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Monday, April 09, 2007
Why Does Tanking Occur in the NBA but Seemingly Not in Other Leagues?

In response to my post last Thursday on NBA teams purposefully losing games to increase their odds of drafting Greg Oden or Kevin Durant (a post that generated some wonderful reader comments and posts on other websites), George Mason University law professor and Volokh Conspiracy contributor Todd Zywicki asked me the following question:
Why do you think it is that the "tanking" concern seems to arise uniquely with respect to the NBA? There seems to be no concern about tanking in the NFL for instance and it is not uncommon to see a team spring an upset the last week of the season and knock them down a few spots in the draft.

One possibility is that the top players in the NBA draft are more "impact" players. But that might explain no tanking in baseball, but not the NFL.

Another possibility might be that the number of close substitutes is deeper in the NFL, but that doesn't seem clear either.

It is just odd--the NBA seems to be the one sport where this concern arises repeatedly over time. Indeed, that's why the NBA adopted the lottery--yet there are still allegations of tanking.

Any thoughts?
I e-mailed him back the following five possible explanations, which I have edited to incorporate his insight:

1) Impact Player & Lack of Close Substitutes explanation: It seems that there are certain drafts where there is at least one player who many believe projects as a future NBA superstar. With the caveat of complete subjectivity, I recall the last 10 drafts as follows in terms of players who, at the time, projected as superstars, followed by a significant drop-off in expectations:

2006: weak draft, no superstar projections
2005: weak draft, no superstar projections
2004: Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor, and then a big drop off
2003: Lebron James, Darko Milic, Carmelo Anthony, drop off (I don't remember Dwayne Wade, who went #5, projecting as a future superstar).
2002: Yao Ming, drop off
2001: Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Eddy Curry, drop off [maybe no superstar projections here?]
2000: weak draft, no superstar projections
1999: Elton Brand, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Lamar Odom, drop off
1998: weak draft, no superstar projections
1997: Tim Duncan, drop off

But Professor Zywicki raises a great point: the NFL draft is just like the NBA Draft in that it often has a few guys at the top who are coveted, followed by everyone else, and yet allegations of tanking are much less common in the NFL. But his other point about close substitutes in the NFL draft also appears explanatory: there is likely more depth in a typical NFL draft than in a typical NBA Draft, meaning acceptable substitutes to top players in any NFL draft can usually be found throughout the first round, and sometimes even in the second and third rounds. Also, it strikes me that NFL teams often trade down in the first round, while that doesn't seem to occur nearly as often in the NBA, and that would appear to lend credence to a lack close substitutes in a typical NBA draft.

2) The NBA Is a League for Superstars explanation: One might argue that unlike the NFL and its focus on teams (e.g., the New England Patriots), the NBA is more individualistic and individual players get more attention. I suspect this is in part because we see NBA players' faces and expressions on the court, while NFL players are largely obscured in their helmets, and because there are only 10 players on an NBA court, while there are 22 on an NFL field. And maybe this also relates to the close substitutes idea and how there are fewer close substitutes in an individualistic NBA, while close substitutes are more possible in a team-based, organic NFL. But this explanation has some flaws, too (look at all the individual attention Peyton Manning gets etc.).

3) One Player Can Change an NBA Team explanation: The Spurs go from 22 wins in the 95-96 season to 56 wins in the 96-97 season after drafting Tim Duncan [along with getting a healthy David Robinson back].; the Magic go from 21 wins in the 91-92 season to 41 wins in the 92-93 season after drafting Shaquille O'Neal. This type of rapid, draft-based improvement would seem harder to do in the other sports. Along those lines, if either the Bobcats or Celtics draft Greg Oden, I wouldn't be surprised to see a similar upswing in wins next season. In contrast, it just doesn't seem that one great player will change an NFL team. Sure, Reggie Bush made the Saints better, but there were a lot of other new players who arguably had more of an impact (e.g., Drew Brees, Marques Colston, a healthy Deuce McCallister)

4) The Comparative Gambling Interests explanation: I would hate to think that this is relevant, but if an NFL team throws a game, there would probably be far more outrage than if an NBA team were to do the same. The bookies, gamblers, and Vegas types have too much on the line on every NFL game.

5) Nobody Cares explanation: Not many people follow bad NBA teams, and since each game is only one out of 81, people probably pay much less attention to each NBA game than they do to each of an NFL team's 16 games. Also, the NFL seems to promote their product better (i.e., most NFL games are on Sunday, which for many Americans has seemingly become a day built around NFL football, and there is always the sweet Monday night game to follow; in contrast, NBA games happen every night and there is no real build-up to any one game--this may make it easier for an NBA team to throw a game).

In summary, and as Professor Zywicki notes, we essentially have two categories of explanations: 1) the incentives are greater to tank in the NBA or 2) the costs of tanking are lower (e.g., either easier to get away with or less outrage if they tank). Even if both factors are small, they seem to push in the same direction.

But are our explanations correct? Are there are other explanations? And does tanking, in fact, occur more often in the NBA, or do we only see it more often because it is more noticeable?

Update: Other Takes

In addition to the outstanding reader comments to this post, several writers on other websites/blogs have responded:

"I think all the possible explanations suggested by the professor are at play here. There certainly is a perception in the NBA that if you can just land that one player, you can completely turn your team around. . . . If tanking is unique to the NBA vis-a-vis the NFL--and I'm not convinced that it is--then it is because winning matters in a more meaningful way in the NFL than in the NBA and because losing NBA teams think that one player can turn their entire franchise around in a way that NFL teams don't."

"Sports Law Blog's Michael McCann recently did a fine job breaking down the usual reasons behind the sort of hand-wringing that follows every supposed "distasteful" loss by a potential lottery participant. While there is absolutely nothing to disagree with in McCann's breakdown, I think he's giving the hand-wringers a little too much credit . . ."

"Professor Michael McCann of Sports Law Blog had a post on the recurring concern about whether bad NBA teams "tank" late in the season in order to secure a better draft pick. Concern about this phenomenon is what led to the unique "lottery" system in the NBA. I wrote him asking why this concern continually arises in the NBA and not other pro leagues. Michael has written a long and persuasive response to my query . . . In a nutshell, his argument is that the benefits of tanking are higher in the NBA and the costs are lower. Seems persuasive to me . . ."

"Four columns I really enjoyed this week: 4. The Sports Law Blog did a good job of breaking down every possible reason why tanking occurs in the NBA and not other sports. I think it's a little more simple: The NBA season is so damned long, it lends itself to throwing in the towel ... especially if there's a franchise rookie coming out. But I liked all their theories."


