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Can A Modified Lottery System Solve The NBA Tanking Problem?

It’s been getting ugly in Philadelphia.  A 76ers team that was constructed to ‘win’ a high lottery pick traded two of their best players for pieces they didn’t need and draft picks that are probably not going to help them and got even worse.  They weren’t alone and their motivation seems clear.  A second worst finish in the league gets a 19.9 percent chance at winning the first overall draft pick, but a dead last position gets 25 percent.  Winning a couple of extra games could drop their chances at the top pick to 15.6 percent or even lower.  It’s all too much for a competent general manager to just ignore – not that anyone involved with a team or the NBA is going to say any team is tanking.

This is not anything new and even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver must have noticed that every team isn’t trying to win every game after this long in the league. There is a tanking problem in the NBA that needs to be addressed, but it isn’t going to be easy.

It should be an accepted fact that the worst teams in any professional league need the most help when the next crop of fresh young prospects is about to enter the game.  It would be bizarre to watch a playoff team land a top draft pick that they didn’t trade for while some team that legitimately struggled to win a game didn’t even have a shot at helping themselves in the draft.

A lottery system that ignores the prior season’s results can be bad for the incoming players as well.  Successful teams often do not have minutes available to develop young talent and they can sit on the bench or end up in the NBA D-League wasting away until their rookie contract expires and other teams assume they are a bust.  That is not good for the player or the league.

In a 30 team league, there are going to be good teams, bad teams and teams that need to rebuild if they are ever going to get any better.  What can drive fans from the building is watching their team avoiding wins in the hopes of a better lottery pick.  Sure Silver is correct in that coaches and players are not deliberately losing games, but spend any time watching a rebuilding team play and you’ll see young players learning their craft on the court while more experienced veterans watch from the bench – at least until their GM can move them.  Playoff teams feast on young developing talent.  It has always been that way, so no one ever has to tell an inexperienced player to lose on purpose, it just happens on its own.

The issue should be stopping teams from being motivated to push for the bottom and making what should be embarrassing moves to the league in order to get even worse during the season.  No one should believe their team isn’t trying to win games, even if winning isn’t likely that season.

The current system is basically fair.  It just over motivates undesirable behavior.  A simple solution would be to reduce to incentive to get worse by making small changes in a team’s position in the standings mean less.  The current lottery odds create the opposite effect.

  1. 25%
  2. 19.9%
  3. 15.6%
  4. 11.9%
  5.  8.8%
  6.  6.3%
  7.  4.3%
  8.  2.8%
  9.  1.7%
  10.  1.1%
  11.  0.8%
  12.  0.7%
  13.  0.6%
  14.  0.5%

The change between finishes from first through eighth worst is just too dramatic to ignore if losing a few games could bump a team’s chances up a spot or two.  There have been some horrendous games played at the end of the season because of this.

To reduce the incentive without eliminating a bad team’s chances at a top pick, the motivation needs to be reduced.  One method would be to create brackets where a team’s precise finish doesn’t matter as much.

Teams finishing:

  1. 30th-25th    12% chance each
  2. 24th-21th    6% chance each
  3. 20th-17th  1% chance each

While even this system will create some jockeying between brackets, most of the lottery teams’ incentive to do anything to get worse should be reduced.  There would be no longer be an incentive to finish in the bottom three teams and last place would mean a team really was embarrassingly last – some teams might actually try to avoid it for once.  Teams in seventh through tenth spots would have better odds than they do now and teams finishing outside of the 10 worst have never really had much of a chance anyway.  Under this system, if a team doesn’t believe a move into the next lower bracket is possible, they would actually have a reason to try and win a few more games.

There are no perfect solutions and Silver says he is open to suggestions.  Hopefully he is listening.


Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.


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