NBA Draft Lottery: 7 Alternatives to Consider
The NBA draft lottery was implemented in 1985 to keep teams from losing on purpose. However, it doesn't do its job effectively. Some teams unable to compete for the title choose to tank a season, hoping to finish with a bad enough record to qualify for a top pick. But is there a better alternative?
On the following slides we will take a look at various options. Some are based on the idea of a weighted lottery, some are pure lottery, but there are also solutions that take out the luck component completely, like the salary-based draft, the wheel of destiny or even a draft tournament.
While they differ greatly in their approaches and effects, they have one thing in common: None of them is perfect by any means. They all have their flaws.
The question is, which one is the least flawed in the sense that it neither encourages losing, nor keeps currently bad teams from eventually becoming competitive.
For example, the original draft system before 1985 was simple, yet it had a major flaw: The teams would draft in reverse order of win-loss records. We can all agree that this would promote losing on purpose even more than the current version.
Vice versa, drafting in the order of win-loss records would mean that good teams get better while bad teams cannot catch up. This would end up in four or five teams playing for the title without any chance of ever changing.
So, what options do we have?
This is the follow-up article to Why the NBA Needs to Change Draft Lottery for the Integrity of the Game.
1. Pure Lottery
When the NBA draft lottery was first introduced in 1985, each non-playoff team had the same chance of winning.
Why not revert to this method?
Each non-playoff team will enter with one envelope, all positions will be drawn.
Unlike in the past, the process should be repeated for the second round, this time including the playoff teams. This way, teams who drafted late in the first round may be able to go again sooner in the second, allowing them to draft potential sleepers and role players.
It doesn't matter whether you end up dead last in the league or just missed the playoffs, thus we would not see a competition of who can lose more. Games would be more interesting to watch, fans wouldn't have to wonder whether their team loses to get a better draft position.
Teams might still try to lose the odd game when it becomes clear that they might “slip into” a playoff spot. Also, if some bad teams are unlucky, they might end up with bad lottery picks several seasons in a row. This means no considerable improvement and a hard time for their fanbases.
2. Lottery with Lowly Seeded Playoff Teams and Exclusion
This is another variation of the lottery where each team has the same chance of winning.
This time, in order to combat possible low-seeded playoff teams losing their last few games to be eligible for the draft lottery, we include them. Whether it is just the seventh and eighth seeds, or all teams without home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the idea behind it is the same.
If any of these teams loses in the first round, it will be eligible for our lottery.
Also, we will exclude the team that wins the first pick from receiving a top-three pick the next season.
Teams would have no incentive to lose games on purpose, but rather the opposite. Winning will ensure a team's fan base stays happy while the team has a chance to make the playoffs.
If you are in the top four, you have home-court advantage in the opening round and are able to compete for a title.
If your team ends up as a lower-seeded playoff team, you don't get a penalty for competing by being excluded from the draft. Winning does not get punished the way it does now.
With up to 22 teams eligible for the lottery (or 18, if we only include seventh- and eighth-seeded teams), the chances for seriously bad teams to improve are lower compared to a 14-team setup.
Also, some teams that end up fifth to eighth in the playoff picture may actually be top teams who simply got bit by the injury bug. If they lose in the first round and get lucky in the draft, they might become a powerhouse for years to come.
This holds especially true for the Western Conference where the current No. 8 seed would be third in the East.
3. Weighted Lottery Depending on Previous Draft Positions
This is a bit tricky.
We will hold the 2014 draft with the current rules. After this draft, each team gets ping pong balls according to their draft position with up to a maximum of 15 balls. This means that the team with the No. 1 pick gets one ball, the team with the 15th pick gets 15 balls. Each team after the 15th pick will also receive 15 balls.
Traded draft picks count as picks for the original team. If you traded your first-round pick and it ends up at No. 5, you will receive 5 balls.
In subsequent drafts, all non-playoff teams will be eligible for the lottery. Each team will enter with all the balls from the previous three seasons (after the first two drafts with this system, obviously).
So, if a team ends up with a late draft pick, it has a higher chance of getting a good pick the following three years. This ensures a constant flow of good picks for each non-playoff team over an extended period of time.
Playoff teams will end up with the maximum amount of balls, which helps them once they fall out of playoff contingency in the future. Thus, they will be rewarded for winning in past seasons.
Non-playoff teams have no incentive to lose more games for a better position. Also, it is unlikely that a team will end up with high lottery picks several times in a row.
The turnaround of three seasons ensures that any team can have a maximum of 45 balls, making it far less than guaranteed that it will end up with the No. 1 pick. A team picking first will not have this pick count against them after three seasons.
If a team is really bad, it needs a good pick to get out of the dump. If this team drafted someone like Greg Oden as the first pick, it pretty much needs to beat the odds the next two drafts. Otherwise this could spell three seasons of misery.
4. Wheel of Destiny
I call it wheel of destiny as opposed to wheel of fortune. You don't need to be lucky to come up with the first draft pick, only patient.
Zach Lowe from Grantland reported about a proposal for a system that would substitute the lottery with predetermined picks. In essence, each team will get the No. 1 pick once every 30 years, a top-six pick every five years.
[It] would eliminate the draft lottery and replace it with a system in which each of the 30 teams would pick in a specific first-round draft slot once — and exactly once — every 30 years. Each team would simply cycle through the 30 draft slots, year by year, in a predetermined order designed so that teams pick in different areas of the draft each year. Teams would know with 100 percent certainty in which draft slots they would pick every year, up to 30 years out from the start of every 30-year cycle.
