(Apologies if your eyes now bleed at the mention of the words “lottery” or “tanking.” You can just skip this post. There’s basketball analysis elsewhere on the site.)
No team has done a better job of tanking during the last month of the 2011-12 season than the Minnesota Timberwolves. As late as April 1, the Timberwolves were legitimately thinking playoffs, but after their hopes were extinguished the Timberwolves quickly went in the tank, losing 11 consecutive games before beating the Detroit Pistons last week for their only win since March 28. The Charlotte Bobcats have lost more games, yes, but their No. 1 lottery spot was secure long ago. The Bobcats simply can’t stop losing. Minnesota, by contrast, has gone from a fight for the league’s 12th-14th worst record to the 10th position. The Timberwolves even managed the seemingly impossible: out-tanking the free-falling Golden State Warriors, who beat them at the Target Center on Sunday.
There’s only one problem with this discussion: Minnesota doesn’t have its own first-round pick, having lost it to the L.A. Clippers as part of the ancient Sam Cassell–Marko Jaric deal before the Clippers traded it on to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the package for Chris Paul. The Timberwolves don’t even have their second-round pick, which went to Houston as part of a trade during last year’s draft, then on to Portland.
Minnesota has zero incentive to lose, yet players like Kevin Love and Luke Ridnour have been shelved from injuries they otherwise might have returned from anyway. Why? Because playing basketball is inherently dangerous. Every time players take the court, there is a chance they might suffer or aggravate a serious injury that imperils their long-term future. This is being melodramatic, obviously, but one reason stars sit out down the stretch–both for lottery teams and playoff-bound teams that are locked into their seeds and have no incentive to win–is precisely to stay safe.
The Timberwolves are an extreme example because they relied so heavily on Love, and their other two players with more than 1.5 WARP (Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic) dealt with injuries while the team was still in the playoff chase. Still, their case suggests that an unweighted lottery in which all non-playoff teams have the same chances–and thus no incentive to lose games–isn’t enough to prevent teams from resting players down the stretch. If the desired outcome is a league in which lottery teams run hard through the finish line (and, for the record, I’m against this proposition because of the perverse incentives it gives coaches who need no excuse to favor washed-up veterans over promising young players), then something stronger than an unweighted lottery is necessary, like the Sloan Conference proposal to rank teams in the draft by how many games they win after being eliminated.