Fixing the NBA Draft

The NBA recently voted to change the way it decides the order teams draft college players. If you aren’t familiar with basketball, the current system determines the order by assigning different probabilities of drafting in each position to each of the 30 teams based on the standings. For example, under the old system, the team that finished last had a 25% chance of receiving the top overall pick, while the 14th worst had only a 0.5% chance to land in the top spot (playoff teams are not part of the lottery – they just pick in reverse order of standings).

This system is distinct from other sports like the NFL, which deterministically sets the draft order as the reverse of the standings. The worst team always picks first in football. The reason the NBA does not follow the NFL is to discourage “tanking,” which is when one team attempts to lose on purpose to get the number one pick and improve their team for the future. A new proposal that was just approved by a majority of owners punishes tankers even more, reducing the odds of the worst team getting the first pick to 14% and giving the exact same 14% chance to the second and third worst teams.

At first, it might seem like the lottery system accomplishes its goal of reducing the incentives to tank. The benefit of coming in last place is obviously higher if you have a 100% chance of getting the first pick rather than a 25% chance or a 14% chance.

But there’s something wrong with this logic. The decision to tank or not does not depend on the overall benefit of coming in last, but rather its relative benefit compared to any other strategy. In other words, the only reason a team wouldn’t tank is if its benefit of playing hard every game outweighs the benefit of losing and moving down the standings. It seems clear to me that under any system that gives any draft advantage to the worst teams will always encourage tanking.

There is simply no benefit at all to being the 24th or 23rd best team in the NBA. If your team cannot realistically compete for a title, you are always better off being dead last than somewhere in the middle. With the new system, that calculation changes so that you become indifferent between any of the bottom 3 spots, but does anybody really care much if a team only has to tank to 28th instead of 30th? They are still better off losing as many games as possible.

This flaw in any lottery system has led to even more radical proposals that decouple draft order and standings completely. The most famous of these is “the wheel,” which would replace the lottery entirely with a draft order set years in advance. Each team would pick in each of the 30 draft slots exactly once every 30 years. And they would know exactly when. No randomness. No relation to the standings at all.

The virtue of this system is that it removes all incentive to tank. If your draft order is unconnected to your record, you might as well do your best to win. This feature has given it a large following of NBA fans hoping for more competition in the league and it has been seriously considered as an alternative to the lottery.

I think it’s a terrible idea. By removing the link between record and draft order, the wheel solves the tanking problem. But it deepens another major issue with the NBA: how do bad teams get better? And what happens when a team like the Warriors ends up with the first pick in the draft? Imagine the current Warriors roster plus Markelle Fultz and you can immediately see why the wheel can end up producing some incredibly undesirable results.

In the article I linked above, Zach Lowe acknowledges both of these issues, but writes them off by arguing that they would be a part of any draft system that offers a chance for good teams to get good picks. And he’s absolutely right. Any measure that discourages tanking will necessarily make it harder for bad teams to get better. And any attempt to give some advantage to bad teams will always encourage tanking. There is no perfect system.

My proposal is a bit different. Rather than try to fix the draft, fix the system that makes tanking one of the few ways for a team in a bad situation to improve. Tanking is not the the root of the problem. The issue is that teams like the Warriors can have 4 superstar players on the roster, making it nearly impossible for teams with less talent to compete. What’s the point of trying to win when you know you won’t? Even a tiny advantage in the draft is enough for any team to see some value in tanking when their probability of beating the teams at the top falls close to zero.

We can solve that problem in a much easier way. Remove the cap on player salaries. Let LeBron and Durant make $50 million a year. The market would make it impossible for the Warriors to have multiple top 5 players. Somebody would offer enough that one of them would want to leave. And let bad teams tank. Get rid of the lottery. The worst team gets the first pick. Would tanking increase? Possibly, but so would parity in the league. Nobody watches bad teams anyway. At least this system would give them a path to being good again.

Why Do We Love Football? A Tale of Seven Super Bowls

It’s been a while since my last blog post and I needed a break from writing about economics and politics, so here’s a post on another important part of my life: football (for my international friends, I mean real football, not that silly game where they actually use their feet)


Source: Wikimedia Commons

February 1, 2015: Undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler runs onto the field in a game that is all but over. 2nd and goal on the 1. Up by 4. Beast Mode ready across the line of scrimmage. But he’s seen this play before. In an instant, certain defeat has transformed into sure victory – and utter misery into sheer euphoria.

Why do we love football? For millions of people, Sundays from September to February have a single purpose – they put their lives on hold to watch a bunch of strangers play what is, on the surface, just a game. I am one of those people. But I’ve often wondered why we care so much about the result of a game that will seemingly have no real effects. Whether the Patriots win or lose, my life goes on essentially unchanged. And yet I spent Super Bowl Sunday pacing around my apartment so tense you would have thought my life depended on it. Why? Aren’t there more important things in life than stupid games?

February 5, 2012: The ball is in his hands. Wes Welker. One of the most sure handed receivers in the history of the NFL. The pass is a bit high, but the ball is in his hands. Until it isn’t. The catch that should have sealed the game ends instead with number 83 lying on the ground, only his head left in his hands.

And why do players and coaches dedicate their lives to this game? Sure some get fame. Some get respect. Some get paid large sums of money. But is that really enough to justify spending every waking hour preparing to play a game that will almost certainly be detrimental to players’ future health? Is it enough to justify staying up late at night watching film to gain even the slightest advantage over another team, or spending a large portion of the year on the road away from their families?

