While the concept of tanking gets plenty of ink in NBA circles, the league has a more specific problem in that vicinity due to the rules concerning pick protection. While the Sixers may be an example of a team just not choosing to re-build quickly, very strong and narrow incentives can have a greater impact on competitive balance. As an example, I covered the Golden State Warriors in 2011-12 when they only retained their pick if it fell in the top seven. Once their unreasonable playoff dream died the team did what they could to keep their selection including shelving their top players ahead of time.
I wanted to take the time to go through RealGM’s excellent pick protection page and detail the potential first round pick protection issues that could rear their head this season, ranked in order of overall impact (likelihood and significance, basically). While pick swaps can change the way teams play since it eliminates the benefit of excessive losing, I chose not to include them since playing with an indifference to losing works very differently than the incentives for teams like the 2011-12 Warriors.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Do not swap their pick with the Chicago Bulls if 1-14 (otherwise Chicago can choose to swap): While prohibitively unlikely with the best talent in their conference, the wheels falling off the Cavs train for this year due to several injuries could force a fascinating choice since falling to the 9th or 10th place spot in the East would lead to retaining a much better choice than a low seed in the post-season. Unlikely but compelling scenario.
- Houston Rockets: Retain their first rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Los Angeles Lakers): The Rockets got lottery protection on the pick they sent to the Lakers in exchange for L.A. taking on the final season of Jeremy Lin’s contract, but it would be hard to imagine that the team would choose missing the playoffs over making them. The protection works more as a silver lining in this specific circumstance.
- Memphis Grizzlies: Retain their first rounder if 1-5 or 15-30 (otherwise it goes to Cleveland): In January 2013, the Grizzlies sent this protected pick to the Cavs as a sweetener to take on enough salary to get Memphis under the luxury tax. It has the top and bottom protection for this season and next then becomes a more traditional 1-5 protected in 2017 and 2018 if not conveyed by then. In this case, I would expect the restrictions to actually serve as a double punishment for the Grizzlies since it would take a ton to get their pick into the top five. The Grizzlies have plenty of incentive greater than this pick to make the playoffs again.
- New Orleans Pelicans: Retain their first rounder if 1-3 or 20-30 (otherwise it goes to Houston): As long as Anthony Davis stays reasonably healthy, this one should follow the same path as Memphis’ choice where the team is too good to have their pick fall on the top end and would not prioritize keeping the pick over making the playoffs or playoff seeding. The Pelicans’ pick becomes a little more dynamic because of the 20-30 protection rather than the 15-30 playoff team protection- it could turn out that New Orleans wanting to duck a specific first round opponent (the other major impetus for the truly harmful tanking) could coincide with this incentive considering the strength of the Western Conference.
- Philadelphia 76ers: Retain their first rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Boston Celtics): While it looks like a foregone conclusion at this point, losing a first round pick by making the playoffs this year and replacing it with two second round picks did create a clear incentive for the Sixers to avoid making a push this season. Probably not a major factor in what happened but likely a consideration.
- Miami Heat: Retain their first rounder if 1-10 (otherwise it goes to Philadelphia): Astonishingly, LeBron James affected this pick two separate times as it was originally compensation to the Cavaliers as a part of the sign and trade that brought him to South Beach and the Cavs sent it to Philadelphia as a key piece of the Kevin Love trade when LeBron returned. Having only top 10 instead of top 14 protection likely does not matter much here as the “best” non-playoff teams in the East have been very close to top-10 picks due to the quality disparity between the two conferences. In what would have to be close to a worst case scenario for the Heat, the team could have a huge reason to lose their last few games if they get knocked out of post-season contention late in the year.
- Minnesota Timberwolves: Retain their first rounder if 1-12 (otherwise it goes to Phoenix): We have already done this dance and could be doing it again this year depending on how the Wolves fare with their interesting roster. While most expect Minnesota to take a step back from the 14th-worst record last year (and #13 pick), this protection could be a factor late in the 2014-15 season if Minnesota has a better than expected year but still falls outside of the stacked top eight in the West.
- Sacramento Kings: Retain their first rounder if 1-10 (otherwise it goes to Chicago): If the Kings fall out of the playoff picture, I am fully confident they will make sure they retain this selection and hope to do better the following season. This pick has top-ten protection for three more seasons and then becomes a second rounder in 2017, so we could see the same general path as last year happen up to three more times depending on how Sacramento progresses.
- Lakers: Retain their first rounder if 1-5 (otherwise it goes to the Phoenix Suns): The biggest protection issue going into the season by far. After striking out on the impact free agents this summer, the Lakers look to be out of the playoff picture for the 2014-15 season and thus have a clear incentive to keep their own lottery pick. This pressure gets even stronger if they have the belief that the Summer of 2015 will be more fruitful since they would be adding a better young piece and sending away a worse pick in 2016. The dueling pressures of winning in one of Kobe Bryant’s last seasons and adding a key piece for their future will be a major storyline to watch all year.