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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:
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.
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.

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.

: 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.

: 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.

, 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."

: 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)."


Whlie your suggestion to make the lottery more equal for all teams, I believe that i against the anti-trust laws. I am not sure under what statute, but I believe that in order for a draft to be allowed in competitve bargaining is that a draft enhances a more equal and competitive play. If the draft had a team that finished not in the bottom, the team would definitely do better, but it is not neccesarily true that the worse teams will do better in the draft, which would loose there ability to collectively bargain.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/05/2007 8:07 PM  

not if the players agree to it.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/05/2007 8:45 PM  

no there are some rules that are nonbinding even with a collective bargaining agreement. This is one of them. Kenny is right

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/05/2007 9:13 PM  

Just a small correction: I went to that game after which Doc Rivers said that he wasnt tanking the game. It was against the Charlotte bobcats not the atlanta hawks.
I think the current kind of draft order, like in the nfl, discourages good sportsmanship and def needs to be changed!

Blogger Andrew -- 4/05/2007 9:56 PM  


Thanks for the correction and sorry that you had to witness that game! :)

Kenny and the other two commentators,

Thanks for your comments, they raise an interesting issue on the legality of a non-weighted lottery, as detailed in option #1.

But I'm not sure that it would violate antitrust laws for a draft lottery to provide equal chance to the worst 14 teams to obtain picks 1 through 14, while the order for the remaining 16 teams would continue to be based on record. And I think that is true even if the players' wouldn't consent.

For one, most of the first round (16 out of the 30 picks) would still be based strictly on re-distributive grounds (i.e., records of the playoff teams). Plus, presumably all 30 picks in the second round would remain based on those same re-distributive grounds. So 46 out of the 60 draft selections in a non-weighted lottery would remain based on re-distributive considerations, meaning that the weakest teams in those 46 selections would still have the first crack at the best available talent.

Having said that, I fully understand that the lottery features the best talent--especially among the top 5 selections--and that a non-weighted lottery would probably not re-distribute that talent to the weakest (or "most needy") teams, but courts have been very deferential (too deferential in my opinion) to leagues in how they operate drafts, and I suspect that courts would be sympathetic to leagues like the NBA that have teams deliberately trying to lose games. But if you find case-law that would support your point, I would be extremely interested reading it. It's a neat topic and sounds like a good area for an enterprising law student to research for a student note project.

Thanks to you all for commenting.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 4/05/2007 11:13 PM  

The only problem with tanking games is that there are NO guarantees you get what you are trying to get!!! You mentioned the Celtics in 96-97, when they had two shots in the ping-pong ball lottery to land Tim Duncan and missed both times (they ended up with # 3 and # 10 picks if I remember right). More such evidence:

>> Just ask Denver Nuggets fans about tanking to get the #1 pick! Twice the Nuggets had the worst record in the NBA, and neither time did they get the #1 pick (ending up FOURTH both times).

>> Who said that either Odin &/or Durant are even coming out FOR SURE? It seems like no one has bothered to ask THEM about THEIR plans; both are freshmen, and remember Odin only played just over half the season due to work on his wrist. Seems to me another year for both would not be a bad idea, to see if they are not flashes-in-the-pan's. By the way, who would be the #1 pick if NEITHER Odin nor Durant come out?

P.S. This draft may also be a little better than thought, with four Florida starters coming out for this year's draft.

Melvin H.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/06/2007 4:35 AM  

I love the idea of naming all players to be free agents. Perhaps you could throw in some first rights of refusal to lower-placed teams (they have the right to match any price offered from a higher ranked team, so the higher ranked teams end up having to pay more to get rookies).

Anonymous greg oden -- 4/06/2007 8:57 AM  

I have sneaking admiration for the notion that the lottery team with the BEST record ought to get the most ping pong balls, because the assumption that bad teams will become competitive given enough high lotto picks is illusory. When has that ever happened since the introduction of the lottery system? ? Look at teams like the Clips and the Hawks, who have been awarded high picks year after year but are still lousy.

