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Thursday, April 05, 2007
The Pursuit of Crappyness: Are NBA Teams Tanking Games for Greg Oden and Kevin Durant?
Last night, the 23-50 Boston Celtics, holders of the second worst record in the NBA, were set to play the 25-48 Milwaukee Bucks, holders of the third worst record. At first blush, it seemed like an utterly unimportant, uninteresting, end-of-the-season match-up between two of the worst teams in the NBA. Indeed, it was probably one of those games where it's tough to give away your tickets.
But there was something about the match-up that gave it real, even profound, meaning: a deep suspicion that both teams were determined to lose the game to help secure the league's second worst record. Setting aside the merits' of those suspicions--which were detailed on Celtics RealGM board, Celtics Blog, and AOL's Bucks Fanhouse, among many other websites--why would either team want to finish the season with a worse record?
Here's why: the team with the second worst record will have a 38.9% chance of landing the first or second pick in the NBA lottery (to be held on May 22), while the team with the third worst record will have a 31.5% chance of landing one of those two picks. In a draft that will feature two likely-franchise players, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, and 58 other guys, getting the first or second pick means perhaps more in this draft than any other. And with only a handful of games left in the NBA season, each team "competing" for Oden and Durant really can't afford to win--or so the tanking theory goes.
But where is the evidence that Doc Rivers and Larry Krystkowiak were actually coaching their teams to lose? Could a coach really tank a game in a way that isn't embarrassingly obvious? And why would a coach, who presumably cares about his career record and has some pride, want to lose? I could certainly see a team owner wanting to lose, and perhaps also a general manager who has taken a long term view, but the more a coach loses games, the more likely he will be fired . . . unless, I suppose, he has been told by management that he will only be kept if he loses.
There is also some "evidence" that each team has adopted a lose-now/win-later strategy. For instance, the Celtics have shut down for the season their three best players, Paul Pierce, Al Jefferson, and Wally Szczerbiak. By most accounts, Pierce and Jefferson are suffering from either minor, lingering injuries or lack of conditioning issues, and both could probably play if needed. Making matters more suspicious, Doc Rivers has already been accused of tanking a recent game: it was against the similarly-dreadful Charlotte Bobcats, where his team was up by 16 points going into the fourth quarter, but then, at the start of the fourth quarter, he inexplicably put in a very strange and not good line-up that may have led to a stunning come-from-behind Bobacats win in Boston.
One might also say the Celtics have a "history" of tanking, as former coach and GM M.L. Carr admitted the team had tanked in the 1996-97 season in hopes of landing the first pick and selecting Tim Duncan. As I wrote last April in a post on the lottery system:
The Bucks have also come under fire on the tanking question. Most notably, in what some see as a direct response to the depleted Celtics' lineup, the Bucks did not play Michael Redd, Brian Skinner, or Michael Williams last night, allegedly due to injuries or knee soreness.
Perhaps the most recent and egregious example of purposeful losing by an NBA team occurred in the 1996-1997 season, when teams were jockeying for the worst record, in hopes of securing the coveted first pick in the draft, which would be used to select Tim Duncan. At the time, the Celtics were coached by M.L. Carr, who was also the team's general manager. The team lost 67 games, thus securing the worst record (but it didn't win the lottery). Having watched a number of their games that season, it seemed that they always found a way to lose. Five years later, Carr would assert that he was indeed trying to lose games:Carr suggested his last season as Celtics coach in 1996-97, during which the team suffered through a franchise-worst 15-67 record, was a tank job designed to deliver the incoming coach (Rick Pitino) with strong draft position. "That was part of the orchestration," said Carr, an obvious indictment of the entire organization and its part in encouraging a losing season in an attempt to get the first overall pick (Tim Duncan). As it turned out, the Celtics lost out on Duncan and settled for the third and sixth overall picks. From: Mark Cofman, Celtics Dismiss Outspoken Carr, Boston Herald, Feb. 1, 2001, at 84.
