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The NBA Lottery is Broken, but Fixing it Isn’t Easy

Let’s make one thing clear: The NBA Draft Lottery as it currently exists is a flawed system that discourages competitiveness and offers rewards for deliberate wretchedness.

But we shouldn’t change the system.

The current process of the NBA Draft Lottery means the team with the worst record in the league is given 25 percent of the possible lottery ball combinations. This corresponds to a one-in-four chance the worst team wins the lottery and the rights to the top pick in the draft. The second-worst gets 19.9 percent of the combinations, third-worst gets 15.6 percent, fourth-worst gets 11.9 percent and then it continues in a decreasing slope.

The current consensus among NBA fans and the majority of the media is that the current system rewards losing to such an extent that “rebuilding through the draft” has become front office-speak for “trade all our good basketball players and lose all of our games, fans be damned.” The argument continues that this is bad for the overall health of the league and results in multiple teams playing meaningless games or worse, intentionally setting their coaches and players up for failure.

Understandably, this is an issue. There have been a number of draft reforms presented by media members and front office types that promise to “fix” tanking forever. None of these schemes or gimmicks would result in a fairer system. (There’s one good proposal, though calling it a “reform” is a stretch.)

Reinventing the Wheel

The Wheel is a gloriously complex and revolutionary proposal first floated by Celtics general manager Mike Zarren. Teams would be placed on a ‘Wheel’ which rotates every year, cycling through the draft order over a 30-year period. Each team would then pick exactly once at each of the 30 draft positions over the 30-year window.

This version of the Draft is a radical change, removing the tie between on-court performance and draft position. What this achieves is twofold: it removes the incentive to lose games to improve draft odds as the draft order is locked in. It also ensures balance between the teams as each team picks at each position over the time-frame.

The problem? The Wheel removes the single redeeming quality of the Draft Lottery – hope. Bad teams can point to the lottery after each loss and say the defeat gives the team a better chance at landing the generational talent.

The Lottery also protects teams from themselves, which the Wheel does not. The Wheel dictates a team only has a top-five pick once every six seasons.

Now imagine this years’ Sixers picked first on the Wheel and drafts a bust. The Sixers would then be trapped in basketball hell with no chance of drafting a new star for half a decade. On the other side of this coin, the Golden State Warriors could be picking first this year despite being one of the best teams in the league, further consolidating the flow of assets to the league’s best and biggest teams and markets.

Draft Playoff?

Another attempt to reconfigure the end-of-season push for defeats among the league’s worst would be to enter the teams finishing outside the 16 playoff slots in a tournament that would eventually reward the winner with the top pick in the draft. An interesting measure that would provide the league with yet another revenue stream and another few weeks of meaningful games, but would it work?

Probably, probably not. In a vacuum, the idea seems airtight. Teams wouldn’t be able to tank entirely as they then couldn’t win the draft tournament. However, this once again prevents the genuinely terrible teams from rebuilding quickly.

The 2014 Milwaukee Bucks entered the season with designs on a playoff spot despite most predicting mediocrity at best. They ended up finishing with the worst record in the league while trying to win games, unlike the teams around them. They would have lost out had the draft been decided by a tournament they would have surely been eliminated from.

Also, who really wants to see any more games between Minnesota and New York? Or the Lakers and Sixers? Never mind an entire series to make sure the ‘best’ team wins.

Improving the Odds

Recently, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver proposed changing the formula that awards lottery combinations to the worst teams in the league. Silver’s formula: Subtract 41 from the number of losses a team has (41-41 being the mean record of the league), then square the result. The lottery odds would then be more accurate when you consider that the worst team is 5.1% more likely to pick first even if they only lose one more game – or even win on a coin flip.

Silver’s proposal seems the most likely to eliminate some of the rampant tanking (see tonight’s Sixers, Knicks and Timberwolves starting lineups and “injury” reports for further evidence) witnessed over the final two weeks of the season when bad teams lose all semblance of shame and unabashedly tank the games away.

It’s not pretty, but the current system is as close as we’ve come to a system that ensures bad teams can grow into good teams. Don’t fix what isn’t broken – you might just break it even more.

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