Remains of the Day: the Stakes for a Lottery Team Late in a Losing Season | Truth About It.net

Remains of the Day: the Stakes for a Lottery Team Late in a Losing Season

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Updated: April 17, 2013

What does a win really mean this late in the season?

One of the more divisive precepts of late-season NBA strategy is that of tanking. At the coaching level, it’s difficult to imagine the motivation for attempting to lose games. Even more difficult to imagine is a concerted effort by the players themselves to lose. For both players and coaches in a losing season, games played long after the specter of the playoffs has departed are sometimes as important as those early in the season. Several Washington players are still playing for quite a bit, and every game counts. A.J. Price, Garrett Temple and Cartier Martin are auditioning for a job, either with the Wizards or another NBA team. John Wall has made it reasonably clear that he’d like to receive a contract extension this summer, and his play in the last weeks of the season may inform any decisions to that end. To a lesser extent, Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton are playing to redefine their future roles.

With that said, front office employees are in a more complicated position. While mounting losses influence the team’s record in an obvious way and reflect poorly on the performance of team builders, owners are playing the long game, and understand that it may be in the team’s best interest, for better or worse, to lose as much as possible during the final stretch. Their knowledge of this reality should inform a relative leniency when it comes to resting “injured” players, or giving fewer minutes to starters, among other surreptitious tanking strategies which have been historically suspected of lottery-bound teams. Another, more productive goal may also be in play: late-season games provide on-the-job experience at full speed for young players who aren’t developed enough to play heavy minutes in meaningful games — like the 22-year old Jan Vesely. From an organizational standpoint, this is incredibly valuable. The average fan may not share that enthusiasm.

Without taking a position on the morality or healthiness of influenced losing, the tangible benefit of the Wizards losing their final game tonight can be readily discerned. The way things shake out across the Association on the last day of the season has the potential to slot Washington anywhere from No. 6 to 9 in terms of lottery odds and eventual draft slot, the latter of which far more important from a practical standpoint. While it would be nice to win the lottery, the best the Wizards can hope for is a 5.4 percent chance to land the first pick. The surer thing is where a losing team will draft if they don’t win one of the top three picks. After the first three spots are randomly decided, the unlucky rest of the lottery teams (picks Nos. 4 to 14) are slotted in the draft according to their record at the end of the season. Tiebreakers, in the NBA Draft Lottery, are determined by a coin flip for the purposes of positioning, but odds to land in the top three amongst teams with the same record are split as evenly as possible.

Below, you can see the best and worst-case scenarios for the Wizards. Again, best-case means losing the final game, and any designation of such as a favorable outcome isn’t a comment on my hope that the Wizards lose games, just the recognition that a higher lottery pick is considered more valuable than a lower one.

Best case scenario:

Pick

Team

Odds

#1

Charlotte Bobcats (20-62)

22.5%

#2

Orlando Magic (20-62)

22.4%

#3

Cleveland Cavaliers (24-58)

15.6%

#4

Phoenix Suns (25-57)

11.9%

#5

New Orleans Hornets (27-55)

8.8%

#6

Washington Wizards (29-53)

5.4%

#7

Sacramento Kings (29-53)

5.3%

#8

Detroit Pistons (30-52)

2.8%

#9

Minnesota Timberwolves (31-51)

1.7%

Worst case scenario:

Pick Team Odds
#1 Charlotte Bobcats (20-62)

22.5%

#2 Orlando Magic (20-62)

22.4%

#3 Cleveland Cavaliers (24-58)

15.6%

#4 Phoenix Suns (24-58)

11.9%

#5 New Orleans Hornets (27-55)

8.8%

#6 Sacramento Kings (28-54)

6.3%

#7 Detroit Pistons (29-53)

4.3%

#8 Minnesota Timberwolves (30-52)

2.3%

#9 Washington Wizards (30-52)

2.2%

By now, you’re probably feeling that familiar, eerie discomfort that surrounds a fan when standard rooting interests are disrupted. Hopefully it’s clear that, discounting intangibles (for the purpose of this conversation) like momentum, hope, and morale, it’s in the organization’s best interest to lose the final game—at least if you’re hoping to have the lottery balls bounce in your favor. Whether momentum and morale are worthwhile deliverables going into the summer is up for debate, and unfortunately almost impossible to quantify. That doesn’t mean they’re non-existent, as some would argue, but it does mean I won’t be discussing them at length. For what it’s worth, the Wizards have gone 19-11 in the last 10 games played in April since 2009-2010 (not counting this season). The practice of building momentum in April for a rebuilding team like the Wizards has seemingly meant very little.

There’s no easy way to alleviate the discomfort of rooting against your team. For many fans, the relationship they have with their team precludes the sentiment completely. No matter how receptive one is to the practice, the imperfection isn’t with the observer, it’s with the system they are observing, which produces such a fractured range of reactions from a group that is, ideally, unified in support.

