This is the year that NBA tanking went off the rails. The Philadelphia 76ers, for starters, exemplified a whole new level of basketball seppuku with a team so willfully awful that the New York Times Magazine felt compelled to publish a feature story about their willful awfulness. The Sixers’ smarty-pants front office—Philadelphia’s general manager, Sam Hinkie, has a Stanford MBA, as the profiles of the team’s losing ways inevitably noted—believes that the best way to make a bad team good is to first make it horrific. By descending into “tank mode,” the Sixers hoped to lose enough games that they’d receive one of the valuable first picks in the upcoming NBA draft.
How to solve the problem? The best tanking solution would be relegation, as happens in European soccer leagues. Each year, the bottom three teams in the continent’s top divisions are kicked out of the league and relegated to a lower one. Regrettably, with NBA teams currently selling for $2 billion apiece, it’s unlikely we’ll get owners to agree that a few of them should be banished to the D-League each year to compete against the Sioux Falls Skyforce. (No one believes this will happen—otherwise we’d see a bidding war for last year’s champion, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.)
A more likely solution would be for the NBA to flatten out the lottery odds. Right now the worst team has a 25 percent chance at the top pick while the 14th-worst team has a 0.5 percent chance. We could switch to a true lottery, in which all 14 non-playoff teams would get an equal 7.14 percent chance at the top pick. Or, more progressively, we could massage the system so that each team’s odds are closer but not equal. But this still wouldn’t entirely remove the incentive to tank. Besides, NBA owners recently rejected a plan along these lines.
Another draft scheme that’s gotten lots of attention is “the wheel”—a system in which the draft order would be set far in advance so that a team’s draft position would have zero to do with its on-court performance. This would eliminate any reason to tank, but it would also do nothing to help bad teams get better. The worst team in the league might end up picking dead last in the draft. The best team might pick first. Making the rich richer and the poor poorer would be an unacceptable outcome of any lottery reform. As horrible as the status quo is, some version of reverse-order drafting—and the increased parity it helps create—is still a worthy goal. So the problem seems intractable.
But fear not, NBA fans! A superior answer exists, and a friend of mine has invented it. It’s fair, it’s elegant, and it’s fun. My friend calls it the “You’re the Worst!” draft.
How would it work? On the day before the regular season began, the NBA would hold a “You’re the Worst!” draft. Selection order for the YTW draft would be determined like any standard reverse-order draft—the team that had the worst win-loss record in the previous season would pick first, the team that had the best record would pick last. But the teams wouldn’t be drafting players. They’d be choosing the rights to another team’s position in the next NBA draft.
So, for example, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who finished this season with the worst win-loss record, would have the first YTW pick in the fall when the 2015–16 season started. One day before opening day, all of the league’s general managers would gather together in a room. The T-Wolves would look around that room and decide which team they thought would finish worst in 2015–16. (They would not be allowed to choose themselves, tempting as that might be.)