Is the NBA Draft Broken?

With the dust of the 2007 NBA lottery beginning to settle, two lines of complaint are fresh in the media and fans? collective consciousness:

1. Something is wrong with the draft because it encourages tanking.
2. Something is wrong with the draft because the top picks do not always go to the worst teams.

The implicit irony in the whole situation is that these flaws are not independent. At one end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (2) by assigning draft order strictly by record. But this system maximizes worries about (1) because it gives every non-playoff team every incentive to do their very worst.

At the other end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (1) by assigning draft order completely randomly, say by pulling all 30 team names out of a hat one by one. But this system maximizes worries about (2) because it completely disregards the notion that talent should be distributed according to need.

It seems unrealistic, then, to expect a draft system to eliminate all worries about both (1) and (2); rather, some compromise between the opposing injustices must be struck based on the relative ?moral? weight we assign them. In this case, we can?t both have the absolute greatest taste and the absolute least filling, but we can at least try to find the best balance.

So we must ask, then, which is the graver sin: to encourage teams to tank, or to risk giving the riches to the already rich (or, at least, the lower middle class)? In my mind, it?s no contest. It is worse to fail to give the best talents to the teams that most need them.

Think about it. Because playoff seedings give most teams a reason to remain competitive throughout most of the season, tanking only takes hold for the bottom third of the NBA universe, the part that wasn?t good to begin with. Furthermore, tanking is a tricky game because you can?t be too obvious about it, which in turn limits the extent to which you can actually tank in an effective fashion. The most effective tanking strategy would be for a team to play its five worst players for all 48 minutes of every game, but of course public pressure against deliberately losing prevents teams from deploying anything nearing such a fail-safe tanking method. For the same reason, any outright directives to coaches or players to, you know, not try so hard are taboo– in the not unlikely event that such explicit directives are leaked to the media, you?re sitting on a PR disaster for the ages. Likewise, funny business about who plays how many minutes can only be brought into play in the latter stages of the season without raising too many eyebrows.

So, in reality, what tanking comes down to is this: a handful of the NBA?s worst teams may decline to play a handful of their better players for a handful of games (or fourth quarters) in the last third or quarter of the season. Sure, in principle it violates sportsmanlike ethics, but in practice it doesn?t seem too outrageously bad, does it? Fans of said tanking team only have to sit through play over the final stages of the season that, on average, is marginally worse than the poor play they had already been sitting through all season. As compensation, in the short term they get to see their team?s youth play and in the long term their team gets marginally better prospects for a better talent in the draft. In the grand scheme of things, this may not be ethically ideal, but it does not strike me as a huge quandary either. It is maybe on a par with a poor-salaried cubicle worker striking back at the system by stealing office supplies every now and then– a regrettable attitude that is antithetical to the ideals of the profession, but which nonetheless entails relatively benign consequences.

On the other hand, failing to give the neediest teams the best new talent is, in the NBA world, a crime of the highest order. In basketball, one singular talent can be the difference maker for a franchise for over a decade, as Knicks fans know all too well. A team?s legacy and place in basketball history, as well as an entire basketball era in the lives of thousands of current and yet-to-be fans, may depend on the team securing that singular talent. These are the things that make basketball, as a sporting institution, go ?round. And in a just world we?d like for those wellsprings of basketball life to go to the teams and fans that have longest been deprived of them.

So, if we must strike a compromise between a system that encourages tanking and a system that encourages equitable distribution of talent, it should certainly hedge considerably toward equitable distribution of talent.

But, strangely enough, I?m not so sure that the current system really is broken. The implicit social constraints on just how much a team can tank limits just how many wins a team can shave from its record, and the way the lottery system works ultimately limits the impact of those shaved wins on draft standing. In an ESPN Insider article written back in March, John Hollinger figured that a tanking team is liable to drop at most 5 games due to its (socially constrained) tanking efforts, which on average boosts a team?s chances at the top pick by only 6 percentage points. That is the best case tanking scenario; most are not even that dramatic in terms of wins sacrificed or percentage points gained.

