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A solution to end tanking in the NBA and still strive for a competitive balance

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Tired of teams playing a rotation of G-Leaguers and second round picks to lose out the schedule? Read on.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Today we present to you a really interesting idea to end tanking, from a diehard Phoenix Suns and Bright Side fan whose now in Shanghai but grew up in Tempe, David Holady. David emailed me this idea and was gracious enough to allow me to share the idea with our readers.

We Suns followers are all too familiar with the concept of tanking, right up to watching a rotation full of underdeveloped draft picks and G-Leaguers trying to look competitive while losing out the schedule and securing the greatest odds at getting the #1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft.

Sadly, the Suns aren’t the only tankers. No fewer than 10 NBA teams have dreamed of being worst this season, but it was the Suns who so far have topped them all. Breathing down the Suns’ necks with two games to go, though, are the uber-committed Memphis Grizzlies who are still just two losses behind the 20-60 Suns with two games to go.

Let’s check out David’s idea.

Ed. Note: I accept blame for all formatting issues.

Read and discuss.


“When you’re managing a large number of people, you learn that incentives matter tremendously. You really want people to be rewarded for doing the right thing for the customers and the organization.”

Ramez Naam

Tanking an entire NBA season is many times worse than a tie, or even a dozen ties in a row. Dare we compare it to something much worse than kissing a sibling? This year approximately a fourth of the NBA teams are losing on purpose to increase their draft position odds. It has clearly become an epidemic and big changes need to be implemented soon. Here is one solution.

It will become clear very early in almost every NBA season how good / competitive each team is. And surely a very accurate understanding by the All-Star game of how each team stacks up against the other 29. If this is the case, we can accurately project each team’s competency going into the off season sometime between January and March.

A date somewhere in the middle of the season can be determined to freeze teams into draft order groupings. Teams with similar win/loss records will be grouped together on this date. After the determined freezing date, winning, not losing, will be incentivized to better each team’s draft position within its group. So, the team with the best winning percentage after the freeze date, within their group, will have the best draft choice, the 2nd best record, the 2nd best draft pick, etc. etc.. Hopeless teams that can’t win even if they are incentivized to do so, will only loose a few draft positions at most. They could even be put into their own group, or a group of 2, and thus would be guaranteed a top draft spot.

This freezing date could be anywhere from 30 games into the season to say 60. It would be strategically chosen as to best group teams with homogenous chances of future success by classifying them together. Teams within each group would then be competing with one another for draft positions. The date would be chosen well after the freezing date has passed. For example, on March 18th it could be chosen that February 7th is the date to freeze teams into draft groupings.

There could be as few as 4 or 5 groupings, or as many as 12. And each group could consist of as few as 1, or upwards of 15 teams, all depending on the circumstances of the season. The date, and how to bind together the teams into groups, will be determined by the commissioner or a committee.

This would get rid of the lottery and making the playoffs would have no bearing on the next year’s draft order. (The latter does not have to be the case if this system is implemented using only the teams that miss the playoffs.)

This system would not only eliminate tanking, it would incentivize winning for even the worst teams. It would also bring stimulation to otherwise throwaway games at the end of each season. Another point, a team would be very hesitant to tank at the beginning of the season because they would have no idea when the freeze date would be set.

Here is an example of how this system would have worked from the 2016/2017 season. I chose February 4th as the freeze date, I didn’t spend much time examining the ideal date to freeze the teams into groups as a committee would need to do.

Group 1

Group 2

  • Miami .400, Orlando .385, New Orleans .380, Minnesota .380, Sacramento .380, Dallas .400

Group 3

  • Charlotte .460, Detroit .460, Portland .431, Denver .449, New York .431, Milwaukee .429

Group 4

  • Chicago .490, Oklahoma .569, Indiana .551, Atlanta .580, Washington .592, Toronto .588, Memphis .577

Group 5

Group 6

  • Houston .685, San Antonio .776, Cleveland .688

Group 7

  • Golden State .860

Now just calculate each team’s winning percentage after the freeze date on February 4th to come up with the 2017 draft order within each group.

Note* Instead of a date, number of games played could be the determined cut off point, so we could use 50 games played instead of February 4th. Then beyond 50 games winning is incentivized to improve each team’s draft order within their respective draft groupings. But for simplicity I am using February 4th ..

According to this solution this would have been the 2017 draft order. Of course, if teams had been incentivized to win instead of lose, the draft order would have been much different.

draft order Team record and W/L % after February 4th

Group 1

  1. Brooklyn 11 - 21 .344
  2. L.A. Lakers 9 - 20 .310
  3. Philadelphia 10 - 23 .303
  4. Phoenix 8 – 24 .250

Group 2

5. Miami 21 – 11 .656

6. New Orleans 15 – 17 .469

7. Dallas 13 – 19 .406

Sacramento 13 – 19 .406

9. Minnesota 12 – 20 .375

10. Orlando 9 – 21 .300

Group 3

11. Milwaukee 21 – 12 .636

12. Portland 19 – 12 .613

13. Denver 18 – 15 .545

14. Detroit 14 – 18 .438

15. Charlotte 13 – 19 .406

16. New York 12 – 22 .353

Group 4

17. Toronto 21 – 10 .677

18. Washington 20 – 13 .606

19. Oklahoma City 18 – 13 .581

20. Chicago 16 – 15 .516

21. Indiana 15 – 18 .455

22. Atlanta 14 – 18 .436

23. Memphis 13 – 17 .433

Group 5

24. Boston 21 – 11 .656

25. L.A Clippers 20 – 12 .625

Utah 20 – 12 .625

Group 6

27. San Antonio 23 – 10 .697

28. Houston 18 – 10 .643

29. Cleveland 18 – 16 .529

Group 7

30. Golden State 24 – 8 .750

Compare that to the actual draft order

1. Boston (From Brooklyn) 2. Los Angeles Lakers 3. Philadelphia (from Sacramento) 4. Phoenix 5. Sacramento (from Philadelphia) 6. Orlando 7. Minnesota 8. New York 9. Dallas 10. Sacramento (From New Orleans) 11. Charlotte 12. Detroit 13. Denver 14. Miami 15. Portland 16. Chicago 17. Milwaukee 18. Indiana 19. Atlanta 20. Portland (From Memphis via Denver and Cleveland) 21. Oklahoma City 22. Brooklyn (From Washington) 23. Toronto (From LA Clippers via Milwaukee) 24. Utah 25. Orlando (From Toronto) 26. Portland (From Cleveland) 27. Brooklyn (From Boston) 28. Los Angeles Lakers (From Houston) 29. San Antonio 30. Utah (From Golden State)

The Miami Heat would have fared the best using my system with this freeze date and grouping scenario, going from the 14th pick to the 5th pick. The New York Knicks would have been hurt the most. Their 8th pick would have been the 16th, although they would have tried much harder under this system.

There of course could be many variations of this idea, and many tweaks could be made to improve it. But in any form, it is clearly better than the current system now in place. This solution would bring excitement by encouraging winning to even the bottom-dwelling teams. It would also not harm the competitive balance of the league. It is extremely flexible to adjust to the anomalies of each season.

And most importantly of all, it would end this hideous business of losing on purpose.