The NBA Losing Problem

If you have been paying attention to the NBA recently, you may notice a few teams that are aspiring to lose as many games as they can. The Philadelphia 76ers have just lost a franchise record 26th game in a row, and it is quite possible that they will lose the rest of their games this season. This would appear to be a disappointment for the franchise, but it is all part if a greater plan. This losing streak, and entire season, was orchestrated by the organization. Before the February 20th trade deadline, the team traded their two best and most experienced players. They have not won since the trade deadline, and their last win was on January 29th. These trades were put together by the 76ers as part of a long-term plan to rebuild their team over an extended period of time, which entails sacrificing wins in the current season for expected success in the future. This expected success is based on the hope that by obtaining enough high draft picks, eventually they will build a successful team. The 76ers feel that the expected success from this long-term plan is worth the sacrificed wins (and money) this season.

Why is this a problem?

Isn’t this is similar to a business implementing a long-term plan that results in a short-term dip in the bottom line, but is leading to an increase in profit in the long-term? We don’t scrutinize businesses when they are implementing these long-term strategies, but NBA franchises are ridiculed when they are losing as part of a strategy to improve performance in the future. The issue with this comparison is that the NBA derives its value from entertainment whereas traditional businesses are just selling a product or service. This makes it difficult for the NBA because it needs to find a way to remain entertaining while individual teams feel that losing is the best thing for their future. When organizations like the 76ers have an incentive to lose games, people are not interested in tuning into, or going to their games, and the entertainment value of the NBA is dragged down due to the lack of competition. In seasons like this current one, where the incoming draft class is extremely talented, there are 4 or 5 teams who are all ‘competing’ for the top draft pick by losing as many games as possible. This is a common theme for the last few months of every NBA season. Teams like the 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Orlando Magic are all losing games at an alarming rate, and playing poor basketball. It is not fun to watch for anyone, and is an issue that needs to be solved.

Michael Carter-Williams, the first round pick for the 76ers this year that they hope to build their team around in the future, is stifled by 2 Bulls defenders.


This purposeful losing is not as prevalent in any other major sport. I believe this losing for draft picks problem can be attributed to the fact that a basketball team only has 12-15 players on a roster while football teams have over 50. Each basketball player has more relative value to his organization than one football player. Basketball is different than any other major sport in this way, and to fix this problem we must look at changing the structure of the draft from the traditional format (the worse you are, the better the pick you get). The current draft lottery system gives the team with the worst record the best chance to win the first pick in the draft, with the following teams having progressively worse chances of winning the top pick. This creates an incentive for NBA teams to lose games, and causes teams like the 76ers and the Bucks to be battling to lose more games than each other. The NBA must remove the incentive that causes this race to the bottom that we have to watch every year. The NBA’s current draft system enters all teams who don’t make the playoffs into the lottery so 14 teams technically have a chance of winning the top pick. One way to take away the incentive to lose would be to give all 14 teams that miss the playoffs an equal chance of winning the lottery. This would mean that being worse than another team would not provide you with a better chance at a higher pick.  I believe this would promote more competitive basketball, without the shameless losing that fans have to sit through during the last few months of the season. There are other theories on this losing problem the NBA has right now, and below is an article discussing a new idea if you would like to find out more!

This article discusses a new idea that surfaced a couple months back called the Draft Wheel. Basically it is a system that has a rotating draft order that is not based on each year’s standings, but gives each team every pick from 1 to 30 over a 30 year cycle. Here is the more in-depth explanation.



2 Replies to “The NBA Losing Problem”

  1. Nice article. However, I think there’s another motivation for why the Sixers chose to trade away their best players. I think it has more to do with the high salaries of top draft picks than intentionally trying to lose to get the #1 pick. Top picks are given loads of guaranteed money even though none of them have played in an NBA game. Clearly, the Sixers are trying to rebuild, and assuming they wanted to bring in fresh talent in the draft, they needed to unload the salaries of their top players to be able to afford the salaries of high draft picks. So, they got rid of Danny Granger ($14 million/year) and Spencer Hawes ($6.6 million/year). I think those trades had a lot more to do with money than trying to garner the #1 pick in the draft, especially considering the worst team still only has a 25% chance of getting the top pick. And I’m sure if you asked the Sixers players, whose salaries depend on performance above all else, they’d still say that they want to win every time they play. So, I’m not sure the NBA really needs to change the system, considering it provides less incentive to lose than the NFL or MLB where draft status is determined solely by record. If anything, reducing exorbitant rookie compensation would be a better way of getting “rebuilding” teams to win because it would reduce the need to get rid of veteran players to make salary cap space for high draft picks. Just some additional thoughts.

  2. I would definitely agree that there is another side to what they are trying to do this season with the salary cap. They are clearly trying to free up cap space to have freedom to spend money on players in future years. The only issue that I have with your argument is that rookie contracts are generally not that expensive when you compare them to high profile player contracts that are made during free agency. If you make a good selection in the draft, the contract that comes with that player will be a good value. That is why the NBA developed the rookie pay scale ( For example, Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers) is playing under his rookie contract after being selected first overall. He is the team’s best player by far, but is only the teams 5th highest paid player this year at about 5 million this year with a total guaranteed of about 23 million. But I would agree the issue with drafting early is that when a high draft pick pans out, the second contract that they are going to receive will be outrageous and it is often difficult for the team that drafted them to keep these player long-term. John Wall just signed his second contract this summer for 5 years 80 million guaranteed. I would agree that there is an issue of trying to pay for rookies, but I think it is more to do with their second contract. This is why teams must dump salaries like you point out the 76ers did at the trade deadline. When they need to re-sign some of the young talent on their current roster, they will need to have tons of cap space to be able to do this. Making it easier for teams to re-sign rookies after their first contract would definitely take away some of the incentive for teams to rid themselves of any expensive contracts/good players, and have seasons like the 76ers are having right now.
    You definitely made some good points, it would be very interesting to take a closer look at the structure of NBA contracts and see if they are causing some of this inequality in the NBA with super teams like the Heat, and then teams like the 76ers, and Bucks.

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