Unfortunately, I doubt if the "inverse order" approach would fly with the league. Instead, how about a simple system of escalating fines? These would be similar to the fines Stern imposes for criticizing the officials. If Stern thinks a team has tanked a game, it's a $100,000 fine for both the coach and the GM. The second offense costs $250,000 each, the third $500,000, and so on. A team could appeal these fines, but it would have the burder of proving that it was not trying to lose, including affidavits from the team physicians that allegedly injured players were, in fact, injured, and explanations for unusual substitution patterns.

My guess is that the tanking would stop in a hurry if Stern took this approach.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/06/2007 9:33 AM  

Pro sports drafts help to artificially lower a player's initial salary, particularly in situations where a "rookie cap" exists.

I like how Randolph Morris was able to go directly from the NCAA Tournament into the NBA (because of having passed through the draft once before), though obviously his situation was the exception and not the rule.

Anonymous Lou P. -- 4/06/2007 10:26 AM  

Glad to see a return to an issue near and dear to my heart. Why not institute a draft of the best law students from the firms around the country in reverse order of partner profitability. It will even the playing field. Students may lose their choice to work where and with whom they want but, hey, it will only be for the first four years of their career. For many athletes, their whole career is over in less time. Alan Milstein

Anonymous Alan Milstein -- 4/06/2007 10:35 AM  

What evidence is there that the draft "redistribute[s] talent in a way that benefits the league as a whole?"

Arguably, Mr. Milstein's point has nothing to do with the draft, but rather with the fact that leagues have been allowed to become monopolies. No one would argue that, once a law student joins a law firm, it can assign him to whatever practice of the firm it wants. So is the problem that a league can assign a player to a single team the real problem, or is that there's only one league?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/06/2007 11:02 AM  

While the NBA should adopt a more European Soccer view on how to develop their players (Having their own youth academies owning the rights to the players that they developed, being able to sell them/trade them when they want to or if the player wants out) would solve a myriad of problems in the league (including the whole NCAA profiting greatly off of what is basically uncompensated labor) but that is never going to happen.

Since that system will never be implemented the system that is in place now is as good as you can get. In any situation where you reward losing with a prize organizations will tank. They are motivated to tank and will keep as many necessary players out of the game to do so.

We are stuck with the best situation until the NBA truly embraces player development instead of letting other organizations do it for them.

Anonymous Gregg -- 4/06/2007 11:09 AM  

Certainly a difference between assigning a player to a position and giving him one and only one choice about where he will work. The league is not the employer; the individual teams are. The point is really to dispel the myth, which fans have bought into, that the purpose of the draft is parity because, without it, all the players would gravitate to the good teams. Many players would choose to work in their home or college towns as evidenced by players like Randy Wolf who left the Phillies to go play for the Dodgers.

Anonymous alan milstein -- 4/06/2007 11:19 AM  

This suggestion may be received as heresy in this forum, but, I suggest that the current system is actually pretty good for two reasons: (1) the probabilistic nature of the rankings makes the decision to lose on purpose a much riskier one; and, (2) losing on purpose, while wrong, is not as bad as people think.

(1) is self-evident, I trust. If you decide to tank in the hopes of getting #1, you may instead get burned and alienate fans in the meantime.

(2) what is the point of losing on purpose to get a high draft? It is to get better in the future. It's a strategic decision, a retreat, if you will, with the idea of regrouping and eventually winning. This is not the greatest sin. In fact, whatever is wrong with it can be cured by the market pressures noted above: you may lose your fan base, revenue, etc.

There is something to be said for always trying your best, never throwing in the towel, and so forth. Those are indeed admirable virtues. Yet, we admit their limits in other aspects of life: sometimes planning for the future means sacrificing now. Is there something about professional sports that makes them immune to such strategic decisions? Do we expect professional sports to exhibit the highest human virtues? Professional sports leagues are comprised of businesses that have sold their fans down the river countless times. Apply the same business pressures to sanction them and look elsewhere for your models of virtue.

Anonymous Bob-Wise Gansey -- 4/06/2007 11:28 AM  

imo the problem is that the step down from last to 2nd last to 3rd last is too large. this provides motivation for tanking... why not use a smaller step size, with all 14 non playoff teams having a chance at the #1 pick and all first 14 picks being drawn.

