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Sunday, June 03, 2007
David's Revenge? Teams Suspect Stern Rigged NBA Lottery to Punish The Tankers

Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated reports on the most recent meeting of the NBA competition committee--a meeting held in Orlando last Tuesday and one that Thomsen calls "the most important competition committee meeting in years." The four-hour long meeting was chaired by Commissioner David Stern and attended by representatives from 29 of the 30 teams. Apparently things got testy when the topic turned to tanking, as Thomsen writes that there are "suspicions among some league executives and coaches that Stern rigged the results of the lottery." According to these suspicions, Stern somehow manipulated the ping-pong balls so as to punish the three teams (Grizzlies, Celtics, and Bucks) that were alleged to have purposefully lost games:
According to people who were there, the big issues were the alleged tanking of regular-season games, the mess created by last week's lottery and the rule prohibiting players from leaving the bench during on-court altercations that resulted in the suspensions of the Suns' Stoudemire and Boris Diaw during the West semifinals.

Stern admitted the league has created a perception that the worst teams have been losing on purpose over the second half of the season in hope of improving their position in the lottery. He said the fans don't like it, and he added that he was open to suggestion on how to redress the perception.

There are suspicions among some league executives and coaches that Stern rigs the results of the lottery -- in this case to punish the three worst teams (Memphis, Boston and Milwaukee, who came out of the lottery Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in the draft) for contributing to the perception of late-season tanking. To deal with the conspiracy theories, the league spelled out during the committee meeting how the lottery machine works and how it would be practically impossible to fix the outcome. (I've been in the closed room during the lottery, and the NBA mechanism is a lot like the Powerball or other lottery machines that you see on television.)

Amid the discussion of tanking spoke up former Memphis coach Tony Barone, representing the Grizzlies in place of team president Jerry West (whose absence was seen by some as a statement of protest), to make an impassioned defense of his team's play. He was adamant that the Grizzlies hadn't been tanking games and he responded forcefully and sincerely to the insinuation.

As to the fact that the three neediest teams were shut out of the top three picks, Stern again said that he was open to suggestion for a better system.
As often as I criticize David Stern, I am going to defend him here. I feel confident saying that the lottery was not rigged and there was no conspiracy. Stern may be powerful, but short of telekinetic powers, I strongly doubt that he could or would have rigged the lottery, particularly given that an independent lottery firm--albeit one hired by the NBA--actually conducts it. The results were certainly unfortunate for the three teams with the three worst records, but that is the nature of a lottery where no team--including the team with the worst record--has a likely chance of landing either of the first two picks.

As to whether teams intentionally tanked games, I guess it depends on how one defines
"intent." I'll consider the Celtics, since I follow them more closely than I do any other NBA team.

1) Did Coach Doc Rivers set out to lose games? Probably not, as I do not think his conscious object was to see his team lose games, particularly given pride and a weakened hold on his job. But did he experiment with lineups in ways that he would not have had his team been competing for a playoff spot? Probably, perhaps because he wanted to evaluate players for next season or because he was trying to catch lightening in a bottle, and by doing so, he likely knew there was a substantial risk that his team would lose more games.

2) Would Paul Pierce have played through elbow and foot injuries had his team been in playoff contention instead of being shut down with a few weeks left in the season? Probably, especially given his reputation for playing hurt. But was he really 100% and covertly kept out by GM Danny Ainge so that the team would lose more often? Probably not.

3) Could Al Jefferson have played through a minor knee injury in April rather than sit out a week? Probably. But was he "kept out" to ensure additional loses? Probably not.

I guess I would call it "passive tanking" which might reflect the "reckless" mens rea in criminal law:
being aware that certain behavior poses a substantial risk of causing harm, but having other, possibly acceptable, intentions for the behavior. That may not comprise laudable conduct, but it's not as egregious as is generally implied by the word "tanking."

