NBA Draft

How Many Wins Is Too Many to Stay in the NBA Tank Race?

Victor Wembanyama’s gobsmacking performance in Las Vegas in early October accomplished two key results. First, the 7-foot-4 Frenchman cemented himself as the best draft prospect since LeBron James. And second, he officially started the tank race in the NBA’s 2022-23 season.

“Losing teams are about to tank hard this season,” our Kevin O’Connor wrote. The Athletic’s John Hollinger observed that after Wembanyama’s spectacular showing in Vegas, “tanking just became cool.” One general manager told ESPN that the French teenager would spark “a race to the bottom like we’ve never seen.”

But that supposedly unprecedented race hasn’t yet materialized. The Jazz are in third place in the West with a 6-3 record. The Spurs are 5-3 and lead the league in assist rate. The Thunder are on a four-game win streak, including wins over the Clippers (twice) and Mavericks.

In fact, three of the worst five teams in Cleaning the Glass’s net rating don’t even control their own first-round picks this season: the Clippers, Nets, and Lakers.

That early trend probably won’t continue once small-sample shooting numbers even out, but it’s also evident that would-be tankers aren’t yet concerned about costing themselves precious lottery odds. If they were, the Jazz would’ve already traded all their veterans and the Thunder would’ve already identified Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s annual mysterious injury.

But how many wins is too many for teams hoping to get a real shot in the Tank-a-rama for Wembanyama? We decided to investigate.

As a reminder, the NBA flattened its lottery odds in 2019. Now, teams with the three worst records have the same reduced chance of landing the top pick. Overall, the new odds made it so that the three worst teams (especially the worst two) are less likely to win the lottery, while teams 4-13 (especially those in the 6-9 range) are more likely to win the lottery than before.

NBA Lottery Odds

Slot Old Odds New Odds Change
Slot Old Odds New Odds Change
1 25.0% 14.0% -11.0%
2 19.9% 14.0% -5.9%
3 15.6% 14.0% -1.6%
4 11.9% 12.5% +0.6%
5 8.8% 10.5% +1.7%
6 6.3% 9.0% +2.7%
7 4.3% 7.5% +3.2%
8 2.8% 6.0% +3.2%
9 1.7% 4.5% +2.8%
10 1.1% 3.0% +1.9%
11 0.8% 2.0% +1.2%
12 0.7% 1.5% +0.8%
13 0.6% 1.0% +0.4%
14 0.5% 0.5% +0.0%

So how many wins does a team need to capitalize on those lottery odds? To find out, we built a model based on the final standings from every 82-game season since 2004-05 (when the league expanded to 30 teams). This model predicts the possible pre-lottery positions that a team might have, which then allows us to predict the no. 1 pick odds at every win total.

The model shows there’s very little difference in no. 1 pick equity below 25 wins:

  • At 10 wins, a team has a 14.0 percent chance to land no. 1.
  • At 15 wins, it’s also at 14.0 percent.
  • At 20 wins, it’s at 13.8 percent.
  • At 25 wins, it’s at 11.6 percent.
  • At 30 wins, it’s at 7.7 percent.
  • At 35 wins, it’s at 2.7 percent.
  • At 40 wins, it’s at 0.6 percent.

In other words, teams competing for the right to draft Wembanyama should avoid surpassing 25 wins this season, lest they become lottery long shots.

Beyond 25 and especially 30 wins, each additional victory carries a heftier cost. But there’s minimal penalty before teams get to that point. Heck, at 10 wins, a team has a maximum 14 percent chance to win the lottery, and at 21 wins (more than double!), it still has a 14 percent chance after rounding.

This breakdown explains why the teams projected to finish among the league’s worst shouldn’t sweat their surprise early wins—they’re a long way from the 25-win mark, where wins actually start to hurt. It also illustrates why the most egregious tanking examples we see this season might not come via a “race to the bottom,” but rather from teams on pace for 35(ish) wins who throw in the towel during March and April. Every additional win from 30-35 costs a whole percentage point of predicted no. 1 pick odds.

Extra wins used to be much more damaging to a team’s no. 1 pick hopes, before the league flattened the lottery distribution. For instance, with the new lottery system, the difference in no. 1 pick odds between 10 wins and 25 wins is just 2.4 percentage points; under the old system, that difference was 13.8 percentage points—in other words, six times more costly.

This graph provides a visual representation of the changes wrought by the new lottery structure. Look at how the red line (showing the old lottery odds) declines much more steeply, while the blue (showing the new lottery odds) plateaus for a while, then falls only gradually after.

The same pattern also applies to teams hoping for either the first or second pick this season—if they also think that guard Scoot Henderson is a generational prospect. (By definition, can a draft class have multiple “generational” prospects?) Once again, under the new system, wins don’t really start to hurt a team’s chances until the mid-20s.

Of course, improving the odds of picking no. 1 or 2 isn’t the only draft advantage a team gains from finishing with a worse record. The team with the league’s worst record can drop to only pick no. 5 at worst. Tanking harder also means a better slot in the draft’s second round, where order isn’t determined by lottery.

Yet the vast majority of tanking’s value comes from the greater possibility of landing a top pick, because those selections are so much more impactful than the rest. And it’s important to remember that, in the new system, no team has a good chance at the no. 1 pick. Unless they have multiple picks from trades, even the very worst teams have only a 14 percent chance to win Wembanyama’s services. Here are some other NBA things that have a 14 percent chance of happening:

  • Kawhi Leonard misses a free throw
  • A possession ends in a turnover
  • A shot from 36 feet away goes in

Sometimes these events occur, of course. They even decide titles. But none are remotely likely. So fans of early overachievers—like the Jazz, Spurs, and Thunder—shouldn’t worry about missing the opportunity to draft a franchise-changing prospect like Wembanyama. When even 10-15 extra wins barely nudge a team’s odds to acquire the no. 1 pick, there’s minimal reason to fret about a frenetic sprint to the bottom.

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