Instead of Fixing Tanking, NBA Should Remove the Lottery

NBA Draft Lottery

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.

1999Chicago Bulls13-37* (3rd)15.7%
2000New Jersey Nets31-51 (7th)4.4%
2001Washington Wizards19-63 (3rd)15.7%
2002Houston Rockets28-54 (5th)8.9%
2003Cleveland Cavaliers17-65 (T-worst)22.5%
2004Orlando Magic21-61 (worst)25.0%
2005Milwaukee Bucks30-52 (6th)6.3%
2006Toronto Raptors27-55 (5th)8.8%
2007Portland Trail Blazers32-50 (6th)5.3%
2008Chicago Bulls33-49 (9th)1.7%
2009Los Angeles Clippers19-63 (2nd)17.7%
2010Washington Wizards26-56 (5th)10.3%
2011Cleveland Cavaliers (via LA Clippers)32-50 (8th)2.8%


*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.

[Related: Cavs Win Coin Toss Tiebreakers for NBA Draft]

  • Brian

    Wouldn’t the tanking problem be 100x worse if there were no lottery? 
    Best thing the league can do is somehow force teams to be intelligent about drafting and developing players. I’m certain you could give the Spurs the 6th pick, or the 9th pick, or the 3rd pick, and they’d get (or make) a contributer out of whoever they get. You could give Golden State the first pick every year and they would continue to be terrible somehow.

  • Rciofani

    I don’t understand your argument, Jacob. 

    The article doesn’t make it clear. You get rid of the lottery…OK. And how does this discourage tanking?

  • Dino33

    Agreed. Tanking could and will exist with or without the lottery. Lose more games… Get a higher pick. It’s pretty simple really. One may actually be able to argue the opposite – that the lottery may slow some tanking. Yes… Lose more games increases your odds, but it’s not a sure thing to better your draft spot.

  • Adam Rosen

    Tanking is blown way out of proportion and the lottery is a remedy that is too extreme.  I totally agree we should get rid of the lottery because the impact on supposed tanking is marginal at best.  In a league as star driven as the NBA, getting the top pick should not be left to chance.  

  • mgbode

    if there is no lottery, then to properly tank a team would need to start from game1.  this would be so damaging wtih it’s fans, that rarely a team would attempt it (you could argue the Lucas Cavaliers did just this with that roster but it was for a player deemed to save the franchise – and technically it worked out)

    if there is an equal lottery (as truehoop suggested as an option), then there will be a higher possibility of teams ‘not’ wanting to make the playoffs to gain such an advantage.

    if there is a tournament of non-playoff teams, then there is actually incentive for teams to tank themselves out of the playoffs.

    there is no perfect system, i don’t mind the current one.

  • Natedawg86

    So if you tank to worst place with a lottery you get more of a chance to possibly get pick number 1, but if there is no lottery and you tank to be the worst you are guaranteed 1st pick?  How would no lottery discourage tanking?  I agree with Brian.  

    I don’t think there is a way to discourage tanking other than moral integrity.

  • LeoC

    This is why the NBA is as pathetic as it is. A team can’t survive unless they get a star player and the coaches are just pawns being moved around and always getting blamed for the bad results. When really the problems fall on the players themselves. Sure getting the worst record in this league doesn’t guarantee the top pick but its just pathetic how blatantly teams do it and the league really doesn’t care. There’s just no way a team like Charlotte is THAT bad to only win 5 games. This is a professional league with players in the best league on the planet. There really shouldn’t be any reason for any team to win less than 20-25 games a year. Tanking, horrid officiating, and no accountability from the top brass is why this league is falling fast. The NHL who lost a FULL SEASON not too long ago is becoming more popular than the NBA. Yikes!