It's absolutely the irreplaceable player phenomenon.

In the last 20 or so years, championships have basically been decided by a small group of superstars: Shaq, Duncan, Jordan, Olajuwon, Bird, Magic. A couple Pistons teams won in there, plenty of other teams contended, sure, but that's basically the list. And all of those players were identified PRIOR to the draft (even the recent Pistons had hotheaded Wallace, dominant UNC center).

The result of the 7 games format in the NBA playoffs is that a basketball franchise can go years on one player, whereas other sports need huge support casts (NFL) and good coaching (MLB). In the NBA, you can pretty much throw every other predictor of playoff success out except whether you have a dominant center or forward. Nothing else has EVER gained traction.

The only sports comparison that is close is having a dominant goalie in the NHL (in the rare cases of Brodeur and Roy). But they are much less reliably dominant in their 7 game series than NBA centers and forwards are.

So if you are an NBA GM and you're not the Heat or Spurs, you should sell out to get the next Shaq/Duncan/Bird. Arguably, the Pistons and Mavs don't need the draft.

Every other team in the NBA should do everything they can to tank if Oden is THAT good. Because you have no chance to win a championship if you don't draft him.

Anonymous solomonrex -- 4/09/2007 1:50 PM  

as a sports-nut-turned-law-student, i'm writing my major paper on this very topic, and the potential for fan-based lawsuits by season's ticket holders against teams that tank seasons. the working title is "draft pick strange love, or how i learned to stop worrying and love the tank."

i think one more explanation is an extension of the "nobody cares" scenario. typically, the decision to tank occurs part-way through the season. from tv contracts, licencing, and season's tickets, a large percentage of revenue is fixed. deciding to throw a season part way through the season will have little to no impact on these revenues. moreover, the quest to have the next superstar, fuelled in part by the superstar culture of the nba and the need to find the next superstar like you said, makes tanking a relatively easy sell for the organization, as well as to fans who are encouraged to renew season's tickets to ensure access to next season's games with this draft pick; the 'wages of wins' outline how a team's performance this season is only one of manny factors that drive fan attendence. finally, the nba is the least competitively balanced league of the four professional sports. i think everyone accepts that certain teams are just not competitive from season to season; national tv broadcasters like ABC and ESPN are telling us just that when they release their broadcast schedules, which is little more than a matrix of the same eight teams.

(mind you, is tanking a cause or an effect of the competitive balance issues?)

when i presented my (draft) paper to my class for discussion, i was amazed at how many classmates felt tanking was smart and even savvy business decision. many cited examples from the nhl, such as the edmonton oilers trading of ryan smyth, as the sort of "gutsy" decision making it takes to win a championship. terms like "rebuilding", "assessing talent" and "waiting for next year" were all common explanations. in fact, when i raised the issue of a season ticket holder paying a large sum of money for tickets, seat licences and parking in return for expecting a competitive team, one classmate remarked that if the ticket holder was a true fan, he would accept it and renew his tickets the following year. that is sort of the ultimate nobody cares explanation, isn't it?

that said, the proof of tanking is almost entirely circumstantial. it is a combination of coaching decisions, roster movement, and injury reports that leads anyone to believe the team is purposely not fielding a competitive product. while former boston celtics coach m.l. carr admitted to tanking the 1996-97 season during a 2001 interview, there is rarely the silver bullet confession of deliberate losing from any member of a team or organization. there is never a confession during the season it is happening. whether it is out of fear from the wrath of david stern or ego in the players who are on the court, no one is going to admit they didn't try to win.

espn's john hollinger wrote an interesting analysis of the recent history of losing teams and their postition in the draft. he ultimately concluded that, historically, there is little benefit for tanking a season. there is a limit to the effectiveness of losses.

Blogger rosco -- 4/09/2007 1:54 PM  

This is an interesting argument, but a further complex aspect that is possibly being ignored is the individual players' incentive for tanking.
All of the explanations given so far center on this being a cost/benefit analysis for the team, but what about the players involved? When this is taken into account, the situation changes.
Organizations are not as holistic as we would like to believe, but are instead more fragmented, especially at the level of pro sports, where individual personalities are the rule. To get professional players on the same page to win and strive for a championship is hard enough; asking them to purposefully lose may be even harder.
What would be the incentive for a professional basketball player to purposefully "tank-it" in order to help his teams' draft chances? This is actually counter-intuitive on an individual level. A higher draft pick means that a better player will be added to the team. This may take minutes away from that individual player, thereby possibly hurting his individual career.
Furthermore, the player will be hurting his own personal statistics while "tanking" it. Asking a player to play for the team, which may mean taking a cut in his own statistics, will work when the effort is to win ball games, but I don't think it will work when the incentive is to lose ballgames.
In the end, the players are the ones who ultimately are responsible for this supposed phenomenon. I simply don't see a reasonable incentive here for them to consciously be "tanking" it in order to help their teams' draft status.
It's possible that the human eye is being deceived here. There may be other factors that are responsible for this. For instance, good NBA teams more consistently beat bad NBA teams than what is seen in other sports (Dallas wins almost 84% of games, Memphis 24%). There are less upsets in general in the NBA, thus it would seem that a team is "tanking" it down the stretch when they simply are getting beaten by better teams.
This could also be promulgated by a higher percentage of players simply "cashing it in" towards the end of the season, simply playing out a losing season without completely giving 100% effort. This is different than "tanking" it though, in order to help a teams' draft chances.
In summary, the "tanking" phenomenon probably does not happen more often in basketball than other pro sports, we're simply made more aware of it by other circumstances involved in the situation.

Blogger Garrett -- 4/09/2007 2:22 PM  

I'd go with the guaranteed contract phenomenon. Not only do NBA players have guaranteed contracts, but they are also for large amounts of money and tend to be for extended periods. So the player may not have to fight for a job or a new contract for 3-4 seasons.

On the other hand, NFL contracts are both much smaller and not (typically) guaranteed. Thus it is easier to either steal a starting job or a substantially improved contract by performing well, and equally easy to lose a job and a salary by performing poorly. So the players are hungrier.

Anonymous Mike -- 4/09/2007 2:28 PM  

It comes down to one main thing: Press control. The NFL controls its press like no other because it is the top dog sport and the media know it can and will revoke their access. No one dares turn on the NFL. The NBA on the other hand is constantly being scrutinized by the very network that carries it, because that makes for better ratings in their eyes than uplifting the league, and burying negative stories. Baseball also has this beef with the NFL coverage (see: steroids).

