Tanking In The NBA

The beginning of April is one of the best times of the year to be a sports fan. The NCAA Tournament comes to a close with the Final Four, Major League Baseball begins its season, and the NBA and NHL are both finishing their regular seasons and respective playoff races. And for us Boston College fans, the Frozen Four, which we seem to be in nearly every year, is usually held the first week of the month.
Yet, there is one more tradition each April that the NBA adds-teams jockeying for a better draft lottery position by losing. And losing. And losing some more.

Take this year’s Philadelphia 76ers. They recently tied an NBA record by losing 26 games in a row. This came after the team traded its best player in the off-season and then traded its remaining best player at this year’s trade deadline for a low second round pick-essentially worthless-and a player whom it immediately released. This past Saturday’s game was the first the 76ers have won since Jan. 29.

Through the way the NBA’s set up, however, decisions like these can often make sense in the long run. For a general manager who wants to acquire an all-star, one of the easiest ways to do so is through the draft. In the current draft lottery, the worse record a team finishes with, the better chance it has for a higher draft pick. If the 76ers finish last in the league, they won’t be guaranteed the first pick, but they will get no lower than the third pick. That concept continues on for the second-to-last and so on.

What this has led to is commonly referred to as “tanking,” a strategy in which a team looks to lose games purposely-often with fake injuries or strange coaching decisions. This can happen for one game, like Mark Madsen taking seven 3-pointers in the last game of the 2006 season when he’d previously taken just nine in five years, or over the course of the last two months, like the 2011-12 Warriors going 5-22 to close out the season, which included a late season trade for a player out for the year, when they’d started the year 18-21.

Those are trying issues themselves. But the bigger problem is the fact that teams purposely make their clubs worse for the upcoming year, and often a number of seasons after that, for the chance to draft highly over a stretch of time. That’s exactly what the 76ers did when trading away three of their top four players in less than a year. In a season like this one-with such a highly rated draft class-there are numerous teams (76ers, Celtics, Lakers, Jazz, Bucks, Magic) that have either purposely made themselves worse off, or have consciously chosen not to improve in order to secure a higher draft pick.

Yet, this process doesn’t always work. High draft picks can be just 19 years old when they enter the league, and they’re often surrounded by additional inexperienced talent and/or cast-off veterans, acquired to make the team worse. Young players frequently aren’t guided correctly, develop bad habits, and ultimately are unsuccessful or leave the team. The Cavaliers have had the No. 1 and No. 4, No. 4, and No. 1 pick in successive years and are still 15 games under .500 this season. The Bobcats have finished above .500 once in their 10-year existence despite five Top-Five picks since 2004.

The NBA’s current system encourages teams to get worse before they get better, yet there’s no guarantee of their getting better by pursuing that route. To risk multiple years of under .500 records and missing the playoffs for a chance at high drafts picks is a disservice to the common fan who’s paying to see the team in person and on TV during those down years. Bill Simmons recently stated that the NBA has a chance to grab the mantle of America’s second sport from MLB-the NBA has a more exciting game, national TV ratings are trending up, and players are much more marketable. If the league continues down this route, however, it risks alienating the fans of those franchises stuck in the draft cycle.

If my economics classes have taught me anything here, it’s that people respond to incentives. The current NBA system has numerous teams happily gutting their rosters to lose. The NBA should realize that result isn’t in its, or its fans’, best interests, and change the system.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.