It is nearly April, which means that talk of draft lottery odds and tanking dominate the discussion of teams with no chance at reaching the playoffs. The issue has received special attention (although, frankly, not much more than usual) due to the Philadelphia 76ers' historic late-season futility and the presence of several high-potential prospects at the top of this year's draft. It seems that every anti-tanking commentator has a plan to overhaul the system and make things better (as defined by their own opinion of what represents a worthwhile incentive structure).
It's rare, though, to hear someone currently benefiting from his team's futility put forth another idea for determining draft order. Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, whose team owns the seventh-worst record in the NBA at 25-46, has suggested that the league should determine lottery odds based on records at the All-Star Break, not the end of the regular season. From an interview with Jared Dubin for TrueHoop:
So, basically, we have this issue with how the draft happens and people allegedly tanking. So when I was flying back from the conference, someone looked at me and asked, “Hey, have you thought about this?” People have come up with different ideas -- this idea of The Wheel, and this and that. And so I thought about it and I came up with a solution that I believe will solve most of the issues, and I call it the V Plan.
There’s two parts to it. Part I is that you freeze the draft order at the time of the All-Star break. Then, everything [pertaining to the current lottery system] remains the same, but it’s frozen based on the standings at the All-Star break. Then there’s no gain in not playing at the highest level for the remainder of the season. That’s Part I.
Part II is that at the end of the season, the top seven teams from the Eastern Conference and the top seven teams from the Western Conference make the playoffs. Then for the eighth playoff spot, the remaining eight teams have a sudden-death, college-style playoff in a neutral venue, like Vegas in the West and Kansas or Louisville in the East. (Note: This idea is similar to Bill Simmons' "Entertaining as Hell Tournament,” first floated here and was discussed by Silver in his chat with Gladwell at the Sloan Conference.)
That would inject such excitement into the league. Teams would no longer be incentivized to lose. Their fans would have something to hope for, like a Cinderella team that got into the eighth spot. It would solve most of the issues that we’re facing with the way the draft happens right now.
Ranadive has a reputation for thinking outside the box when it comes to basketball, and this idea certainly qualifies as more of the same. It's perhaps a little problematic — is it fair for a team to be in both the lottery and the playoffs? — but the general idea is there and ready for appraisal.
First, let us agree that "The V Plan" sounds like something out of a teen sex comedy and needs a name change. Second, as Dan Feldman notes at ProBasketballTalk, this plan still incentivizes losing, just in the first half of the season instead of over the full schedule. Under this lottery procedure, it's likely that teams would make more trades to rid themselves of expiring veteran contracts earlier in the season or over the offseason to ensure more losses in the first few months. While it's true that more teams hold out hope on opening night and would therefore make greater effort to win during these lottery-determining games, it's not as if teams don't already plan for rebuilding years under the current system. Plus, a team that rids its roster of proven talent earlier in the season would theoretically turn the post-break portion of the schedule into an utterly meaningless stretch. What purpose would those games serve?
Well, they'd actually mean a lot, because what we typically refer to as "tanking" is not always about losing as many games as possible. Often, a team that sits some of its best players and loses many games at the end of the season is simply trying to figure out what it has for next year. For instance, there's little reason for the Kings to rush point guard Isaiah Thomas back from his current quadriceps injury, even though no one could accuse the Kings of intentionally losing games right now. Thomas is a valued player — having him play through injury for no tangible benefit just wouldn't make any sense. Plus, by keeping Thomas out, the Kings can learn more about young backups like rookie Ray McCallum and start figuring out their future rotation and other plans.
Lottery teams engage in similar behavior all the time alongside more egregious tanking tactics, and yet it all gets lumped into the same category of unprincipled behavior. But why wouldn't a team do such a thing when it has no chance of playing in the postseason? What is the value of trying to win as many games as possible when those wins don't connect to a sense of progress? In Major League Baseball, bad teams sit veterans and play rookies towards the end of the season, and their draft is an even more inexact process that depends heavily on the quality of a team's minor league development system. These teams aren't tanking — they're trading short-term competitiveness for more valuable long-term gains.
To his credit, Ranadive's proposal at least doesn't try to penalize teams for this functional late-season losing. But it's worth considering why so many of these anti-tanking reforms seem to disregard how winning and progress are not always related. It might not make sense to reward a team like the Sixers for making no attempt to win during a season. But it's another thing altogether to punish the majority of losing teams for being bad. Depending on the circumstances, the season of a 20-win team can be more exciting than that of a 40-win team. Fans are usually smart enough to identify the difference.
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