Stop Tanking: Fix the NBA Draft Lottery

stop tanking

I hate tanking.

I despise it. I loathe it.

I think it shows a lack of character, it cheats the fans who are paying to see competition, and it undermines the integrity of the league. That being said, I hope my Minnesota Timberwolves, intentionally or unintentionally, lose every game the rest of this season.

Don’t get me wrong, I bleed for this team. I think about them every day, I spend countless hours talking about them on the internet, I put together highlight reels and music videos for them – I even dream about them on a regular basis. I’m basically as big of a fan as you can be and am clearly bordering on pathetic. But I hope the Wolves lose every single one of their remaining sixteen games, because it’s the best thing for them in the long-term. If it involves tanking to get the job done, so be it. Because as much as I hate the immoral process of throwing games, I hate missing the playoffs year after year even more.

Don’t call me a loser. Don’t call me a traitor. Don’t blame the rational person who’s willing to put up with some crap now for a big payoff later. Blame the broken system that’s gotten me to this point.

This is the third season in a row that I’ve come to the end of the regular season and been unable to cheer for the team I love. As much as I want to root for my guys, I can’t bring myself to it. I just can’t – not when I know that every single victory puts us that farther away from landing the player who can turn our situation around. At the same time, I can’t sit there and openly cheer against them, either. That would be treason. So when the games come on TV, I just sit there numb and frustrated, unable to enjoy what used to be my favorite pastime.

Some of my fellow fans think I’m being overly dramatic and putting way to much stock in the ping pong balls. I beg to differ. While finishing dead last in the standings certainly guarantees you nothing, it substantially increases your odds of a Top 3 pick. When the Wolves “slipped” from second-to-last place to a tie for the 3rd worst record, I couldn’t believe how unkind ESPN.com’s Lottery Machine became. Before, the Wolves were landing Beasley and Rose over 50% of the time. Now, we’re consistently getting knocked back to the fifth pick and I’m seeing names like DeAndre Jordan and Brook Lopez next to our logo. Can you really tell me that it’s worth winning a handful of meaningless games in March, when the end result is that kind of drop-off on draft day?

Others argue that it’s more important to instill a “winning culture” than to focus on the draft. They claim that our youngsters need to gain confidence and build momentum heading into next season. Look, that sounds really nice, but if you really think that beating a tanking Sonics team in mid-March, who then let Denver drop 168 points on them the next night, is going to provide the motivational spark to turn our 2008-09 campaign around, you’re probably fooling yourself. Point blank – that was one of the most costly wins of the year because it put Seattle permanently behind us for the 2nd worst record. When next season tips off, no player in the Wolves locker room or fan in the Target Center is going to be thinking, “Wow, I’m really pumped for this year! We looked awesome last March against the Sonics!” No, they’re going to be thinking, “We’ve got a good three to four years before this DeAndre guy has a prayer at contributing, IF he doesn’t end up being a complete bust. Where’s my revolver?” With that in mind, was it truly worth winning that Seattle game and reducing our lottery odds by about thirty-three percent? You know my answer.

I’ve also heard people argue that getting a lottery pick doesn’t guarantee that you won’t draft a bust and that there’s still plenty of talent to be had in the fourth, fifth, and sixth picks. While there’s definitely some merit to that idea, as the Wolves best pick ever was Garnett at #5 and we spent our lone #3 pick on Christian Laettner, those types of situations are anomalies. Sure the draft will always contain the Dwane Wades and Darko Milicics who exceed or fail to meet projections, but if you take a look at the track record, there’s no arguing that #1 pick pay huge dividends more often than not.

Here’s a list of the #1 draft picks since 1992. (I selected that year because that’s when I really began to follow the NBA closely)

1992 – Shaquille O’Neal 4 NBA Titles, 3-time Finals MVP, 1 League MVP Award, 14-time All-Star

1993 – Chris Webber – 5-time All-Star

1994 – Glenn Robinson – 2-time All-Star

1995 – Joe Smith – Signed an illegal contract which destroyed the Timberwolves

1996 – Allen Iverson – 1 League MVP Award, 9-time All-Star

1997 – Tim Duncan – 4 NBA Titles, 3-time Finals MVP, 2 League MVP Awards, 10-time All-Star

1998 – Michael Olowokandi – Tasered while playing for the Timberwolves

1999 – Elton Brand – 2-time NBA All-Star

2000 – Kenyon Martin – 1-time All-Star

2001 – Kwame Brown – His expiring deal allowed the Lakers to fleece Memphis for Pau Gasol

2002 – Yao Ming – 6-time All-Star

2003 – LeBron James – 4-time All-Star with more accolades surely to come

2004 – Dwight Howard – 2-time All-Star

2005 – Andrew Bogut - Made an obscene gesture towards a home fan after being ejected

