Tanking the NBA Draft

Posted by on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 in National Basketball Association, Sports Econ Blog.

Interview with NPR Marketplace.

NBA tanking graphic. Actual Draft Order.

I’m working on a story about the NBA lottery, but not really the normal sports story. We’re looking at why the NBA does it this way, why people think it’s rigged, and what the economic gains of having the number one pick are (or could be).

The purpose of the lottery is to weaken the incentive for teams to lose on purpose so that they can get a higher draft pick. Lottery drawings determine the first four picks. The rest of the lottery teams will select five through 14 in reverse order of their regular-season records.

Bailing out of the season and taking a dive is called “tanking,” and the bottom half of the NBA has been, and still is in the midst of a serious “tanking epidemic.”

From 1966 through 1984, the NBA team that finished with the worst record in each conference participated in a coin flip. The team that won the coin flip received the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. The team that lost the coin flip received the No. 2 overall pick. The remaining teams picked in inverse order of their regular-season records.

Beginning in 1985 the NBA adopted a lottery system among non-playoff teams to determine their order of selection in the first round of the NBA Draft. Teams would pick in inverse order of their regular-season records in the second round after 1989. For more detailed history of tank tinkering see NBA.com.

The NBA is especially subject to tanking among sports leagues, because of the relative importance of early draft picks for potential home-run superstar talent whose entry level base salary is already determined in the CBA.

This year the grand prize is Duke’s precocious freshman forward  Zion Williamson, who many pundits feel is the next King James (as in LeBron) in waiting.

It doesn’t hurt that the odds for doing well in the best draft class in recent history are ever so slightly in favor of the current tank doormat NY Knicks. Three of the top 5 most valuable NBA clubs are in the 14 team lottery pool (failed to make the playoffs) and two of the richest clubs (NYK and CHI) in the Tank Rank bottom 4.

Even a blind squirrel could find an acorn in this draft. 

Post Script: Here are the actual results of the NBA Draft Lottery. New York Knicks will pick #3 slightly higher than expected (3.7), but New Orleans and Los Angeles Lakers got lottery lucky and will pick 6 slots higher than expected before the drawing (NOP=7.1 – 1 and LAL = 10.3 – 4).

2019 NBA Draft Lottery
Actual Results Expect Luck
1. New Orleans  7.1 6.1
2. Memphis 7.1 5.1
3. NY Knicks       3.7 0.7
4. LA Lakers      10.3 6.3
5. Cleveland 4.0 (1.0)
6. Phoenix 4.0 (2.0)
7. Chicago 4.4 (2.6)
8. Atlanta 5.0 (3.0)
9. Washington 5.5 (3.5)
10. Atlanta (from DAL) 7.1 (2.9)
11. Minnesota 9.2 (1.8)
12. Charlotte 12.6 0.6
13. Miami 12.6 (0.4)
14. Boston (from SAC) 12.6 (1.4)



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