Likewise, the current system does a reasonably good job of allowing for equitable distribution of talent. There is a fairly considerable amount of volatility at the top, but only true bottom feeders are really in contention. (Although the 3 worst teams all dropped out of the top 3 slots this year in an already infamous upset, it is hard to argue that the teams that managed to move up are substantially less needing or deserving of those top picks.) And, because only the top 3 picks are up for lottery grabs, it is ensured that a lottery team will select no lower than 3 spots below its ranking according to record, which is an effective way to limit the volatility of the lottery process and ensure equitable distribution of drafting opportunities across the map.

On the whole, the system seems reasonably well balanced, given the inherent compromises that must be made. An argument can be made that the system should be tweaked to either further discourage tanking or to assign draft order more systematically according to record, but I get the feeling that calls for such tweaks are overreactions to extraordinary circumstances. Where have these complaints been the last 10 years? So much attention has been called both to tanking and to the worst teams losing the best picks simply because there is so much talent at the very top of this draft class, and thus so much at stake. This is a historically unusual situation that, because of its potential to alter the NBA landscape for the next 10 years, makes the injustices on both sides of the current lottery compromise seem more pronounced, more unjust, and more in need of change. But to shift the compromise and change one injustice for the better is to change the other for the worse, and it?s not clear that, on the whole, the system isn?t already settled on a reasonable balance.

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24 thoughts to “Is the NBA Draft Broken?”

  1. Thank you for pointing out the hypocrisy of the media first complaining about tanking a month ago and now complaining because the worst teams (who happen to be nearby where they live) didn’t get the top picks. I have been scratching my head about this all day. I think sports writers forget what they wrote as soon as they give it to their publishers, because finding consistency is difficulty.

    I disagree, though, about “poorer” teams not getting the top picks as being a graver injustice. I think tanking is. Unless teams want to start charging tickets for half price while they are tanking, there is no excuse for having Allan Ray be a marquee player for the Boston Celtics one night. It’s just unethical in my book.

    And I don’t think it’s such a big deal that Portland and Seattle got the top 2 picks. We’re not talking about borderline playoff teams here. We’re talking about bad basketball teams. I personally don’t see a very large talent gap between Portland and Boston. I’m sorry but I don’t.

  2. Great analysis.

    What I see as a bigger issue then tanking is top teams getting top talent in the draft.

    The league needs to make a rule to protect teams and their fans from moron GMs who look for fools gold and give away unprotected future picks. Much like a bartender who refuses to serve someone drunk who is driving home, all trades should have a draft protection built in. How bad would it have been for this years #1 and 4 to go to Chicago and Phoenix. Last year Chicage got #2. Not too long ago Detroit came off a playoff year with #2. There are already all kinds of trade rules dealing with salary. My proposed rule…all trades with future picks are top 5 protected. Done. Do it for the fans!

  3. What is the difference between a non-playoff team tanking – that is, playing their worse players – and a playoff team “resting” its starters – that is, playing their worse players? The ‘tanking’ team’s players who play are probably scrubs who are really trying hard just to stay in the league, so they are not trying to lose. And the playoff team’s scrubs aren’t trying to lose either when they play and their team’s stars are ‘resting’ for the playoffs. All this drivel about ‘tanking’ is just plain silly – it doesn’t make any sense that a team would try to lose a few games just to increase their odds a few percentage points. Especially when in the history of the draft, the team with the best chance of winning almost never has. This is a media driven discussion, not a real debate.

  4. birchnbrook:

    No, it IS a real discussion because it really does happen. You might not think it matters – and I guess you’ve never paid $100 dollars to see the B squad – but it would be ridiculous to say it doesn’t happen.

  5. I think the draft actually works, it makes tanking not completely effective, and rarely rewards lower-middle class (or upper-lower class) teams the top pick. Sometimes it happens, and theres nothing wrong with it, that team just got lucky. Maybe fewer teams should have that chance, possibly the worst team from every division or the four worst in a conference.

    The only issue is the fact that the West is now even more loaded. How can teams in the Atlantic ever compete with Western teams? There is simply too much talent in the west, the best teams constantly make bad teams have terrible records while the East remains relatively consistent at 30 wins, and then those teams in the West get more talent.

    I think one representative from each division with one wild card spot for any remaining team with the worst record should come to the lottery and play with the ping-pong balls.

