April 5, 2014

How to solve tanking in the NBA

Well OK, just two: tanking and the fact that the sub-.500 Knicks can be the #8 seed, and two(?) among the Mavs, Grizz, Suns and Wolves can't. Tanking and schedule inequality: two of the NBA's ills nowadays, and I have solutions! First, tanking:

In the current system of the NBA, the teams that fail to make it to the playoffs make it to the lottery. I won't go into intricacies on how the lottery works, but if you're that time of team is mediocre enough to be a contender, but good enough to qualify in the playoffs (attention: Eastern Conference pretenders), you have a choice of tanking your late regular season games to have a slim shot at the #1 pick, or make it to the playoffs, and have two guaranteed home games en route to a 3-1 (at best) asskicking.

Not really the most eye-popping options, and making it to the playoffs as a crappy team has harmed teams more than it helped them (Milwaukee Bucks, I'm looking at you). Either way, you're screwed. I haven't checked, but no potential #9 seed could've won the lottery.

Now there are many suggestions to beat tanking. The most famous of these is The Wheel. Basically, a team already knows which draft pick it is picking for eternity; Grantland's Zach Lowe explains:

each of the 30 teams would pick in a specific first-round draft slot once — and exactly once — every 30 years. Each team would simply cycle through the 30 draft slots, year by year, in a predetermined order designed so that teams pick in different areas of the draft each year.
The Wheel is fine and dandy, but is not exactly exciting, or random. Let's face it, we all want some randomness in our lives, and in sports. If we don't want randomness, we can just simulate the entire season; just like those sad and pathetic "game summaries" of simulated playoffs series in the NHL when they had a lockout.

It's not exactly exciting as teams already know on which spot they'll pick for eternity; they can even mock draft the 2043 draft with Dirk Nowitzki III. playing for the Seattle Thunder (yes, OKC Thunder moved back to Seattle in 2021).

There are other solutions, such as Bill Simmons' Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament, but it's unclear how the lottery would wound up in that format.

Everyone loves the draft lottery, but everyone hates tanking. How can we retain the lottery without the tanking? Instead of having the worst team having the highest odds, make it like this:
  1. Worst 14 (more on this on a minute) teams via winning percentage join the lottery.
  2. The teams that ended last on their respective divisions won't get the highest odds for the #1 pick
  3. The team that has the worst record, but is not last on their respective divisions, has the highest odds for the #1 pick.
  4. You can even expand it to have the fourth placed teams in the divisions to have the four highest odds in winning the #1 pick.
The reason why there is a lottery is to prevent the teams to deliberately have the worst record, because in the old days, the team with the worst record automatically gets the #1 pick, no questions asked. They had the lottery so that the worst team doesn't automatically "win" the #1 pick by "losing". They can still tank, but they can't be absolutely sure if they're picking #1 or #14. Yes, the worst team has the best chances of landing the #1 pick, but it's still not a 100% chance as in the old days.

So in this proposed system, would there still be tanking? Maybe. But, they won't have to lose a lot of games, and games between "tankers" would be competitive. Before, a game between two teams that are tanking are guaranteed to be awful: teams are playing really bad, and they don't have any incentive to win, since a win means less chance for them to land the #1 pick, and more chances for their opponent to get that #1 pick.

Now, a game involving both teams in the sub-.500 territory will literally play to win. A loss could have them landing in last place in their division, and less chances for a #1 pick. Here, you're playing to win the #1 pick by winning, instead of losing.

Next: How to solve uneven schedules. Clue: It involves more games for everybody!

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