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Fixing the Lottery (Again)

I was going to save this until the end of the season but Jeff Van Gundy outed the weirdness of the lottery process yesterday and it's getting national attention, so I'll just take the plunge now and repeat myself later if need be.  This is a refinement of an idea I first talked about last year but I'm going to bring it up every year until something is done.

Van Gundy's suggestion was to put every team in the lottery to prevent teams from purposely losing games.  I think that's crazy talk.  First of all there are too many teams with a shot at #1 as it is.  Second I didn't hear him suggesting this when Houston was a very bad team (how quickly we forget) and in the midst of the lottery themselves.

However the team I love does have a relatively poor record and is in the middle of the lottery pack this year and I'm suggesting right now that the system needs to be changed.  It's a mark of my earnestness that, if things remain the way they are right now, the changes I'm suggesting would affect my team more negatively than any other.  I absolutely think they should be made anyway.  Here's why:

Problem #1:  There's a basic issue of fairness. When the worst team in the league only has a 1 in 4 chance at the top pick and actually has a greater statistical chance of getting the fourth pick than the first, something is wrong.  This has been an issue for years. Anyone remember the Minnesota Timberwolves' run at futility from '89 to '95? There's no arguing they were the worst team in the league during that stretch. And part of the reason is because they had horrible lottery luck, consistently picking below their record position. Had more people known about KG in 1995 (Joe Smith went #1, Garnett fell to the 'Wolves at #5) they might still be there.

Now mind you I've heard pious sounding people say, "I don't believe in any system that rewards people for losing."  You don't?  Then it's easy.  Just give the Dallas Mavericks the first pick in the draft right now and proceed down the list from there.  What's that?  That's not a fair solution?  Then you DO believe in a system that favors teams that need the most help, we're just arguing matters of degree and balance.  And the balance right now is askew, making it entirely too possible for bad teams to remain bad through the bouncing of ping pong balls over which they have no control.

Problem #2:  The small chance that the best-record teams in the lottery have of gaining the highest picks leaves the process in a no-man's land with a treacherous cliff nearby.  Most of the time the 10th-14th teams won't move up to spots 1-3.  The odds are weighed heavily against them and it's anticlimactic to the point of being a sham to have their representatives show up on selection day.  But that sham is the best-case scenario.  If they do hit the jackpot and move up it gets even worse.  The only people who get a great feeling about that are the fans of the team that gets lucky.  Everyone else will be plenty upset, especially all the teams below them on the food chain...not to mention their near competitors.  If a small market team moves up you've pleased 2% of your fan base and ticked off the other 98%.  If a huge market makes the leap the pleased folks might increase to 5% but now most of the other 95% are accusing you of rigging the process to benefit the bigger markets.  Imagine what would happen if the Lakers lost Kobe to injury, missed the playoffs by one game, and then got the #1 pick this year.  Worse, imagine what would happen if one year three of those 8th-14th teams all moved up.  I know it's all but impossible but people do win Powerball you know.  If such a horrific confluence occurred the league would surely take steps to make sure it never happened again.  So why are they waiting, playing with a ticking time bomb?  What are they trying to preserve?  The way things are right now you're choosing between a dud and a disaster.

Problem #3:  The lottery was invented to reduce the likelihood of teams tanking.  But has it?  If all of the talk this year about the subject is to be believed, one would guess not.  And that's the stronger point...whether or not teams really do tank is probably less important than if the public thinks they tank and talks about them doing so.  Reality or not, the perception is enough to taint your league.  Even with the lottery there's been more tanking talk this year than in any I can remember including the Olajuwon draft.  At least back in 1984 the tanking scuttlebutt surrounded one team.  This year almost every team that's underperformed enough to miss the playoffs has been accused. Worse, their fans are openly debating the pros and cons.  The lottery hasn't reduced the suspicion of tanking.  It has quasi-legitimized it and spread it to 14 teams instead of maybe 1 or 2.  It's having the opposite effect of what was intended.

The Proposed Solution: The NBA should institute a two-tier lottery, separating the drawings for the first and second half of the participants. The split should come after the 7th spot. Only the top group would be drawing for the #1 pick.

The percentages for each team to win the top pick could look something like this:

(worst record) 40%, 25%, 15%, 10%, 5%, 3%, 2% (best record)

Under this system the worst three teams have a better shot at getting the #1 pick than they do now while the other teams' chances are slightly reduced.

The current method of drawing only for the first three picks and then seeding the remainder of the group by record should be retained so nobody can fall more than three spots from their original position.

The second-tier non-playoff teams lose all chance at the #1 pick, but that's as it should be. There's no way that a team that barely missed the playoffs should have ANY chance at that spot.  This tier could simply be seeded by record, but if the league wants to preserve the lottery excitement through all 14 teams, let the second tier have their own drawing for the remaining spots (top draw getting the #8 pick and so on). It may not be quite as big of a jump, but a team with the 14th-best record in the league should still be plenty excited about getting the #8 pick if that happens.  And fewer people would be upset about their fortune too.  

This system addresses all three problems enumerated above.  The worst teams are not guaranteed the best picks but they'll probably get them more often than they do now.  Everybody has a meaningful chance to move up but nobody could move up so far that it would ruin the process.  If there were any tanking talk it would be localized to the bottom teams in the league.  Perhaps people might accuse the 8th worst team of trying to get into the 7th position but debating whether Portland is trying to lose more than Philadelphia is not likely to get much conversational traction nation-wide.  Certainly the issue is more hidden (being in the middle of the standings) than it is currently.  Also the teams nearer the playoffs would be absolved completely from tanking accusations as nobody would throw a chance at the playoffs for a chance to move up to #8.

The NBA has a track record of not fixing things until disaster strikes. (See also: New York winning the first lottery, Orlando's back-to-back first picks, the current playoff seeding system.) I hope it doesn't take a bizarre 10-13 spot jump for somebody to open their eyes about this. Really, the fact that most of the worst teams aren't getting the #1 picks right now should be enough to do it.

If you like it, spread the word.

--Dave (