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Tanking Won’t Die in the New NBA Draft Lottery System. It Will Only Evolve.

By installing a lottery format that flattens the odds, the league sent a message that it wants to discourage tanking. But will these changes have their desired effect? Or usher in a new era of purposeful losing?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It feels strange that so much of the reaction to the 2019 NBA draft lottery has revolved around the Knicks failing to acquire the no. 1 overall pick. I understand it from a narrative perspective: The Knicks are one of the most popular franchises in the league and play in the biggest city in America, and yet have the worst winning percentage of any team since 2000. But whereas most of that losing was the result of sheer incompetence, this season’s Knicks lost purposefully, tanking in the hopes of being able to select Duke phenom Zion Williamson. And they came up empty, having dramatically sucked for nothing. Failing is funny; failing at failing is almost funnier.

But nobody should have expected the Knicks to get the top pick. The draft lottery is determined by mathematical odds, which gave the Knicks, who finished with the worst record in the NBA this season, a 14 percent chance of winning the first pick. That means they had an 86 percent chance of not landing at no. 1. Despite these odds being widely available to the public, many headlines treated the Knicks’ result as a shock rather than as a highly probable outcome.

You could actually argue that the Knicks had a decent lottery night. The Knicks entered Tuesday with just a 40.2 percent chance of getting one of the top three picks, and a 59.8 percent chance of getting the fourth or fifth pick. The Knicks should consider themselves fortunate that they ended up at no. 3, a spot that will likely give them the chance to take Duke guard R.J. Barrett.

I get why we focus on the story rather than the numbers. I hate math! I am not one of those sportswriters who obsesses over analytics. I am one of those sportswriters who dropped Introduction to Statistics in college because I realized I was hopeless. But in the case of the draft lottery, the entire thing is numbers. Those numbers aren’t particularly difficult to interpret, either: The league straight-up releases the lottery odds ahead of time. They’re all we need to know.

The actual surprises of the lottery? The Pelicans and Grizzlies—who tied for the seventh-worst record in the league—jumped to no. 1 and no. 2, which they had a 6.0 percent and 6.3 percent chance of doing, respectively. The Lakers, who had the 11th-worst record in 2018-19, vaulted up to no. 4, a mere 2.8 percent possibility. As a result of those jumps, the Wizards, who posted the sixth-worst record, fell all the way to no. 9, a 3.8 percent possibility.

But while the odds of the Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Lakers jumping so high were low, the odds of teams like the Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Lakers skyrocketing up the draft board were surprisingly decent. This was the first lottery conducted under a new system designed to discourage tanking, which resulted in a rough night for the teams with the worst records and a fun one for teams that were somewhere between mediocre and slightly incompetent. That’s what the system was installed to do. But will it actually change how bad teams operate?

The NBA has been trying to crack down on tanking for most of the decade. In 2014, a proposed update to the lottery odds earned the approval of the majority of team owners, but not enough to pass. The new odds, approved by the NBA Board of Governors in 2017, are meant to disincentivize tanking by lowering the chances that the league’s worst teams will get the top picks.

To understand one way that the lottery system has changed, let’s return to the Knicks. Last year, the team with the worst record in the NBA had a 25 percent chance of landing the no. 1 overall pick, a 64.2 percent chance of securing a pick in the top three, and a 100 percent chance of picking within the top four. This year, the Knicks had a 14 percent chance of getting the top pick and a 47.9 chance of getting the fifth pick. New York shared those 14 percent odds at no. 1 with the teams that tied for the second-worst record in the league, the Cavaliers and Suns.

The new lottery format strips ping-pong balls away from the worst teams and redistributes them among the merely subpar. And while the lottery chances of any individual subpar team remain relatively low, there are a lot of teams in this class. Under the old system, the teams that finished with the sixth- to 14th-worst records in a given season had a combined 18.8 percent chance of landing the no. 1 pick in the subsequent June’s draft. Now, these nine teams have a combined 35 percent chance. Going forward, it will be somewhat common for bad-but-not-awful teams to get the top pick over horrendous ones.

And while the Lakers had just a 2.8 percent chance of coming away with the no. 4 pick, they had a 9.4 percent chance of picking within the top four. Not huge, but again, significantly higher than last year, when the 11th-worst team in the league had a 2.8 percent chance of picking in the top three.

