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.”


  • 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.


  • 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.”


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


  • 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.


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


  • 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.”


  • “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.


  • 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)”


  • It reduces the incentive to lose games.


  • 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)


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


  • 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.”


  • 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.


  • 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).

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  • Nilanka15

    Here’s a crazy idea about the lottery system, don’t change anything.

    • Raps Loyalist

      How to fix tanking = Make the top 5 picks in the draft a lottery where every team that misses the playoffs has an equal shot at getting one of those picks.  From the 6th pick on the remaining teams get their draft spot in order of who has the most losses.(like the lottery works now after the top 3)

      The basic idea is simple (which is good for average fans b/c the NBA doesn’t want some super complicated draft scenario that only hardcore fans understand and can follow).

      Why it fixes tanking?

      There is very little incentive for a team to tank when the reward is a better shot at the 6th overall pick.  Plus, the teams with the worst records still get decent picks (if they miss on the top 5) to help build their roster moving forward.

      • Cdhall

        This is the best idea I have read about how to fix the problem of the draft.—–Right now there would not be 1 Raps fan cheering for anything but a Raps win!!! The Raps would be on equal footing with all non playoff teams with no incentive to lose. Great idea. Thanks for your post. 

      • Raps4Ever

        You actually don’t see how the tanking could be even worse with that “solution”?

        Take the current standings. 3 teams (Cha,Was,NO) are shoe-ins for bottom 5. Those 2 open spaces for equal shot at the #1 pick are more valuable (because they’re equal by your plan) to 5 teams (Tor, Det,Cle,NJ,Sac) that are basically tied for possibly landing that 4th-5th spot, which under your scenario has a 1/5 chance at #1, with 6th spot having 0% shot at #1. Can you see a 5 team tanking battle, with GSW perhaps making it 6 team battle?

        No solution at all, man.

        • Raps Loyalist

          I don’t think you understood what I wrote.  Here it is really simple

          1) Every team that misses the playoffs has an equal chance in a draft lottery at getting a top 5 pick

          2) Once the lottery determines which teams are awarded the top 5 picks then teams are given their draft spot based on their record.

          For example, if Charlotte didn’t get a top 5 pick in the lottery they would be given the 6th overall pick b/c they have the worst record in the league and so on after that.

          This would make tanking really unappealing because having the worst record in the league wouldn’t guarantee your team a better shot at a top 5 pick and would only guarantee the 6th overall pick (a pick that is good enough to add talent but not good enough to purposely tank for).

          Right now the team with the worst record gets the best chance at a top 3 pick and is at worst guaranteed the 4th overall pick (that is worth tanking for…hence the current tanking problem in the NBA)

          No 5 team tank battles in this scenario!  Read a bit slower next time to soak it all in.

          • Raps4Ever

            Ok, sorry I didn’t understand what you had said.

            That being said, I still don’t like it because it has the potential of punishing a truly bad team, that may have even become so in big part as result of career ending injuries for example, all because there’s assumption that bottom feeders are “tanking”. There are other scenarios where teams truly need a break, through bad luck, bad previous management, whatever, and they could continually be the worst team in the league, and continually get 6th pick. I understand your intent, but it has the possibility of rendering a team in never having any hope territory, and owners would never agree to that.

            • Raps Loyalist

               Minks 77 wrote a good idea for such teams below.  The worst the teams record the bigger mid-level exception it would get in the offseason.

              This might help ease your “No Hope” worry if my proposal was combined with a measure like that.

              Ultimately, any draft system will have a weakness.  I think tanking is a bigger problem in the NBA than 1 or 2 franchises having “no hope” for a couple seasons b/c of a freak injury to a superstar player or because of their own stupid management mistakes.

              The NBA Today podcast that was posted today on espn podcenter had an interesting point by a pundit.

              He argued that the current lottery system is largely to blame for perpetually bad teams b/c they stay bad hoping to hit a draft home run and can sell that “hope” to their fans so they don’t try and get better because they would rather be terrible than mediocre.

              I agree with him.  Conventional wisdom in the NBA today is that being mediocre is the worst position for a franchise and that if you’re not a top contender it is better to be one of the leagues worst teams.  Any league where its better to suck and hope for luck than trying to improve year over year is doing something wrong.

