A fan’s love for NBA basketball is a lot like a marriage. A woman loves her husband just the way he is, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to slightly change him to be better. The same can be said for how I feel about the NBA and its rules.
Just this last week, it was announced that the NBA is likely to adjust the seeding format for the playoffs. This hasn’t been voted on by the competition committee yet, but it likely will be and is expected to pass. This last year, the Portland Trail Blazers ended up with the fourth seed with a 51-31 record, despite the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs going 55-27 and earning the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively. The Blazers got the fourth seed by virtue of winning the Northwest Division.
It’s good that the NBA is taking a look at this. I think most fans agree that something should be done to eliminate unfair advantages, such as being a team winning a weak division (which guarantees a top four seed) or a team being in a strong division where every team is making the playoffs. One suggestion has been to base playoff seeding on conference record, which is an interesting idea.
I’m not sure the NBA wants to go out of their way to downplay East-West regular season matchups, so it’s hard to imagine this being the chance. It seems more likely that, despite being a division winner or not, the playoffs would be separated by conference (as usual) and simply seeded 1-8 by overall record. That’s about as fair as it can get.
So why stop there? Why not look at other ways to make the NBA better? How about looking at one of the biggest problems the league currently deals with.
Right now, there are three tiers of the NBA. In the first tier, you have the legitimate title contenders. This means Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, the Clippers, etc. It’s by far the smallest of any of the tiers. These teams don’t usually get high draft picks, and with good reason. They already have some of the best players in the NBA.
In tier two, you have “NBA purgatory.” This is Chicago, Atlanta, Portland (they could very well end up in the third tier soon), Memphis, Washington, Toronto, Indiana and others. These are teams that are consistently good enough to make the playoffs and maybe get out of the first round, but not really a true title contender. They end up not being able to draft elite talent, so they just continue plugging away, year after year, grabbing their 40-50-win season and middling to low playoff seed.
In the final tier, you have the bottom feeders. This is teams like Philadelphia, New York, the Lakers, Detroit, Orlando, Minnesota and others. These are the teams that, at some point, gave in and decided to lose on purpose with the knowledge that they’d be rewarded with a top draft pick. In the case of the Sixers, they’ve done this year after year, hoping that acquiring a ton of young talent would result in a monster roster. It remains to be seen how that works out.
What we’ve learned, over time, is that it’s tough for teams to make it out of their tiers. For example, the Atlanta Hawks have neither made it to the NBA finals nor received the first pick in the draft in the last 30 years. The Pacers have made the NBA Finals one time in 30 years and haven’t had a draft pick in the top nine since 1989.
At the same time, the NBA has been wrought with dominance by a few teams. Check out the championship diversity since 1980.
That’s 10 teams winning the NBA championship in 36 seasons, and the 76ers’ title came in 1982-1983, so I feel like it doesn’t even really count. The big question is how we fix this problem, and I think the solution is through draft reform.
The current system is that 16 teams make the playoffs, and the rest of the league goes into a “draft lottery.” This lottery is weighted so that the worst teams get the best chance at winning. If you just barely miss out on the playoffs, you have a very small chance of getting the top pick. It’s not like it hasn’t happened; the Bulls had a 1.7 percent chance of landing the top pick in 2008 when they were able to draft Derrick Rose.
But on the whole, the draft lottery is dominated by the worst teams consistently drafting high. And that’s not a terrible thing, but I think there should be some variance. So here’s my proposed idea.
The teams that make the conference finals in the playoffs are excluded and given the bottom four picks in the draft. The rest of the league goes into a free-for-all lottery. That means no weights. Here’s how it might have worked out this year, had we been able to go back in time and implement these rules.
The Cavaliers, Warriors, Rockets and Hawks (screwed again!) are excluded from the lottery. I’ve done a random drawing for draft order, and this is what I came out with.
1. Memphis Grizzlies
2. Milwaukee Bucks
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Utah Jazz
6. Dallas Mavericks
7. Detroit Pistons
8. Chicago Bulls
9. Miami Heat
10. LA Clippers
11. Washington Wizards
12. Boston Celtics
13. Indiana Pacers
14. San Antonio Spurs
15. LA Lakers
16. Philadelphia 76ers
17. New York Knicks
18. Charlotte Hornets
19. Toronto Raptors
20. Denver Nuggets
21. Phoenix Suns
22. Sacramento Kings
23. Brooklyn Nets
24. Portland Trail Blazers
25. New Orleans Pelicans
26. Orlando Magic
27. Houston Rockets
28. Atlanta Hawks
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
30. Golden State Warriors
This makes things interesting, now doesn’t it? The Grizzlies end up drafting Karl-Anthony Towns, who they’re able to pair with Marc Gasol. The Bucks probably end up with Jahlil Okafor, the Timberwolves with D’Angelo Russell and the Thunder with…Willie Cauley-Stein? Kristaps Porzingis? You get the idea.
There could be an argument made that teams could still try to tank, but it’s less likely. If you believe your team isn’t anywhere near winning a championship, there’s a strong case to be made for stripping it down and taking a run at a top draft pick under the current lottery system. Under my hypothetical system? All teams would be encouraged to field the most competitive roster possible.
The only teams that would see a real ethical conundrum would be the ones headed to the conference finals. I find it extremely difficult to believe that, given the opportunity to get within eight wins of a championship, a team might try to throw a playoff series to get an opportunity to enter a massive pool of teams that are doing nothing more than drawing straws. It wouldn’t happen.
So now the competitive balance of the NBA is fixed. Every team enters every season trying to put out the best team they can. There’s no more “tear it down and rebuild,” because there are no guarantees in the draft. Trading draft picks gets even more interesting, although teams would likely still just do protections like they currently do.
Most importantly, now every team that doesn’t have a legitimate chance at a championship now can land an elite player. Could you imagine if the Spurs ended up drafting shooting guard prospect Malik Newman? Or if the Thunder were able to grab power forward Ben Simmons? From year to year, the league could be turned upside down by the best, most talented players potentially ending up on teams with an opportunity to go from good to great.