NBA Draft Lottery Is Working Just Fine, Tank You Very Much

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NBA Draft Lottery Is Working Just Fine, Tank You Very Much
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The NBA draft process, including the draft lottery, which took place Tuesday evening, was under intense scrutiny throughout the 2013-14 season. Team after team with little chance of making a playoff run seemed to be on a mission to lose as many games as possible in hopes of landing one of the top picks in what many are calling a once-in-a-generation draft.

Teams have tanked before, but in a draft year with this much talent at the top of the board, the tanking seemed to reach a new high, or low.

This season there were eight teams that finished the regular season with fewer than 30 wins, three of which had fewer than 25 victories, and two—the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers—fewer than 20. It wasn't just that there were bad teams, it was that so many franchises seemed to be that bad on purpose.

Milwaukee and Philadelphia were the worst of the lot, but neither won the lottery on Tuesday evening. Instead, the top pick went to Cleveland, again, despite the Cavaliers only having a 1.7 percent chance of pulling off the first-pick coup and never being accused of tanking at any point this season.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Call it NBA karma. Since 2003, when Cleveland was tied for the worst record in the league and selected LeBron James first overall, the team with the worst record has received the first pick just once, in 2004 when Orlando took Dwight Howard.

It has now been 10 years since the team with the worst record has won the first pick. Let that be a lesson to all those fans of tanking. (Note: I am one of those fans.)

The team with the second-worst record has won the lottery just once since 1996—the year the Sixers won it and took Allen Iverson—when the Los Angeles Clippers landed the first pick and selected Blake Griffin in 2009. (And that year, due to a tiebreaker, the Clippers only had the third-best odds.)

There is no statistical reasoning for this, but the top pick has gone to a team outside the top five in half of the past 10 seasons. That should be music to the anti-tanking fans' ears.

And yet, nothing is going to stop teams from tanking. That is, not until the NBA completely blows up its collective bargaining agreement and reworks the salary structures to allow for middle-of-the-pack teams to get out from under bad contracts and rebuild more quickly. The NBA is not the NFL, where teams can simply cut players they feel aren't playing up to their contracts. It's not MLB, where bad money can be thrown on top of worse in an effort to correct mistakes.

 

Losing Just Means More Lotto Tickets

The NBA salary cap is complicated, and more and more teams are being run by number-crunchers over "basketball guys" because of that. In an odd way, that's why the draft lottery is such a wonderful thing. It's the antithesis of number crunching. It's the inexplicable result in a system built on probability. For some reason, it never seems to work out the way it should.

And yet, the system works. Sort of.

Milwaukee had a 46.5 percent chance of landing one of the top two picks, and the Bucks did, getting the second overall pick. The Sixers had a 55.8 percent chance of landing one of the top three picks, and they did, grabbing the third pick after finishing with the league's second-worst record.

The NBA draft lottery cannot protect the league from teams deciding to tank. It's quite the contrary, actually.

Rather than giving the worst team the first overall pick, the lottery merely gives that team the highest probability of getting the top pick. Look at 2012, when Charlotte won just seven games but ended up losing the first pick to New Orleans. Sure, Charlotte had a 25 percent chance of getting the top pick that year compared to New Orleans' 13.7 percent chance, but had the Hornets (turned Pelicans) won a single more regular-season game that year, the team's chances of getting the first pick would have been cut in half.

When tanking, every loss matters, even if your team doesn't have the most.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

In essence, the lottery process fosters an environment where teams that are otherwise out of the running for the top pick still have a reason to tank.

Simply put, the more lottery tickets you buy, the better chance you have to win. So even if Ted from shipping bought 100 tickets, you having 20 is still better than you having 10. Of course we all know that Marsha from accounting is going to win again this year with her one measly ticket. Stupid Marsha from accounting.

(And yes, Cleveland is the most "Marsha from accounting" franchise in the NBA.)

Again, this isn't a bad thing, when considering the alternative.

 

A Lottery for the NFL?

The NBA doesn't just hand the top pick to the worst team like the NFL does. Just imagine the backlash if the NBA had a team like the Houston Texans, which won its first two games of the year before losing the final 14. That's the statistical equivalent of the Bucks winning the first 10 games this past season, then losing the final 72.

