BYU professor explains the science of NBA tanking
Joe Price breaks it down, framing the dark side of the NBA's annual draft lottery as simply as it can be framed.
"I'm an economist, I believe in incentives," Price says. "If a team has a strong incentive to lose, they'll lose. If a team has a strong incentive to win, they'll try to win. It turns out it's a lot easier to lose on purpose than it is to win on purpose."
Price, an associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University, is discussing the deliberate loss of games to secure a better chance at a higher draft pick known simply as "tanking." He, along with a few other researchers in 2010, found that when NBA teams are out of playoff contention, they start to lose more often, whether it be to give young players more minutes or lose unabashedly for the chance a better draft pick.
"Whether the friendly or the nefarious version is correct, it's hard to say. But it's very clear that once a team drops out of contention, the probablity of them winning drops quite a bit," Price said.
Price's research is of particular interest to Utah this year, with a historically bad Jazz team in line for a high pick if the ping pong balls fall the right way Tuesday. The 2013-2014 Jazz had its worst season since 2004-2005 and finished with its lowest win total since the 1981-1982 season. But with losses comes opportunity to get a franchise player, a Wiggins, Parker or Randle that can come in and theoretically boost Utah back into the playoffs and beyond.
When teams are more likely to tank
Price's research found that tanking isn't necessarily motivated by the talent available in the upcoming draft each year, but the potential for playoff contention. Studying data from the 1977-2008 seasons, teams playing within the weighted NBA lottery system established in 1985 were more likely to lose games after playoff contention elimination. There are other unmeasurable variables like injuries and resting players in the home stretch of the season, but from 1987-2000, evidence of tanking was present in nine of 13 seasons.
"We find that not only do they start losing more often, but you see their key players playing fewer minutes," Price said.
As for losing to nab a marquee player, Price said his research team was surprised to see there wasn't as much evidence.
"That wasn't as clear as we thought it would be," Price said. "It appears that teams have a basic rule of thumb that once they're out of contention for the playoffs, they do things that lower their winning probability."
What's the value of the number one pick?
For every Greg Oden, there's a LeBron James. For every Kwame Brown, there's a Tim Duncan. But Price's research found that more often than not, that number one overall pick can dramatically alter a franchise.
The average number one pick from 1977-2003 produced nearly 45 wins in his first five seasons compared with 26 for a second overall pick and 35 wins for the third overall pick. In terms of performance, a number one pick performs nearly 67 percent better than an average player that produces 0.100 wins per 48 minutes of playing time. Finally, in regard to revenue, from 1992-2007, the number one overall pick produced an average of 7.2 extra wins, worth an extra $1.4 million for their franchise.
"Basketball is the sport where one player can change everything," Price said. "Getting the number one pick can make your team move up a whole bunch."
A Jazz fan's perspective
Jazz fan Brendan Anderson said he knew this season would be rough for Utah, so he devised a way to keep himself and a just over 1,000 Twitter followers entertained. Anderson, a student at Utah State, created the "Did the Jazz win?" Twitter account, tweeting out versions of "Yes" and "No" all season long.
"I was hoping Jazz fans would be able to see the humor in it and that I wasn't necessarily trying to bash them," Anderson said.
He watched an estimated 60-65 games this season and said he'd catch as many as possible unless he had a test the next day. The 2013-2014 Jazz for Anderson was a dud more often than not.
"It's just hard to watch. I know what we're trying to do and I know we're in a rebuilding year for sure, but it's definitely hard to watch," Anderson said.
However, he said he didn't believe the Jazz ever tanked on purpose, just that the team was "bad" and that the young players "did the best they could." Anderson, for the record, isn't in favor of losing on purpose even if it means missing out on a potential franchise altering player.
"If you as a fan base in general know that the team is deliberately trying to tank, then you're going to hurt your fan base a lot," he said.
The current popular solution to tanking is a "wheel" system, which would give every NBA franchise a 1-30 draft slot once every 30 years. The initial plan will most likely be tweaked, but the wheel would at least eliminate tanking if NBA teams had a predetermined draft position over the next three decades.
However, Price said that system isn't "equitable" if current top teams ended up with the first chance at a top five pick and because free agency gives better teams an inherent advantage to land better players.
"Imagine if the wheel happened to be the [Miami] Heat getting the number one pick next year. That could happen," he said. "If we did the wheel system next year and just randomly chose the numbers, the Heat could have the number one pick. There's just something unjust about that kind of world."
His solution: randomly select a number between 30 and 60 after the season, basing lottery teams' draft spot on their place in the standings after that randomly chosen game. For example, handing the Jazz a pick based on the team's record after the 42nd game of the season because theoretically, every team believes they have a chance at the beginning of the season to make the postseason.
"I'd like to think that the league's equitable enough to begin with and that the teams are overconfident enough that everyone thinks they have a shot at the beginning," Price said.
Though more harsh, Price also suggested using a relegation system similar to European soccer in which the worst two teams would be sent to the NBA D-League the following season.
Ideal picks for the Jazz
Anderson said he's personally pulling for the Jazz to draft Kansas center Joel Embiid, the 7-foot post player that averaged 11 points and eight rebounds per game last season, if the team get's a top pick.
"It would be nice to get a young talent, even to teach [Derrick] Favors and [Enes] Kanter a few things and they could learn off each other," Anderson said.
For Price, Duke forward and Mormon Jabari Parker makes the most sense from an economic perspective to maximize interest and revenue at EnergySolutions Arena.
"Jabari Parker would be a godsend to the Jazz," Price said. "What better way to fill the stadium every game than to have a player like that in Utah?"
Anderson said he has faith, faith that if the ping pong balls fall just right, the Jazz will assume a place in the postseason once again sooner rather than later.
"I still have hope and I hope a lot of Jazz fans will still have that hope as well," he said. "It's a rough time to be a Jazz fan, but I think things will turn out positive."