PER Diem: Mar. 3, 2009
With some teams out of the playoff mix, tanking could be the strategy of choice
The lottery simulator is running, conference tournaments are getting ready to start and Chad Ford is sitting under a palm tree furiously updating his top 100.
That can mean only one thing: draft season is upon us. Unfortunately, draft season comes with its ugly sister: tanking season.
Tanking for the lottery has become something of an art in recent seasons, because most NBA franchises can quickly calculate that the difference between the first or second pick and the ones after that in a typical draft is vastly greater than the temporary joie de vivre that might be gained from competing to the finish.
And it's normally right around the trade deadline when losing teams begin in earnest to work on, shall we say, improving their lottery odds. They never say they're tanking, of course, but we all know the code words. We might hear that star Player X is being held out as a precaution. Or we'll be told that young but ineffective Player Y has to play more minutes, or that they're buying out the contract of veteran Player Z.
Here are John Hollinger's top five NBA observations for Tuesday. Insider
- A new No. 1 in the Power Rankings
- Josh Smith's unusual milestone
- Seven 50-win teams in the West?
- Mavs, Suns competing for No. 8
- Who's behind Hornets' hot streak?
This year, the stakes aren't quite as high. Without an overwhelming talent in the draft, such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant, the first three picks are thought to be of roughly equal value this time around.
Nonetheless, teams instinctively realize that being first in the draft is better than second, which is better than third, and so on down the line. And at some point in the final two months, their decisions are impacted by such logic.
It's especially true this season, because several teams of similar awfulness are "competing" to get the best odds in Secaucus. Just two wins separate Washington, Sacramento, Memphis, Oklahoma City and the L.A. Clippers, giving each team some incentive to make sure it is the worst of the five and will have the greatest odds of winning the lottery.
Of course, even finishing with the worst record in the league is hardly a guarantee of lottery riches. You know where the team that finishes with the NBA's worst record is most likely to be on draft day? Fourth. There's a 36 percent chance the league's worst team will pick at that spot, but the probability of a team's pingpong ball combination winning the No. 1 pick is capped at 25 percent.
In fact, one can argue that the marginal benefit of tanking is actually greater when you get a little deeper into the group of lottery teams, around spots five through 10. And that's where we get to Golden State.
The Warriors are 20-39, seventh in the likely draft order. They have a fighting chance of lucking into the top three (14.0 percent). But they've been playing fairly good basketball of late thanks to the returns of some injured players. Coming out of the All-Star break, it seemed they might be able to catch several Eastern teams (most notably Toronto, but also New York, New Jersey, Charlotte and Indiana) that were a couple of games ahead of them.
One could argue they'd need to be innovative to keep themselves in seventh rather than, say, 11th, where they'd have not only a likely draft spot that's four spots lower but also a much worse chance of hitting the jackpot with a top-three slot (just 2.9 percent).
Fortunately for the Warriors, coach Don Nelson is renowned as one of the game's great innovators, and his latest innovation has been to rest one of his key veterans for every game so the young guys could play more. I can't prove this is being done with the lottery as his motivation, but it's fair to speculate, given the obvious incentives.
And the strategy is weirdly brilliant. Removing just one starter makes the Warriors, at the margin, much more likely to lose than to win. And at the very least, it makes them likely to lose enough that they won't surpass Toronto and the other Eastern Conference riffraff in the standings.
Yet the team is not tanking in the normal sense we'd think it would. The Warriors aren't running plays for Mark Madsen to shoot 3s -- like the Wolves did -- or blatantly shutting down healthy players with "tendinitis." In fact, we can't prove they're tanking at all, beyond raising our eyebrows at a strategy they presumably wouldn't be trying if they were 39-20 and not 20-39.
Unfortunately, this probably won't be the last we see of such strategies this season. Folks already have wondered aloud whether the Wizards' reluctance to return Brendan Haywood and Gilbert Arenas to action stems partly from some draft-related calculus, for instance, and as the "race" heats up, we may see similar tactics from the Clippers, Kings, Thunder and Grizzlies. Certainly Minnesota, the league's most notorious practitioner of this dark art, will be waiting in the wings to move up a few spots should any of the former teams accidentally embark on a winning streak.
Of course, tanking has come in multiple forms. We've seen protection-related tanking in recent years, too -- when a team intentionally throws a game to avoid conveying a draft pick -- but thankfully, that's unlikely to happen this season. Both Minnesota and Miami owe top-10 protected picks, but the Wolves are all but guaranteed to finish in the bottom seven, guaranteeing they'll keep the pick, while the Heat are equally assured of finishing in the top 18, guaranteeing they won't keep the pick.
And then there's the most controversial one, the one fans like to talk about the most: Is it worth it to intentionally miss the playoffs rather than get blown to smithereens in four games in the first round? The answer is almost certainly not. Teams with the 13th- or 14th-worst record have less than a 2 percent chance of picking in the top three; compared to the revenue generated by a playoff spot plus the who-knows-what-might-happen possibility of being the 2007 Warriors, this is a foolish chance to take.
It gets only slightly more interesting if there's a lottery-protected draft pick involved -- as there is in the case of the Bobcats this year -- because, again, the incremental value of a mid-first-rounder is iffy and would be offset in any case by owing the pick in a future season.
So tanking can take on many forms, and in some ways it's a little like pornography -- we can't always define it, but we know what it is when we see it. The stakes may be lower, given the quality of this year's draft, but the incentives are still there, even with a lottery system designed to reduce those incentives as much as possible. And as the Warriors are showing us, it's not necessarily the teams at the bottom that have the greatest incentive to perform slightly worse than they otherwise might.
All told, then, it's an unfortunate phenomenon that probably is here to stay. In a sport in which a single individual can make such a massive difference in a franchise's fate, the lure is simply too great to resist.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.