  6. “What is the difference between a non-playoff team tanking – that is, playing their worse players – and a playoff team ?resting? its starters – that is, playing their worse players? The ?tanking? team?s players who play are probably scrubs who are really trying hard just to stay in the league, so they are not trying to lose. And the playoff team?s scrubs aren?t trying to lose either when they play and their team?s stars are ?resting? for the playoffs. All this drivel about ?tanking? is just plain silly – it doesn?t make any sense that a team would try to lose a few games just to increase their odds a few percentage points. Especially when in the history of the draft, the team with the best chance of winning almost never has. This is a media driven discussion, not a real debate.”

    clearly you didn’t follow the Milwaukee Bucks down the stretch this year.

  7. I think the “fairest” solution is one Hollinger came up with that is just a bit too esoteric to ever actually come into existence, which involves moving the date where the lottery position locks into place up in the season, so the order teams are ranked for the lottery are based on their records as of March 15, so the fringe playoff teams would not be able to tank, because in March, they’re still playing for the playoffs.

    In addition, it would not penalize teams that made late season runs, like the Sixers and the Bobcats. Does it seem fair to penalize them for playing better while other teams tanked?

    It would be a neat way to assure competitiveness at the end of the season. It may make teams tank EARLIER in the season, but the only teams that would do that would be the teams who legitimately already WERE bad teams, like the Celtics or the Grizzlies.

    The Celtics really only began tanking in earnest when Milwaukee started tanking.

  8. I think you are right Brian, I remember reading that suggestion and thinking it was nearly perfect. The teams at the bottom on March 15 are genuinely bad teams, so there’s no problem there, and “middle class” teams probably haven’t given up hope on making the playoffs by this point. It seems like a win-win solution. But it might be a bit too much of an atypical idea.

  9. Unlike the other sports, elite talent dominates. The motivations to acquire this talent are tremendous and tanking can take many forms. If the Celtics traded Paul Pierce that would have been rebuilding, not tanking – in either case the final record would suffer. Would that have been okay?

    The problem with tanking (obvious tactics like sitting “injured” guys or playing Sebastian Telfair) is the cynicism being created – but all would have been forgotten if the Lotto people delivered Greg Oden.

    Hollinger’s idea is interesting, I think the trade deadline would be a better day as it is a clear line between this season and looking ahead.

    As to the NBA trade fairness panel – it would never fly. The cost of getting it wrong is too great to turn a trade down especially with trades predicated on non-talent issues (primarily salary cap but also chemistry). Was the Iverson/Miller, Smith, first round pick trade fair on paper? But man, Larry Bird would have benefitted from that panel.

  10. I think tanking, and the perception of it, are major problems. Not-so-bad teams getting the highest picks? Not so much. Imagine if the NBA played it straight, like NFL:

    #1 – It would reward the worst front offices, worst-run organizations, etc. Extreme failure and incompetence should not bring the ultimate reward.

    #2 – From a fans standpoint, as well as a pure business standpoint, the league is better off when there are great teams, not a mush in the middle. I disagree with Larry; I think it would have been great for Phoenix to get the #4 pick. On the flip side, who wants to see a great player languish in a miserable organization?

    So, I like a lottery, and the Hollinger solution -or a version of it – would almost completely clean up tanking. In terms what fans would actually see, it may not make a huge difference – once out of the playoffs, teams would still rest semi-injured stars and give PT to rookies. But fans can deal with that. It’s the constant and accurate talk that the teams aren’t trying, which poisons the atmosphere around the last few weeks of the season.

  11. Here’s a “left field” idea. Relegation! Okay, this is not going to happen. But what if the worst two teams are sent to the NBDL and given the 3rd and 4th picks. The 3rd and 4th worst teams are given the 1st and 2nd. There would be no tanking in this system. Teams would not pull players if they would loose revenue the next year by playing Ft. Worth 4 times a year. The two bottom dewllers would fight like hell to stay in the league. And the two teams that make the NBDL finals would get bumped up to the NBA the following year. It’s perfect… And just evil enough to work.

  12. relegation would be ideal for MLB, two 15 team leagues, I’ve been preaching that for years (the increased revenue from being in the top league would help teams like Minnesota and Oakland, and vice-versa, underproducing big budget teams. I don’t see it working in hoops, though, contracting a few teams might be good.

    but sports have mostly lost interest in what makes something a better sport, witness the Stoudemire sham. they only care about what makes it a better business, sadly not the best overlap sometimes.

