Shortly after all the ping pong balls were accounted for and the world learned that the New Orleans Pelicans earned the right to draft Zion Williamson with the first pick, Rudy Gobert tweeted out a bold declaration: Tanking is over.
We just witnessed the end of tanking . And we should be happy about it.— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) May 15, 2019
The logic behind this likely stemmed from the fact that only one of the top four teams in terms of lottery odds (New York, Phoenix, Cleveland at 14 percent, Chicago with 10.5) stayed in the top four. The Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers jumped up from seventh, eighth and 11th respectively in lottery odds for the first, second and fourth selections.
This draft is the first since Adam Silver and NBA executives moved to flatten the odds at the top of the draft — a shift from the of previous years where the top three teams had a much higher chance to take home a top pick. The clear message behind that move was to eliminate the incentive to tank by making it far less likely that tanking teams will attain their goal of drafting the best player come June.
Year one of this experiment appears to be something of a success. Tanking teams were penalized two or three spots in the draft pecking order whereas in years past they likely would not have (based on the odds).
So has this ended, or at least significantly curtailed, tanking in the NBA?
Heck to the no it hasn’t.
What Silver, Gobert and pretty much everyone else who has backed these lottery-odds adjusting moves doesn’t understand is that lowering the number of ping pong balls a team gets doesn’t remove the incentive to tank. It merely increases the punishment for trying.
“But,” you are definitely thinking to yourself and not just as a writing trope to make a point, “isn’t increasing the punishment for tanking basically lowering or taking away the incentive to do so?” Well, yes, perhaps a little. But the thing that makes teams go back to tanking time and time again isn’t that it’s the best option or most effective option. It’s because they have no alternative worth relying on.
Building through free agency is all but a wash these days with luck and the whims of a handful of star players and agents deciding the fate of a half a dozen franchises foolish enough to bet their futures on him. Trades can be very effective but the timing needs to be just right and the trade partner has to either be generous or stupid in order to not give up too much and negate the positive effects of the trade. Plus, trades carry the risk of renting a guy you sold the farm for.
Tanking is one of the preferred rebuild methods because it provides the best hope at obtaining the one thing capable of putting a franchise over the top: A star player. Plus, getting a star via the draft means you keep that player guaranteed for most of that player’s relevant career.
If a GM wants to obtain a star in a way other than tanking, well, he has to...win a lottery.