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The NBA draft lottery

Gotta love Jeff Van Gundy. The man is not afraid to speak his mind.

Weeks before accusations could begin that teams were tanking games to improve their chances of landing either of the season’s celebrated college prodigies, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, Van Gundy offered a solution. Make the entire first round a lottery. One through 30. Put every name in a hat and let luck determine the draft order.

[…]

“I think every team should have an equal chance at winning the lottery, from the best team all the way down,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t want to accuse anyone of anything. I would say to take away any possible conflict of interest, everyone should have an equal chance at the top pick all the way down. That way there would be absolutely no question by anybody about anything.

“If it’s better for the game, they should do it. I never quite understood why losing is rewarded, other than (for) parity.”

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the parity argument. It is in the league’s best interests to prevent franchises from becoming moribund moneylosers. Hitting the draft lottery can literally save a team – where would the Cavaliers be today without LeBron James? “Somewhere other than Cleveland, if anywhere at all” is a good answer to that question.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s merit to Van Gundy’s suggestion. There shouldn’t be any incentive for a team to finish lower in the standings than it otherwise might. You don’t get this as much in football as in basketball for the simple reason that there’s far fewer NBA draft prospects that can have a big impact on a team’s fortunes than there are NFL draftees. The NFL draft is much deeper, is much more likely to produce star quality players in lower rounds (the NBA draft only has two rounds anyway), and doesn’t feature a consensus #1 pick as often (see “Williams, Mario”, for example). The difference between, say, the #s 1 and 5 picks, or the #s 1 and 10 picks is generally less stark in the NFL draft than the NBA.

(Major League Baseball does a reverse-order-of-finish draft, too, but with compensation picks for lost free agents thrown in. Interestingly, recent work by the boys at the Baseball Prospectus show that there’s a real advantage to having the #1 pick in the MLB draft. Far as I know, there’s never been any suggestion of teams tanking to gain that advantage, however. Make of that what you will.)

Anyway, if draft order will be a complete crapshoot, then I think whatever temptations there may be for a team to call it a season early will disappear. At the very least, the dividing line between playoff team/lottery team would be erased with the Van Gundy Plan, and that’s the main point in its favor. For that reason, I can’t endorse the Feigen Variation:

Van Gundy’s solution is extreme — and beyond anything the NBA will consider. But if teams abuse the system, the system should be changed.

It is a weighted lottery now, with the worst teams having the best chance, but not a great chance of winning the lottery. As much as the league might like reviving its weakest teams, it also should not reward those that disrespected the game and its customers.

It’s seems clear that winning should be good, losing bad. Benefiting from losing is a problem that could be solved without going as far as Van Gundy suggested. Making the lottery a true lottery would do it.

Let them pick the top 14 in the draft randomly. Then no one would feel compelled to lose.

I disagree. Choosing this path would discourage teams that are on the edge of playoff contention from making a serious run at it. Why should they fight to be a #8 seed when the alternative is a 7% chance at the top draft pick? That’s way better odds than what they’d face now in the weighted lottery. It’s how the lottery was once done, and it was changed after a .500 Magic team drew the golden ticket the year Shaquille O’Neal was the prize. Feigen’s proposal wouldn’t eliminate the incentive to lose, it would just shift it away from the bottom feeders to the coulda-been-a-contenders. I don’t see how that’s an improvement in any way.

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One Comment

  1. Michael says:

    Can we do some sort of weighting over time so that throwing games in the last week doesn’t help? The problem is that any system can be gamed.

    It might even be simpler. Someone would have to run the numbers, but something like this: Each week each team earns 1-16 points towards the draft, depending on their current ranking. 1st earns 1, 2nd earns 2, etc. If there are two first place teams, they each earn 1 and 3rd place earns 2 (or maybe earns 3, but I want to weight the early part of the season less).

    By taking more samples, we should get a more accurate model of who stinks on ice.

    Thoughts?