I suppose there's an undercurrent of racism to it as well. With the lack of a white superstar face in the NBA and its perception as a "black league", maybe most of America wants to believe more negative things about the NBA more than they want to about their beloved NFL. Would things be the same if there were no Tom Brady, Peyton Manning etc, and all the titles were being won by flashy black Michael Vick types? Who knows? The height of ridiculousness came when the NBA was excoriated for the Las Vegas debacle caused by an NFL player acting like a jackass. With no lottery and fewer games in the NFL, I think tanking happens quite a lot. But as with all things, it's about perception.

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

I suppose there's an undercurrent of racism to it as well. With the lack of a white superstar face in the NBA and its perception as a "black league", maybe most of America wants to believe more negative things about the NBA more than they want to about their beloved NFL.

Steve Nash? Dirk Nowitzki?

In percentage terms, the NFL is almost as much a "black league" as the NBA.

Anonymous Peter -- 4/09/2007 3:44 PM  

Two things I can think to add:

1. NBA teams play five times as many regular-season games as the NFL: if a team in each league decides to tank with, say, 20% of the season left, that means three games for an NFL team and 16 for an NBA team. It stands to reason that a pattern of tanking becomes more obvious over a larger number of games.

2. The rookie salary rules of the NBA (along with restricted free agency) restrict player movement to the point where teams can't rebuild through the free agent market.

In a practical sense, a LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony is tied to the team that drafted him for seven years--the first half of his career. So, if an NBA team wants a particular star player, it will generally have two chances to acquire him, once on draft day and once during his prime.

It seems to me that NBA teams should look to tank much more than they actually do. Look at the Ray Allen trade from a few years back--one medicore team sends its best player to another mediocre team and received almost nothing in return.

The result? Seattle (drafting in "no man's land" every year) hasn't improved at all, and also doesn't have prospects for doing so in the immediate future. Meanwhile, Milwaukee got the #1 overall pick two years ago and is one of the favorites for a top-two pick this summer.

Looking back, which team actually did better from that trade?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/09/2007 3:44 PM  

I think it comes down to one thing in the end: ticket sales.

In the NBA, individual performances are a lot more noteworthy. Yes, in the NFL a QB can have a legendary game (for example, Brett Favre's performance after his father's death). But even the QB is rarely involved in half the plays of the game, since a third-to-half of the time on offense he's handing the ball off to a running back, or on the sideline watching his defense play. In the NBA, though, a star player can be on the court for the entire game (or close to it). And when they're on the court, they can create more 'ooh' inspiring plays -- vicious dunks, half-court threes, amazing steals, etc.

And people love to see that kind of individual achievement, and they'll pay to see it.

To use another sports example, I lived in Boston at the end of the 90s, so I got to see Pedro pitch in person. And every time he pitched, you believed -- even if you weren't a Red Sox fan -- that a phenomenal performance might be seen that night. And you wanted it to happen, just so you could say you were there.

In the NBA, that opportunity exists every single game. You never know when Jordan is going to put up 63, or Wilt 100, or Rasheed Wallace hitting a 60-footer to send a game to overtime.

So when a team sees two potential blue-chip superstars just waiting to be drafted, they're going to want them. They know that if they get Oden or Durant, their ticket sales will spike. Not necessarily because the fans think they'll win a championship, but because they're hoping to see Oden or Durant put in the kind of effort that they'll be able to tell their kids about.

Everyone cares that Jordan scored 63 points in a playoff game. No one cares that the Bulls lost the game.

Blogger ChrTh -- 4/09/2007 4:27 PM  

I think it's the power structure between general managers and coaches. Coaches are evaluated on win-loss record in both leagues. General managers are often evaluated on how well they draft (among other things).

In the NBA, general managers usually hire and fire coaches. In the NFL, coaches usually hire and fire general managers.

Blogger ken -- 4/09/2007 4:59 PM  

really a side point... but 2002 draft... jay williams was definitely projected to be a star... steve francis was worried about the Rockets taking jay instead of yao

2003: you're right about dwade... people were surprised when riley "reached" for him at 5... but bosh was seen as only a half-notch below the top 3

Blogger Michael Bloom -- 4/09/2007 5:46 PM  

Quite simply, it's not why teams tank in the NBA, it's that there's little reason for teams to tank in the other leagues. The draft means next to nothing in MLB and NHL - so few prospects make it to the big leagues that teams are willing to trade first round draft picks like they mean next-to-nothing (for the MLB, I mean they'll take slightly above average free agents and give up first rounders rather than gamble on a draft pick.) And the NFL season is just too short to tank: most teams aren't out of the playoff race until the last few weeks of the season, and there's so much parity that if you're that bad, you're going to lose anyway.

Blogger Jason -- 4/09/2007 6:12 PM  

We seem to be talking about tanking more this year than we have in the past. That may have two explanations:

1) The increased number of mass-media voices talking about tanking. This is not a "blame the media" thing, but the reality that the increased number of public voices means an increased number of issues to be discussed and more people picking up on those different voices.

2) This is a unique draft because Oden and Durant are regarded not just as potential superstars but as once-in-a-generation talents who are going to revolutionize the game. So the incentive to tank (and commentators' willingness to assume tanking) is that much greater. If you look at the list of past drafts, the only people viewed in the same way were LeBron, maybe Duncan, and perhaps Yao.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 4/10/2007 11:31 AM  

The NBA has a bigger issue with tanking because the team consist of 5 starters that play 75% of the game. The baseball draft doesn't matter for several years and is really a giant crap shoot. Football has 22 people splitting time. Even if you consider the QB or RB to be a difference maker half the time, they cannot do anything without an offensive line. Meanwhile, an NBA player can change the fortune of the team by himself. If the Spurs end up with Van Horn instead of Duncan, they do not have 3 rings right now. If the Lions had the number 1 pick this year, they would still be the Lions. What more do you need to know?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/10/2007 3:56 PM  

Has anyone thought about the impact of losing final games on the coaches? Winning the last 4 out of 5 games in the NFL means a coach can keep his job...winning the last 4 out of 5 NBA games means nothing to a coach in the NBA

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/10/2007 8:05 PM  

How about player reaction? If your an NBA superstar, do you really care if you get to rest an extra 15 minutes in a game that doesn't matter? Try pulling a star QB or RB in the final games (with incentive contracts) and playing only 1 game after a week of can bet they would go public and cause a PR nightmare.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/10/2007 8:11 PM  

Outstanding post and great comments! I lean towards the "immediate impact player" theory. Since the NBA only can have five people on the floor at any given time and only 12 active players on any roster, the impact of a rookie is more easily identifiable than in other sports and can consequently drastically alter the success of a team. After all, the average number of players per NBA active roster is easily AT LEAST half of that of other pro sports leagues.

