Accelerated Tanking – A David Stern Legacy (Part I)

david.stern.1985We thought we’d use the retirement of David Stern to examine one of his legacies, the NBA draft lottery. The lottery was created by Stern thirty years ago as a response to the Houston Rockets engaging in “tanking,” in an effort to obtain the #1 overall draft pick. In Part I of this article, we are going to address why the lottery was created, why “tanking” isn’t a dirty word, and how smart franchises use the draft lottery to their advantage.  Part II will examine some of the tanking controversies created this season, and offer suggestions on how to correct them. (Editors note: We are going to put a number of terms in this article in quotes, due to them still being “controversial” depending on your perspective on the matter).

The mid-1980’s were the era of the star big-man. Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing were focal points of the NCAA, and the prizes in consecutive drafts from 1983 (Sampson), 1984 (Hakeem) and 1985 (Ewing). Draft one of those three bigs and your team would be a contender for a decade. The Houston Rockets led off the parade by “earning” the #1 overall pick in 1983, which they used to select Ralph Sampson.

By virtue of a prior trade Houston also owned the #3 overall pick that year, which they used to select Louisville forward Rodney McCray. Thus you had a Houston Rockets team that was the envy of the league in the 1983-84 season, they had two of the top three draft picks including the coveted Sampson. The hype and “lust” for Sampson, Hakeem and Ewing was great back then, because players stayed in school much longer.  Sampson spent all four years at Virginia, Hakeem three years at Houston, and Ewing four years at Georgetown. For years these three players were featured on nationally televised games while in college, whetting the appetite for fans and scouts alike.

While Sampson averaged 21.0ppg, 11.1rpg and 2.4bpg his NBA rookie year, the 1983-84 Rockets did not have much else on the roster to help out, as McCray was somewhat of a disappointment and the team’s guards were abysmal. As a result, Houston had a poor season, finishing with a record of 29-53, good for 4th worst in the NBA that year. Bucks’ division opponents Indiana (26 wins), Chicago (27 wins) and Cleveland (28 wins) all had a worse record than the Rockets.

Rather than the team with the worst record getting the #1 overall pick, the league had in place a system where a coin-flip would be held and the team with the worst record in the Eastern Conference (Indiana) would square off against the team with the worst record in the Western Conference (Houston), to see who would be awarded the #1 overall pick.  Houston won the coin flip in 1984, and with it the right to select Olajuwon. The Pacers draft pick was held by the Portland Trail Blazers who selected Sam Bowie #2 overall, and the Bulls took Michael Jordan with the #3 overall pick.

Did the Rockets Tank for Hakeem?  Yes They Did. 

On February 2 1984, the 1983-84 Rockets were 20-26 and making a claim towards respectability. However they proceeded to go 9-27 the rest of the way. More eye-opening was their 1-9 record in their last ten games, which secured for them the worst record in the Western Conference, and the ability to participate in the coin flip for Olajuwon. They just edged out the Clippers, who finished with a 30-52 record. The Rockets were not a victim of injuries, Ralph Sampson played in all 82 games, as did most of their starters. The fact that Houston would now obtain a second game-changing big-man in consecutive years brought cries of rage from franchises around the league. Something need to be done.

Enter “The Promoter” — David Stern

NBA commissioner David Stern had only been on the job for a few months in 1984, but he had an idea on how to “fix” the “problem” of the Rockets “tanking.”  The NBA would have a lottery system, whereby the seven teams that did not make the playoffs (there were only 23 teams in the league back then) would participate in a drawing that would determine the draft order for the first seven draft slots.

Stern’s vision was that the process would dissuade a team like the Rockets from “losing” to obtain better draft position, while at the same time allowing the league to have a large media event during the playoffs in May.  This new event would capture the attention of the fan bases of the seven teams that missed out on the playoffs. National attention for the new draft lottery was assured, because that year’s draft prize would be Georgetown center Patrick Ewing, a player the NBA had been waiting on since his days as a high-schooler in Boston.

Even before the drawing took place fan bases outside New York were claiming the Knicks would win the inaugural lottery, under the belief that the league would want Ewing in the largest market where he could presumably generate the most publicity and revenue for the league. That year the Knicks only had the third worst record and under the prior coin flip system would have been picking third overall, thus perhaps ending up with Benoit Benjamin. With Stern’s new creation, the Knicks now had a chance at Ewing, going up against six-lesser markets in the form of Indiana, Chicago, LAC, Golden State and Seattle. (Editors Note-Chicago and LAC were considered “dregs” of the league back then, and a place where you went for your career to die, whether a player or coach. They did not have the cache they have today)

Then on cue, just as the conspiracy theorists predicted, the Knicks did indeed win the first lottery! After the drawing, controversy raged and accusations were made that the lottery was rigged by Stern. How might this have been accomplished?

