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How to improve the NBA Draft Lottery

The current NBA Draft Lottery system encourages non-playoff teams to lose. As fans of a competitive sport, we should reject this idea. Here's my proposal to make it better.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the NBA Draft Lottery started in 1985, the intention was that adding chance to the process would reduce the incentive to deliberately lose as many games as possible to secure one of the top positions. With the lottery, draft position wouldn't be decided solely by inverse win-loss record from the previous season.

This was especially a problem when the top pick in the draft was seen as a sure-fire franchise player, as Akeem Olajuwon was in the 1984 draft, and the Houston Rockets were suspected of tanking for the opportunity to draft him. It certainly worked out for the Rockets in landing future HOF player Olajuwon and winning two championships with him.

At first, the lottery allowed all non-playoff teams an equal chance to win the first pick, and there was no floor for the pick one of the worst teams would receive. The NBA  added weight to the probabilities, then more weight, so that a lot of the original benefit was squandered.

Chance had been added, but the probabilities again dictated that losing more was the way to go for non-playoff teams to improve their chances at a high pick.

A couple of weeks ago, I proposed this plan to improve the NBA Playoffs. In this plan, only 12 of the league's 30 teams would make the playoffs rather than the current 16. This would mean 18 non-playoff teams eligible to enter the lottery. In my proposed lottery plan, coupled with my proposed playoff system:

  • 18 non-playoff teams would enter the lottery.
  • There would be no ceiling or floor to what pick each team could receive.
  • It would be weighted, but less than today: worst record would get 18 ping pong balls, second worst 17 balls, all the way down to best non-playoff team receiving 1 ping pong ball in drawing.

With 18 balls out of 171, the worst team in the league would have a 10.5% chance of winning the lottery, second worst team 9.9% chance and so on until the non-playoff team with the best record would stand a 0.5% chance of winning.

Obviously, there would still be incentive to finish with a worse record, but this incentive would be far less than it is today with the current probabilities based on record.

These are the current probabilities:

There's a floor for the worst teams in the current system. A team trying to lose to work the system knows that their losing will produce a pick at least as high as "X."

The point of sports leagues awarding the highest picks to the worst teams is to foster parity. Struggling teams get the best prospects to lift themselves up as soon as possible. But what happens when those high draft picks become so desirable that teams fight with each other in a race to the bottom in order to secure them? Welcome to the modern NBA!

Now we have franchises such as the Sixers dumping every player who is remotely a veteran, losing and losing to get as many of these premium picks as possible until they get their studs to compete. Then you have sorta bad teams who stop caring about winning as soon as it's apparent they won't make the playoffs. Players with minor injuries sit; veterans sit out games down the stretch for no good reason.

This "if you're not going to win big, you must lose big" mentality is thoroughly ingrained among NBA fans, and it's awful. What kind of competitive league is it when so many teams care so little about winning games in a given season? What kind of fanbase wants to see their teams lose as soon as things begin to fade south? This is the modern NBA.

One "downside" of my proposal is that the worst teams might not get the best picks, depending more upon the bounce of the balls, further handicapping them from getting the best players they need to improve. And so what? The worst teams are generally not there due to the cruel hand of fate, although teams in small, undesirable markets have a fair excuse. What free agents want to go there?

It's more that the worst teams manage their teams badly to end up at the bottom. Or, worse, they intentionally field teams that can't compete so they can maximize their chances at a premium pick. Neither of these should be encouraged or rewarded. How about instead providing a better chance to reward teams who are trying to compete, but just aren't quite there yet?

Of course, this would help the current and recent editions of the Suns, but there are reasons to favor this proposal no matter what team you like. It would lessen the incentive to be as bad as possible, and lessening the incentive to lose will actually increase parity. The "have-not"s wouldn't feel so compelled to clear the deck of effective veterans by shipping them to the "have"s. The current race to the bottom wouldn't end, but it would at least slow down.

I hate that the current system renders the Suns "trying not to bottom out" strategy as worse than the Sixers "we love losing." Being in the middle shouldn't be the worst thing. The worst thing should be fielding the worst team. Seems very simple to me.

My proposal doesn't fix it completely, but it's a step in the right direction.

Update: I feel like this. Sports is about one thing to me: Playing to win every time out. When losing is encouraged by the system, that system should be changed. I want my team to try to win always, no matter what.

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