30th 11%
29th 11%
28th 11%
27th 11%
26th 10%
35th 9%
24th 8%
23rd 7%
22nd 6%
21st 5%
19th 4%
18th 3%
17th 2%

or something similar to that (as mine dont add up to 100%).. but you get the picture. This would stop teams from trying to move down a spot of two cos it makes very little difference to their chances..

Blogger Michal -- 4/06/2007 11:45 AM  


Your arguments seem to be question-begging or without evidentiary support.

"Certainly a difference between assigning a player to a position and giving him one and only one choice about where he will work."

This problem arises only because leagues are monopsonies. If there were multiple leagues, each having a draft, then a player would have an option about where to play. See the days of the AFL/NFL and ABA/NBA.

"The league is not the employer; the individual teams are."

You're begging the question. The point is that, for antitrust purposes, should the leagues be treated as a single entity?

"The point is really to dispel the myth, which fans have bought into, that the purpose of the draft is parity because, without it, all the players would gravitate to the good teams."

Undoubtedly drafts have the effect of cutting costs by creating a property right in a player's services. But the idea that a draft necessarily has only that purpose is silly, without further evidence.

"Many players would choose to work in their home or college towns as evidenced by players like Randy Wolf who left the Phillies to go play for the Dodgers."

Maybe yes, maybe no. One anecdote does not make a statement true.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/06/2007 2:34 PM  

The question is not one of legality. The league and the union have agreed in arms legnth negotiations to a term that effects primarily those in the union and concerns wages. So it is shielded by the labor exemption. End of story. What goads me is that the draft is sold as a parity issue and not a vehicle to control wages. And that fans and commentators--and even players--buy that rationale.

Anonymous alan milstein -- 4/06/2007 4:43 PM  

Humm what about a pick your poison lottery that would muck things up so good the fans could never figure it out?

The bottom 7 teams get three choices.
1. Compete for one of the first picks.
2. Compete for one of two $5 million league bonus payments that can only be used for player salaries and is exempt from the cap and the tax.
3. Compete for two bonus picks to be taken just before the championship series participants pick.

Each team sends a letter to the commissioner of their choice of pool.

Commissioner opens the 7 envelopes.
If only 1 or 2 pick option 2 they get it and go in the hopper for the first pick lottery. Same for option 3 with a drawing to determine the order of the bonus pick. If more teams pick option 2 or 3 than there are slots there is a drawing for each slot the winners are held out of the 1-7 lottery until the other slots are taken.

Totally crazy BUT, some teams might risk giving up a shot at the top pick for some immediate cap help that doesn't come out of the owner's pocket, while other teams might risk not being the top pick in order to have the added player of a bonus pick or by being able to take that pick and trade it.

Brings some game play to the process as well. If you go for the cap help or bonus pick and more teams pick that option than there are slots, those teams are guaranteed to be out of contention for the earliest picks, but if you choose one of those options and few other teams do, you are still in the unweighted competition for spot #1.

Blogger Mark -- 4/06/2007 6:34 PM  

I've got an idea. Put the lottery teams in 3 tiers: Group A. teams that made the playoffs last season - let's say there are 5. They pick in random order 10-14. Group B. teams that missed the playoffs last season but made it the year before- let's say there are 5. They pick in random order 5-9. Group C. teams that missed the playoffs the last 2 seasons. They pick in random order 1-4. I can't find a single reason why a team would tank. This season a team like Memphis would be screwed since they were a playoff team. A team like the Warriors (if they miss out) would benefit for missing the playoffs annually.

Blogger ACC -- 4/06/2007 6:51 PM  

Well, I have an idea. If a team cannot win 1/3 of games it plays (28 wins in a 82-game schedule), that team cannot participate in the upcoming lottery. Therefore at current pace, Memphis will not get a pick higher than 4, Boston 5, and Milwaukee 6 repectively.

Anonymous Dai Lung Liu -- 4/07/2007 4:46 AM  

The best solution is a European- style elimination system that relegates the worst teams to a minor league every season. If only there was a minor league basketball league . . .

