Dear Commissioner Stern,
I am a lifelong fan of the Portland Trailblazers. I mention that right off the bat so you will know this letter is not written from personal interest, bitterness, or dismay. As a matter of fact I am a fairly popular blog author covering the team and my constituency will likely scourge me with disparaging comments for writing this letter the day after we got the #1 pick in the draft. Selfishly it would be in my better interests not to write it. But I believe what I'm saying is accurate and needs to be said, and my team benefiting most from the system last night allows me to say it without any hint of ulterior motive.
The system needs to change.
In the last twenty-two years the worst team in the league has gotten the first pick only four times. That's too few. This year the fourth, fifth, and sixth teams got the first three picks. None of the worst three made the top three. That shouldn't happen. The way the percentages are structured, though, such things are going to happen frequently. One of these years the tilt is going to be even more pronounced. The randomness of the ping pong balls will dictate that the sixth, tenth, and thirteenth teams all move up. At that point, between the single odd, unfair result and the consistent, repeated demotion of the teams most in need of help over the years, the preponderance of the evidence is going to dictate a change in lottery procedure. My question is this: why do we have to wait for that event, the corresponding public outcry, and most importantly of all teams getting worked over in an obvious way before those changes are made? Previous changes to the system were not made until after imbalances had their effect. Certain franchises suffered for that. Do we really have to see a fluky Lakers advancement from the fourteenth position in a bonanza year before we address this? Shouldn't these smaller annual warnings plus the 4-for-22 batting average be enough?
I don't think anyone would suggest abolishing the lottery altogether. The excitement it generates is reason enough to have it. (Though it is odd to have so much focus and celebration surrounding an event whose crowning achievements are being bad and then getting lucky, neither of which says anything positive about the team. I do wonder if the perceived reliance on the lottery is good for the league beyond the short-term rush of the drawing.) But the percentages and procedures need to be re-examined. We are not bereft of suggestions. A double-tiered system where only the seven worst teams draw for the top picks with percentages for the very worst teams being raised accordingly is one. I have also heard a suggestion of determining lottery chances using not just a single year's record but the last two or three cumulatively so that truly dismal teams have a better chance than a team that slides for a single year (for legitimate reasons or otherwise). A combination of the two might work. I'm sure there are more ideas out there.
I know the cry will be raised about "tanking" and it is a legitimate concern. But it is worth noting that the current system has not done much to eliminate the perception of tanking around the league. Every injury to a sub-par team this year was met with knowing winks or scathing comments. Major media outlets were openly discussing the merits of losing as a viable, legitimate strategy. Perhaps some teams tanked. Perhaps they didn't. If they did then obviously the current system is not a deterrent. All it does is punish the innocent along with the guilty. What's more the innocent teams being punished are already at the bottom of the standings, adding insult to injury. If no teams tanked then is there really a need for the system to be so skewed? Will a reasonably small shift in percentages or structure cause a major shift in philosophy across the league? Either way it's almost a moot point, as right now you suffer the perception of tanking while at the same time withholding help from the teams that need it most. We're getting both ills without corresponding benefits...or fairness. This does not seem wise.
The lottery percentages need to be weighted to favor the more needy teams. The structure may need to change to make that happen. And it needs to happen soon. The less help truly bad teams get in the lottery the more disenfranchised their fans will feel and the more pessimistic they will become about their chances to improve. The more disenfranchised and pessimistic they become the more they will come to see hitting the jackpot as the only way out of their troubles. As that lucky combination continues to elude them the spiral progresses until finally they give up. That's not good for the league or its teams.
To be clear, I do not regret the result of last night's lottery. I do not wish Boston had won or Memphis...if nothing else because their fans probably wouldn't be saying this right now. Having the Celtics at number one would not have made the system more fair. It simply would have disguised its unfairness another year. The way things were set up I am glad, and feel perfectly justified, that Portland won. But that is not the same as being glad that things were set up that way.