  • Steve

     I’m not sure there’s no way they aren’t that bad. I, sadly, remember that game earlier this month where the Cavs/Charge beat the Bobcats. The Bobcats had only a couple guys who looked like they belonged above the d-league

  • porckchopexpress

    A single elmination tournament (with restrictions on players eligible) for the number one pick would eliminate tanking for all but the 7 and 8 see teams in each conference.  It is simply not reasonable to assume a team sitting 6th or above would even consider it considering they would generally have to go on something like a .250 winning percentage slide for 20 games to get into the lottery tourney, which would mean somehow gutting a playoff roster, and then hoping that their gutted roster could pull off the win.
    Wait 4 teams could still tank nevermind. It makes much more sense to have 14 teams in some form of tanking for almost half the season than to have everyone playing competitive ball, and taking the chance that four teams in precarious playoff spots might drop games to get a shot at the number one pick.  It makes even less sense that in this system you would still have to actually EARN the number one pick. 

    I think it makes total sense to have half the teams in the league openly throwing more than half their games away for the 10% chance of getting a number one pick, a chance that almost everyone has thought at one point or another is RIGGED. 
    I mean why reduce tanking by 90%, increase competition, and let everyone know that the Number 1 pick went to a team that actually deserved it?  Sounds pretty stupid to me.

  • Steve

    We’ve gone over this. Fine, you’ve eliminated tanking about as well as possible. But you still have to give the least talented teams a chance to get better. Last year, in your tournament, the Cavs would get bounced easily in their first game of your tournament, and end up with (whoever you want that was picked between 9 and 14 last year instead of Irving) and no Tristan Thompson. They’d be one of the two worst teams this year as a result, get bounced immediately again, and end up with someone like Zeller or Lilliard. We’ve already seen the Cavs go through that cycle in the late 90s, early 00s, where they continuously didn’t get to pick until the best players were gone and  kept adding mediocre talent and going nowhere. Except instead of maybe winning 40 games every once in a while, we’d be sitting at 25. And you’re doing that in at least 3 other cities as well. Good luck getting people to show up.

  • porckchopexpress

    The Cavs continually didn’t pick until the best players were gone because, especially under Fratello they picked near the end of the lottery, in other words they were one of the teams that would have had the best shot at winning the “tourney”. Remember under the lottery system they actually traded away a very good player to lose enough games to “win” the lottery. 
     There are two thing that this or no system can control;
    1.  A team or two tanking someone will always try to beat the system. If you have the minutes played limits I suggested you would keep this type of tanking to a bare minimum.
    2.  Teams run by terrible ownership.  If you are a bad owner and hire bad people to work for you your team will be bad.  It doesn’t mean your team will have to go away, it just means they will be bad.  Sports are so lucrative that you can run terrbile franchise for 25-30 years and still make enough money to not sell.
    Even drafting no higher than 12, if you make good picks and use free agency money wisely you will build a solid roster and when you are ready to compete you win the tourney and get a shot at an no. 1 pick.
    Here’s an interesting factoid for you.  The lottery began in 1985.  Do you know how many #1 picks have won a title for the team that drafted them?

    I’ll give you a hint, they “both” played on the same team.  The number one pick is no sure thing, but you have to get so bad to get a shot at it, you either never have time to build a team around the player, you are terribly managed which led to the pick in the first place, or the no. 1 pick is surrounded by such terrible players that it intsills bad habits in him, limiting his potential. 

    I’m sorry, I just blather on about this, I just really think the lottery is about the worst way to get good basketball, and my inner sports dork doesn’t wear cleats, or a helmet, he’s in Chucks and nutter shorts. 

  • Steve

     Yes, they picked near the bottom of the lottery because they were better than most lottery teams. Now you have them picking near the bottom because they are worst. They doesn’t fix anything. I’m not sure how many more ways there are to say this before you figure it out.

    Yes, poorly run teams will still be poorly run, but you don’t even give them hope.

    And cutting it off at #1s who have won the championship is a poor measure. The lottery is to help teams get back to competitiveness, the first step, not winning a championship, the final step. And you can get great players at 3-5. How many top 5 picks have helped turn their team from also-ran to competitive? A whole lot.

    And I’m not sure where your scientific study of drafting no higher than 12 is proven, but I’m skeptical. Even the Spurs, the pinnacle when it comes to drafting well, and using free agency wisely, have absolutely needed their lottery pick.