The Knicks Fix: No Tanks, Says Lottery History

At the end of the 2008-09 season, after the Knicks had already been eliminated from playoff contention, the team won three of their final six games of the season. It brought Mike D’Antoni’s record in his first season as Knicks coach to 32-50. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, the Golden State Warriors won four of their last eight to finish 29-53.

Later that June, the Knicks waited with the eighth overall pick, poised to select Steph Curry. They missed him by one pick.

By three wins.

Looking back with crystal ball hindsight, it’s easy to say former team president Donnie Walsh should have ordered D’Antoni to lay down in those final six games. It’s situations like this that encourage the idea of tanking.

But, actually, history tells us otherwise.

Before we get to the numbers that explain why playing for lottery position isn’t a successful strategy, let’s first address the reality of the situation that many fans overlook: Coaches and players aren’t interested in losing games just for the chance they might land a higher draft pick.

“You’re asking the wrong person about that,” Derek Fisher said at practice on Tuesday, before his 6-36 Knicks take on the 8-33 Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

“There’s no interest in thinking about which pick we might get based on the way the ping-pong bounces when we play Philadelphia. There’s just no correlation, in my mind. Maybe some people see it differently.”

All people, if they saw the numbers we’re about to show you, would see it logically: Tanking rarely pays off.

Consider that in 25 years of the draft lottery using the weighted system (not the envelopes-in-a-hopper thing from the late 1980s), only three times has the team with the worst record in the league come away with the No. 1 overall pick. So despite having the best chance to win it (25 percent), only 12 percent of the time it has worked out. And one came in the very first year of the weighted lottery system, 1990, when the Nets (17-65) won the lottery drawing and selected Derrick Coleman from Syracuse with the pick.

The only other times the team with the worst record won the lottery came in consecutive years: In 2003, the Cavaliers finished 17-65 and landed LeBron James, and in 2004, the Magic went 21-61 and selected Dwight Howard.

So where is the “lucky” spot? That would be third-worst. Teams that finished with the third-worst record in the NBA have won the lottery six times, the most of any spot in the lottery drawing since 1990. That spot has a 15.6 percent chance to win and has won it 24 percent of the time.

And the fifth spot, with just an 8.8 percent chance to win, is the second-most frequent winner, with five. Second-worst has won it four times.

So I guess you could say if you aren’t going to be a playoff team, it does pay to be among the worst. Just not the absolute worst.

With six wins at the halfway point of the season, the Knicks are on pace for a franchise-low win total. Never in the history of the team have they failed to reach at least 21 wins in a season. But this year, it’s quite possible.

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So we looked at teams over the last 10 years at teams that finished with less than 20 wins. When you boast that type of win total, you need a payoff. But for most teams, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Consider these examples:

2004-2005

The Hawks were an abysmal 13-69, but did not win the lottery. Instead, the Milwaukee Bucks jumped five picks to win it and took Andrew Bogut. OK, so the Hawks didn’t miss out on a superstar, but they took Marvin Williams with the No. 2 pick, with Chris Paul still on the board. D’oh.

2007-2008

With Dwyane Wade sidelined for most of the season, the Heat (15-67) were awful. But with Wade’s fellow Chicagoan Derrick Rose as the big prize in the draft, the Heat were trumped by the hometown Bulls, who jumped a record eight spots to the top pick. The Heat took Michael Beasley with the No. 2 pick and in two years dumped him in order to build the Heatles.

2008-2009

The Kings had the worst record at 17-65 and entered a draft that had a lot of prospects such as Blake Griffin and James Harden. But the lottery was unkind to the Kings, who dropped to fourth overall. The Clippers landed the No. 1 spot and took Griffin. Harden went to the Thunder at No. 3. The Kings got Tyreke Evans, whom they eventually traded away.

2009-2010

The Nets lost 70 games. 70 games! They had the top spot in the lottery, but when the drawing was held, the Nets found themselves leapfrogged by two teams, the Wizards (26-56) and the 76ers (27-55). The Nets missed out on John Wall and instead used their pick of Derrick Favors to trade for Deron Williams later the next season.

2010-2011

The Timberwolves had a 17-65 record that certainly was painful as Jonny Flynn turned out to be a terrible pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and Ricky Rubio was in Spain trying to find a way to avoid coming to Minnesota. A lottery win would have yielded Kyrie Irving and a valuable trade chip in Rubio. Instead, the Clippers jumped seven spots to land in the top spot, which was a pick owned by the Cavaliers via the Baron Davis trade. So the Cavs, after losing LeBron, won the lottery thanks to a trade.

2011-2012

The Charlotte Bobcats had the worst winning percentage in NBA history (.106) with a 7-59 record during the 66-game season shortened by the NBA lockout. A potential superstar awaited in the draft, with Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. But the New Orleans Hornets jumped from the fourth spot to the top spot to claim Davis. The Bobcats took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick.

Two years later, New Orleans would give up the name Hornets for the name Pelicans and the Bobcats would drop their name to reclaim Hornets. Charlotte probably would have accepted keeping the Bobcats moniker if it meant landing A.D.

2013-2014

Even last season, for as bad as the 76ers (19-63) and Bucks (15-67) were, the payoff did not result in the No. 1 pick. Somehow the Cavs (33-49) leaped 9 spots to to the top and snagged Andrew Wiggins, who they later flipped to Minnesota in the Kevin Love trade.

Milwaukee, which got the second pick, still came away with Jabari Parker, which was a very good consolation prize. The 76ers took Joel Embiid, who has had to sit out this season with injuries and is now reportedly overweight.

See? The Basketball Gods do not reward tanking.