Whether you’re Riggin’ for Wiggins or going Flaccid for Embiid, tanking has been at the epicenter of the NBA universe this season. In fact, ESPN’s Chad Ford now writes a weekly column known as the “Tank Rank” which examines the ten worst teams in the league and analyzes their chances of landing the top overall pick.
Now many people dismiss the possibility of tanking, instead suggesting that NBA players are far too competitive to throw games simply to improve the number of ping pong balls they have in the draft lottery — and they’re probably right. However, when teams like the Celtics continually trade away valuable role players for draft picks, it’s obvious that their focus is on the future and not the present.
This tanking trend seems to become more obvious late in the season when teams know that they’re out of the playoff hunt. If you’re not playing in the postseason, why not give your young players a chance for some on the job training? They’ll take their lumps and improve their skill set, all while increasing your probability of losing. This was the strategy employed by the Oklahoma City Thunder, and it has helped transform them from a laughing-stock to perennial contender.
Tanking is the reason why Celtics GM Danny Ainge dealt away arguably his top performer this season (Jordan Crawford) for an outside chance at a first round pick. It’s the reason Utah’s starting lineup has an average age of 21.8 years old. But how can bettors take advantage of this late-season tanking?
Our goal was to utilize our Bet Labs software to focus on losing teams during the last few months of the season. In order to accomplish this, we used the “game number” filter to focus only on the final 27 games of the season which roughly correlates with games played after the All-Star break. In order to examine the cellar dwellers, we focused teams with a winning percentage of less than 40% by using the “Team Win %” filter. We then selected the “underdog” filter to ensure that we were looking at the worst teams in the league.
This system produced a losing record and woeful return on investment (ROI); however, sometimes a losing system can be just as helpful to bettors as a winning one. By selecting the “fade system” option, we were able to find that it would be profitable to bet AGAINST these bottom feeders.
These criteria resulted in a 793-708 ATS record, which produced 46.78 units earned but a return of investment of just 3.1%. Our hypothesis was that tanking teams would be unlikely to put together any sort of winning streak. After all, every win pushes the team further and further from their goal of drafting a franchise caliber player. So what if we only looked at these tanking teams following a win?
The table below, using line data from Pinnacle, shows the performance of this betting system since 2003.
At the time of publication, the Bucks (17.3%), 76ers (27.8%), Magic (29.6%), Kings (34%), Lakers (34%), Celtics (35.2%), Jazz (36.5%), Cavs (37.7%) and Knicks (38.5%) all have winning percentages of less than 40% and are potential system matches. That said, it’s worth noting that the Knicks do not own their first round draft pick and thus have no incentive to tank.
It will also be interesting to see what these teams do at the February 20th trade deadline. Many of these teams will unload their most valuable assets in exchange for cap flexibility, draft picks and/or young talent, which should cement their status as “tankers.” It’s also worth monitoring the progress of potential draft picks including Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart and Julius Randle as strong performances down the stretch could further incentivize lottery teams to continue their downward spiral.