Motivated to Lose: The NBA Draft
By: Tor Unsworth
The current structure of the NBA draft, it seems, has never been under more intense fire than it is at the present moment. Critics of the existing lottery system contend that it provides too strong of an incentive for teams to lose. The intent of a draft system where picks are made in inverse order of record is to create parity between teams. Indeed, the goal of parity has compelled many if not most of the league’s dealings in recent memory (enhanced revenue sharing, strengthening of the luxury tax, etc.).
However, while the league seeks to use draft to create parity, in the spirit of competition, it also has a responsibility to prevent the draft from creating a “perverse incentive” for teams to lose. It’s for this reason that the NBA first created the draft lottery.
Tanking: The Definition
It’s worth mentioning that the notion that teams would intentionally lose, also known as “tanking” is an accusation that the NBA commissioners, past and present, not only disapprove of but actively deny. Current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said “My understanding of tanking would be losing games on purpose,” adding “And there’s absolutely no evidence that any team in the NBA has ever lost a single game, or certainly in any time that I’ve been in the league, on purpose.”
However, Silver’s proviso “a single game” is telling. Indeed, part and parcel of the definition of tanking that Silver seems to embrace is the notion that as long as teams play their hardest every time they take the floor (regardless of the team’s roster composition), the spirit of competition is preserved. However, this seems more than a little naïve. It takes talent to win in the NBA, and GM’s and owners have the power to build up or tear down a team’s talent base. Consequently, they hold the greatest power to enhance or sabotage a team’s chances of winning.
In basketball, more so than any other major team sport, star talent has a tremendous effect on the odds of winning at the highest levels. As such, star players are in tremendous demand. Those players are most easily (and affordably) acquired with a high lottery pick. Consequently, those high picks have tremendous value. In the present system, losing big has definite upside.
Losing big requires losing lots of games. If losing a single game intentionally is something Commissioner Silver would consider problematic, then wouldn’t losing multiple games intentionally be considered even more egregious? If NBA history has taught us anything, it’s that it takes a total organizational commitment from the top down to win in the NBA. Bad owners and bad GM’s are often insurmountable obstacles to the success of a franchise. A league dedicated to parity and competition should always seek to incentivize winning, first and foremost. That motivation should permeate every franchise, from the top down.
Tanking: The Strategy
A common defense against accusations of “tanking” in the NBA is the argument that teams are simply rebuilding. Commissioner Silver said: “I think there’s genuine rebuilding in our system… Just like any business, there’s short-term and long-term results.” Teams may decide: “This player will lead to two or three more wins this year, but our goal is to win a championship, and that player just isn’t going to help us meet that long-term goal.”
Indeed, under the present structure, mid-level contracts for good (but not great) veterans are often some of the worst long-term values for NBA franchises. NBA analysts heap praise on franchises like the Oklahoma City Thunder who have built through the draft, developed their young talent, and shown the patience through losing seasons to avoid those “quick fixes”. While picking the right players with your top pick requires foresight (and no small element of luck), the conventional wisdom is you’re better off getting that high lottery pick (enter: losing) than “treading water” in the middle (not good enough to truly compete, not bad enough to draft a difference-maker).
However, it’s important to realize that this model of building a team is so popular and (sometimes) successful primarily because the draft consistently rewards losing teams so strongly. And, here’s the kicker, because of the present structure of the draft, a mechanism that’s supposed to create parity actually encourages the opposite. Instead of a league divided into teams trying to “win now” or “win soon”, we have a league divided into teams trying to either “win now” or “lose now”. The lesser teams look to strip their roster and cut minutes to their better players to improve their draft position. The top teams acquire quality veterans that the lesser teams waive or trade away for pennies on the dollar.
Anyone who would argue that “developing young talent” is the primary motivation for teams to hit the reset button needs look no further than this season’s Philadelphia 76ers to find evidence to the contrary. Aside from Michael Carter-Williams, what player presently playing on their roster features prominently in their long-term plans? Thaddeus Young remains, but was shopped aggressively at the deadline. The players of consequence removed from their newly-denuded roster over the last year include Evan Turner, Lavoy Allen, Spencer Hawes, and Jrue Holiday. With the exception of Hawes, who turned 26 in April, all of them are 25 years of age or younger. This is not development. This is demolition. And you know what? It’s a great move for the franchise. In a year’s time, the Sixers may have a base of young talent that’s the envy of the league, thanks to the bevy of draft picks they’ve acquired. But take one look at their NBA record-tying 26 game losing streak and you’ll see no sign of “parity”.
Fans don’t buy tickets to the game to see “development”. They go to games to see competition. They go to see greatness. They go to see basketball played at its highest level. Let development happen in college (Silver is a strong proponent of a “two years out of high school” eligibility requirement). Let it happen in the NBA’s burgeoning D-League. Let it happen in practice. Young players can learn what it truly takes to win from their veteran teammates, and command playing time once their talents demand it. If a team decides to “go young”, the promise of the young talent on their roster should compel that decision, and not the draft picks they hope to obtain by losing.
Many suggestions have been made on how to change the lottery to discourage tanking. Suggestions include things as simple as returning the odds to those used in 1985 (unweighted) or in 1990 (weighted less heavily). Some have added that teams could be weighted based on their records over the last 3 seasons (to diminish the appeal of tanking). Mike Zarren of the Celtics has proposed a “draft wheel” in which teams cycle through draft picks over a 30 year period (recently improved to include a lottery among the top 3 picks to prevent abuse). All of these ideas have their merits. They’ll eventually be judged on how well they enhance league parity while preserving the incentive for teams to win (both in the short term and the long term).
The NBA is undergoing something of a revolution in terms of its statistical awareness. A common statistical phenomenon is what’s known as “regression to the mean”. Great teams tend to eventually fall back to earth. Bad teams eventually get better. This trend happens on its own regardless of the league’s intervention. Where we find some franchises who continue to succeed, year in and year out, and others who continue to fail, more often than not, the explanation lies with the teams’ leadership. The worst franchises fail despite the top draft picks with which they’re rewarded. Rather than leading those teams back to competitive greatness, those talented young draft picks so often merely provide cover for those in the front office whose miscalculations would otherwise have long ago cost them their jobs.
In crafting a new draft system, many possibilities exist. A few things seem clear: the present system creates an incentive to lose, actually diminishes league parity, and may only prolong the suffering for fans of the NBA’s most beleaguered franchises.