Tanking – What it Really Means And How to Fix It


I couldn’t agree more with the great Kevin Pelton‘s take on tanking:

“… tanking means intentionally trying to lose games.”

Our TrueHoop network is on a mission to find solutions to “address” the tanking (potential) problem and the draft.

He’s a run down of ideas:

Malcolm Gladwell / Jeff Van Gundy

See here (Gladwell) and here (Van Gundy)

Concept: Gladwell notes “…the idea of ranking draft picks in reverse order of finish — as much as it sounds ‘fair’ — does untold damage to the game. You simply cannot have a system that rewards anyone, ever, for losing. Economists worry about this all the time, when they talk about ‘moral hazard.’” Van Gundy’s view:”I would either have an inverse lottery, like the best record gets the most chances — so trying becomes of paramount importance. Or at the very least, everybody has an equal chance, so there is absolutely no benefit to trying to be bad.”

Advantages:

  • Teams try to win the maximum amount of games.
  • As per Henry Abbott (who makes a great point here): It would put a real premium on great long-term team management, which could be the best news ever for fans of bad teams.

Disadvantages:

  • The rich get richer.
  • The ‘moral hazard’ argument doesn’t completely fly.
  • This is not the a “survival of the fittest” competition problem (more later).

Grade: F
Note: I’m ignoring Van Gundy’s “Or at the very least, everybody has an equal chance, so there is absolutely no benefit to trying to be bad” comment, as “F-” isn’t a real grade.

Adam Gold from the MIT Sloan Sports Conference

See: “The cure the tanking

Concept: “Give the first pick in the draft to the team that wins the most games after being officially eliminated from playoff contention. Then the team with the second highest number of wins gets the second pick. And so on.”

Advantages:

  • Teams try to win the maximum amount of games down the stretch.

Disadvantages:

  • Just promotes more tanking (different time) and manipulation. E.g. have big cap space entering season, play youth and lose as many games early in the season, bring in a star or near star at the deadline (expiring year star he tells his team he’s not signing an extension, you better trade me – you tell him we’ll have a near lock on #1 pick who’s the “next” Durant.)
  • The best manipulators of the system get a guaranteed top pick.

Grade: D

Kevin Arnovitz

See : “Ditch the draft

Concept: Rookies are simply free agents.

Advantages:

  • Removes any concept of tanking.
  • “… self-determination for rookies would be a likely [lead to an] uptick in retention.”

Disadvantages:

  • The rich get richer – despite what Kevin argues “I have a hard time buying it.”
  • Incentives for rich teams to add several scouts to follow and pitch kids at a very young age. Could easily promote bribes, “loans” and other unwanted behaviour to the NBA. Wouldn’t be more than two years before you had an investigation and penalties on a team.
  • Some have supported Kevin’s argument “Are we certain a supernova would accept a role as the fourth or fifth option with the Lakers at the rookie minimum” Can easily happen (let’s tweak it to a 3rd option as generally a “big 3″ gets you to the dance). You call Nike and tell the player how much his shoe deal is worth as a “big 3″ player that’s on national TV every 3 nights versus a top banana that’s on national TV twice a year. You “encourage” other local sponsors your big market to also give Mr. 3rd Option a nice contract. Add it all up, he’s making his money while winning multiple championships and being in his favourite city.
  • Many smaller market teams that cannot afford Mark Cuban’s world class facilities and don’t have local sponsors “subsidizing” the rookies means you “eliminate” the weaker competition.
  • If I lived in LA, Boston, Miami, Dallas, etc I would support it as well. Otherwise you’re potentially facing contraction.

Grade: D

David Lee (via Abbott)

See : “Fix tanking: The five-year lottery

Concept: “Instead of helping teams out who are really bad for a one-year period, the league should distribute lottery chances based on how many times a team has missed the playoffs, or failed to advance past the first round, during the last five years. For example, lets give team two lottery balls for every year over the past five in which they failed to make the playoffs and one lottery ball for making the playoffs but failing to get past the first round.”

