What is tanking? A history of the NBA’s controversial lottery strategy

A quick Google search for “the process” yields no step-by-step instructions or a definition of the phrase, but rather the Wikipedia page of Joel Embiid, the 7-foot Cameroonian Center at the heart of the Philadelphia 76ers’ rebuild.

Embiid joined the league in 2014, taking on then-general manager Sam Hinkie’s challenge to “trust the process.” After averaging a 47-199 record in three seasons that included the longest losing streak in NBA history at 28 games, the 76ers emerged as title contenders, mostly focused on Embiid.

This “process” – part of a long tradition of fueling in the sport – required strategic dumping and banking of star players to effectively guarantee high lottery selection.

Tank teams, once considered the sport’s “dirty little secret,” now operate in the open air and take on little pretense of subtlety. A select few, like the 76ers, even turn it into an entire marketing campaign, rallying their fan base around the potential to land a franchise player later.

Passing the optics test is just the first hurdle for tank teams. They keep playing, lose the lottery, or fail to convert high picks into lasting success. Most of the time, the rebuild falls short of expectations, leaving fans upset and disinterested. But once a front office manages to build a perennial favorite, it seems worth the wait and all is forgiven.

While tanking is arguably inevitable at the professional level, the major sports leagues continue to work to come up with innovative ways to discourage and even punish teams that lose on purpose. To understand the history of fueling is to understand the history of design.

The 2022 NBA draft marks the fourth year since the league made significant changes — aimed at eliminating tanking — to the lottery in 2019. While the changes are largely viewed as a success, teams continue to lose hopes of landing a coveted top 4 pick at the bottom of the leaderboard.

Here’s a brief history of the NBA lottery and what the league is doing to combat tanking.

Before 1985: The numbers game

The first three decades of the NBA draft were both easy and calculating. The top two picks were decided by a coin toss between the bottom two teams and the remaining teams filled out the first round in reverse order of their records.

Over time, this led to a race to the bottom, which reached a peak in the 1980s.

In his first season as owner of the then-San Diego Clippers, Donald Sterling, who is no stranger to scandal, reportedly insisted the Clippers finish last in the standings so they could “draft a player like Ralph Sampson.”

A few years later, the Houston Rockets seemed to take a page from Sterling’s book and purposely benched their starters with the 1984 draft on the horizon. Houston selected 12-time NBA All-Star Hakeem Olajuwon as the No. 1 overall pick.

The NBA had a tanking problem that could no longer be ignored.

1985: Won the jackpot

In June 1984, the NBA Board of Governors voted to introduce a lottery ahead of the 1985 NBA draft. The new system – designed to discourage tanking – worked like a raffle, with each team that didn’t make the playoffs being was represented by a single envelope.

The league then randomly drew envelopes, with each non-playoff team having an equal chance of making the top overall pick. After all non-playoff teams received their picks, the remaining first-round selections went to the playoff teams in descending order of their regular-season win-loss records.

1987: Zero in on the top three

The lottery’s first major change came just two years after its debut.

While we still refer to the top 14 — the number of teams not making the playoffs — as lottery picks, that hasn’t been the case since 1987. Rather, the league chose to reduce the lottery to the extreme. three picks, with the remaining first-round picks falling in reverse order of win-loss record. This guaranteed the team with the worst record at least No. 4 overall.

1990: Birth of the weighted draft

To create a fairer draft, the NBA instituted a weighted lottery for the 1990 draft.

This included 66 total tickets allocated to the non-playoff teams (11 at the time) based on their regular season tally. For example, the team with the worst record received 11 tickets, followed by the team with the second worst record, which received 10 tickets. This continued until the top non-playoff team received a single vote.

The initial rollout of the weighted draft proved unsuccessful. Not only was it an incentive to tank as teams that were well out of the playoffs were now forced to lose and improve their chances in the draft, but it also drew criticism for failing to achieve its goal of a weighted preference of Reach underperforming teams.

All it took for the NBA to return to the drawing board for the third time in a decade was for the Orlando Magic to secure the No. 1 pick overall in the 1993 NBA draft despite having the worst odds at 1.5% of all teams in the lottery had.

1994: Race to the bottom

In response to mounting criticism that the lottery was not being weighted heavily enough, the NBA followed suit with sweeping changes — increasing preference for lower-end teams and introducing a four-ball combination system. These changes were felt immediately and became permanent features of the design for the next two decades, ultimately compounding the problem of tanking.

The biggest change in the draft was that the weight of lottery odds shifted down the ladder and away from non-playoff teams. Under the new rules, the bottom five teams in the league had a combined 83.5% chance of making the top overall pick – an increase of over 15%. Meanwhile, the lottery team with the best record dropped its odds of winning from 1.52% to a meager 0.5%.

Curious if these changes made a difference? Look no further than the 1994 NBA draft when they made their debut. All three lottery picks went to the bottom three teams – the Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and the Detroit Pistons.

