To Tank, Or Not To Tank: That Is The Question

We examine the results of the last 21 NBA draft lotteries using Qlik Sense.

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On May 19th, the NBA will hold its annual Draft Lottery selection process in New York City where the fourteen franchises who failed to make the playoffs will learn their draft order fate. The idea of the NBA Draft lottery is the first three draft positions would be generated by a random selection and the other 11 lottery picks would be determined by the overall record of the remaining teams. The team with the worst overall record is given the best chance to secure the top pick with a 25% probability. Conversely, the fourteenth ranked team has the least probability of securing the first pick at 0.5%.

Given those odds, conventional wisdom would say that an organization who doesn’t believe that they are going to make the playoffs should intentionally try to lose as many games as possible during the season in order to secure the top pick in the following season’s draft. This practice is known as “tanking” and it is a polarizing topic. But is “tanking” the right approach? I gathered the NBA Lottery data from the last 21 years to see how often the worst team secures the first pick and I think you might be surprised with the results.

In the chart below you can see that the team with the third most probability of securing the top pick has done so in 6 out of 21 draft lotteries (29%). The team with the fifth best odds to gain the top pick has done so in 4 out of 21 draft lotteries (19%). The team with the worst record and the best odds has secured the top lottery spot only twice in the last 21 draft lotteries (10%) and the team with the second worst record only secured the top draft pick 1 out of 21 draft lotteries (5%).

Could it be that some teams are just luckier than others? Looking at the scatter plot below, we can see that the Cleveland Cavaliers have secured the top pick in 3 out of 13 lotteries (23%) in which they qualified. This includes last season when they entered the lottery in the ninth spot with only a 1.7% chance to secure the top spot. On the flip side, the Golden State Warriors have qualified for 16 of the last 21 draft lotteries and they have secured the top pick only one time (6%).

The good news for lottery teams this year is that the Cleveland Cavaliers did not qualify for the lottery this season. And if, like me, you are a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers (3rd best odds) or if you are a fan of the Orlando Magic (5th best odds), history is on your side for securing the #1 pick. Sorry Minnesota Timberwolves fans, your team has qualified for the lottery 14 times and they have yet to bring home the #1 pick.

I would love to know who you root for and what are your thoughts on tanking.

Photo credit: rondostar / Loveseat Deals / CC BY-SA

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