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As much as I am into sports, I really have no knowledge about basketball, perhaps due to the low-profile of the sport in the UK.

However, today I've been reading up a little on the subject and have a question related to the NBA player draft.

This wiki article states:

the NBA holds a draft lottery to determine who chooses first. The top three picks are allocated by chance among the 14 teams that did not make the playoffs the year before. This discourages a team from losing on purpose to get a better draft pick.

My question is:

Has a team actually done this (lost on purpose) before? Surely there'd be disadvantages to this that far outweigh the advantage gained in getting the best draftees?

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3  
Just as an aside, NFL fans had a "mock" campaign in 2011 called Suck For Luck. Essentially, the worst team in the NFL gets the first draft pick of next year's draft (no lottery system in the NFL), and the first pick was highly speculated to be Andrew Luck (who was chosen first by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2012 NFL draft). –  edmastermind29 Jul 5 '12 at 13:15
    
Tanking for draft picks has been a problem recently in Australian (Aussie Rules) football. Google the Melbourne Demons for more info. –  chimp Dec 15 '12 at 0:44

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The lottery system makes it very difficult to effectively tank your season in the NBA. Basically no matter how bad you are, there is always a chance that you will not get one of the top 3 picks (in fact, the worst team in the league has rarely been awarded the top draft pick).

Here are the odds that the worst team in the NBA gets a pick at or better than the current pick, starting with pick 1. (assuming 2 teams do not tie for the worst record)

  • First pick: 25%
  • Second pick: 46.5%
  • Third pick: 64.3%
  • Fourth Pick: 100% (if the worst team in the league does not get one of the top 3 picks, they are automatically awarded the 4th pick).

Now, the fourth pick is still a pretty good player, and there is a pretty good chance that you are going to get the second or third pick. However, depending on the draft it may not be the kind of no-brainer that the top pick often is. Therefore tanking in the NBA is only a good strategy if you believe the draft is good enough that the top 3-4 players in the draft are potential franchise defining players.

The question of "has any team ever purposely tanked" is an incredibly difficult one. Plenty of teams give up and trade major pieces at the trade deadline in both basketball and baseball. However, no player would admit to playing less than 100%, and coaches are often fired if their team performs poorly, regardless of the players they have on the team, so it's not in their best interest. So while management can, and will put teams in positions to fail, the players and coaches usually try to do everything they can to not be that last place team.

A great example of this is interviews with Indianapolis Colts players this past year, they knew they were bad, and would be assured a new franchise QB if they had the worst record, but they also knew their jobs were at stake if they didn't at least try their hardest. And at the end of the year when they were the worst team in the league. Despite the fact that they were in position to draft a brand new franchise quarter back, they fired their GM. The players, coaches and management reiterated time and again that "there is no suck for Luck going on.

The other thing that goes into the equation of whether or not to tank is the question of what do you owe the folks that pay the bills. Namely your fans and your television and radio contracts. If you trade away your best players, is the product that you put out on the floor for the last 30-40 games of the season worth the (often obscene) ticket cost your fans are paying? If they stop showing up because you are awful this year, will they re-up their season tickets next year? Even if you only get the 4th pick of the draft? Will your TV and Radio partners give you a poorer contract when it comes time to re-up if they know that you have a tendency to throw a season away for potential draft picks?

In summary, it's an incredibly hard decision for management and ownership when it comes to the trade deadline about whether or not to trade away your best players and play for picks. But (at least on the public face) it's always a clear choice for players and coaches, play as hard as you can and try to win the games that you can. Unless as a coach you have a clear direction from management to sit your best players in the final couple of games, you will be trying to win what games you can so that you might actually get to keep your job at the end of the year. And as a player you're interest is in making sure that you put yourself in the best position to continue playing your sport, which means playing as well as you possible can.

