Wednesday, July 24, 2013

NBA tanking: Historical data that shows it's a very bad idea

I am of the opinion that Boston fans (and sports fans in general) who say "all that matters are championships" are sadly misguided.  Most teams don't win most years, so if titles are all that you care about you're in for an enormous amount of perpetual disappointment (check out my article on why stats can sometimes be more important than victories).  Having said that, I think the Celtics should try to win as many games as they can next year.  I'm confident they could be fun to watch, maybe even make the playoffs; and that would be enjoyable.  But for those who believe otherwise and want the C's to lose as much as possible in order to get a lottery pick to build for the future, history disagrees.

The NBA draft lottery was first instated in 1985.  In the 28 years since it's inception, the team with the worst record in the league has gotten the #1 pick on just four occasions (14% of the time).  But since 2014 is a "deep draft," getting the number one selection isn't that important, right?

I researched the top 4 picks in every lottery, and of the 84 players chosen in spots 2-4 since 1985, only three of them have won a title with the team that drafted them.  In two cases they were dealt away and then came back later (Sean Elliott was picked #3 by the Spurs in '89, traded to the Pistons in '94, and later got a ring with San Antonio in '99.  Jason Kidd was chosen 2nd overall by the Mavs in '94, then eventually won it all with Dallas two teams and 16 years later).  The third example is Darko Milicic, who played a grand total of 5 minutes as a rookie for Detroit in the 2004 Finals on his way to becoming known as one of the biggest draft busts of all-time.

  In the lottery era, no players taken with the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th picks have ever led the teams that drafted them to a championship.  The Grizzlies had five cracks in a row at it with the #3 selection in '96, the #4 in '97, and then the #2 three consecutive years from 1998-2000.  They followed that up with back to back 23-59 seasons in '01 and '02.

So if a 2-4 pick isn't likely to return the Celtics to greatness, maybe the #1 still could?  That sounds good in theory until you realize that with the exception of San Antonio, no team that's won the lottery has ever won a championship afterwards.  The Spurs have actually done it with two #1's, David Robinson and Tim Duncan.  But of the twenty-eight #1 overall lottery picks, only four (again 14%) have helped lead their team to titles, and the other two (Shaq and LeBron) didn't do it with the clubs that drafted them.  Whose to say a draftee with rare franchise altering potential even sticks around long enough to make it happen?

Assuming Boston would be able to hang on to their young superstar, based on past occurrences there's at best a 14% chance of getting the #1 pick, and then another 14% chance he could lead them to banner #18.  That leaves the odds of "tanking" being successful at roughly 2%.

I realize there are all kinds of holes in this logic, and the numbers don't really work like that.  Not to mention that later lottery picks Kobe Bryant (13), Paul Pierce (10), Dirk Nowitzki (9), and Dwyane Wade (5) have all been Finals MVP's for their original teams.  But the point is still valid; there is very little historical evidence to support losing now as a means to a championship later.



  1. Thanks. It's definitely a little longer than 37 seconds, but I think it's worth it!

  2. Excellent analysis Mark!

  3. Top-notch analysis, my syllogistic friend.

    The lottery system needs to go -- I have a modest proposal:

    BTW, like the new "forum.


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