Why the NBA Needs to Change Draft Lottery for the Integrity of the Game

The draft lottery may have been a good idea, but once teams tank to get a better chance for that No. 1 pick, it is time to rethink the approach.
The draft lottery may have been a good idea, but once teams tank to get a better chance for that No. 1 pick, it is time to rethink the approach.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Kurt JonkeContributor IIIDecember 30, 2013

The NBA needs to address the problems the draft lottery creates. The current system rewards teams for losing more than others, making a mockery of the original idea of sports and threatening the integrity of the league. Unless this is addressed soon, the NBA—and basketball as a whole—will suffer.

The writing has been on the wall for some time now.

In fact, the ink has dried, faded and been retraced over and over again. Let's have a look at why the lottery was introduced in the first place.

Hakeem Olajuwon is considered one of the best centers of all time. Tanking 1983-84 paid off big for the Rockets.
Hakeem Olajuwon is considered one of the best centers of all time. Tanking 1983-84 paid off big for the Rockets.Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It was implemented in 1985 after the NBA decided that too many teams tried to lose on purpose to get a better draft pick. The 1983-84 Houston Rockets, for example, were thought to have tanked in order to obtain the No. 1 pick, a certain Hakeem Olajuwon.

For the first couple of years, this lottery gave each non-playoff team the same chance to obtain the first draft pick. Playoff teams would receive picks in reverse order of their win-loss records.

In subsequent years, the lottery only applied to the three worst teams. This meant that being really bad paid off, compared to trying to reach the playoffs but coming up shy. This could actually be seen as a step backward.


Since 1990, the NBA has used a weighted draft lottery.

Basically, the worse a team was during the regular season, the higher the chances to obtain the first pick. The worst team has a 25 percent chance to come away with the top pick, while the best non-playoff team has a 0.5 percent chance. If you want to learn more about how the current system works, I heartily recommend reading our own Alex Kay's article.

With the worst team having a 25 percent chance for No. 1, it is not hard to understand why a franchise would like to lose more games than everyone else once it is clear it won't be a title contender.

Keep in mind that the fourth-worst team has already less than half the chance of the worst team to get that desired first pick.

Jeff Goodman of ESPN quoted an anonymous GM:

Our team isn't good enough to win and we know it. So this season we want to develop and evaluate our young players, let them learn from their mistakes -- and get us in position to grab a great player. The best way for us to do that is to lose a lot of games. This draft is loaded. There are potential All-Stars at the top, maybe even franchise changers. Sometimes my job is to understand the value of losing.

And from the management's point of view, it makes complete sense. If your team cannot compete, why even try? If your squad manages to play its heart out each game and ends up fighting for that final playoff spot, you know two things for sure:

—It won't compete for the NBA title.

—It won't be in a better position the upcoming season.

Unless a team in the bottom of the playoff spots manages to sign a great free agent or pull off some first-class trade, it will be stuck in limbo the next season. But which superstar or hopeful talent would choose to go to such a team?

We have seen time and time again that star players rather choose to leave those teams to join a title contender.

LeBron James' drive to win championships took him from Cleveland to Miami.
LeBron James' drive to win championships took him from Cleveland to Miami.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Just look at one of the absolute superstars in today's league: LeBron James. After seasons of playoff frustration with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he decided to leave the Cavs for the Miami Heat to win some championships.

Why would someone like James decide to join a team like Detroit, Denver, Minnesota or Cleveland? They are all struggling to get to the playoffs, they don't have a big-market appeal—and the weather is probably not a selling point either.

Before the Miami Heat's Big Three, the Boston Celtics had their own version. And they managed to pull it off in a much more impressive way than the Heat, when you think about it.

The Celts finished 24-58 in 2006, the second-worst record in the NBA. They subsequently traded their pick, Jeff Green, along with other players to acquire Ray Allen. Another huge trade secured Kevin Garnett, and the Boston Three Party would win the championship the very next season.

But what about teams without the history of the Celtics or the Lakers? What about teams not considered title contenders? What about teams without big salary-cap space?

Their only chance is the draft. Their only chance is to lose. And they need to lose big to get a good pick.


Why should anyone care about this?

It is quite simple: As fans of the sport, we want to be entertained. We want to see players—but in the end also coaches and management—compete to their fullest level. If we feel that a team is losing on purpose, what is the point of watching it play?

It is actually not that much different than rigged games.

World football has suffered immensely over the past few years due to bribed players and officials. If a player missed a wide-open goal 10 years ago, fans were annoyed but put it off to the ball taking a bad bounce before the contact—or simply the player having a mental lapse.

Nowadays, every mistake a player makes will be scrutinized. Discussions among fans will focus on whether or not it may have been on purpose.

Shockingly, this is not just a problem isolated to a few leagues; it is also a concern for World Cup matches, as per The Telegraph.

Do we want this to happen to basketball? Do we want this to happen to the NBA?

As long as there are incentives to lose, this problem will persist. For world football, the incentive was as mundane as it gets: money.

For the NBA, the incentive doesn't seem that mundane at first—but first looks can deceive. Eventually, this also boils down to money. Lose a lot, get a good pick, draft a franchise player and compete for a championship a couple of years down the road.

A franchise player means new merchandise to be sold.

Without Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder would not be a legitimate title contender.
Without Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder would not be a legitimate title contender.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

We all know the craze some of the players in past years have started, be it LBJ, be it Dwight Howard, be it Kevin Durant. For example, Andrew Wiggins is already being hailed as the next superstar. He will be hyped even more via media by whichever team ends up drafting him.

Apart from individual marketability, the simple fact that a team has started being competitive draws more fan interest, more demand for tickets and merchandise.

What this all translates into is more money.

Money for losing the season(s) before.


The follow-up article offers and discusses various alternatives to the current draft lottery.


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