For related coverage on Sports Law Blog and The Situationist, check out:

Update 6/4/07: ESPN's Henry Abbott analyzes how the rigging could occur and explores ways that Commissioner Stern and the NBA could diminish suspicions, including:
Redesign the lottery so that the real drawing happens live on international TV. Seeing grim men in suits arrive in the TV studio with the envelopes all ordered by some secretive behind-the-scenes process does not help perceptions.


Well it certainly could be fixed. A similar get-up was used to fix the Pennsylvania Lottery and twice since then have had to double draws after a post-draw review showed defective equipment.

Pennsylvania Lottery Fix

Double Draws

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/03/2007 5:47 PM  

Killing someone recklessly (but not intentionally or knowingly) still constitutes manslaughter--a pretty serious crime.

Mike gives examples subtle actions that, he says, are "not as egregious as is generally implied by the word 'tanking.'" Actually, these are the precise elements that come to my mind when I think of that word. The only additional element is players not playing hard, in the sense of hustling (which is a relative thing during the NBA regular season anyway). For me, tanking is not players deliberately missing shots or committing turnovers. It is doing (or not doing) their absolute best to win--sitting when it would be possible to play, putting the best players on the court at the key times, not sitting players at the wrong times, etc.

All of which suggests that "tanking" is a more complicated idea than "deliberately" losing.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 6/03/2007 10:01 PM  

Thanks for these comments.


You raise a good illustration of how the NBA's lottery could technically be rigged, and I appreciate those links. But I still think that it would be extremely difficult to pull off, especially given the scrutiny the NBA lottery receives, and that it would seemingly take a conspiracy between NBA officials and the lottery company. At least to me, it seems like too fanciful an idea (although, to play Devil's Advocate, perhaps that is what they said about the Penn Lottery, too).


While I agree with the gist of your comments, I would note that charges of "tanking" have been raised to describe less ambiguous fact-patterns than when an injured player might be able to play but doesn't. The much-discussed Celtics loss to Charlotte on March 21 was one such instance:

Going back to the injured player fact pattern, I agree that it can raise interesting, even provocative questions as to what is tanking. Along those lines (and I suspect you would agree), injured players not playing hurt when their team is out-of-contention may not necessarily comprise "tanking," even if the result of them not playing is to increase the probability of the team losing (a result seemingly consistent with tanking).

Referring again to the Celtics example, it is interesting to ask what would make more sense for the team when it has already been eliminated from the playoff hunt: to rest Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson when they could presumably play through pain (but perhaps risk aggravating their injuries) or to have them play through those injuries and to do their best to help their team win those games? Is it really tanking to rest injured players who could play through pain to help their team? Or does that resting indicate that their team has taken a more cautious and/or longer-term perspective on their players' health?

Blogger Michael McCann -- 6/04/2007 1:38 AM  

While a "fix" isn't likely or probable, it certainly could be done.

Here's the thing about "tanking". It is probably beneficial to players to get the chance to fully recover from even minor injuries because in theory it lengthens the potential career of the player. But here's the thing. A player who spends a lot of time ridin' the pine is less valuable as a free agent. Does Team A want to risk a good free agent offer to Player 12 when there is doubt about his health and ability to avoid injury and recover from injury? If player 22 isn't seeing a lot of court time does Team B want to make a big free agent offer to a guy who isn't even posting top numbers for a bad team?

There potential downside for players makes me ask why isn't the Players Association raising hell if teams really are tanking.

However, I do have the official 10,000th solution for the draft.

Compare the first 41 games of the year with the last 41 and penalize teams that do much worse in the second half.

For example Memphis had a .244 winning percentage after 41 games and ended and .268 after 82.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/04/2007 10:50 AM  

Re: the Celtics -- the question isn't whether Doc Rivers tried to lose games ... it is whether the Celtics organization tried to lose games w/Doc as Head Coach.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/04/2007 4:22 PM  

Just as tanking doesn't guarantee you'll get the first pick, having the first pick doesn't guarantee you'll get the best player. Oden and Durant certainly look like sure things right now, but lets check back in 3-5 years. Down the draft board, perhaps Jeff Green will the next James Worthy or Corey Brewer will be the next Scottie Pippen. Rather than whining and complaining about their draft luck (or lack thereof), teams like the Celtics and Grizzlies should focus on scouting better and making wiser personnel decisions.

