‘Tis the season for tanking! Last week, there were six teams eliminated from the playoffs. The Bobcats and Wizards had lost quite a lot already since then, though the Hornets looked surprisingly good. The Hornets continue to look good, but everyone else is bad bad bad, and the ranks of the eliminated have grown. The Bobcats locked in the worst record last night, but it’s hard to imagine them winning any games the rest of the way, so I’m not sure they can be accused of tanking. They are just a terrible team.
The Tank Watch
The Hornets 6-3 record since playoff elimination is largely due to the return of Eric Gordon (they are 4-1 in recent games when he has played). However, would any team other than the LEAGUE OWNED Hornets bring back Eric Gordon this late in the season in their current situation? I think not. In fact, the Hornets success is further evidence that other lottery teams are tanking. They could easily rise from 3rd to 5th or higher in the lottery because the NBA doesn’t want to get caught trying to lose, while every other team is doing their best to throw games.
My buddy Tony sent me a nice summary of “personnel tanking” by Jay Caspian Kang at Grantland. All the “Did Not Dress” (DND) designations are pretty alarming. We’ll have to see if teams play their stars again after they clinch their lottery spots. That would be consistent with my research findings with my PhD buddy Chris.
I disagree with Kang’s arguments against tanking, though (see the A, B, C, D list under New Jersey, for example). Kang says some things that don’t make sense. First, he makes a couple arguments about uncertainty in the draft. I agree that teams often make mistakes in the draft, but their odds of drafting a star definitely improve if they pick higher in the draft. Uncertainty alone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tank. It matters how much uncertainty exists. Chris and I showed that getting the first pick improves winning percentage and (especially) attendance on average, so there’s definitely value to tanking.
Second, Kang writes, ” . . . maybe it’s worth wondering if your jaded fan base will even care if your team goes from 18 to 38 wins [after you land a top pick].” If fans don’t care about the difference between 18 and 38 wins (and he’s probably right in general), then why should tanking hurt anything? That range will capture the difference between most tankers and non-tankers. And, what’s the alternative anyway? Going from 30 wins to 32 wins? That’s not any better.
Third, in discussing the Nets and Warriors, Kang says he finds tanking acceptable for top 3 picks, but not for later picks. He’s arguing that the Pistons, Nets, Raptors, and Warriors (tied for 6th in the lottery at 22 wins) shouldn’t tank because it’s not worth it. However, these teams probably are tanking for a top 3 pick. Kang has mistaken the “level” of the odds for the “marginal change” in odds. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd pick odds for the 9th lottery team are 1.7%, 2.0%, and 2.4%, respectively, while the same odds for the 6th lottery team are 6.3%, 7.1%, and 8.1%. All these odds are at low levels. However, finishing at the bottom of this group versus the top improves the odds of getting a top three pick by 15.4 percentage points! That’s a pretty big jump for as little as one additional loss. No wonder they are tanking. For comparison, moving up from the 2nd to the 1st lottery spot only increases top 3 odds by 8.5 percentage points.
As the season winds down, we’ll see if any tankers reveal themselves by playing better (perhaps by using better players) once they clinch their spot. I don’t expect much change for the Hornets (league ownership) or the Bobcats (incapable of winning), so we might not see much this year. Few of the other teams will clinch before the last game or two. Check out an earlier post for evidence that teams have improved after clinching in the past.