NBA teams are still tanking. The prize for successful tanking — generational prospect Zion Williamson — is as promising as any over the past decade. The worst teams in the NBA are really bad.
But it’s indisputable that NBA draft lottery reform has been a success. The tanking has remained largely out of headlines and out of the public eye.
That was the whole point of NBA reforms: to diffuse the issue of teams being bad on purpose to get the best chance at blue-chippers that would help them eventually be good. The Suns, Knicks, and Cavaliers are all truly atrocious, and have made roster decisions to make them worse. The Suns traded Trevor Ariza, bizarrely signed as a high-dollar rental in the offseason. The Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis and its best healthy players for prospects and players it could slot into minimal roles down the stretch. The Cavaliers … well, the Cavs didn’t have to do much once LeBron James left in the summer and Kevin Love suffered an injury that cost him half the season.
Other teams saw the writing on the wall after the midpoint of the season and went for broke. The Mavericks and Grizzlies are engaged in some situational tanking after coming into the season with legitimate hopes of competing for the playoff nod. Both teams owe out protected picks, and Dallas at least certainly seems to want to keep its selection.
The Pelicans’ season was derailed twice: first by an Anthony Davis injury, then by Anthony Davis’ trade request. The team has sort of been tanking since, though it’s most egregious crime is benching Davis when no one is looking. (The other Pels have continued to compete hard, a real credit to Alvin Gentry for playing lineups that try hard and can actually do some things.)
But the fact that teams are still tanking is beside the point. Reform was all about convincing enough NBA franchise leaders, the media, and fans that tanking is actually not a major league crisis. Mission accomplished!
The biggest factor in defusing the issue is leveling the odds for the worst three teams to win the No. 1 pick. In prior years, the worst team had better odds of winning No. 1 than the second-worst team, and the second-worst team had better odds of winning No. 1 than the third-worst team, and so on. Now, the three worst teams share equal odds, and those odds are lower than what the two worst teams used to receive. There is still an advantage to being the worst instead of the second worst, because the reverse standings determine how far you could potentially fall in the draft order. But the impact is minimal compared to what existed prior to this season.
That simple change has completely altered how we collectively watch the tank-off between the Suns, Knicks, and Cavaliers. In fact, it has essentially destroyed the tank-off! The Knicks, Suns, and Cavaliers have been in strong position to claim the three worst records for a couple of months now and just had to avoid self-destructive win streaks. The Bulls are almost bad enough to be in the mix, but the Hawks are a little too good to tank (they can still hit 30 wins, which is shocking) and the teams that decided midseason to give up (Wizards, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Mavericks) had too many victories to get into the muck.
The Suns, Knicks, and Cavaliers are so bad that none of them have had to egregiously tank under the new lottery rules. Mario Hezonja pivoting to point guard is seen as more novelty than tank-off necessity. Devin Booker chasing records is just part of the deal of having a talent-depleted roster. Collin Sexton getting the keys to the car is legitimately about developing Collin Sexton, not playing to lose.
The catch of lottery reform: by decreasing the incentive to be the worst, it increased the incentive to be merely bad. This is the range in which teams who gave up around midseason have ended up. The odds are getting a top-5 pick are much higher under the new rules for those mid-lottery teams like Dallas (assuming it keeps their pick), Memphis (assuming it keeps their pick), New Orleans, Atlanta, and Washington.
Did those increased odds influence any of those teams to turn toward darkness in January or February? Probably not: for the West teams, the playoffs became a pipe dream early as it became clear that it’d take a record well over .500 to make it to the postseason (again). The Wizards could have made a late playoff run despite John Wall’s injury if not for the Otto Porter trade and other moves, but you can’t fault a usually shortsighted team for taking the long view for once.
But that increased benefit of being mediocre is something to watch in the future, especially if the West postseason race continues to be as exclusive as it has been. The tank-off might change from a race to the absolute bottom to a shifting set of criteria for mid-tier teams on when to give up and aim low.
The NBA’s interest should be in maximizing the number of teams who remain competitive through March and early April. On paper, lottery reform goes the opposite direction. We’ll see how that plays out in practice as franchises adjust their team-building strategies.
For now, the heat is off the NBA, just as designed.