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How To Stop NBA Tanking: Tie Your Fate To Another Team’s Record

We made it. For the past month or so, our sports podcast, “Hot Takedown,” has been asking you to submit your ideas for how to fix the NBA draft and prevent teams from tanking. After receiving almost 7,000 entries and reading all of them (or at least giving them all a heavy skim), we’ve picked a winning proposal to endorse and send along to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

(Read our letter to Silver.)

We discussed the finalists in depth on this week’s episode of “Hot Takedown.” If you haven’t listened, click “play” below, or find it on iTunes. Below that, read more about our process and the finalists.


To pick our finalists, we evaluated along three basic criteria:

1) The proposal had to be (generally) viable.

2) The proposal had to be understandable to the public. Some of the ideas were just too wonky.

3) It still had to be cool. Plans like Nate Silver’s just felt too unambitious.

This meant that we had to dismiss the many smart ideas about eliminating the draft altogether and plans to create a relegation system in which the bottom teams would drop out of the NBA. (Although special shoutout to Nick from Austin for a really thoughtful proposal on that front.)

It also means that we had to say goodbye to this:


Now, on to the finalists. Below are unedited excerpts from four plans we considered, with the winning entry last. You can read the plans in full here.

The Tombstone Date

Submitted by Brett Schwab in Philadelphia

“Lottery balls would be determined by Elimination Wins. Elimination Wins are victories that occur after a team has been officially eliminated from playoff contention. Tombstone Day is the day your team is eliminated from any possibility of making the playoffs. Whichever team gets the most wins AFTER their Tombstone Day gets the most lottery balls.

A 2015 example:

  • The Sixers were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention on March 19th. March 19th is their Tombstone Day. From March 19th on, the Sixers had 2 victories.
  • The Magic were eliminated on March 25th. From their Tombstone Day on, the Magic had 3 victories.
  • The Hornets were eliminated on April 10th. From their Tombstone Day on, the Hornets had 0 victories.

Under this system, the Magic would have the most lottery balls and thus higher odds of winning the draft.”

The Lottery Playoff

Submitted by Chad [no last name given] from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

“At the end of the season, all playoff teams get a week off to rest and game plan. During that week, the 14 lottery teams play a single elimination bracket tournament for draft picks (the two teams with the best records get byes). The winner of the tournament gets the first pick in the draft, second place gets the second pick. The rest of the teams are slotted according to record with the best teams getting higher picks. So theoretically, every lottery team has a shot at the first pick, but if you lose a tournament game, it is in your best interest to have the most wins as possible, in order to be ranked higher than other teams.

Pros: Playoff teams have a chance to rest up before the big show. One and done games are magical. It’s a playoff before the playoffs. Imagine two teams actually playing for the next MJ, instead of watching a dude grab balls out of a machine hoping for a chance to draft him.

Cons: None. You’re welcome.”

The Tweaked Wheel

Submitted by Adam Rosenthal from Seattle

“I propose a ‘draft number,’ which would be calculated by adding a number generated by a ‘wheel’ approach [Editor’s note: Here’s a primer on the wheel.] to the number representing the team’s reverse ranking in the standings. For example, a team with a wheel value of 17 that finished eighth-worst in the NBA standings would get a draft number of 17 + 8 = 25. The lowest draft number would get the lowest pick, the second-lowest number would get the second-lowest pick, etc. Ties would be broken by the team with the lower wheel number.”

The NBA Futures (Our Winner!)

Submitted by the Futures Draft Planning Committee of Samuel B. Feldblum and Cody Cutting in New York

“In a nutshell: Teams tank because they own their own picks. We could eliminate tanking by creating a world in which nobody owned their own pick, but instead owned stock market-style futures on other teams’. Teams get to pick other teams’ finishing positions in the following year as their own. The worst team gets to pick the team whose draft position they would like to have next year (not their own), next the second worst team would pick whose draft position they want, etc.”

(UPDATE May 19, 10:02 a.m.): Reader Tim Pool got in touch to say that he’s had a very similar proposal as well. You can read his plan in this 2011 post on Real GM. And, in what appears to be a pure coincidence, Slate’s Seth Stevenson published a piece proposing virtually the same plan the same day we posted this article. Clearly, great minds…)

And that’s our winner! Again, you can find the full finalist proposals here and all of the submissions here and listen to the podcast for our reasoning behind our decision. Let us know what you think of our decision in the comments or by tweeting me.

Thanks again to everyone who submitted or commented or listened — you are full of weird and smart ideas.

And I’ll keep you posted when we get our meeting with Adam Silver.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.