Fix tanking: The Sloan solution

March, 30, 2012
3/30/12
9:04
AM ET
It is universally acknowledged that there is something odd about teams being rewarded for playing badly, as we have discussed when HoopIdea first addressed tanking. But it's not a simple problem to solve. In that spirit, we present a number of different proposals. This one comes from the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in early March. In a TrueHoop post from the event, Jared Wade describes the work of researcher Adam Gold, who has a clever way to apportion lottery balls. The following is an excerpt:

Adam Gold suggested what he considers a better way: winning to win.

"We should never have to consider that a loss can be more helpful than a win," said Gold, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri. While fans and hoops bloggers all criticize teams for tanking, Gold also brought proof: in the seven years following the 2004-05 season, teams that missed the playoffs won just 32 percent of their games after they were mathematically eliminated from the postseason compared to 37.5 percent beforehand.

For Gold, this became a logical time to gauge when teams would start to tank -- and the mark when the system should help ensure they don't. His solution:

Give the first pick in the draft to the team that wins the most games after being officially eliminated from playoff contention. Then the team with the second highest number of wins gets the second pick. And so on.

The theory is that the worst team in the league will be the one that is mathematically eliminated first. Thus, it will get the most chances to pile up wins. If it takes advantage of those opportunities, it will be rewarded with the No. 1 pick.

If we use last season as a guide, the Sacramento Kings played 20 games (going 9-11) after being eliminated whereas the Milwaukee Bucks played only four (going 3-1). Those nine wins would have given the Kings the No. 1 pick under Gold's scheme. Under the current draft lottery system, however, they picked seventh: not exactly a reward for a team that managed a winning percentage of .450 for the final quarter of the season after playing .319 ball up to that point.

Presumably, it would have also led to the Minnesota Timberwolves not opting to keep Kevin Love on the bench with an achy leg for his team's final six games, which the Timberwolves lost by a combined 80 points. Such futility helped them end up with the second pick. I'm sure Timberwolves fans are happy about that fact now, but I doubt the ones who bought tickets to watch their favorite team lose by 19 to the Rockets on the final night of the season enjoyed it at the time.

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