The NBA league office HATES tanking.
The league hates that teams see it as a strategy, and they hate the idea that there are fan bases actively rooting for their team to lose. The league sees that as a destructive force. What the fans see is a shot at Zion Williamson (or, the next great player). So the league changed around the lottery odds this season, and the Pelicans (with just a six percent chance at it) jumped up to the No. 1 spot, while the teams with the three worst records will pick third, fifth, and sixth.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Rachel Nichols of ESPN he hopes the lottery changes, and the most recent results, end the worst of tanking (via Royce Young at ESPN).
“Where I think it’s the greatest success is, hopefully it’ll stop fans in those markets from rooting for their teams to perform poorly,” Silver said prior to Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. “Because that race to the bottom is just destructive, I think, for everyone. Corrosive for players and franchises, and I think, in some cases, even some executives who knew better felt they couldn’t withstand the pressure from the communities, from the media in some cases, saying, ‘Why are you operating at this level when you should either get much better or much worse?’…
“I think in this case now with the change in the lottery, people are going to realize that there’s only one way to build a franchise,” Silver said. “Of course, you need to get great players, but at the same time you need to build culture, you need strong management, you need strong coaching. And players incrementally get better year after year. I mean, look at these two great franchises. It’s wonderful from a league standpoint to see the Warriors and the Raptors, two incredibly well-run franchises from top to bottom, here representing the league.”
The Warriors and Raptors are certainly well run, but lottery luck is still going to shape franchises as long as there is an NBA Draft. It’s the nature of a sport where you need at least one and probably two of the top 15-20 players in the world to win a title, for a lot of cities getting that player will only happen via the Draft.
What the change in lottery rules does is just move the inflection point. There may be reduced value in having the very worst record, but for a team that looks like it is on the playoff bubble at Christmas, the calculus changes: Tank the rest of the way, get maybe a six percent chance a the No. 1 pick and look what can happen. Some teams will still chase the playoff berth (and the gate revenue that comes with it), but not all. Teams will make different choices in the middle of the pack now because their lottery odds are better with this system.
It will be a few years before we fully see and understand the impact of the new lottery odds, but tanking on some level will be part of the NBA so long as there is a draft. And some fans will want their team to do it.