2006 – Andrea Bargnani – Too early to tell, has some bust-potential

2007 – Greg Oden – Too early to tell, likely All-Star

What can we learn from this list other than to avoid drafting Caucasian foreigners first overall, and that if by some stroke of luck the Timberwolves did get the #1 pick it would likely result in the Target Center being burned to the ground? It’s that the #1 pick can completely revitalize a struggling team, occasionally to championship levels. All joking aside, if there’s even the slightest prospect of a drafting a LeBron or even a Glenn Robinson, I want the Timberwolves to acquire that pick, even if it means sacrificing some integrity and tanking. I don’t like it, and I’m not proud of it, but that’s just the way things are. In an ideal world, every team would try hard every game and the final seedings would be legit, but if Miami isn’t going to try, and Memphis isn’t going to try, and Seattle isn’t going to try, the Wolves are just hurting themselves by not doing the same. By not tanking, they’ll just continue to rot away in the NBA’s basement and get passed by the other teams that do.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: It’s the system’s fault. The way the NBA Draft Lottery is set up, it promotes both tanking by the teams and these awkward feelings amongst their fans. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why a system is needed. Can you imagine how many games would be thrown if the team with the worst record would be guaranteed the top pick? However, that doesn’t mean that the way the NBA currently does things is the best possible way. There has got to be a better way that keeps the games fair, keeps the fans interested, and yet still allows the worst teams to get some help, right?

Yes there is. In fact, I’ve got more than just “a” way. I’ve got three of them. Amidst the rampant discussions about tanking and the lottery, the members of the TWolves Blog forum and I have managed to come up with three solutions that I believe are a vast improvement over the current draft lottery format. Before I get to those examples, I’d like to discuss the important requirements for a good draft system.

1. The worst teams have to benefit. Ultimately, that’s the whole point of the draft. It’s the primary way that bad teams are able to become good ones and maintain competitive balance. Even a team like this year’s Celtics who went from the NBA’s basement to the penthouse via trades, were only able to do so because they had stocked up on young talent in the draft. This is why Jeff Van Gundy’s suggestion to give every team in the league an equal shot in the lottery is completely ludicrous. Can you imagine the imbalance that would be created if the Spurs had gotten to draft Durant, or if Kobe could possibly be teaming up with Michael Beasley next year? If you allow things like that to happen, you may as well just fold the Grizzlies franchise right now. Even with the current system, I think it’s ridiculous that a 50-win team like the Nuggets could have a chance at landing the top pick. I don’t care if it’s a 1 in 1,000 chance. Something like that would unjustly cause a major power shift and the chances of it happening should be zero. For a draft system to work, the worst teams should get the best picks.

2. It should eliminate tanking. This is where things get tough, because No. 1 and No. 2 are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. If you reward losing, then teams will lose on purpose. If you don’t reward losing, then the worst teams are going to have a hard time improving. For a while, I was a big proponent of using Van Gundy’s system, but limiting its use to the lottery teams. Every team that doesn’t make the playoffs would get one ball. We would use them to decide the Top 3 picks, and then seed by record from there on out. Nobody would tank because finishing last or 10th to last wouldn’t affect your odds, and nobody would intentionally miss the playoffs for a 1 in 14 shot of landing the big prize. The problem is, this system turns the chances of the Nuggets landing Beasley from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 14. As a die-hard fan of the Timberwolves, who have sucked horribly for 11 of their 19 seaons and only once gotten a lottery pick (and it was the #3 for that matter!), I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not the direction the lottery needs to head. The bad teams absolutely must get the best picks, but tanking somehow has to be stopped.

With these two points in mind, I bring you the three solutions thought up by the TWolves Blog faithful. I won’t take credit for any of these as they were all originally formulated by others and I just added a tweak here and there to make them work better. The first comes from my right hand man, College Wolf.

 

System #1: The bottom seven teams each get one ping pong ball and compete for the #1 choice in the draft. The 8th to 14th worst teams that did not make the playoffs each get one ping pong ball and compete for the #2 choice in the draft. Draft positions are then seeded according to record.

Pros: This system should virtually eliminate tanking, while ensuring that only the worst of the worst have a shot at the #1 pick. There still may be some tanking involved amongst the teams on the 7th/8th place bubble, but is it really worth throwing games for only a 1 in 7 chance at the top pick, when you already have a 1 in 7 chance at the #2 pick? In a year with two good prospects like Oden and Durant or Beasley and Rose there wouldn’t be any incentive at all. Also, by limiting the lottery to only the top two picks, the last place team can’t slip any lower than the 3rd pick which helps out the bad teams.

Cons: You’re automatically giving away the #2 pick to a team that didn’t finish in the bottom seven, which rarely happens in the current format. In reality, this system is suited more to eliminate tanking than anything, and it does so at the expense of competitive balance.

 

System #2: This one was created by mwithers, and it involves assigning draft position based on how a team has finished over the past three seasons. Teams are assigned points each year (1 point for being the worst team, 14 points for being the 14th worst team, 15 points for making the playoffs) and the points for the past three seasons are averaged. The team with the lowest average is assigned the #1 pick and this continues up through the team with the highest average, who gets the #14 pick. Tie-breakers are determined via division and conference records.

