets weren’t trying; the team’s record in April is pretty clear evidence to the contrary, despite those who were hoping for the team to lose.

To sum up my main points – “tanking” isn’t a course of action that teams on the playoff bubble should take as the season winds down to sneak into the lottery; going from a 0% chance of the top pick to a 0.8% chance of earning the top pick at the expense of that team’s fans and lost playoff revenue is clearly not an optimal strategy. Tanking makes far more sense, however, for a bad team that is far out of playoff contention, as that team can increase its lottery odds by a far greater percentage by simply losing one or two more games. As a result, it would have absolutely been defensible for the Hornets to take that approach. However, the team’s winning record over its final 15 games of the season clearly indicates that “tanking” was the last thing on the players and coaches’ minds, and those who believe that they “weren’t trying” should probably do a little bit of research before claiming as much.


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