Best Potential Fixes to NBA Draft Lottery System
Change is on the horizon for the NBA draft lottery, and we have the Philadelphia 76ers to thank.
Actually, we owe our gratitude (or rancor, depending on your perspective) not so much to what the Sixers have done over the past two seasons, but to their honesty about how they've done it.
Philly has maximized the current incentive structure in the NBA—you know, the one that rewards winners of a race to the bottom with a great shot at the No. 1 overall selection.
If the organization hadn't been so forthright about tanking as part of its long-term rebuilding plan, it's hard to imagine lottery reform becoming such a hot topic.
Per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, the Sixers aren't happy about what's coming:
The rough draft of this plan was met with opposition by 76ers management, which is in the midst of a multiseason rebuilding project that is dependent on a high pick next year. The 76ers, sources said, are hoping to get the NBA to delay the plan's implementation for at least a year because it would act as a de facto punishment while just playing by the rules that have been in place.
The NBA is sending a couple of messages here, the first of which is that it no longer wants teams to aggressively pursue the absolute worst record in the league. The second is that it prefers the old-school brand of duplicitous tanking—disguised and described as rebuilding—to the Sixers' unabashed, "we're gunning for the top pick, and we're cool with it" approach.
Per Grantland's Zach Lowe, the league's latest proposal would "squeeze the lottery odds at either extreme toward a more balanced system in which all 14 teams have a relatively similar chance at the No. 1 pick."
The upshot is that the team with the worst overall record would go from having a 25 percent chance at the top selection to an 11 percent chance, odds shared by the teams finishing with the second-, third- and fourth-worst records.
This isn't a perfect fix, and it could incentivize other, more troubling forms of tanking. In addition, it would punish the Sixers for playing by the rules. In legal terms, Philly has detrimentally relied on the system in place.
The league is dead set on eliminating tanking, though, particularly the kind Philly has engaged in recently. But maybe there are other ways to achieve that end.
Long before the league sat down to discuss lottery reform in an official capacity, rumors of a more drastic plan—complete with a cool nickname—surfaced.
Lowe reported on The Wheel in December, 2013:
Grantland obtained a copy of the proposal, which 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.
That's a major, top-down overhaul of the current system—one that would require all of the complicated deals involving draft picks and future protected selections to cycle out before it could be implemented. Lowe pegged the clearance time at a decade, and it's not hard to see how teams might balk at waiting that long for a plan they can't even be sure will work.
Plus, like virtually every tweak to the current system, The Wheel makes it harder for bad teams (especially those in small markets who can only build a talent base through the draft) to get better.
Here's the thing, though: The NBA has a robust revenue-sharing system that funnels money toward those small-market teams, leveling the playing field between big- and small-city clubs to a significant degree. Milwaukee will never be New York, but there's nothing to be done about that.
The Wheel amounts to controlled randomization, meaning the incentive to lose games that exists now would virtually disappear.
There's no question teams would find ways to manipulate this new system, but if it's deliberate losing the league hates, this could curb the practice.
The idea of a completely random lottery system, in which every team—from the Finals participants to the 15-win bottom-feeders—gets an equal shot at the top pick, feels scary.
And you can bet that the moment a dominant club like the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder wind up with a high pick, there'd be a public outcry. And if the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks were to snare the top selection, look out.
The idea of the rich getting richer always rubs professional sports leagues the wrong way, even though it's those big-money, high-profile teams that draw in a disproportionate amount of revenue.
But if it's deliberate losing that the NBA wants to eradicate, why not go all-in by completely removing any predictable incentive for failure?
With no guarantees about where they'd pick in the draft, every club would have a singular goal: winning.
The pursuit of that goal could take all of the varied forms it does now. Stockpiling young assets, trading for veterans and cruising the free-agent markets would all remain viable strategies. The difference, of course, is that building through the draft would no longer be a sure way to secure elite talent.
Trading draft picks would get trickier without a way to predict where they'd fall. And as mentioned above, there would be no end to the whining or cries of conspiracy if the league's favored franchises managed to earn high picks after good seasons.