I can also see the point of view of those who believe that "nobody cares" is a valid argument. Given the fact that there currently exists a great chasm in skill level between the top NBA teams (Suns, Spurs, Mavs, Pistons) and other playoff qualifiers, many fans may prefer to see their teams tank the season and draft a more attractive prospect if a championship is not likely. This abnormal lack of parity in the NBA coupled with the near-mandatory requirement of prospects to play in college (thereby creating a deeper pool of proven college talent) has given rise to the sentiment, as Bill Simmons calls it, of "fantanking" - where FANS actively root for their teams to fail. Once parity returns to the NBA via the periodic redistribution of talent which takes place every decade or so, we should see less tanking and a more competitive atmosphere in games.

Anonymous Jason Chung -- 4/10/2007 10:50 PM  

I truly love this blog and visit often, but this particular topic appears to me to be about little or nothing. All the provided 'evidence' regarding tanking is giving playing time to less than the best players on the team, after becoming ineligible for the playoffs. Well, that appears to me to be the best strategy for these teams to make future playoffs, regardless of the draft. Using the end of the season as an extension of training camp could reveal those suited for the next season's roster and provide needed experience. It also decreases the chance of losing the best players to injury in a meaningless game. IMHO, bigger issues include: NBA's bias towards marketable players; crushing of any of the players' free speech; and the retention of their monopoly by destroying all competition (women's, men's, and minor leagues).

Anonymous SkepSys -- 4/11/2007 7:39 AM  

From an organizational standpoint, the contract terms of top draft picks play an enormous role in the value of tanking. In the NBA, nearly every lottery pick is vastly underpaid relative to his performance for the duration of his initial contract. Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade have been among the best players in the league since their rookie seasons and were all selected in the top 5. Now in their fourth seasons, none of them rank among the four highest-paid players on their own teams. This is a product of the NBA salary structure, with fixed contract terms for first-round picks stipulating that even the #1 pick overall will fail to earn the amount of the veteran mid-level exception. Considering the immediate impact of top rookies in the NBA, this policy results in high draft picks having significantly more value than the vast majority of established veterans in the league.

This is not true of the other major sports. Rookie contracts for the top picks in the NFL draft are typically larger than any subsequent contract the player will sign. Though the impact of a standout prospect for the NFL is seemingly less substantial and less projectable than that of an NBA prospect, the pay scale reflects the opposite. By virtue of being drafted among the first few picks, Vernon Davis immediately became the highest-paid tight end in the NFL. He had just 20 receptions for 265 yards last year. Studies have shown that second-round picks in the NFL draft are actually more valuable to a franchise than high first-round picks, owing to the huge difference in contract terms and the relatively smaller gap in expected output. The MLB amateur draft is closer to the NFL draft in that the top picks are as much liabilities as they are assets. The teams at the top of the draft frequently refuse to select the best player available due to signability concerns. Given that the player is likely several years from making a contribution at the big league level, if he makes it there at all, the large signing bonus he commands can be difficult to justify.

If you look at the top draft picks in each sport on an impact v cost basis, it is clear that the NBA draft features a much better ratio from the team perspective. NBA rookies selected in the first few picks of the draft have a significant and immediate impact on the team’s fortunes, yet they are very inexpensive relative to the league standards established by free agents. Essentially, every lottery pick signs a well below-market contract. In the NFL, the impact of top prospects is lower and the cost is substantially higher. There is no need for a lottery in the NFL to dissuade teams from tanking because there is no clear incentive to playing for a higher pick. Obviously teams would prefer to select a player they believe to be better, but the rapidly escalating contracts and the relatively lower and more variable contributions of the top picks in the NFL make tanking a questionable strategy. In baseball, the impact of a high draft pick is exceedingly low, to the extent that many of them never even become regular performers on the Major League team. The cost is not high relative to the contracts given to recently-drafted players in the NBA and NFL, but it is very high relative to the player’s expected contribution to improving the team. Thus, there is little merit to tanking in professional baseball from this point of view. The NBA should experience much more of the tanking phenomenon because, unlike the NFL and MLB, its structure with regard to player salary and performance rewards it.

Jeff M

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/11/2007 5:43 PM  

A big explanation that is overlooked is time.

The NBA season is so long that, with two months left, teams are already eliminated from the playoffs, practically if not mathematically.

In the NFL, a 2-6 start followed by a 7-1 finish can easily get you in the playoffs, and is not unheard of. By the time you've figured out that you're not going to finish the season on a tear, there's not enough time left to tank.

Teams do tank (playing youth for experience sake) in the NFL, but only for 1-3 games at most. Well, that's up to a fifth of the season, or 16 NBA games.

The NHL and MLB have long seasons, but the talent evaluation/impact player analysis kicks in there.

Blogger Alan -- 4/11/2007 7:09 PM  

The NFL plays only 16 games in its regular season, meaning that "ties" for a particular draft pick are much more commonplace than in other sports. Then their byzantine tiebreaking system kicks in. Therefore "tanking" in the NFL is no guarantee that you'll get the draft pick you want.

So why, then, isn't "tanking" an issue in Major League Baseball, which plays even more regular-season games? First, for all we know they are tanking, but still occasionally win anyway. Even the worst MLB teams can typically be counted on to win at least one-third of their games. Blind squirrels finding the occasional acorn and all that. Teams in sports that play fewer games naturally have fewer opportunities to stumble upon those acorns.

Another factor is that in team sports, late season is when bad teams typically empty their benches and call up prospects from the minors to see how good those players are. Those players obviously have every incentive to play hard in order to impress their coaches and team execs. The thing is, the NBA doesn't have a traditional minor-league system, and NBA teams have only seven non-starters, as opposed to over forty per NFL team. Hence, NBA starters have less competition for late-season playing time than their counterparts in other major leagues.

Blogger Joshua -- 4/11/2007 8:00 PM  

did the old system that guaranteed that the nba team with the worst record would receive the number one pick actually encourage less, rather than more tanking? under the current system, sure the worst team is not guaranteed the number one pick, but now, all of a sudden, there are a bunch of teams that can get a shot at the number one pick, and vary their chances on getting that pick depending on how bad they are. I seem to recollect that in the old system there were generally only two teams fighting it out for worst. at the very least, it seems to me that the press in more cities now talk about tanking because more teams have a shot (however small percentage-wise) at that number one pick

Anonymous bob r. uncle -- 4/11/2007 9:05 PM  

While I am inclined to economic explanations, I think you cannot avoid a cultural dimension to this analysis. The NBA is just a different animal than, say, MLB. To see why, just go to their games. In the NBA, the sports presentation is immersed in a whole set of other entertainment. Half court shots, sumo-suit wrestling, what have you. As a result, the pure sports aspect of it is diminished and, with it, I think the basic ethos of sportsmanship. This is exacerbated by the chipping away of basic rules of the game (the lack of travelling calls, for instance). In the end, the NBA functions as pure entertainment, and as a result the players and teams take the RESULTS of the games far less seriously.