Here is a table that shows teams’ chances of getting the no. 1 pick or selecting in the top three of a draft under the old lottery system:

Lottery Odds Under Old System

Projected Lottery Slot Top Pick Odds Top-3 Odds
Projected Lottery Slot Top Pick Odds Top-3 Odds
1 25.0% 64.2%
2 19.9% 55.8%
3 15.6% 46.9%
4 11.9% 37.8%
5 8.8% 29.1%
6 6.3% 21.5%
7 4.3% 15.0%
8 2.8% 9.9%
9 1.7% 6.1%
10 1.1% 3.9%
11 0.8% 2.8%
12 0.7% 2.5%
13 0.6% 2.1%
14 0.5% 1.8%

And here is a table that shows teams’ odds of landing at no. 1 or picking in the top four in the new format:

Lottery Odds Under New System

Projected Lottery Slot Top Pick Odds Top-4 Odds
Projected Lottery Slot Top Pick Odds Top-4 Odds
1 14.0% 52.1%
2 14.0% 52.1%
3 14.0% 52.1%
4 12.5% 48.0%
5 10.5% 42.1%
6 9.0% 37.2%
7 7.5% 31.9%
8 6.0% 26.2%
9 4.5% 20.2%
10 3.0% 13.9%
11 2.0% 9.4%
12 1.5% 7.1%
13 1.0% 4.8%
14 0.5% 2.4%

Teams that barely miss the playoffs are no longer spectators at the lottery. And because of that, the new system may have an unintended effect: There is now more incentive than ever for midtier teams to lose intentionally. As soon as a team is eliminated from the playoff hunt, it makes sense for that team to drop games—there’s a big advantage to jumping even a few spots in the projected lottery order.

Take the Pelicans. On March 7 of this year New Orleans was 30-37, basically the worst place that any team could be. Technically its playoff hopes were still alive, as it was seven games back of the then-eighth-seeded Spurs in the Western Conference with 15 games to go. But in reality the Pelicans were already eliminated: The eventual no. 8 seed Clippers closed the regular season with just 34 losses. If the lottery drawing would have happened back then, the Pelicans would’ve had the 10th-best lottery odds, giving them a 3.0 percent chance of getting the no. 1 pick and a 13.9 chance of picking in the top four. Yet from that point on Anthony Davis skipped 10 of the team’s 15 remaining games, playing a maximum of 22 minutes in the contests for which he did suit up.

The result? New Orleans lost 12 of 15, finishing with a record of 33-49. That was the same record that the Grizzlies and Mavericks turned in, meaning the Pelicans pulled into a three-way tie for seventh in the projected 2019 lottery order. By falling apart down the stretch, they doubled their chances of landing the no. 1 pick (from 3.0 percent to 6.0 percent, given the tie with the Grizz and Mavs) and nearly doubled their chances of picking in the top four (from 13.9 to 26.3.) Last year, a similar collapse would have mattered far less, improving a franchise’s chances of getting the top pick from 1.1 percent to 2.9 percent, and its chances of picking in the top three from 3.9 to 10.3. The Pelicans should be thankful for every one of those March losses (and for Davis … uhhh, graciously sitting out so that the team could find his heir).

Or take the Lakers. On March 1, Los Angeles was 30-31—if the season ended then, it would have been 13th of the 14 teams in the projected lottery order. I know L.A. would’ve liked to have made the playoffs in LeBron James’s debut campaign with the team, but from March 1 on it would’ve needed to go 18-3 to match the Clippers’ eventual 48-34 mark. The Lakers would have required an incredible stretch just to get whupped by the Warriors!

But the Lakers took a smarter path, losing 10 of their next 11 games. This doubled their chances of picking in the top four, from 4.8 percent to 9.4 percent. Again, this jump would’ve mattered much less last year, boosting a team’s chances of nabbing a top-3 pick from 2.1 percent to 2.8 percent. The Lakers were all but eliminated from the playoff picture by the start of March, which makes LeBron look dumb. Yet because they didn’t try to win late-season games, they’ll add a weapon to put by LeBron’s side. (Or more realistically, they’ll trade their no. 4 pick in a package for a weapon to put by LeBron’s side.)

The new rules certainly lower the impact of large-scale tanking. I can’t imagine a team pulling a Sixers-type Process in the future, considering that team could turn in the league’s worst record and still only have a roughly 50-50 shot of picking fifth. The Cavaliers and Suns wound up getting the fifth and sixth picks; the truly abysmal Bulls will pick seventh.

Of course, I watched this season’s Knicks. There were stretches of March and April when their best player was Emmanuel Mudiay. That wasn’t entirely due to tanking—New York simply didn’t have better players. The Knicks probably could’ve won a few more games if they’d given more effort, but even under the revamped system, losing was clearly their best course of action. By finishing with the league’s worst record, the Knicks guaranteed themselves a top-5 pick, which was better than having the third-worst record and a one-in-three chance of selecting sixth or lower. The new format’s payoffs are smaller for tanking teams, but they’re still larger than the nonexistent benefits of trying to win games with rosters that suck. There’s only so much you can do when you’re in the Mudiay zone.

As long as the league maintains a system that attempts to breed parity by awarding coveted draft picks to failing franchises, tanking will exist in some form. The new odds won’t end it. It still makes sense for the league’s worst teams to tank. (And even if it didn’t, it’s not like they’d be able to win a ton of games anyway.) The new odds just give the league’s worst teams a more difficult road back to competence while giving the rest of the non-playoff field more reason to tank than ever. Purposeful losing will evolve. It will no longer be limited to the crappy few. It’s time for everybody to give tanking a spin.