Here is one theory as described at Wikipedia:

“During the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery, the NBA used a system where seven envelopes representing the seven teams with the worst records were mixed in a tumbler, and then drawn by Stern one at a time to determine which of these clubs would get the 1st pick onwards up to the 7th pick. When these envelopes were added to the tumbler, two envelopes were put in forcibly, and banged against the edge, while all the rest were set in gently. When drawing the envelope for the 1st pick, Stern went for the one with a bent corner, which upon opening the envelope, it was revealed that the New York Knicks logo was inside. This fueled speculation of a draft fix, with the theory being that the NBA wanted to send the best player in the draft to New York to increase ratings in a large television market”

Another theory that was advanced at the time was that the Knicks envelope was placed in a freezer for the hour before the drawing, allowing Stern to feel around for the coldest envelope in the bowl.  A third theory was that the Knicks card was either made of metal or the card was weighted, thus allowing it to fall to the bottom of the bowl, making it easy for Stern to find. You can watch the drawing on YouTube and come to your own conclusion.

Regardless of whether or not that drawing was rigged, Stern got what he really wanted – national publicity for the league. The fact people are still talking and writing about this event thirty-years later is proof of this. The lottery went through a number of different modifications and adjustments in the ensuing years but the concept remains the same – any team that fails to make the playoffs now has a shot at the #1 overall pick.

We Didn’t Make the Rules – The Draft Lottery Incentivizes Tanking

Since the billboard went up we’ve heard charges from a few corners of Bucks nation that the “Winning Takes Balls” mantra is an affront to the competitive spirit of the game. Fans who desire the Bucks to have the worst record, and thus highest lottery odds, are not “true fans.”

This is nonsense.  We did not create this environment, but rather the league did with their current version of their lottery system.  As long as any team that finishes out of the playoffs can still obtain a top-three pick, there will be fringe playoff teams that will elect to not get swept by the Miami Heat in the first round of playoffs, but rather position themselves for a shot (no matter how long) at a better player in the draft.  The NBA has always been a league that is driven by star players. Obtain one and your team immediately has a future, and the corresponding gate and local revenues that come with it.

The economic impact of obtaining a star player is too great to ignore.  When the Cleveland Cavaliers obtained LeBron James the team went on to sell-out hundreds of games and the value of the franchise increased significantly. Equally important, the team’s fan base was treated to seven years of being at the center of the NBA universe, just as the Bucks fan base experienced some thirty-years earlier for six-seasons with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Those type of benefits just aren’t available to a team that finishes with the 8th playoff seed. If the 2013-14 Bucks finish with the league’s worst record, and are fortunate enough to win the lottery, they will likely obtain a prospect that has strong odds to be the Bucks best player since Sidney Moncrief roamed the Mecca in the mid-1980’s.

This brings us to the concept of “tanking” and what exactly that means. For those fans who do not like the concept of their team being involved in non-competitive games many nights, it means a franchise that “intentionally loses” and “throws” games.  For the fans who support the concept of obtaining a top draft pick, tanking simply is a strategy whereby the team makes personnel decisions based on a long-term, multi-season outlook, rather than focusing solely on the season at hand. One fan’s anathema is another fan’s preferred method to rebuild.

One of the things that the SOB movement has been very clear about is the belief that the Bucks have mistakenly chosen to always focus on the season at hand, rather than view the larger landscape. As a result, the team has made ill-advised trades and veteran player signings in an effort to squeeze out a few more wins each year.  However, the team’s current front office has done such a poor job of executing this “be competitive” strategy that we are left with a team that can’t compete, nor ever positioned itself for a proper long-term rebuild.

Because of these failures, SOB has advocated the team take the long-term approach to rebuilding, using primarily drafted players.  We are not advocating that the team “throw games”, or have coach Larry Drew order players to “miss shots”, or any other such nonsense. However, the team should use this season to experiment with different player lineups.  See if John Henson and Larry Sanders can work together on the court.  Force feed minutes to Giannis to provide him with needed experience. Give playing time to veterans Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, Ersan Ilyasova, and Caron Butler in the chance a playoff contending team might want to trade for them at the trade deadline on February 20th. All of these actions would be taken with the goal of better positioning the team for the future.  If the team ends up losing games as a result they then have the benefit of a higher draft pick.