MLB is a very different kettle of fish. It is the most pure of any of our major sports. No TV timeouts, for instance. I think this contributes to a far more pervasive ethos of sportsmanship within the game. Even UNsportsmanlike behavior (plunking the other team after a HPB or scuffing the ball) has its own implicit code of conduct.

Blogger George -- 4/11/2007 9:46 PM  

The NBA is completely different in a way you may have missed here. As noted in this and many of the other articles, the NBA is a superstar league, the best players on each team are far more impactful than the best players in other sports, both in terms of winning, and losing. It is much easier to tank an NBA game, all you have to do is bench or list as "injured" your best two players to essentially guarantee that your team will lose.

In the NFL, tanking could only truly occur if the QB is involved, or perhaps the running back for some teams. In baseball, teams play too many games, and the rewards for individual acheivement are far too obvious for players to just abandon hitting .300, or 30 home runs, or 15 wins so that the team could somehow draft better.

In the NBA, if Jordan wanted the Bulls to lose, they'd lose, regardless. All the coach has to do, (or GM, or owner), is convince the team's better players that they are better off blowing this season off and trying to get the best player available in the next draft.

Anonymous John J Perricone -- 4/11/2007 10:33 PM  

Re: the "impact players" thesis.

Basketball is an individual sport disguised as a team sport. Baseball, at least for hitters, is more of a team sport, while top baseball pitchers have the the individual impact one sees in basketball. Football is a game of teams, not talented individuals.

Proof? Consider the impact of one player joining a team in the NFL, MLB and the NBA.

Rare indeed is the free agent signing or draft choice that transforms an NFL team from 2-14 to 14-2.

Baseball lies between football and basketball when it comes to the impact of one player.

The best MLB pitchers are more like NBA players (rare), while MLB hitters have more in common with football players (fungible).

Major league hitters who fail seven out of every ten times at bat are superstars. Major league pitchers who lose seven out of every ten starts soon become minor leaguers.

Sign an accomplisher pitcher like Jack Morris or a Curt Schilling and win a World Series. Sign an accomplished hitter like Alex Rodriguez and win zero World Series championships, at least to date.

Individuals matter in basketball, at all levels of the game, the way pitchers do in baseball. One right guy can turn your team into an instant title contender.

One player can get a high school coach a major college job (see Jarvis, Mike). One player can help a college coach get a far better job next season. And one player is a big step toward an NBA championship.

This is why basketball is so consumed by recruiting and free agency: one player really can make all the difference.

Blogger Jim -- 4/12/2007 12:47 AM  

Bill Simmons (ESPN's the Sports Guy), originally a Boston sports writer, has been discussing the NBA's tanking phenomenon for the past couple of months on his basketball blog ( Yesterday, he wrote an article in response to the Celtics-Bucks game in which he proposed a system to eliminate tanking in the NBA (

Anonymous Wes -- 4/12/2007 9:54 AM  

Reason #1 tanking doesn't seem to occur in the NFL: because there are too few games. If a team tanks the last 3 games, no one notices.

Reason #2: Very high draft picks cost WAY too much in the NFL to sign. In the NBA, there's a rookie cap. No such thing in the NBA.

Reason #3: 22+ players are starters in the NFL, while only "5-6" are starters per team in the NBA. So a top pick is ~20% of your team, while in the NFL its just ~5%. So in the NFL the experience of winning outweighs the improved level of play by getting a top tier player.

Also be aware: the NHL has tanking all the time!

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/12/2007 5:12 PM  

why do they tank? its simple, just think about it in a pie chart diagram. nba has 5 players on the floor meaning each player has a value of 20% of the pie, baseball has nine meaning a value of 11.11% & football has 11 players at a time meaning a value of 9.09%. but you have to figure offence & deffence so you might even consider cutting that in 1/2 and making it 4.54%. There is the answer, one player in basketball has a larger significance on a playing field thank in any other sport.

Anonymous beto_42 -- 4/12/2007 6:26 PM  

I'll add my one and only reason I think tanking happens more in basketball than in football or baseball. I think it is mostly because you can evaluate pro basketball talent to a much higher degree than you can football or baseball. In baseball, if you land the #1 pick, you have about a 5-10% chance of your guy being even a very solid major league player. As Billy Beane once said, if 3 picks out of your 50 make the big leagues then it was a success.

In football, the draft is a huge crapshoot as well, but there you find more hits in the first round than baseball. Still, the fact remains that in football there are multiple guys drafted after round one that go on to pro bowl careers.

But in basketball, the talent is very well identified at the top. Consider that from 1997 to 2003, only two college guys made the allstar game picked after the 15th pick(Redd, Arenas). Even better, go back and look at picks 16-30 and tell me how many of them play meaningful minutes in the NBA. The second round is a wasteland of players who aren't in the NBA anymore. The only guys who fall late in the draft and do well are over seas players and the occassional high schooler. Still, there are only 3 of those(AK 47, Parker, Ginobli) and one high school guy who fell late(Harrington). Yes, the draft still has busts, but most of the all star picks come in the top 10 and even more in the top 5. This means that in order to really land yourself a franchise guy, you need to be in the top 10, but probably more in the top 5 to have a chance to get a great player. There is very little chance of the 12th or 13th team getting a great player, so as a franchise you are much better off being terrible than mediocre.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/12/2007 6:34 PM  

Sometimes the tanking seems to be obvious. However, I know of one instance when it was the de facto institutional plan.

I lived in Cleveland the season prior to the draft of LeBron James. During that season, I watched or listened to portions of 60-70 games. Even though the Cavs were creamed during many games, the team always appeared to play its best.

The trick was that management did not have a very good team. While Zydrunas Ilgauskas made the all-star team, he was injury-prone that year. Carlos Boozer was drafted and made an impact. Otherwise, the players were below average (and mostly gone from the team the following season). Also, they had a mediocre coach in John Lucas. To help ensure the "tank" they replaced Lucas with assistant Keith Smart. Lucas and Smart both did their best, but they knew they would be out of their jobs by the end of the year.

