Tanking in the NBA: How Oddsmakers, Sports Bettors Respond When Teams Don’t Try

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Professional athletes are supposed to try to win because that’s their job. Professional sports franchises are supposed to try to win because owners sell that dream to fans with every ticket or piece of logo apparel.

NBA players break this covenant because their franchises dictate it. Often. And blatantly. Sometimes it’s in the name of “load management”, where players rest for more important games. Sometimes it’s in the supposed macro pursuit of draft positioning that could lead to some future moment when winning a championship is attainable enough to be desirable.

Neither players nor owners accept any responsibility for the fortunes of sports bettors. They shouldn’t. And it shows.

“It’s definitely something to be hyper-vigilant about … We don’t enjoy the tanking aspect of the NBA or any other sport for that matter.”

— Chris Bennett, Director of Risk, Circa Sports

From Champion of Integrity to League of Tanking

The NBA once foisted protecting the integrity of its product as a reason not to allow the spread of legal sports betting. The league also posited that sportsbooks should be required to purchase official league data or pay so-called “integrity fees” to assure that legitimacy.

The NBA doesn’t outwardly embrace this era of tactical surrender, not after fining Dallas $750,000 for  tanking “conduct detrimental to the league” in April. But with the NBA Lottery system doing little to dissuade teams to play the odds and pay the fine, it must be resigned to this reality.

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Certainly, the NBA’s problems have more to do with fan outrage after the Mavericks sat five starters to improve their draft stock with a spot in the playoffs within reach. So many teams have done it, admitted it — the 76ers branding it “The Process” — that reconciling it is part of NBA fandom.

A new MLB collective bargaining agreement attempts to prevent teams from building cheap, uncompetitive rosters, and the NHL also has a draft lottery. Unlike the NBA, those sports and NFL sometimes leave their skulduggery to roster construction likely to produce losing records. It’s a tougher case to penalize a team for assembling a putrid group of athletes than blatantly benching stars.

Tanking a Part of Modern Sports Betting Experience

A league that is already known as one of the most difficult to book or bet has taken on an annoying new variable for those on both sides of the wager.

“The NBA, it’s quite the product. It’s one of the sports that’s exceptionally difficult to book, just from the perspective that most of the line moves are injury-driven,” Circa Sports operations manager Jeff Benson told Gaming Today. “The NBA’s such a difficult game, particularly as you get to the latter half of the year, where people are tanking.

“You go into a Friday afternoon and LeBron [James] and [Anthony Davis] are questionable, and it’s kind of that balancing act of, ‘if they’re questionable, a 50/50 split of what the number would be if they were in versus if they were out.’ Then obviously you have [bettors] who are going to beat you to that information once it’s announced, and you’re going to get a flood of bets that move the number quite a bit.”

Benson said the Play-In Tournament “has thrown a loop in that as well.”

Dallas’ maneuver allowed it to finish the regular season with the tenth-worst win percentage and tenth-best percentage chance (3%) of landing the No. 1 selection in the NBA Draft on May 16. Also, the Mavericks would have to send their first-rounder to New York to complete the 2019 Kristaps Porzingis trade if it falls outside the top 10. Chicago has the 11th-best chance at No. 1 at only 1.8% chance.

Machinations similar to the Mavericks’ haven’t been proven to happen in the NFL. There have been lots of times it looked like it, though.

Notably, the league concluded that the Dolphins didn’t “Tank for Tua” in 2019 despite the accusations of a former coach.

Last year, now-former Houston head coach Lovie Smith shot an anti-tank missile into the Texans’ designs on the No. 1 pick with an upset win in Week 18. The Bears lost the final 10 games of the season to ‘earn’ the pick and trade it to Carolina for a passel of picks and a player.

“An NFL game, if you’re not outside of maybe the last week or so, you’re not going to sit an Aaron Rodgers, you’re not going to sit a Pat Mahomes down the stretch — like the Blazers shutting down [Damian] Lillard with two or three weeks left in the season — and things like that,” Benson said. “It’s just stuff you don’t really see in a lot of other sports.”

When the Front Office Doesn’t Want to Win, But the Subs Do

Sports and sports betting is supposed to be predicated on everyone trying to win. Things get complicated when only some want to win, as in the bench players trying very hard for their own reasons, even if the front office is already dreaming of its chances of landing Victor Wembanyama in the Draft Lottery.

“It’s a challenge for sure where you have some of these games and the team is a 17-point underdog, and it’s like, ‘Well how are they going to win because upper management doesn’t want to win? But the back half of the roster, those guys are going to go out there and try,” Circa director of risk Chris Bennett said. “The Blazers beat the Timberwolves this year as like a 17-point underdog, and it was like the worst players on the Blazers team. So I don’t really know or worry too much about those players not trying or committing fouls late in the game to help the team lose.

“We had a situation with the Mavericks and Bulls at the end of the season, and the Mavericks didn’t play their best players even though they were still eligible for the playoffs, for the Play-In. And that line moved a ton. So it’s definitely something to be hyper-vigilant about, and I’m not the NBA guy. I almost never book an NBA game, but I can appreciate how difficult it is, and yeah, we don’t enjoy the tanking aspect of the NBA or any other sport for that matter.”

Bettors Also Still Trying to Figure Out How to Mitigate Tanking, Load Management

Reddit user AdamBetsSports noted in a post discussing load management and tanking, “there’s lots of examples from this season alone of teams winning without their stars present.”

Reddit-sports-bettor-tanking

Basketball (pro + college) comprises a nation-high 35% of the American sports betting handle, according to estimates. So this is just something everyone has to deal with, said Westgate SuperBook Vice President of Risk Ed Salmons. He sees a more systemic problem than tanking.

“The tanking part doesn’t matter because it’s just all these stupid injuries or not injuries … this load management nonsense,” he said. “I’ve never seen a softer generation than what’s going on right now. It’s absolutely absurd, but it is just part of the game now.

“And it’s NBA, so you have to deal with it. If you don’t, how do you book the NBA? I mean, now you get ‘so-and-so missed morning shoot around,’ the line changes … and then by the afternoon he’s warming up, he’s going to play. Line goes back a point.”

Gaming Today Senior Writer Kris Johnson contributed to this report.

About the Author
Brant James

Brant James

Senior Writer
Brant James is a senior writer who covers the sports betting industry and legislation at Gaming Today. An alum of the Tampa Bay Times, ESPN.com, espnW, SI.com, and USA Today, he's covered motorsports and the NHL as beats. He also once made a tail-hook landing on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rode to the top of Mt. Washington with Travis Pastrana. John Tortorella has yelled at him numerous times.

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