Losing Now = Winning Later?

This year, several NBA teams will (probably) lose on purpose to position themselves for better draft picks. But does “tanking” a season actually work?

Note: The original (Spanish) version of this article appears in the November 4, 2013 edition of El Pais.That version can be found here.

In 1997, the San Antonio Spurs secured the first pick in the NBA Draft after winning 20 games the previous season. With the pick, the team selected Tim Duncan. The Spurs went from near-worst to first, winning the NBA championship the next season.

Ever since, NBA teams have pointed to this narrative as justification for “tanking” a season: losing on purpose in order to take advantage of the NBA’s socialist leanings, which give losing teams a greater chance at snaring an elite player in the annual amateur* draft.

*This term is used loosely.

Interest in the merits of being bad has been particularly keen this NBA season; the experts say the 2014 Draft will be replete with young, lanky humans who might change the fortunes of a particular NBA cellar-dweller.

David Berri is an economist at the University of Southern Utah who specializes in the predictive nature of NBA statistics. Here’s what his research into the phenomenon of purposeful failure has found:

Of the teams that won 25 or fewer games since 1984-85,

• 2.3% won 54 or more games the next year

• 3.9% won 54 or more games two years later

• 5.7% won 54 or more games three years later

• 10.1% won 54 or more games four years later

• 10.6% won 54 or more game five years later

In sum, nearly 90% of teams that win 25 or fewer games are NOT contenders five years later. This suggests that “tanking” is a strategy that is very unlikely to lead to NBA success.

Certain other details seem to bolster the findings of Berri’s research, which suggest that the NBA is not the leftist outfit it purports to be. Only eight NBA franchises have won championships in the past 30 years. And as stars become increasingly conscious of the marketing potential provided by large-market teams, it becomes ever more difficult to imagine certain teams winning it all. (Here’s looking at you, Milwaukee!)

Further complicating matters: top draft picks are usually young, and they usually take several years to develop. In the NBA, teams lose the rights to their picks after four years. Any census of the NBA will feature first picks who became great but who did it in someone else’s gym. Some guy named LeBron James comes to mind.

The average fan of a bad team might now be shouting, “OK! I get it! But still, the hope of landing a player like the supposed star of the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins, must be worth one bad season! I mean, what about those Spurs?”

(Which would be a long thing to shout, but whatever.)

I have disheartening news for that fellow. The 1997 San Antonio Spurs were bad not because they lost on purpose, but because the team’s Hall of Fame center, David Robinson, missed nearly the entire season with serious injuries to his back and foot. The team probably won an NBA championship less because it drafted Tim Duncan, and more because David Robinson’s body healed.

Bad teams are usually bad for a reason. And this year’s bad teams aren’t likely to make themselves good by being worse.

Learn more about David Berri’s work with sports statistics at his site, WagesofWins.com.

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