To Lose or Not to Lose?

Some say they would prefer the Bulls to miss the playoffs to improve their stock in the NBA draft. I, on the other hand, want them to make the playoffs.

(Note: I started this post before the it was essentially assured that the Bulls would make the playoffs. But my ideas still stand. I’m sure some people still want the Bulls to lose their next six games in favor of an improved chance of drafting a quality player in the draft. This is the argument in question.)

Imagine that you applied to three colleges: one prestigious university, one good school, and one “safety” (read: not as good as the first two) school. You’ve gotten into the good school and the safety school, but you haven’t heard back from the prestigious college yet. Here’s the catch: the good school needs you to commit as soon as possible or else they’ll revoke your acceptance. But once you commit, you’re unable to renege without consequences. So the question becomes: do you forego your commitment to the good school in order to hold out and wait for a letter of acceptance from the prestigious school (which is very very unlikely), or do you just commit to the good school and regret not trying harder in high school and establishing good study habits?

The answer is obvious to me. You commit to the good school and then, if things go well there, transfer after a year.

Here’s the key to the preceding analogy:

Prestigious college: The Bulls luck into a top three pick in the NBA lottery.

Good college: The Bulls make the playoffs and end up with the 16th pick in the NBA Draft.

Decent college: The Bulls miss the playoffs and end up with the 14th pick in the draft.

Putting it all together, the Bulls should go for the playoffs this year, take the experience, and then hope to improve over the offseason to prepare for next year.

This is an argument I’ve had quite a few times over the past few weeks as the Bulls have straddled the playoff bubble like a drunk chick on a mechanical bull.

The Bulls are competing for one of the last two spots in the Eastern Conference playoff race. In fact, according to Tuesday morning’s FiveThirtyEight NBA playoff projections, the Bulls have a 97% chance of making the playoffs and are projected to finish the season with a 41–41 record, good for 14th in the NBA overall. They have only five games left to play and, guess what? The four teams they face are the bottom four teams in the Eastern Conference: the New York Knicks (29–48 record), Orlando Magic (27–50), Philadelphia 76ers (28–49), and the Brooklyn Nets twice (18–59). The Bulls’ combined record against these four teams so far this season is 6–4.

Thing is, the Bulls, as any fan should know, have a history of playing down to their competition. The only thing that gives me comfort is that three of these four teams (76ers, Knicks, and Magic) have incentives to lose these games against the Bulls to improve their draft pick. What concerns me is that they’re not smart enough to know that they should lose, or that the Bulls might shit the bed so bad that they lose to a team that’s trying to lose.

(I know what you’re thinking: Why would a team ever try to lose a game? Good question, but hold that thought.)

On the other hand, the Brooklyn Nets, the worst team in the league, don’t have a draft pick this year because they traded it away a few years ago for a bunch of players who are now retired. So they have no incentive to lose, which actually makes me kind of uneasy because the Nets, despite winning only 18 games all season, have won half of those 18 games in the last month. So they’re pretty frisky at this point. And, to quote the great American mind of James Baldwin, “the the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose.” They are also criminally Linsane.

Taking all of this into consideration, as well as Jimmy Butler’s recent surge and the fact that three of these five games are on the road, I’d rate the Bulls’ chances of making the playoffs around 70%.

If the Bulls do make the playoffs, they will almost certainly get swept in the first round, so I’m not even going to entertain the notion that they might advance in the playoffs because that possibility is so remote.

Then why should they try for the playoffs if there’s little to no chance of succeeding? Well, here’s my argument: the Bulls should go for the playoffs for two reasons. One: there are marginal team benefits to making the playoffs. Two: the odds of getting a better player in the draft than they would if they made the playoffs are way overstated.

Let’s assume the Bulls snag the seventh seed in the East and finish with the 14th-best record in the league overall, like fivethirtyeight projects. This means they automatically get the 16th pick in the NBA draft. But if they just miss the playoffs, say they’re the ninth in the East and 17th overall, there’s a small chance that they could get a better pick than the 14th pick.

That’s part of the question here: is the 14th seed that much better than the 16th? So much so that it outweighs the (marginal) benefits of a team making the playoffs? I’d say no.

