The NBA context is changing. Rapidly. The salary cap is set to jump. There's a lockout looming. And the lottery system that determines which team gets which pick might be in need of adjusting. With all this uncertainty, the lottery reforms might be the most significant for a team like the Blazers.
The specifics of the current lottery system are complex but its overall structure is somewhat straightforward. The worst team is given the best odds of landing a high draft pick. The second worst team is given the second best odds. The third worst team is given the third best odds and so on and so forth. After the first three picks are selected, the rest of the lottery proceeds according to the seeding of the remaining teams.
It has been this way since 1994 but has recently come under fire. The Philadelphia 76ers have taken the "championship or bust" mentality to a whole new level, punting multiple seasons in an effort to maximize their chance at consecutive high draft picks. This behavior has frustrated opposing teams to the point that lottery reform nearly passed last year.
The proposed reform maintained the basic structure of the lottery while adjusting the odds. The top four teams would be given an equal chance at the top pick with the odds declining only slightly after that. The top six picks would be selected through this method as opposed to just the top three. As a result, the worst team could potentially fall all the way to the seventh pick.
This proposal received 17 votes in favor of the reform. It needed 23 to pass, a measly six shy. Lottery reform is coming, sooner rather than later. So soon, in fact, that it may impact the Blazer's current rebuild.
For almost any rebuilding team, the draft is the number one way to acquire talent. This is especially true when trying to add elite talent and especially true for small market teams like Portland. As a result, this reform is one of the most important variables that could affect the Trail Blazers' prospects.
Assuming the eventual lottery reforms are similar to the version proposed last year, how would these reforms affect Portland's rebuild?
The Blazers already have a top player in Damian Lillard who is 25 years old. This makes it difficult to tank to the very bottom of the league and necessitates a rebuilding timeline of three years rather than five. 76ers style super tanking isn't an option. This team is nowhere near the playoffs but they're likely not near the bottom either. ESPN recently came out with their season forecast and pegged the Blazers for 31 wins. Last year, 31 wins would have been the eighth worst record.
In the current system, the eighth worst team has a 10% chance to move into the top three. Under the proposed system, that number would jump to 21.7%, according to the probability table at LotteryBucket.com. There would also be a 24.6% chance of receiving the fourth, fifth, or sixth pick, something that would not be possible under the current system. However, there is also a 45% chance of moving down and selecting 9th, 10th, or 11th (technically it's possible to drop farther but the probabilities are so low I'm disregarding them). That compares to a 17.6% chance under the current system. The proposed reforms would increase both the risk and reward for a team in the middle of the lottery. There's a greater chance they move up but also a greater chance they move down.
This increased volatility would absolutely benefit a team like the Blazers. As an eighth seed, Portland would have a chance to move up seven spots but could only drop three. The difference in talent is also greater near the top of the lottery. For example, the difference between the first and the fourth selection is usually greater than the difference between the seventh and the 10th. This makes the prospect of moving up more valuable than the potential cost of moving down.
Portland would have a much better chance of adding an elite player to their team while only risking a slight drop in talent if the odds broke the other way. That's a good gamble and Blazers fans should be hoping lottery reform passes as soon as possible.
Even if it does, it's important to keep in mind that the probabilities of moving up significantly, while better, are still relatively low. In all likelihood, Neil Olshey and company will need to nail a few mid- to late-lottery selections in order to build Portland into a contender. That's not impossible but it sure is tough.
Let's hope the odds are ever in our favor.