The full change in lottery odds in the 1994 NBA draft is available below.

1994 NBA draft 1990-93 NBA draft

team position

number 1

No. 2

#3

In total

number 1

No. 2

#3

In total

1

25.00%

21.72%

18.12%

64.84%

16.67%

15.56%

14.35%

46.58%

2

20.30%

19.23%

17.57%

57.10%

15.15%

14.47%

13.68%

43.30%

3

16.20%

16.34%

16.20%

48.74%

13.64%

13.31%

12.89%

39.84%

4

12.60%

13.33%

14.09%

40.02%

12.12%

12.07%

11.97%

36.16%

5

9.40%

10.32%

11.46%

31.18%

10.61%

10.77%

10.92%

32.30%

6

6.60%

7.47%

8.61%

22.68%

9.09%

9.40%

9.73%

28.22%

7

4.40%

5.09%

6.02%

15.51%

7.58%

7.97%

8.42%

23.97%

8th

2.70%

3.17%

3.83%

9.70%

6.06%

6.48%

6.98%

19.52%

9

1.50%

1.78%

1.78%

5.06%

4.55%

4.94%

5.42%

14.91%

10

0.80%

0.96%

0.96%

2.72%

3.03%

3.34%

3.73%

10.10%

11

0.50%

0.60%

0.74%

1.84%

1.52%

1.69%

1.92%

5.13%

1995-2004: Expansion era lottery

After a decade of rapid changes to the NBA draft, things settled down around the turn of the century with the focus shifting to expansion markets.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers continued to accumulate championships, winning three titles each from 1996–2003. The only spoiler for these two teams? The San Antonio Spurs, who put their own spin on the tried and true technique of tanking to build a dynasty that won five championships from 1999 to 2013.

There is some debate as to the Spurs’ intention for the 1996/97 season, but there is no denying that their losses paid off in the greatest measure. Hall of Famer David Robinson struggled with back and foot injuries that ultimately sidelined him for all but six games. Meanwhile, fellow All-Star Sean Elliott missed half the season with tendinitis and the Spurs stuttered to a 20-62 record, good for the third-worst in the league. As luck would have it, they ended up 1st overall, bringing in Tim Duncan from Wake Forest.

Credit goes to the Spurs front office drafted by Manu Ginobili (#57 1999 NBA draft) and Tony Parker (#28 2001 NBA draft), but Duncan’s influence in making the franchise what it what it is today cannot be denied.

2019-Present: Flattening of odds and introduction of Play-In tournament

As the 76ers continue to reap the rewards of tanking, “the process” undoubtedly brought the NBA to a boiling point. Ahead of the 2019 draft, the league rolled out its most up-to-date rules, covering everything from lottery odds to playoff contests.

The first change was to flatten the quotas to more closely resemble those of the pre-1994 drafts. The teams with the three worst records had even chances, closely followed by the next teams, which reduced the incentive for teams at the bottom of the table to “lose” each other.

The next change was made out of necessity but proved successful. As the NBA struggled to salvage the 2019-20 season, which had ended abruptly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it decided to host a bubble play-in tournament. The league eventually adopted it as a staple of the postseason, with the Nos. 7–10 seeds battling it out to secure the bottom two spots for each conference.

The long-term impact of these changes is still unclear, but the NBA has every reason to be excited. The first year of the new lottery rules lived up to the hype when the New Orleans Pelicans got number 1 and a chance to win Zion Williamson despite only having a 6% chance. Meanwhile, the Play-In tournament immediately made the game more competitive, with bubble teams having more reasons to get stuck on the track.

Of course, these changes didn’t make the NBA immune to tanking. Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder take a page from Philadelphia’s playbook. The Thunder amassed an unprecedented draft arsenal from the Paul George trade in 2019 and have only fueled this further by selling stars and benching key players with questionable injuries. Despite their best efforts, they still only ended up with the fourth-worst record and the second-best chance of making the No. 1 overall pick for the 2022 draft.

The 2022 NBA lottery is shaping up to be the most intriguing in recent history as four players remain in contention for the #1 overall pick. Whether Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Purdue’s Jaden Ivey or Duke’s Paolo Banchero are the first to hear their names could be down to how the ping-pong balls bounce in the May 17 lottery.

Here are the odds for #1 overall:

Houston missiles: 14%
Orlando Magic: 14%
Detroit Pistons: 14%
Oklahoma City Thunder: 12.5%
Indianapolis Pacers: 10.5%
Portland Trailblazer: 9.0%
Sacramento Kings: 7.5%
Los Angeles Lakers: 6.0%
San Antonio Spurs: 4.5%
Washington Wizards: 3.0%
New York Knicks: 2.0%
Los Angeles Clippers: 1.5%
Charlotte Bobcat: 1.0%
Cleveland Cavaliers: 0.5%

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