Advantages:

  • “it removes the incentive to be really really terrible because barely missing the playoffs for a year is going to give team is the same increase in lotto odds as winning only 13 out of 82 games.”
  • A team will have to sign up for more years of pain to maximize its chances for a particular super prospect.
  • It “flattens” the system.

Disadvantages:

  • Puts “luck” at a premium over smart maneuvering.
  • An advantage may also be a disadvantage: “A team will have to sign up for more years of pain to maximize its chances for a particular super prospect” – or have a bad GM. Penalizes fans.

Grade: C+

Evan at “The City”

See : “One Idea to Eliminate Tanking: The Draft Queue

Concept: “Eliminate the lottery. All non-playoff teams are placed in a queue. The first year will be based on the current lottery system (you need some initial condition like this) Thereafter, teams either a) move up in the queue or b) make the playoffs. In the case of a team not making the playoffs they will move up the number of slots equal to the number of teams ahead of them exiting the queue. When a team reaches the #1 spot, they go to the back of the queue the following season (or hopefully, make the darn playoffs finally)”

Advantages:

  • It reduces the incentive to lose games.

Disadvantages:

  • Encourages more aggressive tanking in a few scenarios. E.g. If you were top 5 in the queue and near a playoff spot – it is the difference between a *guaranteed* top 4 pick or a 16th pick. My guess is many teams would take the guaranteed top 4 pick over a first round exit and 16th pick.
  • The team that originally gets the 3rd or 4th pick gets a windfall. Don’t surround those picks with anyone good. This guarantees you 4 top 4 picks – and all will be still young and can grow together. I.e. a team would be incentivized to tank for 3 or 4 straight years in this case.

Grade: B-

Sandy Weil

See : “Fix Tanking: A logical lottery

Concept: Its a bit complex, but it essentially weights the ping pong balls based on winning percentage (i.e. the lower it is, the more ping pong balls) before the trade deadline and provides for some “bonus” ping pong balls by *winning* after the trade deadline (please review the article for a more complete description)

Advantages:

  • Discounts the concept of tanking (throwing games definition).
  • Still a lottery and thus partially avoids the pitfalls.
  • Appears to strike a reasonable balance.

Disadvantages:

  • Still can be a bit prone to “working the system”. By tanking early, trading for a good player at the deadline and then playing optimal lineups down the stretch, teams would have an even greater shot at #1.

Weil’s counterpoint:

  • Argues that this is a good thing (obviously not on the “tanking early” point): “Imagine a lottery-bound team being a buyer at the deadline because they want to get the right chemistry to try to pull together some wins. If they think that this will help their team and they aren’t giving up too much, doesn’t that sound like fun?” Solid argument.

Grade: A-

“The Team Rebound” (also highlighted in Arnovitz piece)

See : “The Bid Draft: An End to Tanking

Concept: “The basic rules: The salary cap space bid would have to exceed the rookie salary slot for the first pick in the draft, which was $4.4 million for 2011-12. The rookie drafted with the “purchased” pick would have a cap number equal to the total amount bid, although he would only receive the $4.4 million rookie salary for the first pick. The amount of the bid which exceeded the rookie’s salary slot would be distributed among the other non-rookie players on the team for the duration of the draftee’s rookie contract, although those players’ cap numbers would not change. Teams willing and able to use additional salary cap space on rookies would jump in line ahead of teams in the traditional draft, forfeiting their own draft pick in the process. Those teams would be required to bid above the maximum rookie salary slot for that pick. So if the first pick in the draft would normally have a salary of $4.4 million, a team would need at least that amount of salary cap space plus whatever additional amount it wanted to bid. Each team could only purchase one draft pick per year using salary cap space. If the team had multiple draft picks, it would forfeit the highest of those picks when signing a player with cap space.”