  13. I’m not the first to suggest it, but here’s another left field idea that might actually be a moneymaker:

    Set the first 15 playoff teams by April 1, right after the NCAA tourney. ALL the remaining teams would have a play-in tournament to determine the final spot.

    Ok, you say, the teams that lose in the first round would start tanking for the draft. So, make it a round-robin tournament, or let it be a tournament to determine the last four teams, instead of one.

  14. i think the lottery should reward terrible general managers and front offices.

    yes, i am a knick fan.

  15. Nice article.
    The problem with “Tanking” is the fans get behind it as well, witness the Sports Guy’s writings this year. The organization would take a one year financial hit, but Fans are cynical enough to take one bad year for 10 good years.

    Tanking might better be described as “Point Shaving.”

    A better idea would be to just do away with the draft all together, and let the teams sign players as young as 16. Like they do in the worldwide football. There you get them away from the slime of AAU, High School & College. They’ll be the low man on the totem pole, learn proper off court behavior and the fundamentals.

  16. “A better idea would be to just do away with the draft all together, and let the teams sign players as young as 16. Like they do in the worldwide football. There you get them away from the slime of AAU, High School & College.”


    High School and College are defiantly not slime, that would be gambling their entire life on playing basketball, with no education for after their careers are over. Anyways the NBA just resolved this issue by requireing players be one year removed from high school.

  17. High school and college themselves are not slime, but the basketball programs can be.

    A lot of these kids are gambling their whole lives on playing basketball anyway. From the age of 13 onward, a lot of these kids have people constantly telling them how great they are and how great life will be once they hit the NBA. I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to let them get a quick dose of reality by pitting them against pros at an earlier age. I personally wouldn’t implement it, but it’s not an insane idea.

    And you are incredibly naive if you think that requiring players to be one year removed from high school solves the problem. A token gesture, nothing more. It just means we’ll have more guys who go to college for one year and then leave without a diploma, which isn’t enough of a change from having them come straight from high school to be significant. The only advantage for the NBA is that it gives teams another year to scout the player.

  18. That solution pretty much means the teams with the most money will get the best players. I don’t want the NBA to turn out like MLB. But then again, I’m not from New York ;)

  19. I think that one problem is that all lottery teams are eligible for all three picks. I think one way to still give all lottery teams some hope but get more of a balance is:

    1. All lottery teams have their pingpong balls (at current percentages) in for the #1 pick;
    2. Only the worst 7 teams have their pingpong balls in for the #2 pick; and
    3. Only the worst 3 teams have their pingpong balls in for the #3 pick; and
    4. The top three picks are always protected from trades.

  20. Coaches come and go with teams but bad general managers seem to keep their jobs while their teams continue to flounder. This latest brohaha has as much to do with fans being sick and tired of their bad teams. If we force owners to sell their teams after five consecutive non-playoff seasons, many owners would not be satisfied with having a former player as general manager. It would be nice to see some sports writers get a chance with our teams for real. Let us see what one of these guys (Bob Ryan, Hollinger, Simmons, Aldridge, Wilbon, or Oberman) can do with the Atlanta Hawks.

  21. Never mind the draft, the NBA itself is broken. Last night’s game with the non-call on Richard Hamilton was the last NBA playoff game I’ll watch this season. This year’s playoffs are the lamest, most unwatchable, most frustrating playoffs of all time, and that’s saying a lot, because last year’s were pretty awful too.

    Yeah, Baron Davis was great. Suns-Spurs was interesting until David Stern ruined it. This league stinks right now.

  22. I am a huge proponent of “pulling all 30 team names out of a hat one by one”. It would make for compelling television. The night of the draft, you’d have no clue whether your team was drafting #1 or #30 and when your team gets randomly picked out of the hat you have 5-10 minutes to make your decision based upon your needs and who’s on the board.

    It turns the draft into a real sporting event. Forget about rewarding the poor and the rich getting richer, there is nothing worse in the NBA than being mediocre. Getting stuck year after year with the 15th pick is called basketball Siberia.

  23. Given that mediocrity yielded the Knicks Michael Sweetney in a draft featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, you can count me as one Knick fan who is on board with the anti-mediocrity sentiment.

    Actually, I might qualify it by saying that the only thing worse in the NBA than being mediocre is being awful but having an incompetent front office. That’s something even Knicks and Hawks fans can buy into.

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