Time to Change the NBA Lottery (Part 4 of 4)

The NBA started the draft lottery in 1985 as a way to combat tanking—the practice of strategically fielding a bad team in order to get a top draft pick. Based on the number of teams that still tank every season, it’s startlingly clear that the 1985 version of the NBA lottery did not go far enough.

Under the current rules, all 14 teams who miss the playoffs qualify for the lottery. The worse a team’s record is, the better odds they have of getting the first, second, or third pick. For example, the worst team in the NBA has a 25% chance of nabbing the first pick and the second worst team has a 19.9% chance. The 6th worst team drops down to 6.3%–and by the time it gets down to the 10th team they have a 1.1% chance for the first pick. The 11th-13th place teams have a .8%, .7%, .6%, respectively. The team with the 14th and worst record has a .5% chance for the first pick, .6% chance for the second pick and .7% chance for the 3rd pick. (See the probability table below with the lottery teams from 2015.)

lottery grid

The short story is that teams who come close to the playoffs but don’t make them start approaching Powerball-like odds for a high pick. The current NBA lottery rules apply to the top three draft picks. Once the top three players are chosen, the rest of the draft selections from 4-14 are made in order from worst record to best record.

This system does not do enough to prevent front offices from tanking. At times it actually has the opposite effect and incentivizes teams to tank. Because tanking is such an insult to NBA fans and also to the players who have to be on a tanking team, I propose the following plans to motivate front offices to stop tanking.

Anti-tanking solution part A: Continue with a draft lottery that encompasses all 14 teams who miss the playoffs, but now give each of these teams an equal shot with the same odds. That’s right, the team with the worst record in basketball would have the same odds for the first pick as the best of the 14 teams. Each team who misses the playoffs would now have a 1/14 chance, about 7%, to get the first pick. Bye bye tanking!

This would lead to front offices’ joining the players in doing everything they can do to win every game.

If you think teams would still miss the playoffs on purpose to enter this lottery for a 7% chance, this says more about the NBA playoff format, because in football or baseball you would never see a team pass up a chance to enter the ‘anything can happen’ playoffs. In college basketball, teams erupt in celebration when getting an invite to the big dance, and perhaps the NBA should tweak their 2 month playoff mini-season into NCAA-like brackets, but that’s for another blog.

There is also a financial incentive to making the playoffs that would guard against teams on the playoff bubble choosing the 7% tanking option. Each NBA team who makes the playoffs gets to host at least two playoff games. This guarantees increased revenue and would make any owner scoff at a GM who proposed tanking for only a 7% shot at the best draft pick. I would also give all 14 teams the same odds to get every pick from 1-14.

This change to the lottery would lead to a culture shift in NBA front offices.

Anti-tanking solution part B (This would be optional if part A were instituted, but completely necessary without part A):

Save NBA GM’s from themselves by banning the practice of trading future number 1 picks.

The purpose of a draft is to distribute future talent to allow under-performing teams to improve and build for the future. Their use as a bargaining chip so teams can gamble on their future has created problems on multiple levels, as discussed in part 2.

I don’t like having to suggest something that restricts trade in sports. In fact, I just wrote a four part series about how the salary cap violates basic capitalistic principles and should be eliminated. But in this case, the trading of future draft picks can lead to the least entertaining thing in sports: tanking.

If the thought of restricting the right of teams to trade picks seems overbearing, this is something that the NBA has already partially instituted with the Stepien Rule. This is a rule that forbids teams from trading future first round picks in back to back years. It was essentially adopted to prevent GM’s from giving away too much of their future.

Until tanking stops, it’s time to step up the Stepien Rule and expand it to include every season.

If anti-tanking solution part A is adopted, first round picks could be traded without motivating tanking because there would be no protected picks and only a 7% chance at winning the number one pick–not high enough odds to be worth giving up a season.

When tanking is gone it will be such a breath of fresh air for the NBA. Think back to Rajon Rondo’s veteran move last week for the Kings described in part 3. He stalled the other’s teams’ game-winning free throw for 30 seconds, and the opposing player ended up missing the shot. This scrappy will to win seems to have crept down from the front office, which is pulling all stops to win this year even without a championship roster. Rondo’s young teammates might be telling rookies about that hilariously competitive move 15 years from now. However, I doubt this type of play would ever take place on a tanking team like the 76ers. It’s certainly not the undermanned players’ fault. They are trying their hardest, but they are victims of a front office phenomenon that sucks the air out of a team like a vacuum while insulting both the players and the fans.

As I said in the first part of this series, the fact that tanking actually happens is difficult even to think about, but at least it can be stopped.

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