No league is associated with tanking more than the NBA. The art of purposefully throwing terrible teams onto the court in order to get a better draft pick and, in theory, a better player. On January 5th, 2015, Philadelphia 76ers guard Tony Wroten gave this philosophy a name when he said three fateful words: “Trust the Process”. It’s been both a meme and a rallying cry, but is it true? Should you really trust the process? Is tanking worth it? I looked back at the last decade of drafts in order to find out.
I took a look at the top ten picks in every draft from 2010-2019 and based on their stats, number of all-star and all-NBA team appearances and knowledge of each player’s individual context, decided whether each pick was great, fine, or a bust. I was incredibly lenient with more recent players because calling a guy in his third season a bust is a little ridiculous. 2019 is also the most recent draft with players who are having a huge impact on the league, with guys like Ja Morant and Darius Garland leading surprising playoff pushes. Taking all of this into account, the results were fascinating.
So, should we trust the process? The short answer is: kind of? In terms of picking in the top 10, it’s a total coin flip. Out of the 100 players considered, 24 end up being great, 25 were fine, and 51 were complete busts. After a bad season, your team has a 50/50 shot of adding a player that will be a valuable contributor to your team. If your team is already terrible, then those odds are fine. Are those odds enough to break up a team that’s having some success? Maybe. The Treadmill of Mediocrity is a real problem, but your chances of catapulting to the top after one draft aren’t good. There is a great advanced metric for NBA players known as VORP, which stands for “value over replacement player.” A player with a VORP of 0 is an average guy that any team could sign for a relatively small amount of money, guys like Tyler Zeller and Austin Daye. These are names that diehard fans will recognize but are completely foreign to casual viewers. Out of the 100 players in this sample, 32 of them have a career VORP below 0. Let that number sink in for a second. With a top 10 pick, an organization has a 1 in 3 chance of picking a player that will have a negative impact on their team. Picking in the top 10 is a total crapshoot, so The Process has to be a failure, right? Well, there’s one exception.
There is a stark difference between holding a top 3 pick and a top 10 pick. All the top 3 picks in this sample have vastly outperformed the other 70 players combined. They are the cream of the crop in today’s NBA. Top 3 picks have a combined 48 All-Star appearances. The rest have just 28, and Damian Lillard and Paul George alone account for nearly half of them (13). Top 3 picks have made a combined 18 All-NBA teams, an even more exclusive honor. The rest are close with 17, but Lillard and George supplied an even larger share here (12). Having better odds of landing a great player with one of the top picks isn’t shocking, but that’s not all. The chances of a top 3 pick flaming out are much lower as well. Of the 32 players with a negative VORP, 4 of them were picked in the top 3. However, 3 of those are under the age of 23 and have more than enough time to grow into productive players. The other is Anthony Bennett, aka the biggest NBA draft bust of all time. Even still, nearly every season, without fail, one of the top 3 picks ends up being a bust. But hey, everyone knows that a 66 and two-thirds percent chance of winning is better than a 50 percent chance of wining. The numbers don’t lie.
So, circling back to the main question: should you trust the process? Yes, you should. Tanking doesn’t guarantee success, but if you get a little bit of luck and end up in the top 3 it’ll all be worth it. And with the new lottery odds the NBA implemented in 2019, those chances are even better. Teams 5-14 now all have a better shot at ending up in the top 3 than before. The league said they were changing the odds in order to discourage tanking, but that’s not the whole truth. Borderline teams now have even more of an incentive to lose a few extra games. All the new odds discourage is a team fighting to be the worst in the league. They don’t prevent tanking; they just prevent teams from being an embarrassment to the league like the 76ers were in the early days of The Process. If your team can’t seem to get over the hump, then why not take a chance? Trusting the Process is the best hope you’ve got.