Proposed NBA Lottery Reform Won’t Change Much


At the competition committee meetings in Los Vegas this past week, the NBA submitted a proposal to change the way the lottery system is handled. Opponents of tanking are vocal supporters of this new proposal, which essentially evens the odds of the bottom few teams to get the top pick. Taking a step back from looking at simply how tanking ruins the game for those fans, it seems that this proposal may not accomplish anything.

With the way the lottery is currently set up, the team with the worst record in the league has a 25 percent chance of landing the top pick. The second-worst team has a 19.9 percent chance at that valuable pick. For the third worst team, it drops down to 15.6 percent. The final team in the lottery (the best non-playoff team in the NBA) only has a .5 percent chance of getting the top pick. They’d essentially need a miracle.

The lowest seed that has ever come out on top of the current lottery is the eleventh team, a feat which occurred for a .500 Orlando Magic team in 1993. They drafted Chris Webber. Aside from that, the lowest seed to snag no. 1 is ninth. That happened in 2008 which allowed the Chicago Bulls to draft Derrick Rose and again this past season, allowing the Cleveland Cavaliers to pick Andrew Wiggins. That being said, the worst team doesn’t get the first pick all that often, with the last number one seed (for lottery purposes) to get the top pick being the Magic in 2004 when they drafted Dwight Howard.

Obviously, under those circumstances, it’s much better to finish with the worst record in the league than the tenth worst, purely from a percentage standpoint. This has led to the infamous technique dubbed tanking, where teams will purposefully have a terrible season when they know they aren’t a contender, thus priming themselves to rebuild for the future.

The NBA doesn’t like tanking, and that makes sense. There have been plenty of seasons where teams will construct a roster that can’t do anything but lose (I’m looking at you 2013-14 Sixers). Those teams aren’t going to draw fans and may even go as far as to anger some. So the league has come up with a new proposal that they seem to think will deter tanking.

Under the new proposal from the league, the four worst teams in the league will have an even shot at getting the no. 1 pick: about 11 percent. The fifth worst team will have a ten percent shot, with it slowly declining to that best lottery team having a two percent chance.

The thought process here is that if no team has a 25 percent chance at the top pick, then teams aren’t as likely to try to lose for a full season. I have more than a few problems with this line of thinking, but I’ll try to keep it to three concise reasons:

  1. If the worst five teams all have such a good shot at the top pick, what’s to keep teams from trying to fall into those slots? Unfortunately, in a league like the NBA where one player can drastically change a franchise, teams are going to do whatever they can to get that player. Under this proposed system, instead of having three or four teams tank a full season, we might end up with 10 or 11 teams trying their hardest to lose in the last few weeks of a season. After all, falling from 10th to fourth is a lot easier than falling from 10th to first.
  2. Teams have built strategies around securing players through future draft picks. This one didn’t hit me at first, but Zach Lowe over at Grantland details it quite well, so I’ll have him cover that here:“Teams that have constructed short-term building plans under the current rules will likely oppose any attempt to change those rules midstream. The Wheel proposal, submitted to the league by Mike Zarren, the Celtics’ assistant general manager, called for instituting the Wheel only after all draft picks that have already been traded actually move between the trading partners. Due to the protections on some future first-round picks that have been traded, implementation would have waited at least a half-dozen years.”

    I know that’s not as much of a problem with the system as it is with the timing, but it’s still something that should be considered.

  3. Lastly, and what I think may be the most important reason: The first pick doesn’t always matter. Just ask the 1998 Clippers (Michael Olowokandi) the 2001 Wizards (Kwame Brown) or the 2007 Trail Blazers (Greg Oden). Sure, the top pick does give you a better chance at a top player, and plenty of lottery number one picks have gone on to be great (see Allen Iverson LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, etc…) But even looking at the year Rose was drafted tops and went on to be no 1., having the worst record was by no means a key to success. Yes, the Bulls getting the top pick was an anomaly. I already talked about that above.But the Heat had the worst record in the NBA and the second pick. They got Michael Beasley, who was considered all but a sure thing. (Spoiler alert: Not a sure thing.) Meanwhile, the Grizzlies, with the fourth worst record, were able to draft Kevin Love.1 The Nets, with the 10th best shot at the top pick sat at 10th and drafted Brook Lopez who has developed into one of the premier centers in the NBA. There are quality players to be found at any stage of the draft. It’s more important to draft smart than to draft first.

Basically, the problem I have with this lottery reform is it isn’t likely to change a whole lot. Tanking to get the top pick is a risk, because it doesn’t always happen and when it does, the player doesn’t always pan out. Plenty of teams have built quality teams around players secured at the tail-end of the first round, such as the Bulls with Taj Gibson (26th in 2009) and Jimmy Butler (30th in 2011).

Maybe I’m biased, having never tried to root for a team who is tanking a season away, but when that does happen, the more educated fans know the team is at least trying to work for the future instead of being perpetually mediocre. Will this lottery reform really hurt anything? I doubt it. But will it drastically improve the league? I’m even more skeptical about that.

  1. He was a draft night trade to Minnesota 

About the author: Alex Lowe

A former college athlete in a sport that no one cared about, Alex now spends most of his days being a furiously biased Bulls and Braves fan. When he's not busy with that, he still imagines his 5'7" self making an improbable rise to NBA stardom.