NBA tanking

Look, I don’t care about the NBA, but I do like puzzles and thinking about ways to modify incentives.

Tanking in professional basketball seems to be a problem. At least the league’s commission says so.

I can understand why a fan would care who paid good money for tickets — even for one game — and your team’s management doesn’t really give a flip if it wins or loses because it wants to boost the club’s draft position. The more you lose, the lower in the standings you finish, the more likely you are to get a top draft pick who could transform your franchise.

The NBA has tried to minimize the chances of tanking by manipulating the draft, setting up a lottery and altering the chances the worst teams would get the top picks.

That hasn’t worked as well as expected.

Some analysts suggest penalizing the bottom club by automatically giving it a lower position in the draft — say, with 16 teams making the playoffs, the team with the worst regular season record would get the 17th pick in the draft rather than the first.

That’s too timid. For one thing, the teams finishing near the bottom would try hard enough to finish 28th or 29th rather than 30th, defeating the intent of the change.

Let’s get bold. My plan is inspired by the NCAA tournament’s First Four, a way to get teams that probably don’t belong in the tournament a chance to play their way in.

Here’s how it would work.

There are 30 NBA franchises. At the end of the regular season, all 30 are ranked based on the number of regular season wins. The top 12 teams automatically get a one-round bye in the playoffs. Teams 29 and 30 would get the 13th and 14th draft picks (respectively) in the first round of the draft. They would get picks one and two respectively in the second round.

The 16 remaining teams would play a series of play-in games to determine who makes the traditional playoff setup, and each win would help that team in the forthcoming draft. Also, the play-in games would put peers against peers, giving each club a reasonable opportunity to advance. It’s about making the situation competitive enough so that a play-in team doesn’t want to “tank.”

So here’s how the first play-in round would work (remember, this would be a single game):

  • 13 vs 14
  • 15 vs 16
  • 17 vs 18
  • 19 vs 20
  • 21 vs 22
  • 23 vs 24
  • 25 vs 26
  • 27 vs 28

Round two (again, one game):

  • 13/14 winner vs 15/16 winner
  • 17/18 winner vs 19/20 winner
  • 21/22 winner vs 23/24 winner
  • 25/26 winner vs 27/28 winner

Those four winners would advance to the first round of playoff games, becoming seeds 13-16. The remaining 16 teams would be reseeded. The conference they played in during the regular season wouldn’t matter. The first round may be best-of-five or best-of-seven. I don’t really care.

The 16 teams in the play-in rounds get another incentive to win: During the draft lottery, each win would get the team an extra “ball,” or an additional chance to move up in the draft. So if team 21 makes it to the traditional playoffs, it’ll have a better chance of getting a top pick than a team than, say, team 28 if if lost its play-in game.

Bad teams will have bad records. But every team at the bottom half of the league would have an incentive not to lose.