But there’s another part of the question. This part pertains to something known as the NBA Lottery. This is something with very very slim odds (think of it as the prestigious college) with very very good results if it happens.

And that’s the crux of the opposing viewpoint: the Bulls should try to lose these games because they have no chance in the playoffs and if the benefits conferred by a worse record outweigh the benefits of making the playoffs.

Let me explain some things for those unfamiliar: at the end of the NBA season, the NBA (almost) becomes a socialist paradise for a night. That is, the 14 teams that miss the playoffs are given an opportunity to vastly improve themselves. In other words, the teams that need the most help are given the opportunity to acquire the most help.

This socialist paradise is comprised of two beautiful things: the NBA Lottery and the NBA Draft. These two things are related to but wholly different from the one another. One occurs during the playoffs and one occurs after the playoffs, for instance.

The NBA Draft is where teams select which young players they want on their team. These are college and international players who are tired of working under archaic, borderline inhumane, rules. Think of it like captains picking kids for their teams at recess, only the captains who pick first are the ones who need the most help.

So there’s an order to this selection process. The worst teams pick first and the best teams pick last. Usually. That way the best teams can’t pick the best young players for their teams.

That picking order is determined at the NBA Lottery. In the NFL, there’s no need for a lottery because the order of the draft is determined solely by a teams’ record. The team with the worst record picks first and the team with the best record picks last.

The NBA, on the other hand, works in a similar but less rigid way. Instead of the worst team being gifted the best pick, the team with the worst record is instead given a 25% chance of getting the top pick. The second-worst team has a 19.9% chance of getting the top pick and so on.

I know what you’re thinking: Why only a 25% chance? Doesn’t the worst team deserve the most help?

Yes. But consider this: the NBA is filled with smart people and basketball is the sport where a team’s success can be determined largely by one player. Lebron James’s teams have made the NBA finals six years in a row, for instance. (Lebron was a number one pick in 2003.) If getting the number one pick is the likeliest way of getting a transformative player like Lebron, what’s stopping a team from bottoming out for a season, winning zero games just to get the number one pick? In short, this system tries to deter teams from losing on purpose (“tanking”).

Got it. How is the order determined then?

Well, here’s the “lottery” part: there’s a literal lottery machine, like the ones you see on a local newscast, filled with 14 ping pong balls numbered 1 through 14. Someone turns the machine on and the NBA Commissioner lets the ping pong balls dance around like popcorn for twenty seconds before pulling four of them out at ten-second intervals.

The first combination of four numbers is recorded and then the four balls are placed back inside the machine for another go around. He does this two more times until he has recorded three different combinations of numbers.

What? How does this determine anything?

Good question. There are 1,001 different combinations of the four numbers.

(Now, before all you math-heads @ me to inform me that 14! (14x13x12x11…x2x1) renders a number greater than 1,001 (it’s actually way fucking bigger), the order of the balls doesn’t matter, so of the commissioner pulls out balls 1–2–3–4 in order, that combination, for all intents and purposes, is identical to 4–3–2–1, 1–3–4–2, 3–4–1–2 and every other variation using numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4.)

Of the 1,001 possible combinations, there’s one “dead” combination that is just thrown out (11–12–13–14) if it comes up. That leaves 1,000 possible combinations. To divvy up the odds, the team with the worst record “owns” 250 of those combinations (hence the 25% chance of obtaining the top seed). The team with the second-worst record gets 199 combinations (19.9%) and so on until the 14th seed (the Bulls in this case), who gets 5 combinations (0.5%).

So if the worst team has the combination 1–2–3–4 in their 250 and numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 come up, then they get the number one pick.

Got it?

But why does he pull only three combos and not 14?

That’s a weird quirk about the NBA draft: you can only jump up to the top three picks or move backward. For instance, if the Bulls have the 14th pick, they can only get picks 1, 2, 3, or 14. If they were the 13th-worst team, they could get picks 1, 2, 3, 13, or 14.

