The NBA’s board of governors will vote on September 28th whether to institute proposed changes to the draft lottery process that would smooth out the number of ping pong balls among the worst teams. Reports indicate that the worst three teams would see their percentages decrease from 25%, 19.9%, and 15.6% down to 14% each, with the odds for the remaining 11 lottery participants decreasing incrementally from there.
The league attempted to pass a lottery reform three years ago in the wake of Philadelphia’s “Process”. All indications pointed to the proposal passing with relative ease – until it didn’t. At the last minute, the small market teams banded together and feared they were being too reactionary to an extreme case of tanking. They vetoed the proposal and three years later, they find themselves back at the voting booth.
So the question becomes, does the process need to be changed? The NBA implemented the lottery feature in 1985. Since then the team with the worst overall record has received the top selection just 7 times out of 33 years, or 21% of the time. Compare that to any other major US sport where the worst team has gotten the first overall pick 100% of the time, and it begs the question: why is the NBA the sport with a tanking problem?
The answer to that lies with the importance of one single star player to a basketball team. In a sport where there are only five players on the floor and everyone plays both offense and defense, one player can have the type of transformational impact on the team’s fate that can’t be reached on other playing fields. The most obvious case is the Cleveland Cavaliers. When LeBron James made the decision to leave for Miami the team dropped from 61 wins all the way down to 19. When he came back they rose from 33 wins to 53 and the NBA Finals. Yes, he brought along Kevin Love, but Kevin Love doesn’t come to the Cavaliers if LeBron James isn’t on the team.
See, the impact of a star stretches even further than on court production; it legitimizes your franchise. Look at the Milwaukee Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo. They were a middling franchise, but now that they found a cornerstone star in the draft they are in more national TV games and picked to have a high seed for the playoffs. They were able to attract a big name head coach, and even sign a prized (at the time) free agent in Greg Monroe. The same can be said for Houston with James Harden. The Rockets obviously have a rich history but the addition of a single star in Harden allowed them to outbid the vaunted Lakers for Dwight Howard and, more recently, bring in Chris Paul.
You can’t change this, it’s fundamental to the sport. It took the San Antonio Spurs 15 years of on-court dominance to land a marquee free agent. The best proven opportunity for teams to acquire a superstar is through the draft. If losing a few meaningless games at the end of the year helps a team do that, most teams will. So if teams are going to tank, don’t you want it to be the worst teams? The worst case scenario would be if a team was to tank out of a playoff spot in order to get into the lottery. That would actively hurt the fan base that spent their money, time, and passion supporting the team all season only to watch them duck out of the playoffs at the last minute. It might be far-fetched but some reports have proposed plans that would smooth the percentages out among all the lottery teams. Faced with the option of being the sacrificial lamb to the Golden State Warriors in the first round or having decent odds at a top three-to-five pick, which would you choose?
Changes to the lottery system may just change where teams tank. The trade-off from competing for the playoffs and the odds of a high pick will be skewed. Furthermore, nearly every draft pick that’s traded these days comes with protections – top 3, top 8, lottery, whatever it may be. Organizations that are close to keeping those picks are some of the biggest culprits of the recent tanking. The Los Angeles Lakers very obviously selected that path last year. If you increase the odds of better teams getting higher draft picks, a team that may otherwise be out of reach of maintaining their pick may now be a few late season losses away from a legitimate percent chance to keep it.
On top of that, not every bad team is tanking. Some teams with bad records are trying to win but they simply don’t have enough talent. The new draft lottery reform hurts those teams by lowering their odds to get a high selection.
The league is desperate to get tanking out of the headlines, but they need to be careful not to overreact to an outlier. Philadelphia went to the extreme, and it shook the league. The big wigs from the top came in and pushed the architect of that movement – Sam Hinkie – out, and no one has been bold enough to attempt to replicate his process. When you’re dealing with a Collective Bargaining Agreement as complex as the NBA’s every small move has a myriad of unintended consequences. The league needs to proceed with extreme caution that those consequences won’t end up being worse than the original problem.
Follow David on Twitter @dmcgowan24