A #HoopIdea

The following idea is just that, an idea. But the idea takes the form of changing the way the draft lottery works, in a sense addressing the disease of tanking instead of focusing on the symptoms. Like any first proposal, it’s not a complete remedy, and most likely raises new concerns. The trick is to try to form a system which provides adequate protection to the worst teams in the Association while discouraging practices like tanking by giving teams a better reason to compete (or at least limiting the benefit of losing) in the final few contests of the season.

The gist is this: slightly increase the chances for winning the lottery for the worst three to five teams, teams which are often, in the case of the Bobcats over the last few years, out of the playoff running after the first few months of the season. But do this while also increasing the chances for late-lottery teams to secure picks in the range of the 4th through 10th picks regardless of their eventual record. If non-playoff teams outside of the very worst teams were to be free from the yoke of increasing their chances by losing, fans of almost-there teams like Washington would feel liberated as well, free to unconditionally cheer on their team.

What follows is a redistribution of draft lottery chances. Before crying foul, consider that this will be a two-step lottery:

Team #1 Pick
1 Charlotte 26.3%
2 Orlando 20.8%
3 Cleveland 15.0%
4 Phoenix 9.3%
5 New Orleans 5.6%
6 Detroit 2.56%
7 Sacramento 2.56%
8 Washington 2.56%
9 Minnesota 2.56%
10 OKC (via TOR) 2.56%
11 Philadelphia 2.56%
12 Portland 2.56%
13 Dallas 2.56%
14 Utah 2.56%

What is a two-step lottery? First, redistribute the percentages slightly to favor the very worst teams, since any draft reform in favor of teams outside of the worst three teams will have to be tempered with concessions somewhere. Then, hold a lottery to determine the first three picks, just as the draft currently operates. This is where it gets interesting. Next, slot only any of the worst three teams who were displaced from their rightful station into the next available slots. For example, if an interloper like Sacramento landed in the No. 2 spot, and Cleveland fell out of the top 3, Cleveland would be slotted at No. 4.

Then, reset the lottery based on available teams, readjusting the numbers to reflect the original odds while accounting for teams that have already been slotted, and determine the rest of the draft order through a lottery system, with percentages representing the amount of winning combinations available.

4 Phoenix

26%

5 New Orleans

13%

6 Detroit

6.77%

7 Sacramento

6.77%

8 Washington

6.77%

9 Minnesota

6.77%

10 OKC (via TOR)

6.77%

11 Philadelphia

6.77%

12 Portland

6.77%

13 Dallas

6.77%

14 Utah

6.77%

Let’s assume the first three picks go as planned–Charlotte No. 1, Orlando No. 2, and Cleveland No. 3. What you’re left with is a group of teams with a relatively equal chance of attaining top talent, and a reduced motivation to purposefully lose (though potentially still present depending on how the top 3 shake out). To be clear, each pick, from No. 4 to No. 14, would be determined by the secondary lottery. The only exception would be if Charlotte, Orlando, and/or Cleveland fell outside of the top 3, in which case they would be awarded the next available slot(s).

The result is an increased chance for the top overall pick for each slot except 4-thru-8 (the decrease in chances for most of those slots is minimal), and the eradication of the predetermined slot-by-record process that comes into play after the first three picks are decided in the traditional draft. Teams which traditionally pick in the 8-to-14 range now have a legitimate chance at a higher pick even if they don’t win one of the three picks determined by the lottery, and the very worst teams would enjoy a modest increase in protection.

This method of determining the draft order wouldn’t necessarily help Washington this year, although it increases the chance of a better pick in the event that they win tonight and all other teams concerned lose. But what about next year, when the team is (hopefully) improved and vying for a playoff spot? If Wall, or Nene, or Brad Beal were to go down with an injury, and the team narrowly missed the playoffs, they would still have a shot at top-notch talent without trying their best to forfeit contests. And more than that, it would validate late-season pursuits like the “Race for 9th.”

One of the major problems with watching late-season NBA games is that teams and fanbases rightfully fear mediocrity. It pays to be really good, or really bad. For many teams, the best alternative to the playoffs is to play all their young players and revert to a preseason model where the stars are all wearing suits, a tried-and-true catalyst for fan boredom. But if late-season, non-playoff bound teams aren’t forced to tank to improve their chances of a successful offseason, coaches wouldn’t feel as much pressure to shelve big-name players. Fans might also feel more comfortable throwing down a chunk of their paycheck if they knew their good faith would be met with the same from the teams they’re paying to see. While the Heat and the Spurs resting players is an entirely separate issue, the Suns, Hornets and even the Wizards have been limiting the minutes of key players down the stretch, and in some cases have chosen to rest players who would take the court in a setting where winning mattered.

Unfortunately for the majority of spectators, playing for player development strips the experience of what drives their fandom: the joy of a win. In the future, a new-look lottery may help to preserve the integrity of the game, and may strengthen the relationship between teams and their fans. For now, try to enjoy this final game. And if you can help it, try not to think about what a win really means.


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