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/07/2007 11:12 AM  

rookie salaries are capped, right?

So, how about if they capped a player out of high school for one year at x amount of dollars.

someone out of high school for two years at x2 amount of dollars.

someone out of high school for three years at x3 amount of dollars.

someone out of high school for four years at x4 amount of dollars.

have the players agree to it, give them something else in return that they want and maybe you'll have players with longer collegiate careers.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/07/2007 11:25 AM  

Although all the major sports leagues have drafts, I think that the NBA is the only one that has a lottery/weighted system. In all the other leagues (NFL, MBL, NHL, and even MLS), the team with the worst record gets the 1st choice and so on. In the NBA, the team with the worst record only has a chance - a 31.5% chance - of getting the first pick. I would argue that the NBA's system does the most to discourage the tanking of games to gain draft position. In other leagues, the team will know for certain what draft pick they will have but under the NBA's system, there is only a chance that they will get any particular pick.

If teams tanking games to gain draft position is a problem, perhaps the solution is NOT to play around with the draft but to attempt alter/emphasize/highlight other incentives. For example, if a team is tanking, I would think that fans would be less likely to buy tickets, buy concessions, and watch the games on TV. Hopefully, this would be enough of a disincentive. But perhaps the NBA could increase the rewards for playing competitive games later in the season; for example, teams that play late season games on national TV (ESPN and ABC) could receive additional TV money.

Anonymous David -- 4/07/2007 3:02 PM  

How about we get rid of the lottery all together? Just adopt the NFL system, the worst record gets pick 1, second worst gets pick 2, etc. I think it's the best draft system around, and it certainly gives the best chance to redistribute the talent.

It may not solve the "tanking" issue. But there's no real way to do anything with the draft to defend against that. It's just so hard to believe that the coach could get an entire team of competitive athletes to lose on purpose.


Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/08/2007 2:29 PM  

I can see why the management and ownership would want to tank the games, but what incentive do the players have?

I'm not sure who the center of the boston celtics is, but I bet you he doesn't want boston to get the first pick in the draft

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/09/2007 7:46 AM  

From Sekou Smith of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

"Hawks radio mouthpiece Steve Holman cooked up an interesting scenario before the game. His theory: have the league’s four worst teams play a lottery playoff with the winner snagging the top pick in the draft. The four-team tournament could take place on back-to-back nights in the days before the playoffs start. The fans of those four teams would eat it up. It would be like the Toilet Bowl division of the Gus Macker.

Holman’s idea is actually one of the better solutions I’ve heard of to this blatant tanking that some teams (Milwaukee should be ashamed for showing up to Atlanta Friday with that motley crew of players no one has ever heard of) pull this time of year."

Anonymous Jason -- 4/09/2007 8:15 AM  

The real solution is a completely random draft. All 30 teams have an equal chance at the top pick regardless of record. We would all be astounded at what little difference it makes in terms of competitiveness. Remember when the Clippers got the top pick every year and destroyed lots 'n lots of NBA careers? A pathetic organization can't be fixed with high draft picks and frankly doesn't deserve them.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/09/2007 3:04 PM  

The NBA is a business and any suggestion that the weighted lottery system should be done away with is a dangerous proposition in that sense. Part of the success of major sports leagues is predicated on the events of the off-season. A quick look at NBA and NFL draft websites can show us that a significant amount of free advertising for the leagues is generated during the off-season. Thus the silver lining for horrible regular-season teams is that, at the very least, the off-season will bring a high draft pick and much-needed exposure and excitement to their team's product. Consequently, even badly run teams can keep themselves afloat financially via ticket and merchandise sales by invigorating their fan base by promising new talent and energy and trumpeting the prospect of better results in the near future.

This process is crucial as any sports league is as successful as its most poorest club.

Anonymous Jason Chung -- 4/10/2007 11:08 PM  

I was just about to comment when I saw Michal and ACC's ideas. I think ACC's idea is excellent.

Anonymous henry -- 5/22/2007 5:26 PM  

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