Tanking has been quite the topical conversation starter in the NBA this season. Maybe it was because there was a shortened 66-game season that ESPN, TrueHoop and several websites hammered on the topic ad nauseaum over the past few months (even on this site, quite eloquently by Ben). But, realistically, in order to solve the issue of tanking, one thing should be fixed instead: the draft lottery.
Obviously, basketball is unique because it has a perfect schedule length and draft setup for tanking to be a possibly effective strategy for teams. With only 82 games (usually), as opposed to the NFL’s 16 and MLB’s 162, there’s a possibility that a 6-10 game stretch or more could significantly alter a team’s drafting position. The same is then true in the National Hockey League, but, for some odd reason, despite that league’s similar use of a draft lottery, not as big of a media deal is made of tanking.
Continuing forward, unlike football and baseball, basketball is a supremely star-heavy league. In football, an awful team like the Indianapolis Colts can draft the player many consider to be the best prospect in decades — Andrew Luck — but it likely won’t even give them an extra 3-4 wins next year unless they can add more pieces. In baseball, even a highly touted prospect such as Bryce Harper takes at least one or two years to become an effective MLB player, and, from there, one single player can’t make as much of a difference among 25 on the roster.
Thus, in the NBA, stars make all the difference. That point has been made on and on again here at WFNY because of our experience with a certain Cavaliers player last decade. In this situation now, why should it be tossed up into the air in the form of a lottery for NBA teams that aren’t the worst in the league to possibly get that first pick and/or improve their draft order? Inherently, that would seem to just promote teams to keep losing for reward.
The current system of 1,000 odds in the draft lottery has been relatively stable since 1994. (There was a brief lapse from 1996-1998, as the expansion Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies were ineligible to win the lottery, thus altering the odds.) Previous systems in years past included a total of 66 odds and an even system of 1/7th odds to all of the seven non-playoff teams. A type of lottery has been in place since 1985.
During this most recent form, over the last 18 years, only twice has the worst team (or tied for the worst team) won the lottery. This happened in 2003 for Cleveland (LeBron James) and 2004 for Orlando (Dwight Howard). Additionally, only three times has the second-worst team won the lottery. Let’s take a look at how things have transpired since 1999 in table form.
New Jersey Nets
Portland Trail Blazers
Los Angeles Clippers
Cleveland Cavaliers (via LA Clippers)
*There was a shortened 50-game season leading up to the 1999 lottery. Then the third-worst team won the drawing. Sound familiar for Cavs fans right now?
So, yet again, some of the biggest stars in the league over the past decade (Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, etc.) have been decided by a lottery, not by which team is most deserving or in need. Oddly enough, I’ve even heard reports and tweets that teams ideally look to be in the third and fifth spots, because those have been the most successful in the lottery’s history (yay math!) This lottery system then also sparks cries of controversy when a media darling like the New York Knicks win, and cries of outrage when teams like the Charlotte Bobcats never win.
Thus, what would the league look like if the lottery was removed? Draft orders, minus mundane tiebreakers, would be decided on the last day of the regular season just like in the NFL and MLB. From there, the speculation and intrigue for the next two-plus months leading up to the draft would be just on the No. 1 pick, and not on the peculiarities of the lottery. (Imagine if it was up to chance that the Colts could take Andrew Luck, and how much ESPN would eat that up.)
During the season, teams such as the Golden State Warriors would not be at such an advantage to keep losing and supposedly tanking. Their incentive would have to simply maintain a top No. 10 pick to maintain draft protection, while this year, they had to rally to get to a tie for No. 7 to virtually assure no way they could fall below 10 in the lottery. Also, Golden State or any team maintains the very slight odds of moving all the way up to one of the top three slots in the draft, again rewarding tanking by increasing those odds that should never exist in the first place.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the lottery (evidence here), nor will it be the last. Yes, I think its existence builds up intrigue in items such as mock lotteries, keeps fan interested throughout the end of the regular season and creates a primetime show for ESPN in the actual lottery itself. But, there is a risk associated with having this lottery, and there’s no doubt it has an impact on tanking since teams can continue to lose in the blinding hopes of making striking big with the ping-pong balls.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, obviously, the lottery has been quite good to them. In 2003, the team was simply tied for the worst record, and, last year in 2011, the Clippers at the eighth slot helped us select Kyrie Irving. For many teams, this has been a surprise sensation where after a bad but not merely awful year, they get the blessing of the offseason gamble and get a huge piece for the future.
But, just as equally striking, teams like the Charlotte Bobcats continue to falter without ever getting the star necessary to actually be competitive in the league. In terms of true competitive balance, a normal draft order without a lottery would more fairly distribute stars among the worst teams, especially in the case of trades (think Detroit in 2003).
ESPN, TrueHoop and all those other groups should be paying a bit more attention to this point, as opposed to abstract items that the league cannot actually control. A removal of the lottery system would remove the mirage of chance that always exists for bad teams that possibly leads to more tanking.
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.