          • I like it, but still concerned it doesn’t materially change “positioning”.  E.g. If a teams positioned 5-10 have very close records, you still want desperately to be 5th and may throw the odd game.  Why?  Say teams 2, 5, 7, 11, and 15 win your lotto (given the equal weighting).  Boom, you have a second pick.  Or, if you do not, you still probably have a 7th pick instead of 12th.  It can still be a pretty big difference in both scenarios (esp the former – often #2 is significantly better than #4)

            • Raps Loyalist

               You raise a valid point.  Teams may still tank a few games at the end of the season to improve their draft position in case they miss on a top 5 pick.  However, the current problem with tanking is that teams are doing it for half a season or more.  I think an equally weighted lottery would end that completely.  A couple tanked games by a team at the end of the season is not a big deal compared to tanking 30 plus games (as teams have done in the past and appear to be doing this season.)

    • Raps4Ever

      what’s in place is as good as it gets.

  • Nilanka15

    As for Pizzagate, whatever promotion they choose MUST have the restriction which limits the prize to Raptor wins.

    It doesn’t matter what the fans cheer for, as long as their not doing so in a Raptor loss.

  • 511

    Having read the recent columns at Henry Abbott’s site — http://search.espn.go.com/henry-abbott/ — on tanking (five that I counted) this is obviously a hot topic right now … and I suppose it should be. 

    This is the first time in my life as a sports fan that I’ve felt like I might actually be following a team that’s flirting with the whole thing (I mean, how can one ever really be absolutely positive that it’s going on … or am I kidding myself?) … and as one who has, on general principal, been against the idea (maybe even appalled), as of sometime around the end of last season, I began to accept that with the way it is in the NBA, considering the reality of how unlikely it is to succeed in the quest for contention without TOP draft picks, it isn’t enough to just do your best (and/or not do that well) during the season. It’s been said a thousand times in different ways here and elsewhere, but it is obviously true: continued mediocrity in this league (pro sports?) can be self-perpetuating … and maybe even slow death. 

    The suggested alternates listed here, compared to the current system, have varying degrees of merit, but to my mind, none are so much better than what we have right now. I’d be happy if changes were made along the lines of simple transparency: Show the WHOLE production live, on tv, from the inspecting of the machines and weighing of the lottery balls to the actual draw itself. There’s NO reason that I can imagine why the whole thing is done in secrecy behind closed doors, with the results only being made public after it’s over and done. With the history of the NBA and the conspiracy theories that abound on this subject ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bX1kMlG8c7Y  ) , there’s not enough intention shown to do away with these notions, once and for all, as far as I’m concerned. 

    That all said, I’ll be glad when this season — that has me encouraged at times and not sure what to think at others — is over and done. And hopefully … all the fingers crossed and fervent wishes that many, I’m sure, join me in, pay off come lottery day. 

    • SweetRiverBaines

      I agree re transparency – people are going to lose it when the league-owned Hornets inevitably win the lotttery…

    • Lorenzo

      Watching that video made me sick to my stomach.

  • Nilanka15

    Whatever lottery system chosen, it would probably be best to make it transparent (take the conspiracy theorists away from the equation).  Show the actually ping pong balls being picked on camera.

    • Nilanka15

      Sorry 511, just realized you said exactly this in your post.

      • 511

        No worries; it’s a point worth repeating. 

  • AB7.38pt.on.CB4

    Lottery  for all 14 Teams missing Playoff having same percentage (7.14% each) to win 1st pick.

    It will generate minimal tanking: a team fighting for 7th or 8th spot on playoff with several key players injured just before ending regular season. 

    • Nilanka15

      It will generate minimal tanking, but won’t help poor teams improve.

      Say for example, the Raptors finished with the 5th worst record this year, and ended up with the 14th pick.  How worthless would this season be?

      As a result, we end up sucking next year too (because we can’t expect too much from our 14th pick) and we end up with another poor season next season, and yet again, end up with the 14th pick….and so on, and so on.

      Forget about the mediocrity treadmill, this would be the SUB-mediocrity treadmill, without a realistic way of climbing out.

  • Theswirsky

    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.’

    not to turn this into a debate about economics, but this is often the argument from the ‘haves’ who can afford to fail.  What they always are unwilling to mention is the value in a ‘safety net’ that keeps individuals or groups from bottoming out and becoming a danger to society (eg. if their was no welfare, food stamps etc does one really think those at the bottom would just accept their lot in life and lay down and die or would basic human instinct kick in and they would resort to any means to survive ie. violence and crime?   One quick look at history gives us the answer.  Surival of the fittest is a funny thing, its not always the richest, smartest or strongest who make it, but the most aggressive and reckless can have amazing success when allowed to roam unchecked). 

