Tanking and the NBA Draft:

The other day Professor Michael McCann of Sports Law Blog had a post on the recurring concern about whether bad NBA teams "tank" late in the season in order to secure a better draft pick. Concern about this phenomenon is what led to the unique "lottery" system in the NBA. I wrote him asking why this concern continually arises in the NBA and not other pro leagues.

Michael has written a long and persuasive response to my query, Why Does Tanking Occur in the NBA but Seemingly Not in Other Leagues?

In a nutshell, his argument is that the benefits of tanking are higher in the NBA and the costs are lower. Seems persuasive to me, but if you are interested, read his full post for the argument.

I think the interests of any given player are far better served by performing well, and securing a better contract or a job for next season, than by playing poorly in hopes of improving the team's fortunes at his own expense.

Heck, even for ownership, a high draft pick is often a mixed blessing. Sure, if you get to draft Shaq, you get ticket sales and championship revenues. But otherwise, what you get is mostly a bigger guaranteed contract.
4.11.2007 7:51pm
Aside from the costs vs. benefits reasoning, it seems to me that it would be easier to "passively" tank in the NBA than in the NFL. A coach can rest starters longer, have a more relaxed attitude toward losses, and generally give the team the impression that it's okay not to kill themselves out there without having to straight up tell anyone to intentionally throw games.

In the NFL, teams can't just have an understood attitude to play a little less hard. It would cause injuries. A coach would have to tell a player, most likely the quarterback, in very concrete terms to intentionally throw the game. I just can't see that happening for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the quarterback (as well as the coach himself) is probably already taking a lot of the blame for the losing season and is really going to have to prove himself in the last couple of games to keep his job. If he doesn't, that coveted first round draft pick will very likely be used to replace him.
4.11.2007 8:16pm
I read that post of McCann's after Henry Abbott of TrueHoop (now hosted on linked to it on Monday. It was strange to follow a link from and see a link to the VC. Usually the only VC mentioned when I follow links refer to a 2-guard currently playing in New Jersey.

Bill Simmons wrote about tanking today too - here and here. His take: "[Tanking is] a phenomenon unique to the NBA. With 30 teams and only a handful of superstar prospects per decade, landing Greg Oden or Kevin Durant really is like winning the lottery. You'd be foolish if you didn't try to swing the odds in your favor, even if that means exaggerating injuries, giving crunch-time minutes to scrubs and disgracing the integrity of the game."
4.11.2007 8:17pm
High NFL draft picks are _bad_ for the team on average, since the cap hit for the top few picks is too high relative to the probable football impact. A paper on the subject can be found here
4.11.2007 8:49pm
The NFL plays only 16 games in its regular season, meaning that "ties" for a particular draft pick are much more commonplace than in other sports. Then their byzantine tiebreaking system kicks in. Therefore "tanking" in the NFL is no guarantee that you'll get the draft pick you want.

So why, then, isn't "tanking" an issue in Major League Baseball, which plays even more regular-season games? First, for all we know they are tanking, but still occasionally win anyway. Even the worst MLB teams can typically be counted on to win at least one-third of their games. Blind squirrels finding the occasional acorn and all that. Teams in sports that play fewer games naturally have fewer opportunities to stumble upon those acorns.

Another factor is that in team sports, late season is when bad teams typically empty their benches and call up prospects from the minors to see how good those players are. Those players obviously have every incentive to play hard in order to impress their coaches and team execs. The thing is, the NBA doesn't have a traditional minor-league system, and NBA teams have only seven non-starters, as opposed to over forty per NFL team. Hence, NBA starters have less competition for late-season playing time than their counterparts in other major leagues.
4.11.2007 8:58pm
Tek Jansen:
So why, then, isn't "tanking" an issue in Major League Baseball

Because the MLB draft is pointless.
4.11.2007 9:25pm
Thomas Alan (mail):
They forget the bust factor. A surefire NBA prospect is much less likely to turn out to be a bust than in the NFL or MLB.
4.11.2007 9:30pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
In baseball (and hockey, to the extent anyone cares), draftees initially play in minor leagues. Only a minority of drafted players will ever make it to the majors in any case, so tanking games to improve draft position is pointless.

In basketball, most draftees have either already played minor league (that is, college) ball, or they are clearly thought to be ready for the NBA -- so the expected payoff is much greater.

Football teams also draft players from the minors/colleges, but the dynamic of the game -- as explained in posts above -- make tanking less useful and less possible.
4.11.2007 10:09pm
Hei Lun Chan (mail) (www):
Two more possible reasons:

1) NFL contracts are not guaranteed, so players always have an incentive to play as hard as possible. Whereas in the NBA players can just "mail it in" without suffering consequences, and they're much more likely to do so when there's not much to play for anyway.

2) Players can either play for their own stats or try to help the team win. They're more likely to do the former if winning doesn't matter anyway. In the NFL, the two things are not diametrically opposed; doing things that give you better stats usually gives the team a better chance to win. This is not true in the NBA however--always shooting instead of passing, and spending all your energy on offense make your team worse but gives you better stats.

