Conspiracy theories were once the issue with the NBA Draft Lottery, but the issue in recent seasons has become teams tanking in order to position themselves with the best odds to secure a high pick.
Put delicately, several teams have traded key players, kept healthy players on the injured list, given key minutes to end-of-the-bench guys, etc. in order to lose more games and earn additional ping pong balls, with the goal of obtaining a better draft pick. You can certainly make a strong case that it’s in the best interests of certain rebuilding teams to do exactly that. While undoubtedly some merit exists for these types of decisions, several teams have crossed the “tanking” line over the past few years.
The current Philadelphia 76ers provide the most blatant example of tanking in recent memory. The team ensured itself a horrible win-loss record last season, and has made no apparent attempt whatsoever to improve the roster this season. As a result, the NBA proposed changes to the existing draft lottery, whereby the teams with the four worst records would each have equal odds at the top draft pick, and the team with the fifth worst record would have a slight drop in odds, and as follows. The result would lead to teams having less incentive to tank at the worst-record end, but could incentivize those teams with borderline playoff hopes to play the lottery instead and hope to hit the jackpot. In a surprise result, the proposal did not receive enough votes to pass, so the league keeps its current lottery structure intact – for now.
So the question facing the league remains how best to alter the lottery to reduce the incentive for teams to tank, while also helping teams improve through the draft in a fair manner. The answer is to keep the current system in place, while implementing rules along the following lines:
1) No team can have a top three pick in back to back seasons.
2) No team can have a top three pick more than twice in a five year rolling period.
3) No team can have a top five pick in three straight seasons.
I mention implementing rules “along the following lines” to indicate that the three proposed rules above are to serve as a starting point for discussion. There may be tweaks that improve the rules further, so the point here is to provide the framework as to how to go about reforming the lottery. Under this new proposal, there is still some incentive to tank (there always will be unless you go with the wheel idea), but the rewards are greatly reduced if you plan to tank over the long haul. Further, and what may be most exciting about the idea, is the possibility of watching teams reverse tank in certain years. For example, the 2013 NBA draft was widely viewed as a down year, and that view has proven to be correct. Imagine teams with the worst records, with these rules in effect, feverishly trying to improve their rosters in order to not finish at the bottom of the standings! Or in other words, imagine all teams trying to win as many games as possible – oh what a thought! That’s because whichever teams won the top three lottery spots in 2013 under this proposal would be ineligible for a top-3 pick the following season, and could only end up in the top-5 two more times in the following four years. Want to avoid such a fate? Simple, win more games.
Let’s take a look at the proposal from the Philadelphia 76ers’ lens now. The 76ers made the decision to tank for the 2013-2014 season, which they most likely still would have done if these proposed rules were in place, due to the strength of the 2014 draft. OK, so looking at how the 76ers fared, they did a magnificent job of tanking during the season, but they came up a bit short of the grand prize when they ended up with the number three pick. So now where they would sit for the 2015 season, they could draft no higher than fourth this season, and could get no more than two top five picks over the next four years. Yeah, they could still tank if they want and shoot for the highest pick possible over the following four years (so the goal would be another top three pick for the 2016, 2017 or 2018 season, the fourth or fifth pick somewhere among the 2015-2018 seasons, plus the sixth overall pick during the other two years). But, not being able to pick in the top three for back to back years would lessen the incentive to tank for more than one season, as would knowing that they would not be able to pick in the top five each season. So instead, the 76ers would more likely try to tank for one or two years max, and then try to improve as much as possible immediately afterwards. This should be the intent of NBA teams. But with the current system in place, teams have less incentive to get better quickly.
Now let’s take more of a macro look at how the process would work for the league. For purposes of this example, we will use the 2014 draft lottery as the initial year of the proposal. So we had the Cavs win the first pick, the Bucks take pick number two and the 76ers had pick number 3. And just for the purposes of the example, assume that the same fourteen teams were in the lottery the following season, and that each team had the exact same record as the previous season. The example is set up in this manner to demonstrate how we would implement teams’ draft pick assignments in subsequent years of the lottery. We would have the following lottery percentages going in (without implementing the new rules):
Hypothetical Lottery Odds for 2015
Milwaukee Bucks 25%
Philadelphia 76ers 19.9%
Orlando Magic 15.6%
Utah Jazz 10.4%
Boston Celtics 10.3%
Los Angeles Lakers 6.3%
Sacramento Kings 4.3%
Detroit Pistons 2.8%
Cleveland Cavaliers 1.7%
New Orleans Pelicans 1.1%
Denver Nuggets 0.8%
New York Knicks 0.7%
Minnesota Timberwolves 0.6%
Phoenix Suns 0.5%
So we know as well that the Bucks, 76ers and Cavaliers cannot have picks in the top-3 since they had such picks the previous season. As such, the Bucks would get the 4th overall pick, the Philadelphia 76ers would get the 5th pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers would get anywhere from the 9th pick to the 12th pick, depending on how the teams ahead of them fare in the lottery. This would also remove the ping pong ball combinations for the Bucks, 76ers and Cavs from the hopper, which would increase the percentages for each of the remaining eleven teams in a proportional manner. In other words, 46.6% of the combinations would be removed, which would adjust the Orlando Magic’s percentage to 29.2% for this year’s lottery, the Utah Jazz to 19.5%, etc. Now one more important note here is that the 76ers and Bucks would not be eligible for a top-5 pick for the 2016 draft under these rules, since they would have been in the top-5 for two years in a row. However, if they were to win a few more games and avoid the top-5 for the 2014-2015 season, then they could make themselves eligible for a top-3 pick again for the 2015-2016 season. Or they can just forego tanking and try to win games. And let’s just assume for ease of example that the Magic, Jazz and Celtics took the top-3 spots in the 2015 lottery. Then, the Magic and Jazz would not be eligible for a top five pick the following season, since they would have been in the top-5 for two years in a row, and the Celtics would not be top-3 eligible, but would be top-5 eligible.
If you work through the examples, you will see that the opportunity to obtain high draft picks would be spread among various teams, and not just randomly as the wheel idea would assign. Instead, the high picks would go to the teams that need the picks, but would also incentivize teams obtaining the top picks to improve quickly rather than tank on a long basis. And if a team doesn’t draft well or gets the bad luck of getting high picks in years where the draft is not as strong, that team is not doomed. They will be set back a bit, but not on a crisis basis - or at least not because of the draft.
As mentioned, the proposed framework here is just that – a framework from which to start. More would need to be sorted out, such as how such a proposal would deal impact trades, etc. All such issues can be worked out. This proposal provides the best balance of curbing tanking while also making sure that high draft picks go to teams that need them. And once again, we will see seasons of anti-tanking (or as otherwise described, attempts to win) taking place by lower rung teams in years with draft classes which front offices deem to be poor. Just imagine Basketball Twitter handicapping the anti-tanking races.
- Neema Hodjat is the fantasy sports expert for RealGM, and a regular contributor to the football, basketball and baseball content. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter at @NeemaHodjat.