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+1 Thanks for that great answer. I need to start watching NFL, NBA and NHL. –  Ste Jul 5 '12 at 12:38
    
@Ste You just named 3 of the 4 major American sports! –  Dynamic Jul 9 '12 at 13:22
    
@Dynamic - I know! I'm from the UK and never watch them! What's the fourth? Baseball? Don't watch that either! –  Ste Jul 9 '12 at 15:29
    
@Ste yes, baseball –  wax eagle Jul 9 '12 at 15:32
    
Give me six months and I'll add the American sports to my sporting knowledge bank! I think I receive ESPN America –  Ste Jul 9 '12 at 15:36

Teams may also find it smart to tank in order to avoid playoff mediocrity. There is very little point for a team with subpar talent to make a low seed, only to get a first round exit. The only reason they would want to do this is if they already have solid, young players (see Oklahoma City Thunder 2009-2010), and they want them to gain some experience.

On the subject of OKC, the team was in the lottery for many years, stocking up picks while not really signing any big free agents. This led to the drafting of Durant, Westbrook, Green, and Ibaka. This is considered rebuilding and can be interpretted as a form of tanking since the team has no intention of a winning record.

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Yes, tanking has happened in the NBA. In fact, a notorious tanking example was one of the causes of the draft lottery being instituted in the first place. This ESPN article notes:

Why do we have a draft lottery? Because of what happened in 1984.

In his book “Tip-Off,” a thorough account of the pivotal 1984 NBA draft, Filip Bondy dedicates a chapter to tanking entitled “Embracing Defeat.”

and

As reported by Bondy, it was Frank Layden, the former Utah Jazz coach, who spilled the beans on the Rocket science: "They were losing on purpose. That was told to me by one of their executives, that it was a business decision. And that’s why we went to the lottery system. It’s still going on a little bit today, anyway."

Bondy writes: "The NBA’s image suffered a severe blow that spring from all the suspicious losing. … The league was so concerned about the perceived chicanery that its board of governors instituted a lottery system weeks after the 1984 draft to assure such nonsense would never happen again."

Then again: As we’ve seen above, the lottery does not assure that tanking ended in 1984. Not even close.

The article goes on to note a few other examples that occurred after the draft lottery was put in place - the Spurs being able to draft Tim Duncan was one example. @Dor also notes the 2011-12 Golden State Warriors season - they were able to keep their 7th overall pick by tanking in the second half of the season.

The lottery now makes tanking more difficult - a team can't be assured of the top pick, but can maximize its chance of getting the top pick by putting forth less than its best effort.

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The answer is Yes!
but there is no real proof for that.

The closest one for proofing it was John Lucas, former Cavs coach, who said:

"They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team,'' Lucas told AOL FanHouse. "I didn't have a chance. ... You can't fault the Cavaliers for wanting to get LeBron. It was hard to get free agents to come there.''

Lucas said he was ordered to play young players.

Guard Ricky Davis, who was a member of that Cavs team and is now a member of the Clippers, said that Lucas was in a no-win situation.

"It was tough on [Lucas],'' Davis told AOL Fanhouse. "They were forcing him to lose and I know it's nothing he wanted to do. It's just the position he was forced in. But it's tough. ... It worked, whatever they did [to get James] so it's hard to knock them. They got what they wanted. But it was hard on Luke.''

Source

Another team that are candidate as an answer to your question is this year Golden State Warriors team.

In their most recent loss against the New Orleans Hornets, the Warriors' starting lineup consisted of four rookies and Richard Jefferson. Stephen Curry, David Lee and Andris Biedrins, three of their regular starters, were sidelined with injuries. Nate Robinson and Dorell Wright, their other starters, did not play due to a "coach's decision." In that same game, head coach Mark Jackson benched Klay Thompson, their only respectable offensive threat, in favor of playing the other rookies.

Source

I also advice you to read this interesting article about "The Art of Tanking"

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the Cavs finished the year with a 22.5% chance get LeBron, if they did tank, and did so solely to get LeBron then they are morons (or just bad a math). However, if they looked the draft class and said "holy heck, the top 5 of this draft is stacked" then sure tanking makes sense (and considering top 5 of that draft was LeBron, Darko, Melo, Wade, and Bosh, they would have been right with the exception of Darko). –  wax eagle Jul 5 '12 at 12:47

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