Earlier this spring, my coauthor Chris and I discovered that NBA teams tank a lot, especially teams in the first or second lottery position. This season, I’ve been tracking team performance before and after playoff-eliminated teams locked in to their lottery position. Once teams clinch their spot, there’s no incentive to tank anymore. We found that teams play much better after clinching. Here’s what things look like this year:
The Tank Watch
As I thought a couple weeks ago, the lockout bunched everyone up this year. There just weren’t enough games for teams to separate at the bottom. Only the Bobcats, Wizards, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Bucks clinched their spots before the season ended. This doesn’t mean that teams weren’t tanking (see my post on the Cavs yesterday), but I can’t really test for tanking in a foolproof way. And, comparing pre/post clinch winning percentage doesn’t identify all tankers, since some teams may make personnel decisions that are irreversible (Exhibit A: the Warriors) and others just get so used to losing or are so terrible that motivation fades (Exhibit B: the Bobcats).
The one team that looks like a tank show for sure is the Wizards, who essentially clinched the second lottery spot a week ago, and rattled off five wins to finish the season. While the Wiz were playing all their stars down the stretch (since they had no reason left to lose), their buddies at the bottom (Cavs, Timberwolves, Warriors) were sitting everyone down or trading them. The big outlier of course is the Hornets, who, due to their league ownership, kept Eric Gordon alive and played GREAT down the stretch. At least it only cost them one spot in the end (they finished tied for third), and Hornets fans can be optimistic about next year with Gordon.
Now that we’re done with all that tanking, let’s get on to the NBA’s second season, where all the best players get to play, all the stadiums are full, and all the teams are above average.