Tuesday, April 17, 2007

NBA teams will "tank" for draft choices. Why don't NFL teams do the same?

Two recent posts from the Sports Law Blog talk about NBA teams losing games on purpose. They do that in order to finish worse in the standings, and improve their chances of getting an early pick in the draft.

In the NBA, the draft order is determined by lottery; the worse a team's record, the more lottery tickets it gets for high picks. If a team isn't going to make the playoffs, it might be in its interest to try to lose, or at least not try so hard to win. Nobody deliberately tanks, but coaches may make extensive use of second-tier players, for the ostensible reason that they need to evaluate them for next year.

first post talks about ways to stop this from happening by changing the incentives. For instance, if all non-playoff teams had an equal shot at the lottery, regardless of record, there would be no reason to lose. Or if every rookie was a free agent, you wouldn't need a draft at all.

second post is, in my opinion, more interesting. It asks why we see "tanking" happen in basketball, but not in other sports. It doesn't happen in the NHL or NFL. Plus, the NFL doesn't use a lottery, so you'd think the tendency to lose meaningless games would be stronger, not weaker.

The article comes up with five reasons the NBA is unique in this regard:

-- in the NBA, there's often only one or two impact players, and then a steep dropoff in quality. So a number one pick could be extremely valuable, while the number two pick is not a lot of use.

-- the value of a superstar in the NBA is much higher than in other sports, because there are only five men on the court, and top players may see action for almost the entire game.

-- teams who draft a superstar often improve by a huge margin in the following season. (This seems to be simply a consequence of the previous point.)

-- since there's not as much money wagered on NBA games as NFL games, there's less outrage when teams don't try hard to win.

-- "nobody cares" when bad teams lose; there are 82 games in the season, so no game is that big an event.

My vote goes to the first two points. And I'd add a third:

-- it's easier to lose a game in basketball than in other sports. You only have to substitute five players, rather than 30 or 40 in the NFL. There's a big dropoff between superstars and bench players, so the players you sub in are substantially worse. And, finally, in the NBA, a substantially worse team will almost always lose to a substantially better team – there just aren't all that many upsets.

This makes the task of losing a whole lot easier. And that's important; if you're going to take flak for obviously trying to lose, at least you want the strategy to work.

Labels: , , , ,


At Tuesday, April 17, 2007 12:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen any evidence that the distribution of talent in the NBA is any different that in other pro sports. I think the second point is the correct one: star offensive players touch the ball meaningfully on half of their team's total possessions, and account for maybe one-third of the team's total attempts. Defensive stars are involved in maybe one-third of opposing team possessions. There isn't another sport where one player can have as big an impact over the course of a season.

At Tuesday, April 17, 2007 1:03:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Ed: I defer to your expertise.

Perhaps on the first point, it's not a dropoff in *quality* -- it's a dropoff in *value*. Suppose that there are 60 shortstops, and they're all very close in ability, from 1000 points down to 940. The first 30 players have high value. But, because teams can only play one regular shortstop, the 31st guy is valued much, much less highly than the 30th.

When the Sports Law Blog says there's a big dropoff in talent, maybe they really mean *value*.

Just a thought.

At Tuesday, April 17, 2007 2:20:00 PM, Blogger JavaGeek said...

I think a lot of people forget to look at who wants to "tank" and who wants to "win"

In hockey for example the starting goaltender never wants to lose, it'll kill their records, even if you add a asterix to it (tanked for draft picks) you still look bad statistically and can lose millions for it.

Same goes for scorers, players are often rated based on Points/Game, if you want to tank you need to get very few goals and assists.

The coach doesn't want to have a losing record.

None of the actual players benefit directly from a high draft pick unless you have a long contract with the team so that your chances of winning improve in the future with said draft pick. Otherwise you will want to win no matter how good your draft pick could be.

Who benefits most: Management. So tanking in most sports should come from a management level.

As a side note you choose the wrong year to say NHL teams don't tank for a draft pick: Edmonton went 1-17 (1 OTW - 1 OTL) in the last 20 games.