Still, I find it hard to believe that a coach--at least one who is not also the GM--would try to lose a game. But let's say the suspicions are true. What should the NBA do about it? Or should it do anything? If we assume that tanking is a problem, here are some possible ways to counter-act it (although each brings its own can of worms):
1) No Weighted Lottery: Give every lottery team an equal shot at winning the lottery. So each of the 14 lottery teams would have about a 7% chance of landing the first pick. This has been proposed by others, including Ankur Amin of Associated Content and CochiseTX of digg.
Upside: really bad teams would no longer tank, and it's unlikely that a team on the cusp of making the playoffs would try to instead make the lottery for a 7% of getting the first pick, although that could be a slight concern.
Downside: really bad teams may no longer be able to re-build through the draft, and some franchises could linger in lousiness for many seasons, thus damaging local fan interest in the team and probably the NBA, too. I could see the NBA opposing this idea on grounds that it would damage the joint-venture quality of the league and its owners.
2) Inverse Weighted Lottery: Give teams that just missed the playoffs a better chance at winning the lottery. This plan was offered by Sports Law Blog reader Collin in response to my post last April.
Upside, per Collin: "It would not substantially punish the lower ranked teams (since they've got much deeper seated problems) and would also increase the chances that a high draft pick could make a difference (by playing on a team where he might be the missing piece) AND would make teams play harder at the end of the season."
Downside: see downside for solution #1, except it would be presumably even greater here.
3) Competitive Play Complaints: A Joint League and Player Investigative Committee on Competitive Play. Let's say another team suspects that the Celtics and Bucks are trying to lose. How about if that team could file a complaint with the Commissioner and ideally also the Players' Association Director requesting that the NBA and NBPA investigate whether there is any evidence of tanking. If the complaint has reasonable probability, a committee of league officials and players' officials could conduct follow-up interviews with players, coaches, and maybe also local media and reputable bloggers. Following those interviews, if sufficiently damming evidence is found and verified, the tanking team could be punished by losing the opportunity to land the first or second pick (with an appeal process worked in).
Upside: it might dissuade some teams from tanking, if for no other reason than to avoid the embarrassment of having a competitive play complaint filed against them. It would also avoid some of the more draconian and unintended consequences found in ideas #1 and #2.
Downside: hard to show intent to lose; what kind of rules of evidence would apply?; it would seem to make the game more litigious and most people don't like legal-like processes; not sure who would support this; and the commissioner probably already has this power (although he doesn't seem to use it).
4) Eliminate the NBA Draft altogether; Every Rookie is a Free Agent.
Upside: See Alan Milstein's classic post on Sports Law Blog--perhaps the best post ever on this blog--Reggie Bush Sweepstakes. That post, which was published in December 2005, was obviously on the NFL draft, but the same arguments more or less hold true with the NBA draft.
Downside: Not going to happen, and while the draft is indeed primarily designed to prevent amateur players from bargaining with multiple NBA employers (and thus reducing their earning capacity), it also, at least to some degree, does redistribute talent in a way that benefits the league as a whole.
Any thoughts or reactions or better ideas?
Update: Other Takes
In addition to the outstanding comments to this post, several writers on other websites/blogs have responded:
"Michael McCann on tanking. One way to make sure it doesn't happen: make every rookie a free agent. Worth discussing! I'd add some wrinkles like a salary cap, and an ability for teams to pay local players slightly more (calm down, we could carve up the nation into regions with similar populations) to inpsire homegrown pride."
"The utilitarian says that a team with more talent is obviously better than a team with worse talent. If losing when you have a mediocre-at-best team now means that you can have a contender down the line, you do it. Norm-diffusion is for wusses. Kevin Durant, Greg Oden... they know how to win. Put them on a losing team. They'll show you how winning cultures are really made. A utilitarian tanks with no qualms (so long as the benefits exceed the costs, of course)."
"The Sports Law Blog, a long-time Antitrust Review favorite, discusses the fascinating issue of ensuring competition among NBA teams (ensuring competitive games, not ensuring competition for the first pick in the draft by tanking games) (the comments also deal with some antitrust (non)issues)."