Friday, April 13, 2007

Tanking -- The Unintended Consequence

As the NBA season has worn down, it is becoming apparent that some teams are not giving their all to win every game, and in fact purposely tanking games in order to improve their draft position in the hopes of nabbing one of the two budding superstars who may enter this year's draft -- Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.

This has been examined by Bill Simmons and the Michael McCann at the Sports Law Blog, but I think there missing one factor -- this tanking is an unintended consequence of the much-praised policy of the NBA imposing a minimum age for the draft.

I've written myself about how tanking is a bit of a sucker's game in the NFL. There does not seem to be a strong correlation between college success and success in the NFL.

McCann's article lists several factors for why tanking is prevalent in the NBA and not other sports. Basically, a single player can have a tremendous impact on a franchise, there is a greater differentiation on the impact of players at the upper levels of the game, and few people follow late season games for losing NBA teams.

There isn't a real great way to police tanking, so the greatest risk is a revolt from season ticket holders. The team is selling them an inferior product for full price, so the season ticket holders have to buy into what the team is dong. And in order for them to buy into it, they have to share management's value of the players at the top of the draft. And the age limit has helped make that happen.

As Simmons noted, the age limit helped lead to a wonderfully competitive college basketball season and NCAA tournament, with the quality of play at all-time high levels. Another benefit is that we as fans got to know wonderful players like Oden and Durant before they joined the NBA and hit the steep learning curve.

But at the same time, the high profile of these players has given the teams cover to pursue their tanking. We've all seen Kevin Durant and Greg Oden play, and it's hard to argue that it's not worth throwing away a few games for a better chance of grabbing them.

The lottery came about in the early 80's when Patrick Ewing, a player of undeniable talent and prominence was emerging from college. But not only was Ewing talented, he had a very high profile, having appeared in the Final Four three of his four seasons at Georgetown. And while he had a successful career, there are many players whose careers significantly overlapped Ewing's who had more success -- Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler. The problem wasn't so much that Ewing was talented, but that everyone knew how talented he was, and would thus be willing to accept their favorite team losing for a chance to grab him.

If Durant and Oden were coming straight from high school, we wouldn't know much about them, similar to LeBron James a couple years ago, when there was not this widespread tanking. But now we have seen Oden and Durant play, and succeed, against tough competition. They cannot be dismissed as hype, as the high school LeBron James could.

This doesn't mean the age limit was a bad idea, just that it has this unintended consequence that has not been accounted for. This can be addressed in several ways, including Simmons's idea of restoring the draft lottery to its original truly random origins. That had some unintended consequences as well, notably the Orlando Magic winning consecutive lotteries, but those were more acceptable than a half dozen teams spending half the season trying to lose.


Anonymous said...

Deliberate Tanking

It happens anyways, draft or not, when you are eliminated from the playoffs with 20 games to go. There isn't exactly a motivation to keep on playing your best.

Invariably certain athletes will undergo season ending surgeries when they "unofficially" give up on the post season, so that they can be healthier sooner for the next.

There's even the phenomenon of the top teams sitting their best players, when they know they have a lock on first place, so as to give them a rest and to avoid possible injuries. (In the sport of eyes-awkey, the Devils didn't play the world's best goalie in their final game - a move which had consequences for other teams, as the Devils lost the game.

My only point is a small one - that there are times when a team simply is motivated to lose - or at least motivated to not put on their best game.

So - from a fan perspective - if I'm sitting there near the end of a season watching a terrible team - I would prefer it if I knew that at least the team was deliberately jockeying for a great pick for next year than knowing they were just disinterested in playing.

twiffer said...

gotta disagree on the premise that, if they were to jump straight from high school, they'd be less known. because it's not the case. people may not see the kid play, but they'll have heard about him. this guy, for instance, comes to mind.

i find interest in sports drafts rather odd, but that's likely because i really only follow baseball. and frankly, the baseball draft just doesn't matter all that much.

JohnMcG said...


Keep looking...

Drafted: 1996, 1st round, 13th pick by Hornets

That was an admiittedly stacked draft, but people weren't losing on purpose to get a hold of Kobe, and his hometown Sixers passed on the chance to draft him.

I would say that the past year has significantly increased the probablility that Durant won't be a bust, and even more significatly increased the fans' perception of the probablility that he won't be a bus.



It's true every other team doesn't go into every game wanting to win it at all costs. This plays out in a number of ways -- having pitch counts on young starting pitchers, resting regulars, saving a trick play, etc.

But it seems this year we've crossed a line from not going all-out to win and trying to lose. What people are paying to watch is competition. Without that, we may as well be watching the WWE

Anonymous said...

When the outcome doesn't matter, there is no difference between sport and wwe. That's a fact of life for any sport - and it plays against the very best teams as much as it does against the very worst.

But then again I think even that's wrong. The team that's locked up the playoff spot should be taking care of it's stars before the playoff starts - that's really not wwe. And those bad team really should have their stars get surgery now rather than when the season's over.

And in fact - the outcome does matter in getting a better chance at the lottery, then awful teams are wise to try to lose, and I'd prefer to see my team do that than to see them lose out on the lottery. And that's definitely not wwe territory - it's just an aspect of the game.

It makes for weird games - but I guess ultimately, it's still different than wwe. It's just that in such games the goals are different.

JohnMcG said...


I'm not saying it's unwise for the teams to pursue this strategy under the current structure, but that it's a problem that the current structure makes this a wise strategy.

If your product is competitive basketball, and right now, about a quarter of the teams are trying to lose, that's not a good thing.

Maybe it's warming to the hearts of those supporting the losing team that their forbearance will be rewarded with a superstar rookie next year versus baseball where fans of the Kansas City Royals have nothing to look forward to.

twiffer said...

john: my point is everyone knew who he was, even though he was coming straight from high school. same with kevin garnett, etc. age doesn't matter as far as noteriety goes. there is just too much media saturation. i know who these guys are, and knew when they were entering the draft, and i don't follow the nba. at all. never even watched a full game on tv, let alone in person.

Anonymous said...

john - we really aren't disagreeing on much here - except that I just don't see it as a problem that a quarter of the teams are hoping to get a better lottery ticket.

16 teams outta 30 make it to adult round. That 6 to 8 teams outta the bottom 14 have given up and want to get a good draft choice doesn't bother me any more than the Pistons resting their veterans in their remaining games.

It's not just a consequence of the draft system - it's also a consequence of the playoff system. Summer vacation already started for about 10 teams or so.

This happens in every sport.

As for the KC Royals - baseball needs a better means of revenue sharing - I think that'd do it.