Losing To Win: NBA Teams Trade Good Players For Better Future Picks

We're halfway through the NBA season, and this is the All-Star Game weekend. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with sports reporter Mike Pesca about teams deliberately losing in order to get a shot at the best draft pick.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And it's time noe for sports.

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MARTIN: Olympics, Shmolympics. We're halfway through the NBA season, so let's talk basketball. For that, here's NPR's Mike Pesca. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Rachel, Shmolympics is copyright of the IOC, the International Shmolympic Committee. Don't us it lightly, they enforce that trademark.

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MARTIN: They use it with all sobriety.

PESCA: Yes.

MARTIN: OK. So it's the All-Star Game weekend, but you don't really want to talk about the All-Stars. Who wants to talk about the stars? You want to talk about losers.

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PESCA: Well, some of the All-Stars are on losing teams. And so halfway through the season, you know, teams that are good are presenting themselves. We don't know who will win the championship. And yet, the teams that are bad have a much more firm claim on their future. Teams, once they realize - and for a lot of them it was coming into the season - once they realized they're not going to win...

MARTIN: Um-huh.

PESCA: ...what they want to do is try to lose as much as possible.

MARTIN: So, I do not get this.

PESCA: Because there is what an economist would call a perverse incentive system in the NBA and most team sports. The worst you are, the more you lose, the greater percent chance you have to getting a top draft pick. And this year, the kids in college this year are some of the best ever. And before the season, this kid, Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, was, you know, touted as the next LeBron James. And they even put up a website called Tanking for Wiggins. The idea being here are the worst teams. Here's the guys with the biggest or the teams with the biggest chance of getting Wiggins. Strangely, Wiggins turns out not to be the best player. He's good but not even the best player on his team. And now everyone is saying that his teammate, Joel Embiid, will be the number one pick. But there are three guys in the draft that are so good that a lot of teams, like the Milwaukee Bucks or the Philadelphia 76ers or the Orlando Magic, really have a decent and logical strategy of losing as many games this year to try to get one of these great players.

MARTIN: Sorry to interrupt - you can't actually try to lose games, though. I mean, that sounds nefarious.

PESCA: Yes. Here's what (unintelligible) to do - and it does, and pernicious. And Adam Silver - he's the new NBA commissioner - he was asked this directly. The commissioner does a press conference around All-Star weekend. You know, he was asked about tanking, this idea of tanking. And he said my understanding of tanking would be losing games on purpose, and there's no evidence that any team in the NBA has ever lost a single game. OK. That's not what tanking is. That's what he wants to define it as because he could say no, one's lost a game, no one has, you know, purposely missed shot the ball, no one has purposely dribbled it off their foot. It's not that. It's just fielding a team that isn't the best it could be. It's paying players as little as you can. It's trading away anyone for future assets. It's having a young team knowing that, you know, the Orlando Magic is one of the youngest teams but they know that they could grow. So, who cares if, you know, those guy will try hard but they're just so overmatched. They have no real chance of winning this year, which is fine for them. Maybe they're getting an Embiid or a Jabari Parker or a Wiggins in the draft.

MARTIN: I mean, isn't that what the whole NBA lottery system for the draft was supposed to prevent?

PESCA: Right. So, this has gone on for a long time. It was pretty clear that there were years when teams were really trying to not win. Let's say, you know, let's not say lose. But so the lottery system makes it more random. Instead of the worst team automatically getting the number one pick, now, they have a 25 percent chance at the number one pick. And, you know, if you were just conceiving the system, you might say, oh, that might prevent some tanking. But history has shown that not to be the case. It turns out, if you want to talk about a rational actor, there's really no difference between a team saying I'm going to go for it and lose every game to be guaranteed a pick and I'm going to go for it and lose every game and just get the highest chance of having the number one pick. There's no operational difference between how they perceive their, you know, if they perceive their chances as assured or if they perceive their chances as just having, you know, a very good shot at the number one pick. They're still going to do it. They're still going to lose on purpose.

MARTIN: Still sounds like not trying. And that, I think, sound un-American. OK. Do you have a curveball for us?

PESCA: I do. So, I was watching, like a lot of sports fans were, this story of Michael Sam, who's the Missouri player who came out and will certainly be, he'll be drafted, he'll be the first North American major team sport homosexual on a team sport. But I came across his teammate, this eloquent guy named Max Copeland, who had this huge beard. And I just got to know this guy. He's done with college - he probably won't play in the pros - but he's a physics major, he plays the upright bass. And I found that he was a basketball fan. And he used to do this thing where he'd hold up a sign. And on the outside, it would say, you know, support the troops. And people would think that was a great sign. But on the back of the sign, he would write terrible, horrible things about the other team or the administration. And I think that that is a very clever way to be a subtle but pernicious fan.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca. You can hear his daily Olympic updates on his Slate podcast, Hang Up and Listen. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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