Is Being A Lotto Team a Good Thing?

So now let’s bring the discussion back to the topic of “tanking” and David Stern’s legacy.  Is being in the NBA lottery a good bet?  Not necessarily, as the odds of moving up to the #1 overall selection aren’t great.  Nonetheless, it is human nature to participate in things like this because the rewards are so great if you do win.  If this human condition didn’t exist, Las Vegas would be but a small outpost in the Nevada desert.

Playing the NBA lottery, however, is not the stacked deck people think it is. The keys are these:

  • Participate in years where there is a loaded draft class
  • Work to secure as high a seeding as you can, so that the most you can drop is three slots below your seed, per the rules of the lottery.

We can’t understate the first part.  All draft classes are not created equal.  We will be doing a future story on this, but as a preview, note that the first five picks in the 2003 draft were LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. The first five picks in the 2006 draft were Andrea Bargnani, LaMarcus Aldridge, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas and Shelden Williams.

Get a top five pick in 2003 and you’ve got an 80% chance at a franchise game-changer.  Get a top-five pick in the 2006 draft and all you ended up with is a 20% chance at a very good player (Aldridge) and an 80% chance at a draft bust.

For fans who do not follow the draft, it was well known a year beforehand how strong the 2003 draft would be, and conversely how weak the 2006 draft would be.  Smart franchises that are in need of a turnaround will elect to focus on the future (i.e. “tank”) in seasons where the draft is strong.  For an example of this we turn to the Los Angeles Lakers.  We found these two tweets from the other night compelling:

The Lakers clearly understand the value of this particular draft. They know that it is time for the team to experiment with lineups, get Kobe Bryant fully healthy, and focus on future years, rather than make a midseason trade in an effort to “compete” and make the playoffs.  Do not be angry if come May, commissioner Adam Silver announces that the Lakers are awarded a top three draft pick.  This franchise is smart, and they are doing things the right way. Even the Lakers media is savvy as they viewed Kobe Bryant’s latest injury as an opportunity for a top draft pick this season.

Boston General Manager Danny Ainge also understands the value of top-five picks in a strong draft. Last summer he sold off Doc Rivers (his coach) and aging superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for draft picks.  He knew the Celtics could rebuild faster with the benefit of a top-five pick in the 2014 draft. The Celtics currently are “third” in the lotto standings. The last time they did this was 2007, when they ended up with the fifth overall pick. They used that pick to trade for Ray Allen, who then helped recruit Kevin Garnett, resulting in a championship.

Obviously the Celtics and the Lakers have certain market advantages over Milwaukee. Advantages that will allow them to likely be able to rebuild faster via the use of free agency in addition to the draft.  However, it can’t be understated that historically both of those teams have also had much smarter front offices than the Bucks have had.  As we discussed earlier, the Green Bay Packers used to blame the small market for all of their problems, when in reality it was a dysfunctional front office.  Ron Wolf led to Mike Holmgren led to Brett Favre who led to the most coveted free agent in the NFL, Reggie White, signing with the Packers.  Winning attracts winners. The Bucks front office has such a poor reputation around the league that they struggle to get even Richard Jefferson to accept a trade to the team, as was the case in June 2008 when he refused to immediately come to Milwaukee for his introductory press conference.

While the Bucks have had their problems the past decade, there are a number of fan bases around the league that are very envious of where the Bucks are situated. They currently have the league’s worst record, and thus hold the #1 lotto seeding. If they maintain this seeding the farthest they could fall in the lottery would be to pick #4.  Some draft experts now believe that “tiers” are forming with the top prospects, with the first tier consisting of four players: Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Dante Exum.  Should any other team(s) finish with a worse record than the Bucks, it is statistically possible that the Bucks would get bumped out of the top four picks, in addition to the Bucks having much lower odds at drawing picks 1, 2 or 3.

How Can The Tanking Problem Be Fixed?

We believe that teams that tank in strong drafts are making the right decision, even if the player they draft ultimately doesn’t pan out. For a small market like Milwaukee, the draft is the most efficient way to obtain good to great players.

Tanking however has reached epic proportions this season, and has in some senses overshadowed certain aspects of the regular season for a number of franchises and not just the Bucks. Next week we will post Part II of this article and offer some suggestions on how to fix the system.  In the meantime, neither the Bucks nor SOB created the current draft lottery, but as long as it is in place smart teams will try to capitalize on it.

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