This is the year that NBA tanking went off the rails. The Philadelphia 76ers, for starters, exemplified a whole new level of basketball seppuku with a team so willfully awful that the New York Times Magazine felt compelled to publish a feature story about their willful awfulness. The Sixers’ smarty-pants front office—Philadelphia’s general manager, Sam Hinkie, has a Stanford MBA, as the profiles of the team’s losing ways inevitably noted—believes that the best way to make a bad team good is to first make it horrific. By descending into “tank mode,” the Sixers hoped to lose enough games that they’d receive one of the valuable first picks in the upcoming NBA draft.
The team’s multiyear experiment in trading better players for worse ones and stockpiled draft picks is the grandest of the tank projects, but it’s not the only one. The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, and other teams were accused of plunging into the tank for large swaths of this season. Which is sad. Tanking makes for ugly basketball and it throws off competitive balance. It encourages teams to sit their most exciting players (as, for instance, the Knicks did with Carmelo Anthony) or just trade them away (as the Sixers did with nearly every decent player on their roster). Perhaps worst of all: Fans of tanking teams find themselves not only watching putrid hoops but also perversely rooting against their hometown squads. You know something has gone awry when Knicks coach Derek Fisher feels pressure to apologize to fans for winning.
How to solve the problem? The best tanking solution would be relegation, as happens in European soccer leagues. Each year, the bottom three teams in the continent’s top divisions are kicked out of the league and relegated to a lower one. Regrettably, with NBA teams currently selling for $2 billion apiece, it's unlikely we'll get owners to agree that a few of them should be banished to the D-League each year to compete against the Sioux Falls Skyforce. (No one believes this will happen—otherwise we’d see a bidding war for last year’s champion, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.)
A more likely solution would be for the NBA to flatten out the lottery odds. Right now the worst team has a 25 percent chance at the top pick while the 14th-worst team has a 0.5 percent chance. We could switch to a true lottery, in which all 14 non-playoff teams would get an equal 7.14 percent chance at the top pick. Or, more progressively, we could massage the system so that each team’s odds are closer but not equal. But this still wouldn’t entirely remove the incentive to tank. Besides, NBA owners recently rejected a plan along these lines.
Another draft scheme that’s gotten lots of attention is “the wheel”—a system in which the draft order would be set far in advance so that a team’s draft position would have zero to do with its on-court performance. This would eliminate any reason to tank, but it would also do nothing to help bad teams get better. The worst team in the league might end up picking dead last in the draft. The best team might pick first. Making the rich richer and the poor poorer would be an unacceptable outcome of any lottery reform. As horrible as the status quo is, some version of reverse-order drafting—and the increased parity it helps create—is still a worthy goal. So the problem seems intractable.
But fear not, NBA fans! A superior answer exists, and a friend of mine has invented it. It’s fair, it’s elegant, and it’s fun. My friend calls it the “You’re the Worst!” draft.
How would it work? On the day before the regular season began, the NBA would hold a “You’re the Worst!” draft. Selection order for the YTW draft would be determined like any standard reverse-order draft—the team that had the worst win-loss record in the previous season would pick first, the team that had the best record would pick last. But the teams wouldn’t be drafting players. They’d be choosing the rights to another team’s position in the next NBA draft.
So, for example, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who finished this season with the worst win-loss record, would have the first YTW pick in the fall when the 2015–16 season started. One day before opening day, all of the league’s general managers would gather together in a room. The T-Wolves would look around that room and decide which team they thought would finish worst in 2015–16. (They would not be allowed to choose themselves, tempting as that might be.)
Minnesota general manager Milt Newton might predict that the Knicks would be the worst team next season. In which case he would shout, “You’re the worst!” while pointing at Knicks President Phil Jackson, stealing the Knicks’ position in the 2016 NBA draft. If the Knicks indeed finished worst next year, the T-wolves would then receive the top pick in the 2016 draft. If the Knicks finished with the third-worst record, the T-Wolves would receive the No. 3 pick. If they made the playoffs in the final spot, Minnesota would be stuck with the 15th pick, and Newton would probably be fired.
