The NBA lottery and its side-effects

NBA lottery
The NBA draft lottery has caused some unwanted side effects, as many teams tank their seasons.

The NBA is a superstar-driven league, and one of the fastest ways to procure such a franchise building block can be through the draft. Every star has to be drafted, and being near the top of the lottery increases teams’ chances of landing a Tim Duncan or a Michael Jordan. So while you can get stars outside of the top five picks (Dirk Nowitzki was picked ninth, Paul Pierce was picked 10th and Kobe Bryant was picked 13th), in general the better players will go earlier in the draft.

Since 1990, the draft lottery has been such that the 14 teams that missed the playoffs that year are considered, with the team with the worst record having a 25 percent chance of receiving the first overall draft pick, second worst having a 20 percent chance, third having 15.5 percent and so on, incrementally decreasing until the team with the best record outside of the playoffs has a 0.5 percent chance of landing the top pick. Only the top three picks are lotteried, with the remaining teams selecting in inverse order of their record, meaning that the worst team in the league cannot land any spot worse than fourth. The idea is to get the better players onto the lesser teams in order to increase league competitive parity and improve consistently awful teams. This can often work, as teams, given the right general manager, a good year and a bit of luck, can rise out of irrelevancy into title contention. The Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Durant), Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan) and San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan) are perfect examples of building through the draft.

There have been some unwanted side effects, however, due to the importance placed on a top five pick (and especially the top pick), as teams in order to have the best possible chance at that all-star building block. Recently and infamously, the Philadelphia 76ers gutted their roster of all its veteran, quality NBA talent, trading Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young for bona fide D-league talents and no-name players in the hopes of simply being bad enough to land a franchise changer. At the same time, Milwaukee, Orlando, Utah, Boston and the L.A. Lakers were racing towards this dubious “finish line.”  While this strategy has some merit, it leads to very low-quality basketball, disappointed fan bases and often toxic organizations with no incentive to play, win or entertain.

There have been several critiques of tanking and the system as a whole by fans, media and even NBA executives, with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban among the most vocal. As a result of these complaints, the NBA has seen a series of reform proposals, all aimed to incentivize teams not to throw seasons away before they’ve started and keep playing for the playoffs. On October 22, the GMs voted down a new proposal for lottery reform. This proposal would have had interesting implications.

How would this radical proposal eliminate tanking? Instead of only the top three picks being lotteried, with the rest being in order from worst record to best, the lottery would include the six top picks, with the worst overall team getting no worse than seventh place. Additionally the top four teams would have an equal, 12 percent chance of winning the top pick and the best four non-playoff teams (who now have almost no shot at a top three pick) would have a 13 percent chance of landing in the top three picks.

What does this mean? Theoretically it would lessen the incentive to be the worst team in the league, as instead of being almost guaranteed a top pick, there would be almost as good a chance of landing the seventh pick and thus the cost of losing fans, respect and games would not be worth the chance of winning the lottery. Also, it incentivizes teams to stay in the playoff hunt for longer. The last couple of years, teams would compete through around 30-40 games and, if at that point they were not in the playoffs, would trade away key players in the hope of landing a better draft pick. A team like Phoenix, who was in the race until the final day of the regular season, ended up losing out a lot more than a team like Milwaukee who, once they realized they were bad anyway, lost nearly every game and ended up with a potential all-star in Jabari Parker. Within the new system Phoenix could win 48 games and still have a 13 percent chance of drafting in the top six.

This would seem like a positive development and NBA reporter Zach Lowe, before the voting, even expected a 29-1 result. However, 13 teams voted against the reform. One might have presumed that it was the smaller-market teams and worse squads that voted against the reform, but Chicago, Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City also voted “no”. Most of this was allegedly because several teams began to wonder about “unintended consequences” and wanted to do further study, but one GM reasoned that teams like the current system because they can “still be as shitty as possible” if the need arises.

Both these reasons are valid, as there is definitely comfort and safety in knowing that no matter how disastrous a season they endure, there’s a good chance of a light at the end of the tunnel. Also no decision in sports, financial or otherwise, goes without side effects. However, on the surface, this reform seems like a solid way to tackle the recent trend towards further polarization of the league standings, with the bottommost teams falling out and the top teams rising. We as fans, all want to see better basketball, and this reform seems like a positive inevitability towards that end.

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