Thursday, April 14


To the surprise of many observers and the chagrin of some fans, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been winning some games lately. In fact, after bottoming out at 8-45 at the tail end of their historic 26-game losing streak, the Cavs finished the year with a 11-18 stretch, including wins in 4 out of their last 6 games. Neither mark establishes the Cavs as championship favorites in 2011-12, but it was a hell of a lot more fun than watching them get mauled every night.

Yet, some fans see this improved play as a negative, because the Cavaliers' win total finally eclipsed that of the Minnesota Timberwolves, moving Cleveland out of the NBA's basement. This means that, when the NBA Draft order is set by the lottery, the Cavaliers will have a lower chance than Minnesota to win the #1 overall pick, 20% to 25%. There was a vocal faction of Cavs supporters who would have preferred to have the Cavaliers keep losing and aim for the bottom in an effort to garner the most ping-pong balls.

I understand where these fans are coming from, but I hope to demonstrate to you that this is not the correct view of the situation.

Forget for a minute the soul-destroying nihilism that attends rooting for your favorite team to lose games - let's focus instead on more tangible things like expected values and draft slots. It is true that the dead-last team gets 25% of the balls while next-to-last has a 20% share, giving #30 a 25% better chance at landing the top overall selection. Read this article for a primer on the current lottery system and odds.

What I want for you to see is that the view that a team should strive to finish dead last in the NBA in order to gain a 25% - 20% advantage in ping-pong balls for the #1 pick is overly simplistic. There's more at stake than just the #1 pick. Thus, I went to the trouble of calculating the expected value of the bottom finishers' draft slots, to show that finishing last (as opposed to near-last) is NOT a significant thing. Although 30th place does give you slightly better lottery odds, it's not a difference worth rooting for (plus you don't have to sell your soul). The worst team in the league has an expected draft slot of 2.64; 2nd-to-last has one of 2.98; 3rd-to-last is 3.41, not even a full pick lower than the worst team should expect. That means, on average, the 2nd-worst team in the league will win the third pick and the worst team in the league the 2.7th pick. This is a very small difference in odds. Essentially, during one in every three lotteries, you would expect #30's draft slot to be one higher than #29's. All the hand-wringing about Cleveland's late-season mini-surge was for that?

Some will argue against tanking by referencing the fact that since 1994 (when the odds were set at 25 percent), the team with the NBA's worst record has come out with the No. 1 pick only twice. This is completely irrelevant, as past events have no bearing on this year's lottery. I mention this in the interest of good statistics and analysis, even though history is squarely on my side.

The volatility of history does suggest, and I think this is relevant to the 2011-12 Cavs, that there is nothing guaranteeing that a pick one slot higher is going to be superior anyway (Darko, Olowakandi, Bargnani, Oden, etc.). Even though Cleveland improved their 2010-11 record to next-to-last, they'll pick somewhere in the Top 5, which again according to the numbers will on average be the #3 slot (also the case had they remained in 30th). Having that high pick and hitting on it is what matters. Jordan went #3, let's remember. The differentiation between the top few picks is not typically such that the worst-overall's one better draft slot every three years (on average) should be expected to translate into a noticeable difference in player quality.

If you still like the idea of tanking for a high pick, I'd suggest that rooting for the Clippers to lose this year is a far more profitable endeavor than hoping the Cavs torch their own campaign. Cleveland's other #1 pick slot in the 2011 draft depends on where LA's redheaded stepchild finishes, not where we end up, since we got the pick from them in a trade.

It's been said, and I agree, that the worst thing you can be long-term in the NBA is mediocre. No one is arguing that point, really, though some have made it with reference to this particular situation even though it doesn't support the notion of the Cavs racing to the bottom. The ultimate goal in the NBA is to win the Finals, and bottoming out and drafting a franchise player is a clearer path to such glory than is grinding out 43-win seasons for a decade. Yet the idea that a team needs to reach the league's absolute rock bottom, as opposed to merely being bottom-5 bad, is not supported by numbers or history.

The point I am making is that finishing very last as opposed to second-, third-, or fourth-from-last gives you a vanishingly small improvement in chances for long-term championship success. That is the bottom line here. Almost as importantly, as a fan, it's certainly not a worthwhile goal. It's pointless to root for one's own team to suffer through such a disastrous season, particularly when such ignominous campaigns don't produce value in the long run above the remainder of the high lottery clubs. Consider 2002-3; Cleveland was last and Miami 4th-to-last, we got the #1 pick, they got #3, and they have a banner. Boo.

Going back, check out who's finished dead last in the NBA the past 25 years (a number chosen because that's how many I looked up before I got bored):

2010 Nets
2009 Kings
2008 Heat
2007 Grizz
2006 Blazers
2005 Hawks
2004 Magic
2003 Cavs/Nuggets
2002 Warriors
2001 Bulls
2000 Clippers
1999 Grizzlies
1998 Nuggets
1997 Grizzlies
1996 Grizzlies (my goodness this franchise is bad)
1995 Clippers
1994 Mavericks
1993 Mavericks
1992 Timberwolves
1991 Nuggets
1990 Nets
1989 Heat
1988 Clippers
1987 Clippers
1986 Knicks

ONE has gone on to win the NBA in the intervening time after a dead-last year, and that was the Heat in 2006, a full SEVENTEEN years after doing so. Some got good (the Cavs and Magic both reached the finals), a lot of them stayed bad (Grizz, Clips), some got good for other reasons (Heat by free agency, Bulls getting Rose in a year they didn't finish dead last), but finishing dead last historically simply isn't a goal worth striving for as a fan either short- or long-term. I'm confident that if I went back and looked up the 2nd-to-last teams, their record of success after those down years would be just as good as the above clubs. Boston was 2nd-to-last the year before their title run in 2008.

The message is that the Cavs being a lottery team and hitting on their pick(s) is what's important - fans hoping that they reach the very bottom is pointless and, frankly, no fun. I hate to go all Herm Edwards on you and remind you that you play to win the game, but the value realized by the club's improved play and comfortability in Coach Byron Scott's system far outweighs the "benefits" of a dead-last-in-the-NBA finish, which as we have seen is basically nil.

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