After the Wolves picked, Jackson and the Knicks, with their second-worst record this past season, would look around the room, predict which remaining team might perform most horribly in 2015–16, and select that team’s 2016 draft pick. Preferably while pointing and shouting, “You’re the next worst!”
Let’s look at how things would have panned out if we’d held a YTW draft for the 2014–15 season. Since the Bucks accumulated the worst win-loss record last year, and the 76ers appeared to be clearly the worst team entering this season, the Bucks would've selected the 76ers first in the YTW draft. It turned out that the 76ers earned the third-worst record, so the Bucks would be getting the third pick in this June’s NBA draft.
Here’s how the 2015 NBA draft might look if there’d been a YTW draft on Oct. 27, 2014, the day before this season started (we’ll use SCHOENE projections from the start of the season as a proxy for how general managers might have projected other teams):
- Denver Nuggets (The Nuggets had the 11th-worst record in 2013–14, so they’d pick 11th in the YTW draft; the Timberwolves were projected to be the 11th-worst team this season, so the Nuggets would have stolen their pick. Since the T-Wolves finished with the league’s worst record, the Nuggets would get the first pick in June’s draft.)
- Sacramento Kings (seventh-worst record in 2013–14, steal New York Knicks pick)
- Milwaukee Bucks (worst record in 2013–14, steal 76ers pick)
- Boston Celtics (fifth-worst record in 2013–14, steal Lakers pick)
- Philadelphia 76ers (second-worst record in 2013–14, steal Orlando Magic pick)
It’s a pretty good result. Although the Bucks, last year’s worst team, wouldn't end up with the first pick in this year’s NBA draft—something that often doesn't happen anyway, due to the lottery—the new positions still would be heavily weighted toward the bottom feeders. And note that while in the real world the scrappy Celts will be punished for fighting hard to make the playoffs, in a YTW world they would have suffered no ill consequences. Though the Timberwolves wouldn't receive the first pick in the upcoming player draft, despite finishing with the worst record, they would own the YTW No. 1 this fall, which would very likely pay off in 2016.
The obvious benefit of this system is that no team would have an incentive to tank throughout the season (barring collusion). Just think about how this season could have been different. If the Knicks didn’t derive a direct benefit from being so terrible, would they have shut down Carmelo? Would the 76ers dare to build a team so nakedly atrocious? Perhaps, near the end of the year, teams might tank to have a better pick in the upcoming YTW draft. But looking at the above top five picks, there would be a lag to that benefit and it wouldn’t guarantee a ton of value.
Another benefit to the “You’re the Worst” system: It would be exciting! A big problem with “the wheel” reform approach is that it gets rid of the lottery, and the lottery—for all its flaws—is amazing theater. With YTW, we’d replace the lottery with even better drama. Wouldn’t you tune in to see Newton, or better yet Wolves president and coach Flip Saunders, walk up to the podium on national television, look Phil Jackson straight in the eye, and say, “You’re the worst!”? (OK, it would be more like, “With the first pick in the preseason selection-order draft, the Timberwolves select the Knicks.” But the implied insult would be there.) Just like with the real draft, there could be three minutes of commentator analysis between picks.
Because NBA fans have long memories, animosity would instantly sprout. Consider: If the Knicks visited Philadelphia right after calling them “the worst,” the Philly crowd might get rowdy. It stinks to root against your own team, but it’s hella fun to root against other teams. Players would also be eager to prove rival teams’ projections wrong. Ultimately, YTW would enhance—wait for it—competitiveness!
Teams could still trade picks under YTW. You could trade for a team’s YTW selection before the YTW draft, or you could trade for their NBA draft selection after it.
To be sure, this system is not perfect. It might take a casual fan a few run-throughs to understand. And it puts a heavy premium on the forecasting skills of NBA front offices. Nerdy spreadsheet jockeys would become even more valuable than they already are. But it might be better for Sam Hinkie to put his geek skills to use in the service of predictive analysis—or maybe even figuring out how to help his team win—instead of searching for the most efficient way to lose.