Advantages:

  • Discounts the concept of tanking (throwing games definition)
  • Rewards teams that are smart with cap space – which some define as tanking (trading salary away when season looks lost)
  • Discourages teams from signing bad long term deals (or, to put another way, penalizes bad GMs)
  • Thus, addresses Gladwell’s “moral hazard” concern of “rewarding” bad teams, while still allowing smart GMs to maneuver to get better.

Disadvantages:

  • Perhaps is a big harder to “stockpile” picks and take advantage of other GMs
  • “The amount of the bid which exceeded the rookie’s salary slot would be distributed among the other non-rookie players on the team” should probably be tweaked – could get complicated and provides unequal “bonuses”.

Grade: A

Some overall comments:

  • You can build a great team via: free agency, trades and the draft.
  • Some teams have a distinct disadvantage in free agency. Trades are not easy given cap limitations and other CBA rules.
  • Thus, the draft is key in a building process for any team that’s not the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Heat or doesn’t have billionaire owners willing to spend big.
  • A few great small market teams (e.g. San Antonio and OKC) needed a very high draft pick (not exclusively, but it was key) to be great.
  • Thus, you need to secure a system where a smart GM can trade off near term results for future success.
  • Frankly, we’re partially asking the wrong question: the problem isn’t so much the draft system per se, the problem is how not to reward really bad GMs – while enabling good ones to make smart moves.
  • Gladwell does not appreciate the difference in the last two points. E.g. if you have a .500 team early in the season and your best player is lost due to injury (for the year), it probably makes sense to move a good player on an expiring deal. This is just a smart move. A good team is able to acquire a player to potentially “get them to the dance” while you make the smart trade off of near term versus long term investment as an unfortunate injury essentially forced it.
  • As an economist by training (I try not to admit this often), I know a sports league like the NBA is much different than say, the auto industry. I’m puzzled why some want to make direct analogies to the “real world” (see “why would we not reward success”). As an example: in the auto industry, companies generally has access to the same raw materials and thus ingenuity, hard work, and marketing should be, and is, rewarded. And part of that reward is market share gains and competition going out of business – leading to further market share gains. In the NBA, not everyone has access to the same “raw materials”. One player can materially skew results. And while you do not want to “reward” bad GMs, you also don’t want a system makes it near impossible to field a good team. A great GM should have a fighting shot to build a winner and that is at least partially done via a high draft pick or two (unless you’re in a premier market).
  • This post started at 1/3 this size, but four (at least) “how to fix tanking suggestions” were posted in the last 24 hours and I felt they should be included. Thus, it made for a late night and I’m sure I’ve missed some key points – so comment away below!

A Quick Comment on Pizzagate


I attended the Orlando Magic – Toronto Raptors game were the crowd gave one of the best standing ovations of the season because…. they had the right to one free slice of pizza. I kid you not. I swear Andrea Bargnani could take a charge with 1.4 seconds left with the Raptors up by two and the ovation would not be as loud.

This promotion has to be changed. Stan Van Gundy says it best:

How to make it work: Dwane Casey’s coaching style is defense first. Why wouldn’t you leverage that style and alter the promotion to when the Raptors win and hold their opponents under 100 points. (This idea came from the Lakers via @DrewUnga)

Why? It makes much more sense to have that passion displayed for the last 4 min in a 88-84 game than for the last 12 seconds, down 18.

Culture is important. If I’m a free agent I’m looking at money first. But, while it won’t likely “move the needle” materially, I’m not sure the message of “hey we will boo you when the opponent goes on a 10-0 run / won’t try to pick you up / yawn if you take a charge / but… if you’re down 18 and we a chance at a free $2 pizza: Boo yeah!!” resonates well.

Oklahoma City fans know how to get behind their team. The whole game. Let’s copy that.

Really? We got a standing ovation for a slice? They told me they got a free pizza. A slice? A slice you have to sit in your seat and clap; you can’t stand up on a slice, that’s bad etiquette. – Stan Van Gundy

Questions? There is a dedicated to “Statophile Q&A” forum thread here . If you prefer to send questions privately, you’re welcome to email me at tomliston [at] gmail [dot] com or find me on Twitter (@Liston).