The MLB and NHL drafts are usually too unpredictable for teams to tank to target a specific player. Note that when there is a sure thing as when Mario Lemieux was available, the Penguins tanked their season after which the NHL created their own lottery system.
4.11.2007 10:24pm
Adam B. (www):
In the NFL, teams can't just have an understood attitude to play a little less hard. It would cause injuries. A coach would have to tell a player, most likely the quarterback, in very concrete terms to intentionally throw the game.

This strikes me as pretty central. Also, NBA teams have deeper benches -- rest three starters, and you can play with the other nine guys, but there's only so many football slots you can devote to inactive-but-rostered players. And in the NFL, injury reporting is much more regulated (because of gambling interests), so it's likely more accurate.

Also, the financial upside to a franchise for winning is higher in the NBA than the NFL -- NFL teams get their money from the national tv deal, and almost all games are always sold out; in the NBA, ticket sales vary based on franchise success and constitute a greater proportion of team revenues. (I forget if licensing money is split evenly in the NBA; it is in the NFL.)
4.11.2007 10:37pm
A coach would have to tell a player, most likely the quarterback, in very concrete terms to intentionally throw the game.

Not to mention, in the NFL, the point of getting a higher draft pick is often to draft a star quarterback. Rare is the QB who would throw games in order to cost himself his starting job!
4.11.2007 11:38pm
Erasmus (mail):
Does anybody else remember when San Antonio did this several years ago to get Tim Duncan? They held out Robinson (among other things) to try to increase their chances of getting the number one pick. To this day, I still think the Spurs are a second-class franchise because of that. It's even more annoying that it worked out so well for them.
4.12.2007 3:33am
"Heck, even for ownership, a high draft pick is often a mixed blessing. Sure, if you get to draft Shaq, you get ticket sales and championship revenues. But otherwise, what you get is mostly a bigger guaranteed contract."

The important thing to remember is that while this used to be true, the newest CBA between the NBA and the Players' Association includes restrictions on both the length and size of a rookie's contract. This has led to all sorts of interesting side effects including less risk for teams that make poor picks (other than the competetive disadvantage that this might lead to). Another interesting side-effect is that college players now have some incentive to come out earlier than they should — in terms of their overall development as players — because your second contract is now much more important than your first. Thus, someone like Josh McRoberts who clearly could use some more time in college to develop his game can leave school early knowing that even if he isn't good as a rookie all he has to do is improve enough by the time his rookie contract is up to get a big deal in free agency.
4.12.2007 10:54am
OK Lawyer:
AS pointed out the comments from Bill Simmons which I was going to do. He has written quite a bit on the tanking issue. I would also recommend him. Simmons makes some interesting points that are seemingly backed by the numbers. Teams tank, but rarely does it help.

Also, the impact of one superstar in the NBA is larger than NFL or MLB. The NBA is an individually marketed league. It does not market the Cleveland Cavaliers, it markets Lebron James.
4.12.2007 11:09am
John R. Mayne (mail):
Did no one notice the Rays sitting Carl Crawford the last two days of 2006, and Baldelli the last day? Maybe there was a good reason to sit them, but I never heard it.

4.12.2007 12:43pm
Let's not overlook the fact that most NBA players don't start really putting forth much effort in the first place until around this time of year, when the playoffs are around the corner. In other words, as a whole, the league is not exactly a paragon of diligent work effort.
4.12.2007 2:51pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I think the reasons given here and in the linked threads about why tanking is more of a problem in the NBA than in other sports are persuasive and pretty much cover it. My question is, does the NBA's solution -- a draft lottery system in which the team with the worst record has a better chance at a top 1 or 2 pick, but won't necessarily get such a pick -- work? If not, is there a better way?
4.12.2007 3:36pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
In the NFL, though, next year's schedule will be harder if you finish 8 &8 and just miss the playoffs than it will be if you finish 5&11 -- so wouldn't a 5 &8 team have an incentive to lose its last three games even without taking draft choices into account?
4.12.2007 5:26pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
In the NFL first, second, and sometimes even third and fourth rounders will go on to start, sometimes early in their career. The draft is much deeper. First rounders are often busts, and later round picks turn out to be gems. This year, for example, the Texans did great with their second round pick, Damico Ryan. Tom Brady was a later round choice, I think.

In the NBA, the best players are almost always from the top 10-12 picks. There are rare exceptions, but the highest draft choices, more often than not, turn out to be the most successful players (with some famous counterexamples). An all star second rounder is a rarity in the NBA. Even an all star who was late first round, not in the lottery, is uncommon.

Combine that with the extra longevity of NBA players, and you get a real impact. Add in a third layer, which is the ability to add a high impact player with a small drain on the salary cap, and the highest picks in the draft become extremely valuable. The financial incentives in the NFL, however, make later draft choices have a greater bang for the buck.
4.13.2007 1:53am