Granted, Cleveland's situation with LeBron was unique. LeBron was from Akron (40 minutes from Cleveland) and therefore, a hometown player. Local talk shows were promoting LeBron from his freshman year of high school. During the "tanking" season, all the talk shows were talking about the tanking in a wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of way. One host even railed against the Cavs for winning the meaningless final game of the season that put them into a two-team tie for the league's worst team.

In the end, Cleveland won the lottery (and LeBron). Therefore, the behavior was vindicated. It shows that to get ahead in the NBA, you have to strip your team of all talent and build around your superstar draft pick.

Blogger Hutch -- 4/12/2007 8:06 PM  

There's also a "prepare for next season" component. If you are a team that has no prospect of reaching the finals then it becomes rational for a coach/front offie to make decisions about what will be good for the team next year as opposed to this year, regardless of draft considerations.

1) If you have a superstar with a nagging injury and you do not have prospects of reaching the finals you are better off giving that superstar enough time off to fully heal than risk serious aggravation of that injury.

2) There's incentive for the coach to give more game time to young up and coming players over established veterans, especially over veterans who won't be around next year for whatever reason.

On the cost-benefit analysis it costs you little this season (you're not making the finals anyway) and the benefits can be very significant for next season (your current players will be better next year).

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/12/2007 8:53 PM  

These answers are all great and well thought out. I'll submit one more, sport-specific: In the NFL, if you tank, you risk serious injury. If a running back hits a hole slow or wide receiver runs a lazy route over the middle they both risk ending their careers right then and there. In baseball, each play is so focused on one player and the margin for error is so small. It would simply be impossible for a batter to slow down on his swing and not have the world notice. Same with a fielder not hustling out a ground ball or fly ball. There will always be lazy players, but certainly no one could tank in baseball without it being noticed.

Blogger Brian -- 4/12/2007 11:07 PM  

Tanking happens in every sport, every job, every aspect of life where the incentive to work with other people to a specific goal becomes futile. Players do it playing more lazily, stupidly, and selfishly. Management assists by "shutting down" key components to the future of the team when they can.
NFL teams sit their starters the last game of the season when their playoff outcome becomes locked, how is that any different? They are in effect saying "Why bother trying to win this game? It doesn't matter."
Try this one as well: this September, find a MLB team that is out the race and compare their current roster with that of their opening day roster. At least half the starting lineup will be different. NHL as well, since both sports comprise the "minor-league system."
The question is why the NBA is the one sport that gets vilified for it.

Anonymous Yo Yo Mother -- 4/13/2007 4:47 AM  

I think a whole bunch of this is a matter of pure perception. A few things.

1) With the NFL seeming more physical, people are more willing to buy into dubious injuries. If someone sits out an NBA game with a sore knee, people shout "tank". Not so with the NFL, even though that's probably not fair.

2) The size of NBA teams, combined with the "superstar" factor make people notice who exactly is playing. In the NFL, who notices whether someone is sitting their right guard? While most fans know the normal lineup for their MLB team, sitting players is expected due to the extreme length of the baseball season.

Due to these two factors, tanking behavior is MUCH easier to hide in the NFL. There may be more tanking in the NBA, but I don't think the difference is as great as we think.

Anonymous Josh Hitch -- 4/13/2007 8:11 AM  

I have not read all the comments, so I hope I am not being redundant, and on that great start to a comment let me begin. It was stated earlier by another reader that NBA players, like football players do not want to hinder future individual successes by intentionally tanking, and thereby damaging their stat line. There are two reasons I believe that this argument explains a NFL players, but not a NBA players reluctance to tank.

Firstly, in the NBA, as in Major League Baseball, there are a whole lot of games, as a result one stats normalize over the course of a season. One poor shooting night will not damage a player’s field goal percentage significantly, just like an 0 for 5 night by a hitter in baseball will not significantly impact his batting average. However, in the NFL, with only 16 regular season games, one poor game, or even one poor offensive possession can impact a player’s stat line quite significantly. Also, with only 16 games, each game is extensively scrutinized by the entire league during the week, which would explain a defensive player’s reluctance to tank a game. This, added in to the incredible player turnover from year to year, and the importance GM's place on a player's game film, and stat line, essentially eliminate tanking from the equation, where one play could mean the difference between a signing bonus, and a real world job.

The second reason a player in the NBA is able to tank without affecting his stat line, is that a player can try his hardest over the course of the game, and then simply miss a free throw in the closing seconds, or throw the ball away, or barely miss a shot. His stat line is undamaged, and over the course of a long season few will remember or care about a missed shot, with five minutes to go in the game. Even last second shots; clutch performers are created during great clutch moments. Hitting a shot in the closing moments of game 61 on the second night of a back to back on the road is hardly a great clutch moment.

Lastly, for those who say that tanking in basketball hurts an individual because it brings higher talent on the floor, thus limiting minutes, is missing a very important point. It is a given that the NBA is a superstar driven league, so from that it can be said that it is basically unimportant what the other players do, because the teams superstar, and every team has one, perhaps go to guy might be a bit more appropriate, will have the ball in his hands at the end of the game. You give me Jordan, I'll give you Pippen and Rodman. You give me Shaq, I'll give you Kobe and Fisher, and Fox. I'll give you Kevin Garnett, and I'm pretty sure he would absolutely love to give me Greg Oden.

Firstly, in the NBA, as in Major League Baseball, there are a whole lot of games, as a result one stats normalize over the course of a season. One poor shooting night will not damage a players field goal percentage significantly, just like an 0 for 5 night by a hitter in baseball will not significantly impact his batting average. However, in the NFL, with only 16 regular season games, one poor game, or even one poor offensive possession can impact a players stat line quite significantly. Also, with only 16 games, each game is extensivly scrutinized by the entire league during the week, which would explain a defensive players reluctance to tank a game. This, added in to the incredible player turnover from year to year, and the importance GM's place on a player's game film, and stat line, essentially eliminate tanking from the equation, where one play could mean the difference between a signing bonus, and a real world job.

The second reason a player in the NBA is able to tank without affecting his stat line, is that a player can try his hardest over the course of the game, and then simply miss a free throw in the closing seconds, or throw the ball away, or barely miss a shot. His stat line is undamaged, and over the course of a long season few will remember or care about a missed shot, with five minutes to go in the game. Even last second shots; clutch performers are created during great clutch moments. Hitting a shot in the closing moments of game 61 on the second night of a back to back on the road, is hardly a great clutch moment.