To help clarify, these are how the draft picks would be assigned this year based on the standings as of March 17th, 2008 (that’s when he wrote this up and I don’t feel like redoing it):

Team 05-06 06-07 07-08 Avg. Position
MIN 7 6 2 5.0 1
NY 2 9 5 5.33 2
MEM 15 1 3 6.33 3
ATL 4 4 11 6.33 4
SEA 10 5 4 6.33 5
POR 1 7 13 7.0 6
CHA 3 10 8 7.0 7
MIL 15 3 7 8.33 8
MIA 15 15 1 10.33 9
SAC 15 8 12 11.66 10
LAC 15 14 6 11.66 11
IND 15 12 9 12.0 12
CHI 15 15 10 13.33 13
DEN 15 15 14 14.66 14

Pros: If you look at that list, the picks are arranged pretty fairly based on recent suffering. The Wolves have clearly had one of the worst runs of any team lately. We missed the post-season for four straight years, we traded away Brandon Roy, and, oh yeah, that Kevin Garnett guy too. The only team that even belongs in the same conversation with us is the Knicks, and they’re right behind at #2. Memphis gets bumped out a bit on account of their 2005-06 playoff appearance, and while Atlanta has been decent this year it still isn’t enough to make up for what that franchise has bee through, so they’re awarded accordingly for that. The current worst team in the league gets bounced all the way to #9, but the Heat can cry me a river. They won the title two years ago!

This system clearly helps out the most destitute teams, and it prevents tanking to a degree because no franchise is going to toss away three seasons for a draft pick.

Cons: There’s absolutely no drama. I don’t see David Stern taking on a system that is this straight-forward. You have to admit, it’s a little boring and there’s no way to make a 30 minute TV show out of it.

The other problem is that the handful of teams who already have two bad seasons under their belt like the Wolves, Knicks, Hawks, Sonics, and Blazers could all easily fall into tanking mode. Also, let’s say the T-Wolves get the first pick and draft Beasley. They’d be pretty set with him and Jefferson, right? But wouldn’t they be even more set if they threw away one more year and added Blake Griffin to the fold? Something like this could easily be fixed with a clause that you can’t get one of the Top 3 picks in back to back years, but it would still have to be accounted for.

 

System #3: This one was thought up by yours truly with some help from AusWolf, our resident poster from “down under”. This system involves giving out an amount of ping pong balls based on how a team finishes. To make things simple, let’s say that the worst team gets 14 balls and the 14th worst team gets one ball. These numbers may need to be adjusted to make things fairer, but we’ll go with those for now. A multiplier is then added to the balls based on how many consecutive seasons a team has missed the playoffs, and the lottery is then run for the Top 3 picks. Picks #4-14 are assigned according to the standings.

Based on the current standings (March 19th, 2008), here’s how the balls would be distributed.

Team Balls Multiplier Total %
MIA 14 1 14 5.3
SEA 13 3 39 14.8
MIN 12 4 48 18.3
MEM 11 2 22 8.4
NY 10 4 40 15.2
LAC 9 2 18 6.8
MIL 8 2 16 6.1
CHA 7 4 28 10.6
IND 6 2 12 4.6
CHI 5 1 5 1.9
NJ 4 1 4 1.5
SAC 3 2 6 2.3
POR 2 5 10 3.8
DEN 1 1 1 0.4

Pros: Tanking is virtually eliminated. With this system the real key is not how poorly you do, it’s how long you’ve been doing poorly. Dropping or gaining a spot in the standings will only win or lose you 1-5 balls depending on your situation. With 263 balls in play, that amounts to a 1-2% difference, a far cry from the 8-10% swings you can see while changing position in the current lottery system.

This also gives an advantage to the teams who have been suffering the longest without completely discounting current suffering. In System #2 Miami was automatically stuck with the 9th pick despite their horrendous season. At least this way they’d have a 5.3% chance at a lottery pick and can do no worst than the 4th pick. Things work similarly with Portland who already has Roy and Oden. They’ve been out of the playoffs longer than anyone, but do they really need the 6th pick? A 3.8% chance at the lottery with the #13 pick as the fall back seems a bit fairer.

Another aspect I like about this method vs. System #2 is that there’s absolutely no incentive to have a bad season this year to help out with next year positioning, since that would involve missing out on the playoffs.

Cons: There’s still that remote chance of Denver or another good team winning the lottery, but otherwise I don’t see many flaws at all. The worst teams, especially the perennially bad, are given the best opportunity to get the best picks and tanking is virtually a non-issue. I think this system definitely strikes the best balance between the two opposing forces, and to top it off, you still maintain the drama of a lottery!

 

So those are the three suggestions from us long suffering Timberwolves fans. Hopefully as the team that’s perhaps been wronged the most by the current format, we can provide the stimulus to fix what’s been broken for far too long. Maybe these suggestions will end up in front of the right people and we can see some real change take place. So if you’re a fan of the NBA and want this league to be the best it can by, hype this story up, pass it along, and spread the word. Believe me – if your team ever hires Isaiah Thomas as General Manager, you’ll be glad you did!

Derek Hanson

About Derek Hanson

Doctor by day, blogger by night, Derek Hanson founded the Bloguin Network and TWolves Blog. He is one of the original Timberwolves fans, hailing back to 1989.

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