McCann, I want to see you take on Bobby Knight, who thinks one year is still not enough of a barrier to entry to the NBA.

Anonymous Matt Donato -- 6/04/2007 4:58 PM  

Thanks for these comments.

Anonymous 2,

I agree that if a player is going to be a free agent at the end of the season, not playing could risk damaging his reputation at the worst time possible. Also, your suggestion about comparing the two halves of the season is interesting and might expose some instances of tanking. I guess a drawback to it might be if a star player is genuinely hurt in the second half of the season and his absence plays a major role in a team's struggles--it may not seem fair to punish the team in that instance. But still, you raise a method that might shed light on whether tanking has occurred.

Anonymous 3,

Interesting point. You are not the only skeptic who has wondered why Doc Rivers wasn't fired despite the team's massive struggles, including losing 18 games in a row! I know he is a likeable guy who has had success in the past (NBA Coach of the Year for Orlando in the 1999-2000 season), but I believe I read that no NBA coach had ever lost 18 games in a row--until Doc.


Great to hear from you. I agree with you that the first pick doesn't guarantee the best player, and it wouldn't surprise me if years from now, Jeff Green winds up as the best or 2nd best player from this draft. It also wouldn't surprise me if the Celtics take Green at 5, especially since Chad Ford reports that he measured 6'9 ½ at the pre-draft camp in Orlando and now seems poised to overcome doubts about whether he can play the 4 in the NBA:

In terms of Bobby Knight, I understand why, as a college coach, he has a self-interest in requiring players like Lebron James and Kevin Garnett to play in college in order to make the college product better, with better TV ratings and more attention and money for college coaches, but in terms of empirical data about player performance (and namely that high school players in the NBA average more points, rebounds, and assists than the average NBA player or the average NBA player of any age group--and that includes the relatively few high schoolers who didn't make the NBA and who count as "0" in those stats), I think that he is completely wrong. At least there are some college coaches, like Coach K, who are far more objective about this topic than Knight:

"After coaching Team USA's LeBron James and Dwight Howard, who went straight to the NBA from high school, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said he opposes the year-old rule that prevents NBA teams from drafting high school seniors . . . Now he is speaking out against it, saying basketball holds back teens while tennis, soccer and golf do not.

"We have a 16-year-old girl (Michelle Wie) that's winning money, a beautiful girl," Krzyzewski said. "They should be given those opportunities, and we should be able to adjust. It's not going to hurt the college game. The college game is going to be OK no matter what. I think this puts the college game in more of harm's way than it needs to be" . . .

He said when basketball players who don't want to attend college are forced onto campus for a year, college officials have trouble guaranteeing players will take their academic responsibilities seriously.

"There are a lot of successful people in this country who didn't go to college," Krzyzewski said. "They should be given the right to do that. We have one of the richest men in the world (Bill Gates) who didn't finish college, giving away hundreds of millions of dollars. To me, I'd rather have it the way it was (with no age limit)."

Blogger Michael McCann -- 6/04/2007 11:42 PM  

With the new NCAA requirements on academic progress, it is arguably not in a school's best interest to recruit a hot-shot player who is merely waiting a year to get drafted. The APR methodology won't hurt a school too much if the player leaves eligible, but if he leaves and isn't academically eligible it creates a strong APR impact. Do too poorly in APR and you lose scholarships.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/05/2007 7:50 AM  

Allegations of a rigged lottery have doggd the league since Patrick Ewing.

The only pure resolution would be a nationally televised drawing. Even if it is all the way honest, probability can't soothe a spurned fan.

Blogger Jarrett Carter -- 6/28/2007 11:18 PM  

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