There is no incentive for losing.
The system doesn't discern between championship teams and teams who are at the bottom of the league. For a franchise without hope of reaching the playoffs, five-year periods to the next top-six pick can be disastrous. And if that pick turns out to be a bust, the organization is in serious jeopardy.
Talented college players could then choose when to declare eligible for the draft depending on which teams are going to draft first. If a top player doesn't want to end up on a rebuilding team with little upside, he could plan ahead and avoid it.
Finally, speaking from a practical side: In order to be absolutely fair to all, this format would need to be kept for periods of 30 years. What happens if the NBA decides to expand (or contract) the league? What if a different system appears more practical several years down the road?
This wheel system must be a long-term commitment.
5. Draft Tournament for Non-Playoff Teams
Here's another possible solution that would get rid of the lottery completely.
All non-playoff teams must compete in a draft tournament to determine the draft order. This will be a single-elimination tournament in order to make each game count and give lower-seeded teams a better chance for an upset.
The NBA can shorten the regular season by four games and have this tournament before the playoffs. It will be thirteen games played over four rounds, preferably on neutral ground as to avoid long-distance travel between conferences.
The other option would be home-court advantage for the higher-seeded teams and having the tournament inner-conference up to the final. This would, however, distort the picture due to strength differences between both conferences.
The teams losing in the first round will get draft picks nine to 14, the ones losing in the second round will receive picks five to eight, and so on. Each of these picks will be assigned in reverse order of the teams' win-loss records to help weaker franchises.
In other words, a team ending the regular season at the bottom will have a more difficult matchup, but cannot end up worse than with the ninth pick. If this team advances to the second round, it already has secured the fifth pick, at the very least.
It generates extra fan interest in the teams who performed poorly during the regular season. Casual NBA fans will be more aware of the upcoming draft.
There is no incentive to lose as many games as possible throughout the season. In fact, the two best teams outside the playoff spots will have a first-round bye.
Teams might lose late in the season to avoid the playoffs and get into the draft tournament.
Franchises who can't win to save their lives will end up with a lower draft pick, while teams who narrowly miss the playoffs (deliberately or not) have the best chance to get a top pick. This could lead to teams trying to win back-to-back top picks by deliberately avoiding a low playoff spot.
6. Draft Based on Team Salaries
Why not simply take the team salaries as determining factor?
At the end of each season, the NBA ranks the teams according to their team salaries. The draft will be held in reverse order.
It will even the playing field somewhat. Small-market teams with less money get better picks and can turn their top rookies into franchise players. Big-market teams will get rewarded for not overspending. Franchises who spend a lot on acquiring superstars—or overpaid players—will not get the next big player via draft.
There is no reason to lose games on purpose. If you have a low-budget team playing well as a unit, you will be rewarded for it.
Organizations may rethink their approach of buying instant success for the sake of long-term development. This may lead to a more even playing field and possibly less inflated salaries overall.
If a team has guaranteed contracts and loses one or two star players to some season-ending injury, that team will be stuck until the contracts end or the player can be bought out. Also, if for some reason a player becomes unproductive, he is still on the team's payroll.
One current example is the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose, who is yet again done for the season after missing 2012-13. His salary amounts to more than $17.6 million.
Leave the weighted lottery as it is, but add relegation to the NBA.
In Europe, teams who are obviously not good enough to compete in their leagues are relegated. Why not in the NBA?
Keep in mind that the NBA's entire league system is profoundly different, starting with the concept of drafting rookies, which is completely absent from sports in Europe.
Every country has numerous leagues in about every sport. Each league relegates the lowest teams, while the top teams play for promotion. In the top league, the best teams play for the title.
In theory, the NBA could use the D-League for that purpose.
In theory, mind you.
Teams wouldn't want to be relegated, thus the battle for last place turns into a battle for survival.
It's quite simply impracticable.
The D-League teams don't have the infrastructure, and the NBA franchises need security when planning ahead. It would be disastrous to have a franchise relegate to the D-League and have the stadium and whole infrastructure go to waste after investing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Furthermore, the fans would be less than understanding. It works in Europe because it has been long implemented and the infrastructure and dimensions of the many, many leagues are very different to the United States' system.
And it would still not keep teams from tanking, once they know they cannot relegate mathematically.
There you have it.
From interesting ideas to downright ridiculous ones, there are a lot of alternatives. While some, obviously, are no legitimate option in the real world, it helps trying to find even the weirdest solution—if only to find out that it is utterly useless and the current draft lottery is superior.
Some ideas may seem worth thinking about.
It also would do us good to realize that the solution may not only lie in the draft system itself, but the entire structure of the NBA—most of all the soft salary cap and players who get paid millions to play (and sometimes to sit at home).
It just seems out of proportion.
Let me rephrase that: It is out of proportion.
The NBA must think about a hard salary cap, possibly even fixed salaries for players, depending on their roles defined by their teams. This is, however, topic of another article further down the road.
Nonetheless, if we want to end the tanking problem, we probably will have to find other ways to give small-market teams a chance to compete. Limiting salaries—much more than now—and not allowing exceptions for the salary cap could be the way to go.
If we must work within the existing boundaries, you now heard about a few possible solutions. One can argue all day long and find flaws in each of them.
That's the one thing they have in common: They all have their downsides.
What can be done about the current system? Is this the best option for the NBA? Can it be modified slightly? Should it be thrown overboard and completely replaced?
Time to voice your opinions and ideas!
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