What are Tombstone Wins?
Tom Ziller mentioned my crusade to get the NBA to adopt "tombstone wins" as their method of allocating draft lottery odds in his newsletter but also pointed out that there's little information on the Internet about what tombstone wins are. Whenever I mention it I get people asking what they are, so here's an explainer on the proposed system and some of the positives and negatives.
History and Credit
I remember seeing message board topics on the concept back into the 2000's but the earliest "official" discussion I know of is from the 2012 Sloan Conference where Adam Gold presented it with NHL data.
It was also raised by Brett Schwab when 538 put out a call for suggestions on how to curb NBA tanking in 2015.
How The General Plan Works
The NBA's current system allocates lottery odds by full season losses, which incentivizes franchises to lose in many circumstances.
Tombstone wins instead allocates lottery odds by how many games a team wins after a specified negative milestone. Traditionally this milestone has been "when a team is officially eliminated from the playoffs" (the day their season dies and they have their tombstone etched) but that causes some issues and so I prefer a simpler event like "after a team's 41st loss."
The idea is to still provide assistance to bad teams but only through their honest efforts at winning games. Bad teams will have more opportunities to gain tombstone wins but they have to actually compete in those games to earn the reward.
My Specific Proposal
The draft lottery continues to be a random drawing from 1,000 possible combinations where each eligible team is allocated a pool of combinations. The top four slots in the first round of the draft are determined by lottery; draft slots 5-30 are slotted based on descending full season record.
Given a 30 team league divided into two playoff conferences playing 82 games where the top six teams in each conference advance to the playoffs and teams 7-10 enter a play-in tournament, draft lottery odds will be allocated as follows:
The eight teams in the play-in tournaments each receive 10 lottery combinations, regardless of if they advance to the full playoffs
The ten teams that fail to qualify for the playoffs or play-in each receive 20 combinations
The remaining 720 combinations are allocated among the teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs after the play-in based on how many games a team won following their 41st loss, expressed as a percentage of total qualifying wins from the pool of non-playoff teams
For example, if a team starts the season 11-41, they have 30 games to wrack up wins that count towards their lottery odds. If they go 15-15 in those games, their lottery combinations count would be 20 (for missing the play-in) + (720 * (15 / total NBA tombstone wins)).
I can't foresee how our last 82 game season (2018-19) would have played out under this system, but the teams that ended up losing 41+ games would have had 211 total chances to go for tombstone wins. A lot of those games are against each other but we're still adding a lot of games where at least one franchise that had little incentive to win before now has a significant one.
There is no perfect system for allocating odds so let's start with the problems in this system.
Incentivizes Some Early/Mid Season Losing
Our goal is to incentivize winning as much as possible but this system could lead teams to trying to lose early season games instead. I think it's much harder for franchises to sell the idea of trying to lose from the start of the season, and it would be difficult to build a team that can race to 41 losses and then flip a switch and start winning, but teams may try. Without question, I think there would be a small number of mid-season games where franchise executives are happy to lose.
One way that teams could "race" to 41 losses is by slowing the rehab of injured players early in the season but again this is hard to manipulate. It would require a team with a player good enough to significantly add late season but who is injured and on a team planning on missing the playoffs. If the player is that good their team should be trying to make the playoffs and if they're not that good, it doesn't make much of a difference.
This system makes it an advantage to have your difficult games early if you're a bad team. Those games will help you get to 41 losses and then you also pivot to easier games where you can add incremental tombstone wins over teams with the inverse schedule balance.
There can be situations where a team has traded their pick to their opponent and their opponent has not reached their 41st loss yet and so the team that owns the pick is incentivized to lose the game. A team that has traded their pick may also be indifferent towards winning or even want to lose some games for public relations reasons, though both of these circumstances are still far less than the number of loss incentives we currently have.
The system is not as easy for fans to understand as the current one and doesn't present simply in a standings table.
Free Agent / Trade Market
All sports leagues have recognized that player movement drives a lot of their engagement. Big free agency stories get more coverage than stories about what's happening in The Finals.
Switching to tombstone wins will change the dynamics in player movement. It's not necessarily a bad change but it's different and different can be scary for multi-billion dollar leagues and their multi-billion dollar media partners. The trade deadline would become a massive Seller's Market. Free agency would change to where nearly every team is always competing for players who are at least good. In both instances, teams that have traded their pick and so are free to become sellers could have a major advantage in the market.
I think this competition would ultimately be beneficial for the league as a whole but would make the formation of super teams more difficult and super teams also drive engagement.
This system is slightly better for balancing conferences over time. The current system rewards bad teams in the stronger conference because they play a greater percentage of their games against better teams. The result of that is a tilting of more elite young talent into the conference that is already better. Tombstone wins does something to reverse that because the bad teams in a strong conference may get to 41 losses sooner but then have to play more difficult opponents for their tombstone wins.
Yes, at the end you can be off by a combination due to rounding. You just have to figure it out.
Sports provide entertainment through competition. True competition only exists when both teams are trying their best to win. In the NBA's current system there are far too many games where at least one franchise has no clear incentive to win and, in many case, has an incentive to lose. The tombstone wins system, paired with the play-in tournament and a "choose your opponent" benefit for top seeds, would create a season where a significantly higher percentage of games are being contested between two franchises with incentives to win. This will result in a stronger league providing a better product to its customers on a more consistent basis.