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NBA Draft: Cleveland Wins the Lottery Again, But Is It Fair?

Which was more unfair, the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery or the reaction to that win?


A lottery-based question makes the Mailbag today.


Like everyone else I was surprised that Cleveland won the lottery again. What do you make of the rush of commentary from Bill Simmons and others? I thought the L*kers winning would be polarizing but I never expected the Cavs winning to be more polarizing. But I never expected the Cavs to win it again. Your thoughts?


It's a broad question. Let's look at a couple different slices.

First, it's way too late to be shocked or upset that a team jumped from 9th place to 1st via the drawing. This isn't an indication that the system suddenly broke. It's an indication that you designed a system where the 9th team has a 1.7% chance of jumping to 1st. If you were going to get upset about this, it should have come when the lottery odds were last tweaked. (We also would have accepted any time except after an unusual, but provided-for, result just transpired.) If you're just getting worked up now, you're not getting mad at the lottery or at Cleveland, you're getting mad at math.

Two things make this a pretty dumb idea:

1. Math doesn't care. It just does what it does. If you allow for a chance of something happening and then run enough trials, that something is going to happen at some point. Not might happen, will happen. That's the way math works as repetitions increase.

If you don't want math to walk into your kitchen and eat the leftover pizza you were saving for tomorrow's breakfast, don't invite math over! If you do invite math over and fail to set the parameters to protect your pizza, then shut up and enjoy your Rice Krispies in the morning (along with Cleveland's 3rd #1 pick in 4 years). You will not stop math after it's through the door. The universe doesn't allow that.

2. You have just caused your high-school Algebra teacher--the one you asked repeatedly, "When are we ever going to use this stuff?"--to cackle with unbridled glee. If life were fair that teacher would bounce up from your floor like a pop-up video and say, "Right NOW you stupid, whiny $#*%!!! Booyah! Now stop being an idiot and pick Embiid."

Beyond that, I'm also puzzled about the quasi-moral outrage that Cleveland won again. My mouth remains wholly agape at the idea that the Cavs got "unfairly rewarded" for their "bad decisions" and that this somehow disadvantages the rest of the league, as Simmons (and others) appear to be asserting.

First, Cleveland tried to win this the point that they made some ridiculous moves to acquire veterans and stay out of the lottery altogether.

Second, you'd rather have the Lakers or a team whose record plunged for a single year win the thing? There's the target for your moral outrage: not that bad teams get to pick first but that the definition of "bad" can be jimmied so rapidly that the system can be gamed. Cleveland didn't do this. They're hardly the least palatable option.

Third, a bad team making bad picks doesn't hurt the teams that follow. The only way that team takes away something from the folks behind them in the order is if they make a good pick. But then they're being a good team, so where's the complaint?

We'll need some explanation of that last point.

Remember these selections have no intrinsic value. You cannot take Cleveland's first overall pick to Home Depot and trade it for a riding lawn mower or even an extension cord. The reward from the draft is the player you get with the pick and nothing else. Detached from that player (or the players you can trade it for, but that's another story) the pick means nothing. It is not a reward. It is not a punishment. It is a chance to call a name.

Remember also that for practical purposes each draft class is finite and that the skills/talent/ability of each player exist independently of the other players. Making a bad selection with the #1 pick does not drain the ability from the players who will be selected 2-30. Nor does it harm the teams selecting at those positions. It helps them, in fact.

Let's say you carted in a barrel of 60 apples. 2 of them are Golden enough to start the next Trojan War over. 18 of them are perfectly serviceable and will make a nice snack or pie. The other 40 are rotten (even though some appear good). 30 guys line up for the chance to select from the barrel.

Guy #1, the town schlub, gets to go first because everyone feels sorry for him. They feel sorry for him because he always thinks he knows what the Golden Apples look like and he always chooses a rotten one instead...maybe a serviceable one in a good year, but it doesn't seem to do him much good.

Has this gentleman hurt the people behind him in line with his crappy picking? He has not. By choosing a rotten apple he has eliminated one from the barrel, leaving better odds for everybody else to get a decent one. He's also dramatically increased the value of the third selection, now a viable candidate for one of the two remaining Golden choices. If Guy #2 repeats Guy #1's error he will perform a comparable service for the people behind him, and so on.

This is exactly what happened when the Cavs spent their pick on Anthony Bennett last year. They didn't get a reward for that pick. They eliminated a rotten apple, keeping it out of the hands of the poor, unsuspecting teams coming after.

The only guy who gets a reward--and the only guy who negatively impacts the folks behind him in the order--is the guy who makes a good pick. A guy who chooses poorly does neither. How can we then say, "Because the Cavs picked Bennett they shouldn't be allowed to pick first's not fair"? On what basis do we make that claim of unfairness?

If they really do stink so badly at talent identification that they can't take advantage of any pick then they won't take advantage of this one either. That won't reward them or hurt the other teams. Absent advantage to the self or disadvantage to others there's no fairness issue.

If the Cavaliers don't blow the pick then we can credit them with some sense at least. At that point we begin speculating that maybe the Bennett selection was a product of a mushy field more than whiffing on the clear #1 choice. If that's the case, why should Cleveland be penalized because they happened to draw the right ping pong combination in a year where the first overall pick was murky? Because everyone last year stank the Cavs can't get a shot at this year's opportunity?

If Cleveland draws the Golden Apple this year and gets a franchise player, doesn't that show that they are capable of making a good assessment? That would give the lie to the, "They don't deserve it because they stink" argument. (Also complicating that argument: Who gets to vote on who stinks and doesn't, thus to determine the order of selection? We've seen how well that works in poll-based or computer-formula-determined sporting situations.)

No matter which way the story ends, the indignation doesn't hold up. We should probably stop complaining. We should also stop using this as ad hoc justification for the argument, "Bad GM'ing is easy to see and determines everything and shouldn't be rewarded, plus it sucks that Cleveland won so give us The Wheel!" Points A, B, and C in that assertion are debatable, point D is an opinion, and none of them lead fairly to the conclusion.

I must admit that I'm a little confused that The Wheel is being brought up in conjunction with this event in any case. All year the cry was, "Teams are tanking so we need The Wheel or something like it!" Now a team that obviously wasn't tanking wins the lottery and the cry is...we need The Wheel or something like it?

That's not to say that I'm a draft lottery defender. I think the system should be changed. But the Cavaliers winning the first pick again doesn't grant any extra justification for that change, nor would a system designed specifically to prevent this occurrence improve the process. We need to understand this event in terms of probabilities, assess whether the way we've set those probabilities reflects what we want the draft and/or lottery to achieve, and move forward accordingly, letting the value judgments and accusations drop to the wayside.

Send your questions to, marked "Mailbag" if you will!

--Dave / @DaveDeckard