Here’s a handy chart:

from Wikipedia

Theoretically, the most a team could move back is three spots. Say you have the 8th pick and the three combinations the machine spits out correspond with the combinations of the 9th, 10th, and 11th worst teams, those teams jump into the top three. So now the worst, second-worst, and third-worst teams would then slot in at picks four, five, and six respectively, pushing everyone behind them back three spots. This is a way to make sure the really bad teams are given a fair shot at a good pick. The team with the worst record, with this method, is guaranteed a top-four pick.

Make sense? Kind of? Good.

All of this is to say that the Bulls, if they snag the 14th pick, which is the most likely outcome if they decide to tank the rest of the season, only have a minuscule shot of snagging a top three pick in the draft. So after you read this and you’re arguing with someone who thinks the Bulls would have been better served had they missed the playoffs and they’re making the argument that the Bulls would have had a chance to get, say, the 8th pick or something just because they’re in the Lottery, they’re misinformed. They can get picks 1, 2, 3, or 14. Tell them to read this.

All together in this scenario the Bulls have a 1.8% shot at a top three pick. (0.5% at pick number one, 0.6% at two, 0.7% at three).

This has happened once before for the Bulls, by the way, and they drafted Derrick Rose (whose number shouldn’t be retired, by the way) with the number one pick.

Are these odds worth it?

Hold on a sec. Before I answer that, we also have to ask ourselves another question: how much more valuable is the 14th pick (plus 1.8% at a top three pick) than the 16th pick? I’d argue that the Bulls’ chances of grabbing a quality player at 14 are only infinitesimally larger than at 16. I would chalk up any quality player selections between 14 and 16 to luck.

So the question now becomes: do the Bulls benefit more from making the playoffs and getting swept in the first round, or from a minuscule chance at a top-three pick?

As mentioned before, there are three outcomes here:

One: The Bulls make the playoffs and get the 16th pick.

Two: The Bulls just miss the playoffs and get the 14th pick.

Three: The Bulls just miss the playoffs and luck into a top-three pick. (1.8% remember?)

The best outcome is obviously number three. It gives the Bulls a potentially great young player without compromising their team. This is the prestigious college. This outcome also has the highest possibility of failure.

The worst option is number two. Some would disagree with me here, saying that the number 14 pick is way preferable to the number 16 pick. I don’t think so. As explained above, by that point in the draft it’s just a crapshoot on whether get a quality player or not. There’s no significant difference between the 14th and 16th and 18th pick, really.

The second most preferable (and most likely) is the second outcome: the Bulls make the playoffs, which is good for the fanbase (most of us) and keeps ownership happy. Being a playoff team also has marginal positive results for the team: it appeals more to free agents in the offseason because it shows that the team has prospects of winning even more with their services. Making the playoffs also gives young players and young coaches playoff experience. And as a Bulls fan, of course I want more games to watch and of course I want my team in the playoffs!

But there are also some potential negatives to consider as well: players are risking injury in games that are largely meaningless, for instance. But here’s something else to consider: as I have written before, Dwyane Wade opting into his $24 million player option next year would severely hamper the Bulls’ flexibility for acquiring new talent this summer. One potential unintended consequence of the Bulls making the playoffs this year is that Wade will convince himself to stay with the team come summertime.

This is a real and dangerous possibility. Here’s how I’m coping with it and still defending the Bulls’ decision to go for the playoffs: if the Bulls demonstrate that they can make the playoffs with the team’s current construction, the situation becomes that much rosier to Jimmy Butler.

As I wrote earlier today, I’m pessimistic overall on whether or not Jimmy Butler is on the Bulls next season. If he’s going to request a trade, as I suspect, it stands to logic that he will be less likely to request a trade if the Bulls demonstrate that they are capable of winning.

Here’s something fun to consider: Fivethirtyeight also predicts that there is a 65% chance that the Cleveland Cavaliers will be the two-seed in the playoffs which means there’s a high likelihood that the Bulls will square off against the Cavs in the first round. The Bulls will still lose, but it’ll be a hell of a ride.

In summation, here are the two equations I’m distinguishing:

14th pick+1.8% at top-three pick.


16th pick+Wade+more games+better odds at Butler staying.

In other words, if it takes one more year of Dwyane Wade to improve the odds that Butler is on the team next year, then sign me the fuck up.

Thanks for reading, mom and dad.