The NBA Draft Lottery Works Again, Almost

Raymond SummerlinContributor IMay 19, 2009

NEW YORK - JUNE 26: NBA Commissioner David Stern speaks during the 2008 NBA Draft at the Wamu Theatre at Madison Square Garden June 26, 2008 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

I will always be the first to criticize David Stern and his Stalin like management style, but one of the best institutions created under his watch is the NBA Draft Lottery.  The Draft Lottery, in use since 1985, provides a clever solution to a problem in all drafts whose order is based on the previous year’s record.

In order to retain some form of parity, a league has to somehow give bad teams a chance to improve, and most do it by offering the worst team by record the first pick, the second worst by record the second pick, and so on.  What’s the problem?  This system of rewarding the worst encourages “tanking” at the end of the season to improve your draft status.

Tanking, however, in the NBA is not a viable option.  Sure, you might get a 25% chance to win the first pick, but you have a 75% chance of not getting the first pick.  In fact, in the last 15 years, only two teams with the worst record have received the first pick in the draft.  Interestingly enough, it happened two years in a row, 2003 and 2004.

If you look at the last 15 years, the best place to be might be the third worst record.  The team with the third best chance to gain the first pick has received the number one five times, which works out to one third of the time. The trend continued this year when the Clippers were rewarded with the first pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.

The Clippers receiving the number one spot is a bit of a failure for the lottery, considering they only won four games over the last two months of the season, but the number two and three picks went to teams that played hard until the end of the season.

The Grizzlies, picking second, won nine games in March and April, almost 38% of the total number of wins Memphis had all year.

Oklahoma City did even better, winning 39% of the games they won last year in the last two months.

It is refreshing that these two teams, who clearly did not lie down at the end of the year, were rewarded with the number two and three picks while the Kings, who also only won four games during the last two months, will be sitting in the fourth spot.

It is the kind of justice you do not often see in a world where a hard working single mom has to work two jobs to feed her children, while a useless son of rich parents does not have to do an honest day’s work his entire life, and that justice tastes sweet.