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How the New WNBA Draft Lottery System Will Work

Last week, the WNBA announced what had been rumored for some time: the draft lottery system would be modified to, beginning with the 2016 lottery, hopefully bring a little more fairness to a format that has been heavily criticized in recent years. The changes, while involving plenty of numbers (it’s still a lottery, after all), are fairly straightforward: there are two major revisions to the system, both of which are designed to help ensure that the teams most in need of help will get it. Let’s take a look at these new rules, what prompted them, and their implications on future WNBA Drafts.

The Rule Changes and Why They Are Good for the WNBA

Rule Change 1: Lottery Chances Based on Cumulative Record over Previous Two Seasons

Up until this season, the typical WNBA Draft Lottery would look similar to its NBA counterpart: all teams who had missed the playoffs in the previous season were entered, with their chances calculated based upon their record that season. Simple enough. The new set of draft lottery rules, however, will take into account a team’s total record over the past two seasons. While the teams entered in the lottery will still be based solely on who missed the immediately preceding WNBA postseason, their odds of winning will now depend not only on their win-loss record of that season, but the one before that as well.  

There are several factors which led to this rule change, the most obvious being that there simply aren’t that many teams in the WNBA. With only 12 total teams (8 of them making each postseason) and a relatively short 34-game season, there are going to be instances in which a lottery-bound team doesn’t necessarily deserve to be in the running.

“OK,” you say, “but that happens in the NBA too. The Western Conference is so stacked, you could take the first four teams to miss the playoffs and put them in the East, and they wouldn’t be in the lottery.”

True, but in addition to the difference in season length (an 82-game schedule compared to a 34-game one allows for a much larger sample size to determine who truly belongs in the lottery and who doesn’t), the WNBA’s field of talent is such that impact players are constantly missing time. Between the Olympics and FIBA championships, there’s an international basketball tournament happening during WNBA season every other year, which means much of the league’s international talent (in addition to American-born players who are contractually obligated to play for other countries) will be coming and going often to prepare with their countries’ respective national teams.

Making matters worse is the disturbing new trend of players taking time off from the WNBA season to rest. As most WNBA players spend their offseasons playing somewhere in another continent (often for a much healthier salary than they earn during their summers), there isn’t much stopping, say, Candace Parker or Diana Taurasi from simply choosing not to play for their WNBA teams on any particular season in the interest of their long-term health.

Simply put, one or two unlucky visa problems, national team obligations, injuries suffered over the winter, or cases of fatigue, and you’re looking at a team that may be lottery-bound with not much of a chance to do anything about it. When looked at from this perspective, a cumulative two-season lottery setup makes a ton of sense.

Rule Change 2: The Team with the Worst Two-Season Cumulative Record Will Pick No Lower Than Third

The second significant rule change is also pretty self-explanatory, but it’s just as significant. It basically means that there’s little-to-no chance (depending on the strength of the draft class, of course) of the “most deserving” lotto team getting the short end of the stick when the draft order is determined.

…OK, so there’s not as much to this rule change as the previous, other than the obvious “the team who should be picking first shouldn’t be forced into picking last.” It’s only fair, right? Suppose a team with no superstar talent had just gone 5-29 and needed a major overhaul, and with the upcoming draft class featuring the most hyped trio of NCAA women’s players in the WNBA era, it would be just wrong for that team to miss out…right?

The Class of 2013 and the Failure of the Draft Lottery

If you’re a women’s basketball fan, the following slogan probably looks familiar to you: “The Three to See.” In a [relatively] huge effort by ESPN to market the latest generation of women’s basketball talent, the group of Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, and Skylar Diggins were virtually unavoidable during the 2012-13 NCAA basketball season. Each player brought something unique to the table that was sure to change the look of whichever team was lucky enough to draft her: Griner an incredible combination of length, height, and athleticism, effectively making her the most intimidating physical talent the league had ever seen; Delle Donne an endless array of offensive weapons and versatility rivaled by no player of her height; Diggins a remarkable leader who had played a major role in the rise of Notre Dame as a consistent women’s basketball force, while building a social media following that would be sure to carry over to a league that had struggled to fill seats consistently since its inception. In short, there were going to be three very, very fortunate teams come draft night. The problem? A fourth team would strike out.

August 7, 2015: Washington Mystics Head Coach Mike Thibault and Referee Tiffany Bird (25) discuss a call as the Connecticut Sun's host the Washington Mystics at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.  The Sun defeat the Mystics 86-72.

The Mystics were the team stuck on the outside looking in at The Three to See.