February 3, 2008: An undefeated season on the line. Maybe the best offense to ever play this game has been held to a meager 14 points. And yet somehow they’re up by 4 with 2 minutes to go. Eli Manning breaks away from defenders (who were held) and throws up a prayer. There’s no chance he catches this. It lands on the helmet of David Tyree. There’s no chance he catches this. Rodney Harrison’s arms come inches from the ball. There’s no chance he catches this. He falls to the ground, ball pinned to his head. He caught it.

Perhaps it’s just our savage desire for violence. Does our love of the pigskin come from the same place as the Romans’ love for the gladiators? Is it some sort of evolutionary instinct that compels us to watch grown men beat each other up for 60 minutes? Maybe our ancestors will look back on us with a mix of surprise and disgust. They were entertained by that?! Barbarians!

February 6, 2005: Dynasty. It’s something that’s not supposed to happen in the NFL. The league is designed around the concept of parity. 3 Super Bowls in 4 years? Unheard of. Unheard of, that is, until Tom Brady and Bill Belichick became the ultimate football pair.

We’re not getting anywhere. In fact, football seems like a terrible creation, a blight to be eliminated from a refined society. So let’s talk about something else. Why do we love art? Is it because it looks beautiful? Of course that must be part of it, but I think there’s something deeper. A Picasso painting isn’t beautiful in the common sense of the word, but we still find something about it enticing. It’s unique. Something nobody else in the world could have done. All forms of entertainment share this characteristic. They appeal to us in a purely materialistic sense – because we like what we see and hear. But they also offer us a glimpse at the incredible person behind the creation.

February 1, 2004: Tie game with 4 seconds left. For any normal person the pressure would be suffocating. For Adam Vinatieri it’s just another day at the office. Statisticians say “clutch” doesn’t actually exist. Obviously they haven’t met Mr. Clutch himself.

No other human being on the planet could make the catches made by Odell Beckham. Nobody else can throw a Hail Mary like Aaron Rodgers. To be the absolute best at something, anything, is an experience the vast majority of us can never have (to quote Homer Simpson: “No matter how good you are at something, there’s always about a million people better than you”). But we absolutely love watching those that can. Football offers an opportunity for people to be great. And we love greatness. We love seeing people dedicating their lives to something, becoming the best they can possibly be.

February 3, 2002: The Greatest Show on Turf against a no-name backup quarterback. Nobody gave him a chance. Even with the game tied late in the 4th quarter, the announcers count him out. Just take a knee and play for overtime says John Madden. Instead, he leads the team down the field and Vinatieri splits the uprights for the victory. 

We love the stories. Teams on the brink of defeat that never give up and come through with a win. Players that are counted out from the beginning but show up every day determined to prove the world wrong. And these stories are driven by talented individuals pushing themselves to the limits, breaking the boundaries of what people thought was possible.

February 5, 2017: 28-3. Few Super Bowls have been so one-sided. One team has dominated on both sides of the ball. Their quarterback has a perfect passer rating. Their defense puts pressure on the QB despite lockdown coverage in the secondary. No team has ever come back from more than 10 in a Super Bowl. But no other team has had Tom Brady.

A Picasso painting. A Mozart symphony. A Spielberg film. And a Tom Brady Super Bowl? Many will say I’m crazy to put these in the same category, but I find it hard to find a good reason why they shouldn’t be. The product is different and whether people appreciate one form over another will always come down to a subjective value judgement. Some people are bored to tears by museums. Others can’t stand watching sports. But the final product is less important than the once in a lifetime talent and dedication that created it.

April 16, 2000: With the 199th pick in the NFL draft, the New England Patriots draft Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. Nobody knows it yet, but he’s destined to become the best quarterback of all time, a symbol of everything we love about the game of football.

Welcome

Welcome to the Pretense of Knowledge! I started this blog primarily for my own benefit – to organize my thoughts and polish my writing – but I hope you will find something interesting to read here as well. The main focus of most posts will be on economics, but I also plan to write on politics, philosophy, and occasionally throw in a couple posts on sports and entertainment.

Since my site shares its title with F.A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize speech, you may have already guessed that I approach most topics from a Hayekian libertarian perspective. If you don’t know what that means, here or here might be a good place to start (and if you’re feeling more adventurous try this). Essentially, it means that I won’t be voting for either Clinton or Trump in November. It means that I think markets work well most of the time and that when they don’t the government still tends to make things worse. And it means that I think the American military is about five times larger than necessary, that we should be knocking down walls rather than building new ones, and that politicians shouldn’t have anything to do with what you do in your bedroom or what you put into your body.

But besides paying my respects to Hayek, the title “the pretense of knowledge” has a deeper meaning for this blog. In his speech, Hayek criticized the arrogance of economists who believed that their knowledge was so great that they could make numerical predictions with accuracy comparable to the physical sciences. Instead, he urged the social scientist to recognize the “insuperable limits to his knowledge.” In my writing I will attempt to adhere to that philosophy. I have no doubt that a large proportion of the ideas I present turn out to be totally wrong and I fully expect in two years (or two months) I will look back on my early posts in disgust. So if you disagree with something I say, tell me why in the comments and try to keep an open mind. Hopefully, we will be able to learn from each other.

Over the next couple days I will have posts coming out about Hayek’s economics, about why 2016 is the best year yet, and about free will vs determinism. I also plan to do a series of posts criticizing modern macroeconomics and will likely have some smaller posts as well.

Thanks for reading!

Chris