Lastly, for those who say that tanking in basketball hurts an individual because it brings higher talent on the floor, thus limiting minutes, is missing a very important point. It is a given that the NBA is a superstar driven league, so from that it can be said that it is basically unimportant what the other players do, because the teams superstar, and every team has one, perhaps go to guy might be a bit more appropriate, will have the ball in his hands at the end of the game. You give me Jordan, I'll give you Pippen and Rodman. You give me Shaq, I'll give you Kobe and Fisher, and Fox. I'll give you Kevin Garnett, and I'm pretty sure he would absolutely love to give me Greg Oden.

Blogger David -- 4/13/2007 10:00 AM  

There's plenty of tanking in the NHL when there's a can't miss superstar in the upcoming draft. The Penguins tanked to get Lemieux (the general manager at the time, Eddie Johnston, even admits this). Ottawa and San Jose were expansion teams at the time, but they raced to finish last in order to get Alexander Daigle, who was perceived to be a can't-miss superstar, with Ottawa's owner reportedly saying, "it's in the bag, boys" after they clinched the #1 pick. Quebec tanked to be able to draft Eric Lindros, which prompted the NHL draft lottery. If there had been a 2005 season, you would have seen teams going down quicker than a two-dollar hooker.

Here's what I don't remember. Was there any tanking to draft Shaquille O'Neal? Seems like there would have been, but I can't remember it.

Blogger Moné Peterson -- 4/13/2007 11:46 AM  

Something else that hasn't been mentioned here is that the difference between the upper echelon players and the weaker players in the NBA is much much greater than in other sports.

In the NFL, the backup QB is completely capable of throwing for 300 yards and 3 TDs. The backup RB can break out at any time. The Denver Broncos have proven that running backs are basically interchangeable in the NFL anyways. Drew Bledsoe and Trent Green (on multiple occasions) would like to point out that a backup who never got a chance can come in and turn out to be better than the starter. There is nobody on the Lakers bench who can step in and take Kobe's place. As the Celtics proved this year, without Paul Pierce, they couldn't even luck their way into a win. Watching the Suns play without Steve Nash is almost depressing to watch.

The point here is that in the NBA if you sit or otherwise handicap your best players, you stand a much higher likelihood of losing. In the NFL it's much harder. The backup could (and probably will) come in and give you 90% of the starter's performance.
Plus the NFL requires advance notice when you're going to sit a player because of injury/discipline reasons. Meaning that if you planned to tank an NFL game by saying that LaDanian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Phil Rivers were all "nursing injuries", first off there would be a huge investigation into it by the league (probably controlled by gambling interests) and a giant advertisement that you are planning to lose this game. Neither of which would fly well.

Since sports are so driven by money and players are so driven by contracts, expecting the players to tank a game is going to be pretty complicated. Someone is going to give his best effort trying to cash in, pad his stats or whatever. The decision to tank in terms of gaining higher draft status comes from above. Since the NBA is most easily influenced from above, it will have the most tanking.

Also while I'm posting I wanted to address MLB tanking. As other people have said, since the MLB draft is such a crapshoot, nobody really cares if a team wants to tank to get the 1st pick. Most of the biggest stars in the game weren't drafted first. Looking at the list of #1s might surprise you. Some never made the majors, others were subpar pros at best. For every Griffey or A-Rod, you get 3 Brien Taylors.

Blogger Viscant -- 4/13/2007 8:07 PM  

Just would like to add a few comments;

The draft is so important not just because it contains that ugly U-word, "upside" which goes far beyond just putting a superstar on the court and fans in the seats. Look carefully at the teams who have won championships recently, they all have a superstar sure, but they also have the most affordable veteran position players. Veterans who havent won flock to superstar teams for a chance at a title. Robert Horry and countless others to the Spurs, Shaq to Miami with Wade, Malone and Payton to the Lakers a few years ago. Those moves have major ramifications. Organizations know that if you can get an impact player, you will win the free agency war and get great players for cheap. Cleveland has been trying to do this with LeBron and its beginning to show some results as he improves. Obviously this has limits though - see Kevin Garnett freezing by himself in Minnesota.

Secondly, basketball is about 5 guys on a court, not 9, 11, or 12. You can look at a team like Boston and know immediately that adding a 6'8 power forward will win them 10 more games in the East. The NBA is not a parity league like the NFL where for all we know the Bengals could win it all next season.

So, tanking although hard to stomach is a chance you take when you cant see any other way to improve your team in the long run. When you are over the cap, stuck in long contracts with young players who arent developing, ala Boston, I guess you take that risk. Or you end up like the Knicks, surfing the bowl of mediocrity wishing they hadnt given up picks just to tread water.

Blogger Suedesstar -- 4/15/2007 12:36 PM  

One factor you left out is how physically difficult it is to tank in the NFL. By that I mean, you can't play football half speed, or you will get hurt. Basketball you can. NFl also will have a hard time starting a team full of second string guys, as the Celtics and Bucks did recently, because without having played cohesively and NFL team could barely function without significant practice time as a unit. The respective all-pro/all-star games are a good example. The NFL pro-bowl has always been and always will be a joke, because the players are going half speed and the schemes are so simple. Meanwhile the NBA all-star game is traditionally an exciting game (although recently its been bad for other reasons). you can throw 5 guys together and play a cohesive, interesting basketball game, with minimal effort. Doesn't work in the NFL which is why its basically all or nothing all the time in the NFL.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/16/2007 2:34 PM  

Terrific post here. These explanations are bang on.

I have a Toronto-area sports blog of my own and was working on a tanking post when I stumbled upon your piece. I'll definitely add your blog to my list of links. Please feel free to do the same with mine.

It's in the early stages but feel free to check it out and let me know what you think.

Keep up the solid writing,

Anonymous Josh Gold-Smith -- 4/16/2007 8:07 PM  

Someone may have already said this, but I think the question should be phrased the other way around. That is: why doesn't tanking occur in other leagues? This especially goes for the NFL, where the selection of high draft picks is immensely important (e.g, first pick and Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning), and there is no minor league system so top rookies (besides quarterbacks) are expected to contribute almost immediately.

I think this is because there are so many coaches and players in the NFL, that a large number of them are marginal. They have no job security, and thus every game is, in essence, an audition for future employment. So marginal players unestablished coaches have a huge incentive to perform as well as possible every game.

In baseball, the answer to why tanking doesn't occur is simple--the reward for tanking is too delayed. First round draft picks hardly ever produce immediate results, and instead toil away in the minors. And because so many draft picks never pan out, moving up a slot or two is not seen as very important. Also, baseball success is largely measured by personal statistics, given every player constant motivation to personally perform well, regardless of how poor their team is.

