Often criticized for encouraging teams to tank, the current NBA draft lottery format is here to stay, because it actually works.
NEW YORK -- The microfiber ball. The extended three-point line. The 2-3-2 playoff format. When it comes to tweaking its rules, the NBA has the kind of shaky track record James Dolan would roll his eyes at. It’s commendable the league devotes so much time looking for ways to improve the game, and some changes (elimination of hand checking, harsh penalties for on-court violence) have had a positive impact. But too many times you wonder why the NBA isn’t willing to leave well enough alone.
On Wednesday, it did, voting down (sort of) a proposed revamping of the draft lottery. Lottery reform picked up a majority of the votes (17) but, per league rules, any change requires 23 yea's to pass. It was stunning, really. Just 24 hours earlier officials in Philadelphia, which is opposed to any changes that will adversely effect the masters class they are teaching in tanking and Oklahoma City, which has become the de facto spokesperson for small market teams, were resigned to losing the vote in a rout. Instead, the Philadelphia/Oklahoma City faction picked up enough support to get any changes tabled.
Said NBA commissioner Adam Silver, “Ultimately the board unanimously agreed to send the issue back to the competition committee for additional study.”Since lottery reform became the topic du jour last year, I’ve had one question: What exactly is wrong with the existing system? Under current rules, the team with the worst record has a 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick. The proposed change would give the teams with the four worst records a 12 percent shot. Currently, the furthest the team with the worst record can fall in the draft order is fourth. The new system would drop them to seventh. Today, the bottom three teams have 64 percent, 56 percent and 47 percent chances of getting top-three picks. That would have changed to 35 percent. Reformers believe changes will discourage tanking, but in the last 21 years only three teams that finished the season with the worst record have secured the top pick. Cleveland, which has been varying degrees of bad the last four years, has picked first in three of them.
Statistically, tanking to get to No. 1, doesn’t work.
The NBA and the NHL are the only sports that even have a lottery. The NFL doesn’t. Teams there tank pretty brazenly towards the end of the season, with fan-driven slogans (remember "Suck for Luck?") effectively encouraging it. You don’t see the NFL -- the most successful league in sports -- rushing to make sweeping changes. And it’s not like tanking is new. Have you seen the 1996-1997 Celtics roster? M.L. Carr was signing guys off the street to wear the green. At least, I think that’s where Brett Szabo came from.
The lottery reform movement feels fueled by two things: The Sixers, and social media’s reaction to what the Sixers are doing. Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie has made no apologies for his lose-to-win approach. After a 19-win season, Hinkie is perfectly willing to endure another historically bad year if it means getting the right pieces in place for long-term success. It’s a valid approach. Would you rather be the Sixers, a team with a core of Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric or, say, Sacramento, which has a franchise center in DeMarcus Cousins and a mixture of so-so talent around him? This with the understanding that Philadelphia has become a punch line, a fact the NBA is all too aware of.“I'd say from a personal standpoint, what I'm most concerned about is the perception out there right now,” Silver said. “I think that's a corrosive perception out there.”
Silver’s fears are understandable, but the Sixers are a unique case. A confluence of events has put them in this position. Noel’s knee injury. Embiid’s foot injury. Saric’s decision to play in Europe this season. If Noel isn’t hurt last season, if Embiid and Saric are in the starting lineup on opening night this season, are we having this conversation? Moreover, while revenue sharing and an owner-friendly split of the pot makes absorbing bad seasons easier to swallow -- the new CBA really did make owning an NBA team idiot proof -- how many owners will be willing, like Philadelphia’s Josh Harris, to watch the losses pile up and attendance dwindle? How many G.M.’s have the job security of Hinkie?
There’s another reason to veto lottery reform, and it’s why so many small market teams lined up against it. For them, the draft represents hope. The NBA has aggressively attempted to level the playing field between small and big markets, but the natural advantage of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago still exists. And with the salary cap expected to jump to north of $80 million in 2016, smart small market teams (like the Thunder) could be at a greater disadvantage when chasing free agents. For them, building through the draft -- and the chokehold teams have on players the first five years of their careers -- isn’t just the best way to produce a winner. It’s the only way.
This issue will undoubtedly be revisited, with the 17 owners who voted for a new system hoping a few tweaks will get six teams to switch sides. Really though, the NBA should take the proposal and do what it did with the microfiber ball: Throw it in the trash.