I've been listening in on the national sports conversation today while driving around for my day job and the lottery is the talk of the airwaves. (And let me tell you, it's a little surreal to hear "Portland Trail Blazers" coming from the lips of national sports figures so often and in a positive association.) Hour to hour I've heard a lot of garbage about the lottery come from callers and hosts alike. So let's get a couple things straight:
- The lottery has problems, but the problem is NOT that Portland won the first pick nor that Memphis and Boston didn't. The problem is that the ideal of integrity/fairness to the team/league/sport competes with the entertainment (and make no mistake that's the driving force at this point) and tanking protection that randomness brings. One side will always advance at the expense of the other. Right now the balance is slanted too far towards randomness, entertainment, and (dubious) tanking prevention at the expense of the integrity of the draft. Lottery reward is neither achievement-based nor need-based. It's luck. Teams that succeed in the lottery didn't do anything to merit it. (Examples of a system where this would be true are an on-court draft tournament or simply giving the top pick to the best team in the league.) Teams that succeed in the lottery didn't need help more than anybody else. (Every other major sport drafts on this basis.) What happens in the drawing is disconnected with what happens on the court and in the sport. It's not totally disconnected--that's what the weighted percentages are for--but it's too far disconnected at this point. This would remain true even if the randomness of the process had dictated a win for Boston or Memphis last night. The issue isn't who rose or fell, it's the process.
- It is not "bad for the league" that the Blazers got the first pick and the Sonics the second. The only argument in this vein that even begins to hold water is the imbalance of the Eastern and Western conferences which will presumably be made worse by this result. But you cannot hold one event liable for a process that took decades to develop. Good teams and good basketball are good for the league and that's true no matter where those teams play. This holds in any sport...the NFL being the prime example in our era. Portland will almost certainly become a good team because of this pick and Seattle also has a chance (and a chance now to remain in their town, which is also good). What's bad for this league is the stupid star system which has raised people to believe success depends on a single, dominant player. This puts HUGE emphasis on this lottery process...more than it should merit. It has also hamstrung us in international/world competition as our players flounder when they aren't protected. It has led to bad basketball and that's bad for the league no matter what quick fix it appears to bring. What's also bad for the league is the marketing campaign that has not only supported this star system but led people to believe that unless something happens in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or a couple other cities it doesn't matter. The league has painted itself in a corner where now it either has to rig the proceedings so the star players go to those major markets or its customers (at least the casual ones) miss most of what's great about the product. The latter has been happening for years. The point is that both of these miasmas were preordained the first time the words, "The fans paid to see him, not you" were uttered by a referee and bolstered by a network announcer. And that happened early and often in the Stern tenure and hasn't abated since until (perhaps, depending on who you ask) very recently. The league is lying in the bed it made for itself and I have no pity for it. The fact that some people see the Blazers and Sonics getting good picks as "bad for the league" is not an indictment of the teams, but of how this league has presented itself in the last two decades. The only reasonable solution--short of actually rigging the process--is for the reunion of the fan base and good basketball to begin now. That will take a reform in marketing and officiating emphases on the league's part and a response of "Oh yeah? Watch and see!" to the doubters from the rest of us, including the Portland and Seattle fan bases.