On Wednesday, Oct. 22, NBA team owners voted on a proposal to change the current structure of the NBA draft lottery. It was expected that the league’s owners would vote overwhelmingly in favor of the changes, so its failure to pass has come as a shock to those in the basketball world. Under the current system, the 14 NBA teams that do not qualify for the playoffs are all entered into a lottery to determine which teams will receive the first three picks of the draft. Each of the 14 lottery teams is assigned a group of four-digit number sequences based on their record during the regular season. For example, the team with the worst record at the end of the regular season will receive 250 out of 1000 possible combinations. The number sequences that are drawn are determined by the selection of four balls out of a standard lottery machine. After the lottery process determines the first three picks, the rest of the 14 picks are determined in inverse order of the remaining teams’ win-loss records. The proposal on which the owners voted would have given each of the four worst teams an 11% chance for receiving the top pick. The fifth-worst team would receive a 10% chance of claiming the top picks, and the odds after that would decrease in inverse order of win-loss record.
Since the current draft lottery gives so much weight to the very worst teams, there is incentive for mediocre or bad teams to lose as many games as possible in order to secure the best possible odds for the draft lottery. Recently, the Philadelphia 76ers have come under fire for putting together a team made up of marginal NBA players. Last year they finished with an abysmal win-loss record of 19-63. The 76ers and their general manager, Sam Hinkie, have been blunt about their desire to be as bad as possible in order to free up salary-cap space and to secure high draft picks. Whether or not it ends up being effective is beside the point, since even the idea of tanking hurts the competitive balance for which the league strives. Under the current draft format, it is advantageous for a mediocre team to tank rather than try to finish the season with a middling record. For example, if a team is the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference with five weeks left to go in the season, that team would be better served to tank the rest of the season and improve their odds for a high draft pick rather than finish the season missing the playoffs, with no high draft pick to show for it. The funny thing about all of this controversy is that the worst team in the league rarely gets the first pick. The last time the team with the worst record got the first pick was when the Orlando Magic took Dwight Howard in the 2004 draft. To be fair, the worst team will usually wind up with a top three pick in the draft, even if it’s not the first pick. The Oklahoma City Thunder was the last team to tank and milk the draft; then they picked Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka over the course of three years. A once terrible team became the perennial Western Conference powerhouse we have come to know over the last several seasons. Of course, the Thunder is the anomaly, not the norm.
I am glad the owners rejected the changes to the draft lottery. Small-market teams such as the Thunder or Sacramento Kings have a difficult time attracting big-name free agents to their cities so their only hope to obtain star players is either through trades or through the draft. Even though the worst teams will not always draft the next Kevin Durant, the current lottery system gives weight to the worst teams and provides hope to the fan bases in small markets. Tanking may be a bad practice, but only a small portion of teams actually try to be noncompetitive, and, quite frankly, these teams would be boring to watch and terrible regardless.