From a strictly logical approach, the best way to keep teams from trying to lose is removing the incentive to do so.
All the same, don't hold your breath on this one. The NBA is stuck on the idea of helping the have-nots survive, even if dangling the top pick over their heads and inviting failure might be counterproductive in the first place.
I hear soccer does pretty well internationally. People seem to like it. A lot.
Keep that in mind as we ponder the viability of relegation (perhaps best known for its use in the English Premier League) in the NBA.
Admittedly, relegation, which essentially involves sending the worst two or three teams in the league down to an inferior one for the next season of play, isn't a direct way to fix the draft lottery. But it would go further to eliminate tanking than any other approach imaginable.
Want to stop teams from losing? Make banishment the price.
The infrastructure isn't in place yet, but with the NBA D-League growing into what will eventually become a full-fledged minor league, the bones of a workable system are there. Instead of using each D-League club as an affiliate for an NBA squad, simply make them part of their own league.
The best two or three teams from the D-League would replace the worst from the NBA each year, and the process would repeat itself every season. Imagine the increased interest in the D-League as well. Everyone would be paying attention to see which squads might make the jump up the ladder.
And if you really want to add some teeth to the whole thing, make relegated teams forfeit their draft picks to the teams replacing them in the NBA.
There would be a danger of relegated teams failing to recover and the gap widening between the NBA and the D-League, which is an issue in the Premier League now. But again, all the tinkering with the draft lottery is designed to eliminate losing on purpose.
The threat of falling into a less-popular second tier would be a massive motivator and could indirectly provide the draft fix the NBA is seeking.
The Lottery Tournament
It seems like the NBA is most uncomfortable with teams that purposely build rosters incapable of competing. Failing into a top pick feels wrong, so why not make every team that misses the playoffs actually fight for its selection?
It's tournament time.
Take the 14 teams that miss the playoffs and seed them in a tournament according to their regular-season records. Whichever non-playoff team has the best record gets the top seed. The second-best record earns the second seed, and so on. That way, even clubs that can't finish in the top eight of their conference will have a reason to chase wins late into the year.
From there it's pretty simple. All the league would have to do is treat this lottery tournament like the actual playoffs, with higher seeds getting home-court advantage. The winner of the whole thing would take home the No. 1 selection in the upcoming draft.
The format could include fewer games than the actual playoffs. A single elimination format or short three-game series could get the job done.
The upshot is that the very worst teams would still get a lottery pick—and a chance at the top spot—but there would be a major disincentive to completely bottom out because everyone would want to stay competitive enough to be a threat in the tournament.
Timing would be tricky, as the NBA probably wouldn't want this lesser tourney taking place concurrently with the actual playoffs. But if you consider how it might keep fans of half the league (who might otherwise check out during the postseason) interested for a few more months of the year, it seems likely the NBA would find a way to pull it off.
We've tossed out some pretty drastic options to this point, so maybe it'd be best to close with a less severe, perhaps more plausible tweak.
Of course, even this toned-down suggestion still goes further than the league's actual proposal.
Instead of guaranteeing a top-four pick for the team that finishes with the worst record (which is what the league does now), why not change the rule so finishing with the worst record would only guarantee a top-10 selection?
If that feels too punitive for those hapless tankers, we can compromise and make it a top-eight guarantee.
Either way, the value of piling up the most losses would significantly decrease. And while there would be potential for a team jostling for the No. 8 spot in a conference to throw in the towel for a newly improved crack at a high lottery pick, that danger exists with virtually any systemic change that makes tanking less profitable.
"I think the season has been a huge success for us," 76ers owner Josh Harris said in April, after his team had amassed 63 losses per Windhorst.
Harris is right; the Sixers did what they set out to do.
The NBA isn't comfortable with an upside-down reality in which failure is success. But that's what the current system has created. If the league wants to change that, it'll have to alter the current lottery system—perhaps significantly.
With a preseason meeting of the Board of Governors set for October, we could see those changes implemented sooner than later.
Here's hoping the league picks the right ones.