To look at this properly you'd have to look at:
Draft Factors:
1. Risk of draft pick n.
2. Talent distribution of draft
3. Development speed (faster development = sooner current roster sees benefit)
Cost of a loss:
1. Fan support
2. Player statistics

I probably missed some thing here.

At Tuesday, April 17, 2007 2:34:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Sure, it's management that wants to tank. I think the idea is that they tell the coach to use their second-line players. here's a post that states explicitly that holding out the best players is happening.

Did the Oilers do that, giving their best players less ice time? They traded Ryan smyth, right?

At Tuesday, April 17, 2007 5:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're missing another point, which is that there is much more time to tank in the NBA than in the NFL. In basketball, you can play terribly in the first half of the season, know you have no chance to make the playoffs, and tank for the last 40 games. In the NFL, nothing is set until there are maybe six games left. Given the random bounces that affect any outcome (and the fact that you're not going to sit 15-20 players in the NFL), it becomes almost impossible to ensure that you lose every game down the stretch (which is what a football team would really need to do to tank).

At Tuesday, April 17, 2007 5:40:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

David: makes sense ... although wouldn't there be an incentive for a 2-10 team to want to go 2-14? But you're right, they won't sit 15-20 players.

Actually, now that I think about it ... there's the Massey/Thaler study, which said there wasn't much advantage to an early draft choice over a later one, because you have to pay the earlier ones more money. So that would certainly reduce the incentive.

At Tuesday, April 17, 2007 8:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The guys at football-reference also present a good argument for the removal of the draft and allowing all rookies to be free agents. I think this would actually work well, and it would provide an interesting challenge for the salary cap gurus in each league.


At Wednesday, April 18, 2007 3:25:00 PM, Blogger Jason Lisk said...

There were some comments on the other blog suggesting various conspiracies, such as the NFL teams tank games as well but the NFL has a better PR machine, that there was a
racial motivation to focusing on the NBA, or that the structure of the game allows NFL teams to hide it easier.

I think the proof is in the pudding. Neither the NBA nor NFL hides the league results. If there were teams engaging in tactics to lose games (even if they could be individually disguised on a game by game basis or explained individually) to improve draft position later in the season, there would be evidence that the bad teams performed even worse than expected at the end of the season.

Here is the data (1997-2006) for winning percentages for all teams finishing 5-11 or worse, for the final 2 weeks of the NFL season, versus the rest of the regular season.

Last 2 games: 41-105 (.281)
First 14 games: 250-772 (.245)

Same thing, for NBA (1997-2007, excluding 1999 strike year), for all teams finishing 30-52 or worse, looking at the last 12 games versus the rest of the regular season:

Last 12 games: 193-572 (.252)
First 70 games: 1282-3198 (.286)

I think there is an ethos in football, more akin to the military, where teams fight to the end. Would this hold if the same driving factors identified in regard to the NBA were present (such as the increased importance of one player)? As it is, there is still some motivation to acquire the higher pick, yet that motivation is not enough right now to drive teams to go against the attitude that you fight til the end.

To the extent the NBA needs a solution, here is my suggestion (it's still in the rough draft formative stage on the specifics):

1. Pick a certain number of losses at which teams are likely to start thinking about the draft once they have reached that milestone (say, 35 losses). Rank the teams in the order by which they get their 35th loss (by total games played), with the 1st to get to 35 L's getting 14 ping pong balls, and the last of the non-playoff teams to get to 35 L's getting 1 ping pong ball.

2. After a team has reached 35 L's, they can only get more ping pong balls by winning after that point (1 for each win thereafter).

This would still generally permit the worst teams to get more balls (and they would have more opportunities to gain wins for balls, though they would be expected to still win at a lower rate), but would discourage strategies for underperforming toward the end of the season.

At Wednesday, April 18, 2007 4:24:00 PM, Blogger Tangotiger said...


Certainly is an interesting approach. The key is to figure out the right threshhold at which you toggle, but rather fascinating to consider.

At Wednesday, April 18, 2007 7:39:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Jason: nice little study, thanks. I haven't seen the criticisms you mention, but the evidence certainly does seem to refute them.


Post a Comment

<< Home