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Do the proposed changes to the NBA Draft Lottery matter?

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According to Grantland‘s Zach Lowe, the NBA has officially submitted a proposal to the competition committee for changes to the current draft lottery system. The exact details are fuzzy but Lowe mentioned some particulars that are likely to stick.

The league’s proposal gives at least the four worst teams the same chance at winning the no. 1 pick: approximately an identical 11 percent shot for each club. The odds decline slowly from there, with the team in the next spot holding a 10 percent chance. The lottery team with the best record will have a 2 percent chance of leaping to the no. 1 pick, up from the the minuscule 0.5 percent chance it has under the current system.

The proposal also calls for the drawing of the first six picks via the Ping-Pong ball lottery, sources say. The current lottery system actually involves the drawing of only the top three selections. The rest of the lottery goes in order of record, from worst to best, after the top-three drawing is over.

The league could implement lottery reform as early as next season, though there are many hurdles to overcome before then. And it’s important to note that the league has kicked around several different proposals with varying weights; the 11 percent figure for the first teams is not universal among those proposals, sources say.

Let’s be clear: This is an effort by the league to lessen the concerns of fans that teams will tank to garner higher picks in the lottery. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has not shied away from the idea of making changes to the lottery since starting the of his tenure in early February, although he did deny that any evidence of tanking existed. However, in the words of The Boondocks’ Gin Rummy (of course he didn’t say it first but let’s say he did for Fun’s sake), “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” Silver’s denial of tanking  might have been a throwaway comment if this hadn’t happened.

The Milwaukee Bucks still finished the season with four less wins than the Philadelphia 76ers at the end of the season with an anemic record of 15-67. Tanking is as real as the oxygen you are breathing right now. The time for denial is over. Action is necessary to prevent front offices from finding incentives to suck on purpose. Tanking consecutive seasons is not fair to fans and skewers the reputation of the NBA. In fairness, Commissioner Silver had been proactively seeking suggestions to amend the lottery. His punctuality is a good sign for the league going forward, but it’s unclear that this proposal does anything to prevent blatant tanking.

A consensus for change is rare until extreme circumstances arise or controversy is stirred. Prior to 1985, teams drafted in reverse order of their win-loss record, similar to what we see in the NFL draft today. That changed in 1984 when pundits proclaimed that the Houston Rockets were throwing games in order to position themselves for the No.1 pick (the first pick of the 1984 draft was Hakeem Olajuwon). The uproar led to the NBA’s first lottery system which gave each team that did not qualify for the playoffs the same probability to obtain the no.1 pick.  Of course, the New York Knicks won the “rigged” 1985 draft and people continue to cry, “Conspiracy!” to this day. The NBA can’t win no matter how they handle this.


Additional changes were made to the lottery in 1990 which reflect what we have today – the weight lottery system. In 25 years, two outliers have occurred where teams have won more frequently than the odds would suggest: the Orlando Magic in the early 90s (’92 and ’93) and the Cleveland Cavaliers in three of the last four seasons (’10, ’13, and ’14). Those aren’t great results but they don’t scream collusion either.

The top overall pick is probably the most valuable asset a team can acquire although there’s no black magic to guarantee the pick. Draft lotteries by their nature are just dumb luck. Probabilities can be improved with worse records, and most general managers believe there’s no reason to put a decent team on the court if it takes them further away from the chance to draft a franchise cornerstone. Returning to a format where all teams have equal chances to win the draft lottery is probably the most amicable move for front offices and fans alike.

The Cavaliers had a 1.70 % chance of winning the lottery and got the top pick. The Cavaliers earnestly tried to make the playoffs this year including giving up valuable assets to trade for Luol Deng. The 2013-2014 Cavs were bad for a number of reasons, but “not trying” is absent from that list. Thanks to good fortune, they are so loaded that they are likely going to move the top pick in the draft so they can contend for a championship immediately. The NBA, where crazy happens.

Incompetency comes in all forms. Sometimes it’s rewarded. Sometimes it’s just a perpetual state of being. The draft lottery is meant to spur competitive balance, but there’s no way the league could spread the balance of power through the draft lottery without unfair intervention. The current proposal is a step in the right direction, but the lottery is always going to be an unpredictable beast. Giving everyone the same odds would best serve all parties who care about the sport. Front offices would actually be held to higher standards instead of making empty promises for the future because tanking would no longer be a valid option, and fans would not be subjected to subpar basketball. I’ll just warn you beforehand, it’s never happening.

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