Tanking for the Future

April 25, 2012

By Joe Kotoch

 

As the final days on the NBA regular season wane and the NBA Playoffs are set to begin, some fans of teams that won't qualify for the playoffs advocate "tanking".  The goal of tanking is to lose to improve a team's draft stock.  To combat against tanking the NBA instituted a Draft Lottery beginning in 1985.  While the results of the inaugural Lottery have conspiracy theorists convinced the League doctored the results to ensure Patrick Ewing joined New York Knicks.  Each year there seems to be a clear cut "1st pick" and in years where there is a transformational figure the pressure to tank is significant.  While it cannot be proven and teams would steadfastly deny any allegations of purposely tanking there is no question tanking is embraced in front offices around the league, just look at the 2003, 2004, 2007, and 2009 NBA Drafts and the mad dash to have the best odds to select perceived franchise players.

 

As the first major professional sports league to implement a lottery system the NBA has tinkered with the format and odds over time.  As things currently stand the worst record in the league is assured of a 25.0% chance of winning the 1st pick,a 21.5% chance of the 2nd pick, and a 17.8% chance of the 3rd pick.  In the NBA Lottery a team is assured of slipping no worse than three slots below where it was slated to draft, so a team with the worst record can draft no worse than 4th overall.  While the NFL and MLB award the first overall pick to the team with the worst record the NBA Lottery offers more excitement and stress as fans and team executives worry about the unpredictable process and how a team may be in line for Derrick Rose and may wind up with Michael Beasley, like the Miami Heat in 2008.  Last season Cleveland won the lottery from the eighth slot via the Clippers pick from the Mo Williams trade even though the Cavs also had their own pick in the second slot, which wound up fourth overall. 

 

Seed Chances 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th 13th 14th
1 250 .250 .215 .178 .357                    
2 199 .199 .188 .171 .319 .123                  
3 156 .156 .157 .156 .226 .265 .040                
4 119 .119 .126 .133 .099 .351 .160 .012              
5 88 .088 .097 .107   .261 .360 .084 .004            
6 63 .063 .071 .081     .439 .305 .040 .001          
7 43 .043 .049 .058       .599 .232 .018 .000        
8 28 .028 .033 .039         .724 .168 .008 .000      
9 17 .017 .020 .024           .813 .122 .004 .000    
10 11 .011 .013 .016             .870 .089 .002 .000  
11 8 .008 .009 .012               .907 .063 .001 .000
12 7 .007 .008 .010                 .935 .039 .000
13 6 .006 .007 .009                   .960 .018
14 5 .005 .006 .007                     .982

*This is the statistical breakdown of the current NBA Draft Lottery odds

 

Winning the NBA Lottery does not guarantee anything as history shows the Washington Wizards selecting Kwame Brown in 2001 over Pau Gasol and Joe Johnson or the Los Angeles Clippers selecting Michael Olowokandi in 1998 over Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce.  While injuries to Greg Oden, Andrew Bogut, and Yao Ming have prevented these players from reaching their potential or forcing them to retire prematurely at the time these players were the consensus top prospect, with the possible exception of Oden who some felt was second to Kevin Durant, and their respective teams were comfortable drafting them. 

 

Historically speaking, the team with the greatest odds in the lottery has only won the lottery four times, 1988, 1990, 2003, and 2004.  For instance Charlotte has clinched the worst record this season and has 250 combinations in the lottery but there remains a 75% chance that a team other than the Bobcats will win the lottery, injecting hope in other fan bases coveting the chance to get Anthony Davis. However, the team with the worst record has 64.3% chance of landing a top-3 pick. 

 

 

In nearly half of the NBA Lottery's the first pick has been awarded to a team in the Top 3.  However, the fifth slot in the lottery has won five times, tied for the most with the third slot.  Does this mean teams in the middle of the lottery pack should angle to wind up with the fifth-worst record?  No, clearly a team wants the greatest odds but history highlights just how unpredictable the NBA Lottery is and why it is televised on Prime Time during the NBA Playoffs.  Since 1985 the second slot in the lottery has yielded the winner four times, the fourth slot has won once, the sixth slot has won three times.  So teams in the middle of the lottery have won the lottery one-third of the time matching the statistical odds of 33% that the the four, five, and six slots combined equal.

 

Lottery Slot

Wins

1st

4

2nd

4

3rd

5

4th

1

5th

5

6th

3

7th

2

8th

1

9th

1

10th

0

11th

1

12th

0

13th

0

14th

0

 

As you can see the only spots that have yet to win the lottery are 10, 12, 13, and 14.  It is worth noting that due to expansion by the NBA the current lottery is comprised of the 14 non-playoff teams, prior to the Bobcats joining the league in 2004 the NBA had a 13 team lottery starting in 1995 when the Toronto Raptors and then-Vancouver Grizzlies joined the league.  In the modern-lottery time, the first slot has awarded the second-overall draft pick three times, while the sixth slot has been awarded it twice.  The third overall pick has been more generous to teams with lesser odds awarding the pick to the fourth slot three times, the third slot twice, and the first slot just once.

 

NBA Draft

2nd Overall Pick (Slot Winner)

3rd Overall Pick (Slot Winner)

2011

1st

6th

2010

6th

1st

2009

6th

4th

2008

1st

3rd

2007

5th

4th

2006

2nd

3rd

2005

1st

4th

 

Looking at the odds, history, and trends fans of the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Jersey Nets, and Toronto Raptors are all within one game of one another for the 3rd slot in the lottery.  And while that is five teams vying for slots from 3-6 in the lottery the "loser" will end up seventh, which has won twice, most recently in 2000 when the Nets selected Kenyon Martin. 

 

Interestingly enough, the New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers are the only teams in the lottery with multiple picks, however Portland can only receive New Jersey's pick if it is outside of the top-3 due to protections negotiated during the Gerald Wallace trade at the deadline.  It is worth noting that the Hornets pick from the Clippers via the Timberwolves from the Chris Paul trade is set for the tenth slot in the lottery, which if it won would be the first time in history and if it wound up second or third would be the first time in the 14 team lottery.  Other teams hoping to make history in the lottery include Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, and Houston Rockets who are all vying for 12-14 in the lottery.

 

Besides Davis, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Thomas Robinson are all under consideration for the second and third picks and teams who land in a position to select them should be content. Unlike the Indianapolis Colts, who won the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, NBA teams take calculated risks to tear down their teams and rebuild because of the lack of certainty as it relates to draft positioning, which in turn requires a broader scouting approach.  It appears that fans wanting to "tank" want to wind up in the first six slots of the lottery to maximize the odds of winning as has occurred 23 times in the previous 27 years. 

 

Is Anthony Davis the next Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, or Bill Russell as some have suggested?  Not likely but it doesn't discourage teams from wanting to find out first hand because of the hope that he reaches or exceeds his potential and becomes the next NBA superstar.  Will it be poetic justice if a team that just missed the playoffs wins the lottery while teams that tanked are skipped over by the basketball and karma gods?  On May 30, the NBA, teams, fans, and hordes of media will be watching to see the results from the 2012 NBA Draft Lottery and which teams wish comes true and which teams hopes are dashed.