NBA Tanking – Don’t count the blowouts

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There’s been a lot of talk about tanking in the NBA all season thanks to the deep draft class expected this year. That talk has heated up after the trade deadline with a few teams appearing to have given up. The 76ers have lost 15 in a row and show little sign of hope to win again. As someone who follows the 76ers (I don’t pay too much attention to NBA games not involving them), I’m perfectly happy with this strategy. Finishing each season between 6th and 10th in the conference wasn’t going to get us anywhere besides the 2nd round of the playoffs on a rare occasion.

I’ve seem some suggestions on how to fix tanking, if it’s even possible. The wheel is the most common idea referenced. The idea is that the draft order is set and rotates in some way each season. If there are 30 teams in the league, you’ll have the #1 pick once every 30 years, guaranteed. You’d get that pick if you were the worst team in the league or if you just won the championship. I like the idea for its creativity and discussion it has created. I don’t like the idea so much as a complete solution. It’s hard enough to turn a franchise around through drafting and free agency, taking away a draft advantage makes things a whole lot harder.

How do you tell if a team is tanking? There’s no clear way. Is a team just bad or purposely bad? Did a GM make a trade just to make the team worse? You’d have to weigh the long term value of the trade. Is a team faking injuries? You can’t ask that.

Let’s assume that there is no difference between a tanking team and a really really bad team. A tanking team is trying to not win games. They want to lose to everyone. Meaning they will lose to the bad teams and get blown out by the good teams (and maybe some bad teams too). What if we just don’t count games where they get blown out? Make the lottery a ranking of the teams with the most non-blowout losses.

I took the current lottery teams (as of last night) losses, then looked at what the draft order would look like if blowouts were removed. Now, choosing what counts as a blowout is just a guess. I tried 20 points and 15 points.

First, the standings by losses:
47 Bucks
46 76ers
43 Magic
40 Celtics, Knicks, Lakers
39 Kings, Jazz
38 Cavaliers
37 Pelicans
36 Pistons
34 Nuggets
29 Timberwolves
25 Grizzles

Since the West is so good, the bottom of this list is all West teams since teams with similar records in the East would make the playoffs.

Remove 20+ Point Blowouts
For this list, I’ve just removed any games where the team lost by 20 points or more. Numbers in () are how many losses have been removed.
38 Magic (5)
37 Bucks (10)
35 Celtics (5), Kings (4)
34 Pelicans (3)
33 76ers (13)
32 Cavaliers (6), Knicks (8), Lakers (8)
30 Pistons (6)
29 Jazz (10)
28 Timberwolves (1)
27 Nuggets (7)
23 Grizzlies (2)

The 76ers take a tumble thanks to all their 20+ blowouts, from owning #2 to #6. That’ll happen when you lose 13 games by at least 20 points. The Magic have only been blown out like this 5 times which gives them the top spot by a game. I thought 20 points much be a bit much to start, but it certainly has shaken things up.

Remove 15+ Point Blowouts
Sames deal as before.
32 Celtics (8), Kings (7)
31 Bucks (16)
28 Knicks (12), Lakers (12), Magic (15), Pelicans (9)
26 76ers (20), Timberwolves (3)
24 Cavaliers (14), Pistons (12)
23 Nuggets (11)
22 Jazz (17)
18 Grizzlies (7)

Lots of movement here. The Magic’s sweet loss spot is right in the 15-20 range where they’ve lost 10 games dropping them into the logjam at #4. The 76ers league leading 20 15+ blowouts drops them to tied for #8. Also at #8, the Timberwolves. It looks like they have just had bad luck compared to the rest of this group. That’s just the kind of losing this system rewards. A move from the #13 spot to that tie at #8.

Besides attempting to reward the right kind of losing with this system, I see one other interesting wrinkle, potentially making blowouts more interesting. Nearing the end of the game, I could see a team trying a little harder trying to get under the blowout threshold. The players and coaches involved don’t really think about draft picks during a game, so it might not change anything. Except that blowouts will be tracked in some standings. If there is a concrete blowout number and a team is close to it at the end of a game, they just might push a little harder on D or throw up a last second shot, just hoping to avoid adding one to the blowout column.

My concern is about teams that really just are that bad or had a rough string of injuries. With injuries, those players should come back at some point. As for just having lousy luck at drafting and signings, it seems that if you spent toward the cap, you should be able to cobble together a team that can lose by less than 15 points on any given night.

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