Suggestions For How To Cure the NBA’s Tanking Problem

Every NBA season by around January, a few teams have already distanced themselves from their conferences’ playoff brackets.

The squads don’t have the talent necessary to do anything in the playoffs (or even make the postseason), so instead of trying hard to gain some competitive momentum for the future, they tank. The players aren’t giving less than 100 percent, per se, but the quality of basketball suffers because coaches are giving inexperienced D-League types inordinate amounts of playing time.

For the teams, the hope is, of course, that their terrible record will give them greater odds at a top pick in the yearly NBA Draft.

The lineups aren’t consistent for these tanking squads—they never are. The 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers used 41 different starting lineups, none of which began more than eight games. Last year’s New York Knicks had a similarly ridiculous 36 different starting lineups. Not coincidentally, the Sixers and Knicks were second-last and last in the Eastern Conference, respectively.

Here’s a list of some of the players who started for Philly and New York last season: JaKarr Sampson, Furkan Aldemir, Ish Smith, Henry Sims, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant, Brandon Davies, Tim Frazier, Chris Johnson, Luc Mbah a Moute, Larry Drew III, Glenn Robinson III, Lou Amundson, Lance Thomas, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert, Alexey Shved, Quincy Acy, Cleanthony Early, Pablo Prigioni, Travis Wear and Cole Aldrich.

Now, some of those guys could develop into successful off-the-bench role players at some point in their career, and others already have, but the point is clear: tanking teams aren’t only putting a bad product on the floor, but those bad players aren’t afforded the necessary lineup continuity to form on-court chemistry.

The essence of basketball (and all sports, for that matter) is competition. And to compete, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to try to be better or more successful than someone or something else.”

Tanking teams are spitting in the face of competition merely because they might become a competitive team in the future with some reinforcements from the draft.

As you can probably gather, I think tanking is a major NBA problem. It’s tarnishing the quality of play and taking away some of the league’s competitive fun.

So what can be done with the draft lottery to fix tanking? Let’s look at five possible suggestions.

Suggestion No. 1: No Guarantees for Lottery Teams

In case you aren’t familiar with the current NBA lottery system, it guarantees every team a pick no lower than three spots below their expected pick. To illustrate this point, here’s a table showing the possibilities for each 2014 NBA lottery team, courtesy of Posting and Toasting,

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 10.19.58 AM

The Minnesota Timberwolves were guaranteed a top-four pick, the Knicks couldn’t have selected lower than fifth, and so on. Teams can still get amazing value at those selections, even if they miss out on their first choice.

But why not just scrap those guarantees? We can keep the weighted lottery, but there’s no reason to keep those teams with the worst record (who probably tanked to get there) confident they’ll get a pick in the very early lottery.

This is how it would work: say the Timberwolves cashed in on their 25 percent (250 combinations out of 1000) likelihood to win the lottery like they did in May. Since 25 out of 100 percent is now eliminated, each of other 13 teams’ likelihoods increase to reflect that. For example, the Knicks would now have a 26.5 percent chance (199 combinations out of 750) to get the second pick, while the Thunder have a 0.7 percent chance (5 out of 750) at the same selection.

That process would continue throughout the lottery, and the higher picks would continue to have the best shot at each subsequent pick, but there would be no guarantees. Basically, every lottery team has a shot at any of the 14 picks.

Eliminating guarantees would make teams slightly less likely to tank, but it’s not a fail-proof solution. The worst teams would probably still pick near the top of the draft anyway.

Suggestion No. 2: Flattening Out the Lottery

One of the main complaints about the lottery is that mediocre teams are rewarded far less than bad teams, often just because they tried to win games and the bad teams didn’t.

The Charlotte Hornets, the type of team who could use a franchise savior, didn’t tank after starting 10-24. They played hard and salvaged their record to a “meh” record of 33-49, in spite of middling talent and several injuries. However, they were all but guaranteed to pick ninth or lower while the tanking Knicks and 76ers couldn’t go later than fifth and sixth, respectively.

One solution to this complaint is to flatten out the lottery, either partially or completely.

Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg is in favor of a type of partial flattening. His suggestion is to give each of the league’s seven worst teams a 10 percent chance at winning the lottery, with the next five worst between three and nine percent and the best two lottery teams at two percent.

This seems like an excellent suggestion—there’s no incentive to be really terrible, as you can still get into that 10 percent group by winning approximately 30 games. Those really bad teams would be doing themselves no favors by shooting for 15 wins instead of 25 or 30.

In a complete flattening, all 14 lottery teams would get the same odds at winning the lottery, around 7.1 percent. This is a more severe option and definitely de-incentivizes being really bad. But, unfortunately, it could cause teams poised to lose in the first round of the playoffs to “tank” for a spot just outside the postseason.

Suggestion No. 3: Include Playoff Teams in the Lottery

It’s simple math, but once again, bad teams will be less likely to tank if their chances at a top pick are decreased.

Another option to create that effect is including playoff teams in the lottery. You start the worst team’s chances at the No. 1 pick around 15 percent (instead of 25 percent) and gradually cut down until you reach 0.5 percent for the team with the best record.

Adding these playoff teams to the lottery makes a spot outside of the postseason much less attractive, but still attempts to help bad teams get better with higher picks than their superior opponents.

Suggestion No. 4: Repeat Offender Penalty

Are you tired of seeing the same old teams wallow in mediocrity (or worse) every year? With the repeat offender penalty, I don’t think that becomes as much of an issue.

Using the proportions currently employed by the NBA lottery, every team’s odds at the first pick are decreased by 20 percent for each consecutive year they’ve made the lottery after the first. The Timberwolves, who haven’t made the playoffs in 11 years, would’ve had their 2015 lottery odds drop from 25 percent to 2.7 (or 25 x 0.8^10, if you’re a math geek like I am).

The penalties paid by repeat offenders are pooled and the penalties are distributed among teams who are new to the lottery. This rewards teams for making the playoffs, and not teams mooching off the lottery system for years on end.

Let’s look at how this might look for the 2015 lottery:

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 12.53.48 PM

The repeat offender penalty really kills teams like the Wolves and Kings, who are much less likely to get a high pick due to their playoff droughts. On the other hand, other teams on the cusp of the playoffs who are also new to the lottery get a bunch of credit for being competitive, like the Hornets and Pacers.

This is an admittedly extreme solution, as it could cause bad teams to stay that way for awhile. But it forces teams to put their best product on the floor as soon as possible (nudge nudge, Sixers).

Suggestion No. 5: Completely Randomized Lottery

Want to get crazy, NBA? Include all 30 teams in an old-fashioned raffle to decide how the draft order gets selected.

Absolutely no team would tank. None of them. Every GM would look to sign players who can actually help, not just warm bodies. Coaches would put their optimal lineup on the floor at all times.

The huge downside, obviously, is you would face the issue of bad teams languishing away at the bottom of the standings simply because of a lack of talent. Good teams can maintain success with their existing talent and some good draft fortune.

But is that worse than having a handful of teams lose on purpose each year and sit pretty knowing they’re guaranteed a decently high pick in the draft? That’s for you to decide.


If it were up to me, taking away pick guarantees for bad teams, instituting a partially-flattened lottery and including playoff teams in the lottery are all better options than the current system. The repeat offender concept could be, as well.

There are several other options that I didn’t touch on, but my point is obvious, hopefully—something needs to be done to recapture that competitive spirit for all 30 teams, not just the good ones.

Agree or disagree with any of my suggestions? Have any ideas yourself? Feel free to speak up in the comment section below.

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