The NBA's New and Improved Tanking Landscape
There’s only 2 weeks remaining in the NBA regular season, and some teams are full sprint in their losing dash for favorable odds at the Draft Lottery. The tanking is to be expected—if you can’t make the playoffs, then why not try for as high as draft pick as possible?
Teams will shut down key players for “injuries” and work on developing the youth, knowing full well that a loss is a win at that point. It happens every year, except this time it’s not the teams you’d expect that are mailing it in.
Instead of the bottom 3 or 4 teams duking it out in world class displays of bad basketball, the battlefield of losers has shifted to those who are on the fringes of the lottery, having realized their playoff push will come up short. In fact, those basement teams are looking pretty great some nights, even occasionally catching playoff teams napping and beating them. This is all thanks to the new lottery odds, as explained by NBA.com.
The most notable change is the flattened odds for the bottom 3 teams. The worst record used to have a 25% chance at the top pick, the second worst 19.9%, and the third worst 15.6%. The new odds give the 3 an equal 14% chance at the top pick, and now that there is no incentive for being the worst team, there is no need to lose every game. The Cavs and Suns—part of the bottom 3—are not just winning games, but beating teams they have no business competing with like the Bucks, Raptors, and Warriors. They’re catching teams off guard by playing hard for a full 48 minutes every game, and that’s caused an interesting ripple effect for playoff contenders.
It used to be that in the last weeks of the season, teams fighting for playoff contention or favorable seeding could automatically scratch a “w” in their schedule against such tanking teams. Not anymore (unless it’s the Knicks, who are 1-9 in their last 10. But they’ve only just figured out how to tank, so we can wait to tell them about the flattened odds for another year—one thing at a time).
That’s not to say that nobody is throwing in the towel, though. Teams like the Wizards, Lakers, and Pelicans, who were once in the thick of the Western Playoff race have made a 180 and are sprinting down the standings as fast as they can. Some are trying to build for the future and some are trying to gain an asset to trade for a star player, but the goal is the same: getting a top 4 pick in a draft class where the talent looks to heavily drop off after that point. Meanwhile, there are teams like the Grizzlies desperately trying to win so they can slip to the 9th pick or higher so Boston will take it and not have a chance at their top-6 protected pick in 2020. Who knew tanking was so nuanced?
The ultimate takeaway for teams outside the bottom 3 is that, with only a 1.5% chance at the top pick difference from spot to spot, teams are able to make their own judgement on how to let things play out. On one hand, the Hawks are more concerned with learning how to win with their core than trying to edge up a spot or two. Alternatively, teams that have proven they have a foundation for the future like the Mavericks are content with losing in order to gain that extra 3-4.5% in odds, and potentially add another key player to their lineup.
The new flattened odds certainly haven’t solved tanking, but they have provided a new iteration of late season NBA that feels a little bit more exciting, which is a step in the right direction. We’ll take it.