    Anyways, teams are punished by losing.  They earn less money.  And as we all know as a business that is the ultimate goal.

    The system, while imperfect works.  It offers no guarantees but an opportunity, while coming at a cost.   From a fan perspective in weak markets tanking is the answer.  From a business perspective it’s a high risk gamble but one thats often needed to compete with those at the top who offer extraordinary barriers.

    • cesco

       What does this ‘moral hazard’ has anything to do when the competition is between filthy rich people who invest in professional sport  franchises . It is simply a competition among the 1% for money , glory or both .

      • Nilanka15

        The “moral hazard” in this case, is the concept of rewarding failure…which is what the draft lottery attempts to do.

        • cesco

          ” moral hazards ” should not be a term associated with “failures” of business enterprises unless of course these “failures” cause real hardship to a segment of society , example the “austerity measures” required by some European nations where 50% of the youth is unemployed , although in this case it is the “government” enterprise who failed .

          • Nilanka15

            Not to get too far off topic, but “morality” simply deals with what’s right and wrong.

            I agree that some issues are far bigger issues than others (in a societal grand scheme of things), but the degree of right and wrong isn’t really the issue.

            • CJT

              Is it morally correct for some teams to be able to spend double of other teams in order to buy championship rings?  There are endless issues that we could comment on in the sports world.

              • Cdhall

                That has somewhat been addressed in the new agreement! Nothing was done to address TANKING!!!!

              • Nilanka15

                Aren’t all teams able to spend equally?

                Whether they WANT to spend (see Charlotte), is a different topic altogether 😉

  • Ion66

    Make any team that is obviously tanking, wear tank tops in game. This will make them think twice about doing this, plus it’s very hard to co-ordinate shoes with that look.

    • Lorenzo


  • minks77

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this whole issue is blown out of proportion. The whole moral outrage thing is based on an idea of tanking=high pick=franchise player which is simply NOT TRUE. The current system is great because not only is the draft a crap shoot (even at number one, hello Greg Oden, John Wall, Andrea, Kmart, Kandi Man, Joe Smith, DColeman etc etc and exponentially harder the deeper the pick) but the lotto is a luck based system that can drastically alter the outcome of said tanking. How many times has the worst team record wise been given the first pick? Not often.  

    I think the larger issue is that the mid level teams stay mid level until they luck into someone great or until they give up. The problem, IMO, isn’t with trying to not be good, it’s with trying to be as good as possible without the ability to ever be great (i.e. a superstar). Maybe the cap could be flexible in relation to record. The worse you are the larger your MLE could be or something with all teams out of the playoffs capped at the same number as the top playoff bound teams and the mid level teams (say 38-46 wins) on a sliding scale. Just a thought off the top but you get the idea?

    • Nilanka15

      “The worse you are the larger your MLE could be…”

      Love it!

    • Raps Loyalist

       Great Idea with the new MLE format!!!

  • Jeffrey Thompson

    I think the draft system is as fine as it is.  It gives the bad teams a chance to improve by getting the opportunities to get the best talent and it does not mean that when they get that talent, their problems are over.  Just look at the teams that have gone in the lottery–more than likely will return back to the lottery.   

  • Statement

    I asked this in another post but for some reason it got deleted.

    Who’s for starting Gary Forbes over Derozan if we can’t upgrade at SG in the offseason?

    He has more range, is a better dribblers, rebounder and can’t be a defender.

    What do you think?

    • Nilanka15

      The post is still there.  You just have to click on the “show more” button 😉

      • Statement

        Oh, thanks.

    • Cdhall

      WHY not start FORBES for the rest of this year? See what he has! If he is worth signing for 2 yrs then he deserves a chance to prove himself. Also it might give Demar concern.No one should just be handed the starting role. Demar may just rise to the challenge. If he does not rise to the top of his game—–TRADE HIM!!!!

      • Alan

        could we first try that with mr.”i’m a power forward’ 7 FU%kn years and counting cause we know what we have.

    • Cobella

      who’s for starting Ed Davis over slow,no defence Andrea. Ed is a better rebounder …dumb $hit have seat you and shelanka.

  • K.J.P

    Great piece!