An Idea To Shake Up The NBA Lottery and Eliminate Tanking

The 2018 NBA Draft Lottery was Tuesday night, and for the fourth straight season the team with the best odds (or worst record) won the #1 overall pick.  Knowing what the potential of a top overall pick can do for an NBA franchise, tanking to get that slot has never been more popular or prominent than in today’s NBA.  The League hates it because they want teams to compete to win every night.  And honestly, shouldn’t we as fans want that too?  The League leveled the odds of winning the lottery among the top three teams starting in 2019, but we all know that’s not going to do anything.  Bad teams will still play their way into the top three, and losing will still be just as popular.

What if there was a way for your team to win and increase your chances of getting a top overall draft pick?  There have been many draft reform ideas, and I know I’m not the first to propose the one below.  But my idea, which at its core allows the best non-playoff teams the best odds at a top pick, encourages competition throughout the rigorous 82-game season.

IDEA:  The non-playoff team with the best record has the best odds, and descending odds as you move down the standings of non-playoff teams.  The lottery would still consist of the 14 non-playoff teams but odds would essentially be flipped from what they are now.  The playoff teams would be slotted 15-30 exactly as they are today.  The second round would remain as it is today, with teams slotted 31-60 based on their record.

WHY IT WORKS

Better competition:  Teams who are eliminated from playoff contention or those with little hope of making the playoffs still have a reason to win every night.  Finishing 11th in your conference gives you much greater odds of landing a top pick and almost assures you of better position in the draft than if you finish 15th.  General Managers would not intentionally put together a 30th place-caliber team because the odds are overwhelming that it will only net you the 14th pick.  Teams like Phoenix and Atlanta, which went into 2017-18 with the clear purpose of being terrible so they could get a top pick, may have constructed their rosters in a more competitive manner over the summer under this format.

Fans are more invested:  Imagine you’re a fan of a team that is likely not going to the playoffs.  Knowing there’s no incentive for the organization to win, you may not show up.  And in most cases, you’re definitely rooting for your team to lose, which isn’t healthy.  This past year, my last with the Hawks, our social engagement was almost twice as high after losses as it was after wins.  A simple scroll through the final score graphics on Instagram showed the sentiment from fans was overwhelmingly in favor of tanking.  Fans aren’t stupid…they knew what was at stake.  But under this format, you know your team is going to try to win every night, regardless of where they are in the standings.  This may make them want to come to a game, which leads to…

More money for owners:  More fans in the stands leads to more ticket, concessions, merchandise, parking and sponsorship revenue for teams.  Simple math.

More buyers at the trade deadline:  Imagine what the trade deadline would look like under this format?  You could have a team 20 games under .500 who may make a move.  I’m not saying it’s going to radicalize trades; teams who aren’t in the playoff race aren’t going to willingly give up assets just to move up a few spots in the standings.  But it may make full-blown sellers think twice about how a trade will impact them in the standings.  Would the Clippers have given up Blake Griffin if they had known being on the fringe was the best place to be?  Perhaps, and that trade wasn’t just about the standings.  But it would add a layer of intrigue.

A more competitive free agency period:  GMs who decide they want to tank for high draft picks have it pretty easy.  Dump huge contracts, trade serviceable players for assets and watch your team sink to the bottom.  But what would the strategy be under this new format?  It’s a lot easier to build a 30th place team than a 17th place one.  More teams would be competing for top and even mid-level talent in the offseason knowing that every loss hurts.

ADDRESSING THE CONCERNS

Concern #1: This idea doesn’t allow for parity.  Have you followed the NBA?  The Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years from 1957-69 and some consider those the NBA’s heyday.  The Bulls won six titles in the 1990s with Michael Jordan, and modern day viewers want more basketball to be played like that.  Phil Jackson’s Lakers won five in 11 years and the Warriors are probably going to win their third in four.  The latter is considered the greatest team of our generation already and is carrying the League to ratings and revenue highs.  So for one, the NBA may say it wants parity but in reality it wants the Warriors and teams like it: teams that will make the League money and attract eyeballs.  But the point is that the NBA has long been the sports league devoid of parity.  Every season, only three or four teams are serious contenders before the first tip, and yet the League is as healthy as it has ever been.

Another argument here is that parity could still happen.  Teams who just missed out on the playoffs, such as the 2017-18 Denver Nuggets, may be a playoff team next year if they add a top talent like DeAndre Ayton to the roster, which shoots them down into the lower half of the first round in the 2019 draft.  In theory, teams with top picks will spend fewer consecutive years in the lottery because one great prospect may be enough to lift them into the playoffs.

The third argument against a lack of parity is that, by nature, teams will be more balanced because there won’t be as big a discrepancy between elite teams and bad ones.  GMs will be fighting to make their teams competitive enough to win and move up in the standings regardless of where they are, which means we’ll get more competitive games every night.

Concern #2: This would make fringe playoff teams want to miss the playoffs.  I doubt it.  Unlike the difference between worst and second worst, the difference between playoffs and #1 pick isn’t as black & white.  If you’re a nine seed in your conference, there are a few advantages to finishing eighth.  The first is that, duh, you’re in the playoffs.  Sure, you’re a longshot to get to the Finals, but it has been done.  We’ve seen first round injuries ruin a 1-seeded team’s season as it did with the 2011 Spurs and the 2012 Bulls.  We’ve seen the magic of the “We Believe” Warriors of 2007.  A lot of crazy stuff can happen in the playoffs, you just never know.  Another advantage is that teams who make the playoffs, even if they only get two home games, are still making somewhere in the $10 million range in additional ticket, sponsorship, concessions, merchandise and parking revenue.  It would be hard to convince short-term thinkers, both owners and CEOs alike, that $10 million isn’t worth playing for.

Another factor here is the coach and players.  Think back to that Nuggets/Timberwolves regular season finale with a playoff spot on the line.  No coach or player in that game would even think to willingly lose and forfeit a playoff spot for a chance at a top pick.  They’re too competitive.  They want to win a championship.  They’re playing and coaching for their next contracts.  It’s human nature to want to win.  Plus, any young players on a team fighting for a playoff spot would benefit far more from playing or even going through a playoff series in person than watching at home.  There’s a player development angle here too.

At the end of the day, it’s still a lottery:  Finishing just outside the playoff line doesn’t guarantee you the #1 pick.  The lottery remains in place to give every team a chance.

Like the idea?  Hate it?  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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