The Bucks' record of 15-67 wasn't much better than 2-14, but the process to get to a .183 winning percentage—slightly better than the .125 for the Texans this past season—received far more scrutiny than what happens every year in the NFL, despite the fact the NFL simply awards its worst team with the top pick without any lottery process at all.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Just imagine how much intrigue and excitement the NFL would garner with a lottery before the draft. It's a manufactured sense of anxiety, but so is the draft process itself. Plus, living in a town that had a stake in the NBA lottery this season made things far more tense and exciting when those oversized cards were pulled out on Tuesday night.

An NFL draft lottery would be an enormous national event, but the league has shown little interest in taking the top pick away from the worst teams. In a year when Jadeveon Clowney seemed like a consensus top NFL pick after his sophomore season in college—and despite a down season his junior year, still seemed like a lock for NFL stardom—not many accused the Texans of tanking.

In the NBA, however, with Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker playing college ball for one year before making the professional leap, the tank watch started back in November.

When the Sixers won a few early games, people in Philadelphia started to panic, as the plan to tank looked like it was going to be ruined by overachieving. Sam Hinkie and the Sixers' new front office worked far too hard for the team to be playing over their collective heads. Winning was the surest way to lose and losing was the only way to win.

And yet, as the Bucks and Sixers—and to a lesser extent down the stretch the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics—all tanked the 2013-14 season for a chance to get one of those top few picks, nothing was guaranteed for any of them. A Cleveland situation could happen again.

And it did happen. Again. Which is why in an odd way—in an NBA way—the system works.

 

Alternative NBA Draft Orders

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

There have been talks of changing the draft process to reward every team an equal shot at the first pick, regardless of where they land in the standings. There has been talk of the team that finishes just outside the playoffs getting the best chance at the first pick, a move that would create an awkward situation for teams deciding if a chance at Wiggins or Parker is more important than an eight seed and first-round playoff exit.

There has been talk about instituting a rotation among teams where every franchise will get the first pick once every 30 years, and receive one of the other first-round selections in subsequent years, so there is no advantage to those who tank.

Of course, those are all just gimmicks to replace another gimmick.

The real problem, again, is the way the NBA is structured, in that getting a true franchise player in the draft can change the balance of power in the NBA for decades. The only way for teams to get better in the current NBA system is to get worse first. If the Bucks, Sixers or Jazz can't convince LeBron, Carmelo Anthony or another top player to sign with them as a free agent, the only option is to get a top pick in the draft and hope he pans out (and stays long enough for the team to reap the benefits).

And all that said, the top pick isn't always the best player in a draft. This year, the Rookie of the Year was the 11th pick, Michael Carter-Williams. In 2012, Anthony Davis was selected first overall, but already Bradley Beal, picked third, and Damian Lillard, selected sixth, are looking every bit as important to the future success of their teams.

Should the NBA change its draft process?

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In 2011, 2010 and 2009 the top pick in each draft—Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Blake Griffin, respectively—seem like franchise-defining selections. But Paul George was taken 10th overall in 2010 and Stephen Curry was picked seventh the year before that, with DeMar DeRozan going ninth that year. Even James Harden was taken after Hasheem Thabeet, who went second overall in 2009.

The point is, someone who isn't drafted first overall could very well end up being the best player in this year's draft.

Tanking can still work, but it's not as important as good scouting.

The process of tanking surely worked for teams like the Bucks and Sixers this season, which are both positioned to get one of the three best players in one of the deepest drafts in history. With the lottery in place, the NBA protected its top pick while getting months of speculation and tension leading up to Tuesday night. It's also produced more conspiracy theories than ever that the league is still paying back the Gilbert family after losing LeBron to "the decision."

It's everything the NBA wanted, even with a completely wasted season in a handful of cities. Truly, in today's NBA, being horrible on purpose has proven to be better than trying to be good and failing. The system works in the NBA the best it can, and part of that is thanks to the hokey yet unbelievably exciting draft lottery process.

Don't change a thing, NBA. Well, maybe just stop inviting Cleveland to the lottery.

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