If your takeaway from the NBA Draft Lottery is that it represents the end of tanking, we watched two completely different NBA seasons.
Let’s start with the Pelicans. Winning the lottery was great news for the people of New Orleans, who were finally able to take a ten minute break from shouting NFL postseason what-ifs into the abyss. Unfortunately for the NBA, it only further proves that tanking pays.
On January 28, 2019, Pelicans star Anthony Davis asked the team to trade him. If the season ended on this day, the Pelicans would have had the tenth best lottery odds.
Davis wasn’t traded, but after the trade request, his playing time dropped significantly. Through January, he played 41 out of 52 games. From February on, he played just 15 of 30 games, missing games due to rest, personal reasons, and soreness.
Through January, Davis played 37 minutes per game, including 8.9 minutes per game in the fourth quarter in 39 fourth quarter appearances. After January, Davis played just 22 minutes per game, including 2.9 minutes per game in the fourth quarter in 3 fourth quarter appearances.
The Pelicans also traded Nikola Mirotic, who was playing 28.9 minutes per game on the season, for four second round picks at the trade deadline — the type of move that got the Sixers blasted for years.
As a result, the Pelicans finished the season in a three-way tie for the seventh best lottery odds. Call it want you want; I’m going to call it what it is: tanking. And under the new lottery odds, tanking in the middle of the lottery is heavily rewarded.
The new rules flatten lottery odds, improving the chances of teams in the mid to late lottery. They also draw four teams as opposed to three drawn in the old system, so there is an even greater chance lower teams can jump.
This chart shows the Pelicans’ jump in odds at the number one pick under the old lottery system versus the new one:
And this one shows their jump in odds at a top four pick in the old system versus the new one:
The new system gave New Orleans an extra 1.2% increase in odds at the number one pick and an extra 6.0% increase in odds at a top four pick.
Without these improved odds, it’s very likely New Orleans opts against tanking, finding more value in keeping Anthony Davis’ dominance fresh on the minds of potential trading partners than gunning for a top draft pick. But under the new system, the Pelicans opted to tank, and it paid off.
On a smaller scale, the Lakers did the same thing. After their playoff hopes were derailed by injuries, they shut down multiple players for the rest of the season, including LeBron James.
In the lottery, the Lakers jumped to the fourth pick with the 11th best odds. Imagine the outrage if the Sixers shut multiple players down for the season and were rewarded with a top pick. Oh wait, we don’t have to imagine.
All the talk after the lottery was that it meant the end of tanking. What it really means is the end of Process-style tanking. Teams like the Pelicans and Lakers were rewarded for sitting out stars late in the season. Teams who were organically bad were penalized.
Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver genuinely thought his team would be good this season. They paid big to sign Trevor Ariza on a one year deal and had a young core they expected to take the league by storm. Unfortunately for the Suns, Sarver is incompetent, and the team was plainly bad. They didn’t lose on purpose, but they dropped from 3 to 6.
The same goes for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost LeBron James in the off-season and didn’t have the pieces in place to field a competent roster. Their efforts this season definitely didn’t constitute tanking, but they fell from 2 to 5.
The new draft lottery system is reactionary, and it exists because the NBA was unable to realize the Process Sixers were the exception, not the norm. They’re fighting a nonexistent enemy, and it’s having harmful consequences.
Most bad teams aren’t bad on purpose; therefore, they can’t be dissuaded from being bad. In the last year of the old system, the Suns had the worst record with 21 wins. In the first year of the new system, three teams failed to reach 20 wins, and two of those three didn’t get top four picks. How can the league expect them to meaningfully improve?
The new system doesn’t make horrible teams any better, but it does give low lottery teams every reason to lose games, knowing that each lottery position improvement carries a huge jump in odds of a top pick.
We knew this would happen. The results are exactly what should have been expected based on the odds. And it’s all because the NBA was so determined to make sure no team will ever have another Process, despite no other ownership group attempting to replicate what the Sixers did.
The new lottery system isn’t the end of tanking; it’s the start of a new age of mid-to-late lottery tanking resulting from a three-years-too-late attempt to get back at the Sixers.