In 2012, the WNBA didn’t enjoy the parity that it does today. Only the Chicago Sky, at 14-20, were ever “in danger” of making the playoffs. The other three lottery teams — the Washington Mystics, Phoenix Mercury, and Tulsa Shock — finished the season 10, 9, and 7 games out of the playoffs, respectively, each only winning single-digit games. What differed were the circumstances: while the Sky started the season strong behind superhuman efforts from Epiphanny Prince and Sylvia Fowles and ended up fading down the stretch (much in part due to injuries to the pair of stars), the Mystics were never in the race to begin with, lacking both an identity and a cohesive roster (they finished 2012 with 7 players contributing negative win shares). Similarly, the Tulsa Shock had seen little success since leaving Detroit, featuring a hodgepodge of veterans and players without roles on a team that was headed nowhere fast. The Mercury, meanwhile, had made the second round of the playoffs the season before and missed a combined 81 games from all-world talents Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, and Candice Dupree.

If you hadn’t already guessed (or in case you somehow forgot), the lottery system failed miserably, with the Mercury landing the #1 overall pick to add to their loaded (when healthy) roster and the Sky adding to their young and talented core with pick #2. Tulsa would be compensated with the third overall pick in the draft, but the Mystics, the team with the gloomiest future of the four candidates, were left scrambling. Franchises who were already in good positions for the future had been rewarded with revolutionary talents, while a team that had won fewer than 15 percent of its games the previous season had ended up in the worst possible position. The lottery itself was a result of no more than dumb luck, but something clearly had to be done, both to prevent such situations from happening again and so that the WNBA Draft Lottery System would more accurately handle the turbulent year-by-year state of the league.

Looking Forward: The Next Generation and How the New Lottery System Will Work

Fast forward a few seasons. The “Three to See” have lived up to their potential, with Brittney Griner winning the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year award and being an integral cog in the 2014 Mercury championship machine, Delle Donne netting Rookie of the Year in 2013 while leading the Sky to its best-ever regular-season record, first-ever playoff appearance and first-ever Finals appearance the following year, and Diggins being named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player for 2014 and leading the Shock to a franchise-best 8-1 start in 2015 before tearing her ACL in late June. Griner was also a part of Team USA’s dominant run in the 2014 FIBA tournament. Delle Donne sat out due to injury, but if healthy, all three players should also be key components of Team USA’s Olympic squad in 2016.

Sept 02 2014: Mercury Center Brittney Griner (42) celebrates with teammate Shay Murphy (14) after the game.  The Phoenix Mercury host the Minnesota Lynx in the 3rd game of the Western Conference Finals played at US Airways Arena in Phoenix, AZ.  The Mercury defeat the Lynx 96-78 to advance to the WNBA Finals.

Landing Brittney Griner has paid off for the Mercury.

Despite being the victims of the 2013 draft lottery disaster, the Washington Mystics have also recovered to respectable levels. Mike Thibault, hired in 2013 as the team’s head coach/general manager, has pulled out all the stops in the front office, managing to jettison all of the team’s dead weight from 2012 and building a young, deep, solid roster through superior asset management and talent evaluation. They’ve made consecutive playoff appearances in 2013 and 2014 and are primed for a third in 2015, yet one can’t help but wonder what the ceiling of this Mystics team really is, and how their championship aspirations would look moving forward had they been righteously compensated in 2013’s historic draft class. They still have a lot of work to do to prove they’re that elusive team who can win without a superstar.

Granted, things look a little different in the WNBA now than they did in 2013. The level of competition is at an all-time high, leading to remarkable parity. If things continue this way, a rule ensuring that the worst team in the league doesn’t end up with the worst possibly lottery pick won’t seem very necessary. Still, this is a change that needed to happen, and with a quick look at the possible lottery candidates (which have yet to be decided for certain, of course), we can see that the updated system was put into place just in time.

The Seattle Storm, who have by far the worst cumulative record over the past two seasons (17-39) are clearly in rebuilding mode, as evidenced by the youth of their roster and the amount of playing time head coach Jenny Boucek is allowing her young talent (along with trading for the currently injured Monica Wright midseason). On the other hand, the Atlanta Dream’s current 7-13 record on the season is balanced out by their 2014 mark of 19-15. They’ve been hampered this season by several instances of players missing time to compete overseas (Tiffany Hayes, Aneika Henry) or not showing up at all (Celine Dumerc). Couple this with the superstar talent of Angel McCoughtry and continued growth of young pieces like Hayes, Shoni Schimmel, and Damiris Dantas, and you have a team that could easily bounce back next season without any lottery help.

Of course, the Draft Lottery system is still ultimately based on luck, so it’s impossible to predict how these rule changes will affect the lottery proceedings, if at all. What must be kept in mind is that the WNBA is a small league and there aren’t many lottery picks to be passed around, so there will always be a team that ends up in a less than ideal situation come draft day: not good enough to make any noise in the playoffs, but not bad enough to be compensated with a future star. There’s no getting around this.

It should be noted, though, that those heading the WNBA have realized the dynamics of their league are different from that of their male counterparts, and that a change was necessary to further develop its level of competition. For that, they should be commended.

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