• What effect will the NBA's lottery reform have on the draft? The recent changes feel more like a half-baked measure than a solution.
By Andrew Sharp
September 29, 2017

Most of the people who complain about tanking don't really care about the NBA in the first place. That's not a scientific fact or anything, but it's what I've found through the years, and it's a good place to start. The people who try to say that tanking is an embarrassment, a scourge on the NBA, a problem that needs to be fixed before the league can be taken seriously—almost always, these are not real NBA fans, because basketball fans get it.

There are only two or three transcendent players available in the draft each year, and at a certain point in every team's life cycle, it makes sense to tear it all down and hope you get lucky in the lottery. This is generally well-received among fans who really care about their team. On a national level, tanking or not, we already ignore about 60% of the teams in the league. For example, the Pistons weren't tanking last year, but did you watch a Pistons game? If anything the top of the lottery generates meaningful interest in markets that would be irrelevant otherwise.

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It's how we watch basketball now. In any given year there are only a handful of teams bad enough to have real hope at the best lottery odds, and tracking the race to the bottom has become its own pastime for most NBA fans. It adds a layer of intrigue to a regular season that's about eight weeks too long, and it's part of the meta-game of team-building that's helped the sport explode online over the last 10 years.

That's not to say that the Suns rolling out a younger starting lineup than 90% of the Sweet 16 is great for the sport, but it's not crippling anyone, either. Would everyone rather watch Eric Bledsoe push for 30 wins? Again, I'm pretty sure that the people offended by tanking weren't watching March Phoenix Suns games either way.

Jennifer Pottheiser/NBA

So that's one reason to be skeptical of the NBA Lottery reforms that were passed at the league's owners meetings on Thursday. These feel like changes designed to placate people who never paid attention to the NBA anyway.

If the reforms are also an olive branch to owners who complain about lost revenue because of ghost teams like the Suns, Sixers, and Kings, well, that part makes sense. But there will always be bad teams nobody wants to watch, so what are we really accomplishing?

There's another puzzling element here. If the league and its owners are trying to reduce the number of teams punting away wins for the final three months of the season, I wonder whether they didn't just make the problem worse.

Look at the percentages under the 2019 system:

Imagine it's February 2019. The three worst teams will have an equal shot at landing the top pick to draft Canadian guard R.J. Barrett, and there's going to be some very real incentive for the fourth and fifth-worst teams to lose their way into that top three, while the three worst teams will try to out-lose them to stay there. That's five teams with compelling reasons to lose. Likewise, if the fifth and sixth-worst teams in the league have a 30% chance at landing in the top three, there's going to be some teams on the outside the playoffs that will think hard about punting the final two months of the season.

Last year's Hornets, for example—they went 7–19 to fall out of the playoff race in January and February before salvaging things with a 9–7 run in March. Even last year, that March run felt counter-productive. But with the new incentives, it would make a lot of sense for a team in that position to consider assigning phantom injuries to someone like Kemba Walker, hoping to give themselves a chance at the top three. That's easier to execute in theory than it is on a team with real humans who care about winning, but conceding the stretch run will be tempting regardless.

It will be true of almost any team you put in that position. The chance at a top three pick is worth so much more than a 36-win season. Once you start opening the door for six or seven teams to have a real shot at the top of the draft, it'll be stranger if mediocre teams don't tank games down the stretch.

If the league were serious about eliminating tanking, the best solution would probably be to randomize the lottery entirely by make everyone's odds even. This would create heightened incentives for teams on the playoff bubble to lose at the very end—think last year's Heat—but in that case they'd be sacrificing playoff revenue and the national audience that comes with the playoffs. That's much harder to sacrifice than a handful of meaningless wins in March.

Speaking strictly as a fan, randomizing the entire top 14 would turn lottery night into one of the wildest nights of the NBA year. It'd be great. It could also put the best young players in the league on teams that can actually compete. Imagine Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball in Miami or Denver this year. This is the one tanking solution we should all support.

Of course, even if you eliminate tanking, the underlying problem will still be there. There will be plenty of games that don't matter—Suns-Pistons in March!—only now those franchises would have even less hope, with owners who are even more frustrated. That's probably why we have this week's half-baked solution instead.

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As of 2019 there will be less incentive for teams to be extremely bad, but more incentive for disappointing teams to remove any pretense of being good. How will that look? Will there be less losing, or more? As superstars continue to pair up at the top of the league, will odds even matter? Do we really think the bottom of the league is going to be invested in making incremental progress toward an eighth seed? More specifically: given Russell Westbrook's unsigned extension, did the NBA just pass yet another rule that has a chance to royally screw the Oklahoma City Thunder? If the Lakers pick doesn't convey to Boston this year, where will that 2019 Kings pick land? How does this affect its trade value? And is everyone prepared for the Sixers to christen the new anti-Sixers lottery odds by winning the 2019 Lottery?

There's a lot to consider once we get to next year. Until then, please enjoy the Bulls, Knicks, Hawks, Kings, Pacers, Mavericks, and Magic, all of them in the final year they can control their destiny at the bottom. The final tankathon is almost here.

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