The Houston Rockets are in pole position to finish with the worst record in the NBA for the third consecutive season. No team in NBA history has ever threepeated at the bottom, and it’s certainly the type of history that no franchise wants to make. However, the NBA, unlike life, handsomely rewards its biggest losers.
The NBA Draft is about rewarding losers
The NBA draft makes losing a worthy endeavor. If you go through NBA history, the number of Hall of Famers drafted with the first five picks dwarfs any other contiguous five-pick grouping. The worse you are, the more access you have to the best young talent. And if you’re bad for long enough, eventually, you won’t be bad anymore.
Due to the clear advantages losing at the highest level can have, NBA teams have gone to great lengths to rack up losses throughout the years. Some franchises’ blatant level of “tanking” has enraged the fans and media and forced the league to step in to allegedly curb the practice.
Why tanking remains so important
The result was the NBA draft lottery in the 80s, which didn’t solve the problem, and then changing the draft lottery odds, which still didn’t solve the problem. The reason why the draft lottery didn’t solve tanking is the exact reason why the Rockets finishing with the worst record is so beneficial.
When the NBA adjusted the draft lottery odds in 2019, it gave the teams with the three worst records equal odds at securing the first overall pick. When viewing the draft through the prism of the first pick, finishing with the worst record doesn’t appear to have any additional benefit. But that line of thinking doesn’t capture the entire picture.
The NBA draft, as it was before the lottery system, is still tied to team record. The team with the worst record can finish with no worse than the fifth pick, and the second-worst record has a floor of the sixth pick and on down. Guaranteeing a top-five pick, compared to a top-six pick, might not seem like much, but history suggests the drop between the fifth and sixth pick is significant.
Among draftees between 1976 and 2020, picks two through five produce at least two standard deviations more career win shares than an average player, compared to picks six through ten being under two standard deviations and most being closer to one. In non-mathy terms, the difference between having a top-five pick and a pick between six and ten is worth close to 20 wins.
If the Rockets win too much, all of the losing could be for nothing
The benefit of the Rockets setting the wrong type of history has nothing to do with maximizing upside and everything to do with minimizing downside. The draft is all about hope, and naturally, fans dream about the best possible outcome. While landing Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson would make all of the losing worth it, finishing with the second-worst record and falling to the sixth pick (a one-in-five outcome) would see the Rockets’ chances at an All-Star diminish significantly.
As the Rockets take on the San Antonio Spurs on a Saturday in early March, the fans are hoping for a win. That win won’t bring them out of the basement, but it’ll move them to within striking distance. However, a loss to the Spurs would dramatically increase the Rockets’ odds of finishing with the worst record. When the ball tips off tonight, root for the Rockets to play hard, play well, and still lose.