Blogger Mr.Man -- 4/17/2007 11:25 AM  

A few people touched on it, but I think the biggest reason for the difference in tanking is the difference between the two leagues salary caps. In the NBA there is the rookie cap (mentioned previously) as well as a cap on veteran players. I don't think the rookie cap makes that much of a difference because in the long run, you are only paying that rate for a couple of years. The veteran cap however, makes the elite players much more valuable. Also, since the current team can pay about 10% more to sign their own free agents than other teams. This makes it that much easier for teams to keep their own elite players coming off of rookie scale contracts. Compare that to the NFL with no individual player cap and a hard cap. This forces players salaries to be more in line to what they can do for your team. This also makes it more likely that you will have to cut your own great draft picks because you can't afford them anymore (see Edgerin James). I can't think of one time this has happened in the NBA.

Blogger b1gdon -- 4/17/2007 1:40 PM  

Listen... I think the biggest reason that tanking is talked about a lot in the NBA is due to the reason that the NBA draft has only two rounds. In other words, a team only has two chances on getting the right player(s) for itself. The NFL has 7 or 8 rounds (remember, Tom Brady was a 6th round draft pick) and MLB has an INSANE amount of rounds. And of course, MLB makes players go through the minor leagues, so there really is very little immediate help (not to mention that MLB's draft occurs in the middle of the following season instead of the off-season, and as such, there is no "automatic big name" that a team would be going for). In addition, teams in the NFL who are drafting high need a LOT of help at many positions, so while drafting an elite QB or RB may help, in most cases, the immediate impact will be small. In the NBA, however, fewer players on the court means more individual impact per player. Put together a) less margin for error in the draft and b) more individual impact per player, and you have a recipe for tanking games.

Anonymous powerofk -- 4/18/2007 1:23 AM  

All the provided 'evidence' regarding tanking is giving playing time to less than the best players on the team, after becoming ineligible for the playoffs. Well, that appears to me to be the best strategy for these teams to make future playoffs, regardless of the draft. Using the end of the season as an extension of training camp could reveal those suited for the next season's roster and provide needed experience. It also decreases the chance of losing the best players to injury in a meaningless game.

I absolutely agree with this point. I'll admit upfront that I'm a diehard Celtics fan, so obviously I'm a tiny bit jaded. That being said, I bristle at all of these complaints that the team is taking, and players are giving up in return for a shot to draft a "superstar" in the draft.

Allow me to couch my explanation in a specific analysis of the Celtics. They were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs at least a month or so ago. At that point, Paul Pierce, arguably the lone superstar they had, was badly injured. What, may I ask, is the point of bringing Pierce back? They knew there was no way that they could make the playoffs. Pierce has 4 years and something like $57 million left on his contract. Why risk injuring your star and making him a salary-cap albatross around the team's neck for the sake of . . . what? Pride? What's more, the Celtics have half a dozen young players whose contracts all expire within the next season or two, and we certainly can't afford to keep all of them. Wouldn't it make sense, when you have nothing really to lose, to give them extended playing time and see if they're worth giving another contract to? If they succeed, we know they're worth it; if they fail . . . well, it's not like the Celtics were going to get a reward for being the 9th team in a 8-team playoff field.

Look, I'm about as die-hard a Celtics fan as it gets. I bleed green and white. But the goal of a sports franchise isn't to win A championship; it's to win MANY championships. You honor your faithful stars, sure, but holding blind loyalties to players well past their prime, scraping and risking the future to win an extra 3-5 games that don't really matter . . . that's simply not strong business management. So, when you know you can't win, you start planning for the future. Even if the Celtics don't get Durant or Oden, even if we get the worst possible pick we can (which I believe would be the 5th pick), I still believe the end of the season wasn't a waste because we know better who to keep and who not to.

As a final point, what I find particularly galling about those who stand up and criticize the NBA for "tanking" is that they turn a blind eye to all the other leagues doing the same thing. Where was the outrage in Arizona when Denny Green put Matt Leinart in, or Tennessee when Jeff Fisher played Vince Young? Where's the stones thrown at the MLB teams out of the race at the end of July who call up young players to throw them into the fire? What's good for the goose IS in fact good for the gander. Either we penalize all teams who do that, or we penalize none. Personally, I vote for the latter.

Anonymous Andrew -- 4/18/2007 7:05 PM  

I think you need to look at the dynamics of each sport. The NFL has 22 starting positions (excluding special teams) that it needs to fill. You could argue that within those 22 posiitons, there are 8 really "different" positions each needing a different skill set (QB, WR/TE, RB/FB, OL, DL, LB, Safety, CB). So a team like the Lions does not neceassrily need the #1 or #2 pick in a certain draft to get the best QB or RB because they can still grab the best OL or LB with the 5th, 6th, or 7th pick. And one could argue that the best OL or LB in a draft may be just as valuable to a team then the best RB. In the NBA there are five positions that need to be filled with at most three different skill sets (G, F, C). So an NBA team drafting in the 8 position is getting maybe the 3rd best guard of forward. Therefore, NBA teams are more likely to want to get in one of the top spots than NFL teams.

Another explanation is that the best college player in a given year has a legitimate shot of helping the worst NBA team in his rookie season to the playoffs (especially now in the Eastern Conference). Whereas the best collge football player has a very slight chance of ever helping the worst team in the NFL make it to the playoffs in his rookie season. Therefore, there is much more incentive for an NBA team to grab a top pick.

Anonymous Bobby Z -- 4/23/2007 3:00 PM  

There is another related factor as well. Combined with the perception that one player in the NBA can make a much larger difference while the NFL is about finding all the right pieces, the salary structure in the NFL Draft also becomes important. There is a disincentive in the NFL (because of higher salaries of higher picks) to have the highest pick if a team thinks they could get a quality guy later. To take a top 1 or 2 pick is a huge salary cap hit, and may not be worth it when there are other quality players later (especially if they fill your needs).

Anonymous Josh -- 5/07/2007 10:39 AM  

Consider the relative impacts on their teams of removing Michael Jordan from the Bulls and Barry Sanders from the Lions, and the relative advantage of tanking in the NBA instead of the NFL becomes obvious.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/06/2007 7:13 AM  

1 player can completely transform an NBA team in ways that are basically impossible in the NFL. There are plenty of examples of teams going from bad to contenders almost overnight by drafting one player - LeBron, Bird, Jordan.....The Bucks won 27 games in '68-'69, then drafted Kareem and more than doubled that total his first year, going to the conference finals.

It's simply a numbers game. There are 5 starters on an NBA team, and 22 on an NFL team (not including kickers, punters, etc). The NBA showcases and rewards individual greatness more, just by the nature of the game. So one high draft pick can be huge, and worth throwing a season for.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 9/09/2012 10:38 PM  

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