clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Now’s the right time to change the NBA Draft lottery

New, comments

The arguments against lottery reform have fallen one by one in recent years, and the obvious opponents to a plan are in different positions. Now's the time to kill the most perverse incentives in sports.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Much good will come from the Philadelphia 76ers winning the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery. Fans who have persevered through the past three seasons of something-vaguely-akin-to-basketball deserve hope and excitement. Brett Brown deserves a player who can actually score from outside of 10 feet or pass the ball. Sam Hinkie, even in exile, can feel like he brought some success to the franchise by creating a fruitful path forward.

Plus, we the neutral observers can all have a good time laughing our tails off when the inevitable leak about Bryan Colangelo seriously considering Dragan Bender with the No. 1 pick churns out. (He's not taking anyone but Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. The Bender speculation will still happen, because this is Bryan Colangelo. The world moves in certain rhythms.)

But perhaps the best good that can come from the Sixers' victory is that the NBA can finally reform the lottery.

The league office has been probing solutions since Hinkie's dastardly plan became clear. Hinkie built the worst team possible while stockpiling draft assets. Believing correctly that superstars fuel elite teams, and believe correctly that the draft was the best route for a non-glamour market without superstars to gain superstars in an asset-efficient manner, Hinkie went all in on the plan.

He was too good! The Sixers were so intriguingly bad that no one could stop talking about them. Arguing about them. Railing about them. There was energy behind efforts to prevent other teams from following this path, even as Hinkie struggled to find stars in the lottery, even as the Sixers failed to win a single lottery.

One proposal -- an idea that would have evened out the odds significantly among the worst teams and allowed more movement within the lottery -- was even given a thumbs-up by a majority of the Board of Governors before the 2014-15 season. Unfortunately, it needed a super-majority and fell short thanks to a lobbying effort led by ... the Sixers. As Zach Lowe reported at the time, small-market teams were also concerned about how making the lottery more volatile would impact their own ability to rebuild.

The opposition to such a plan -- one that is sound on paper -- should be breaking up.

By my count, there isn't a single team in obvious position to tank in 2016-17. The Colangelos' Sixers will certainly try to add real live NBA-level talent in free agency and via trade. The Lakers, who fortuitously landed the No. 2 pick, will draft a high-potential stud to team up with D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. L.A. has never seemed totally comfortable with using this low road to a return to relevance, and as soon as Mitch Kupchak can spring the Lakers back into the land of the living, he will.

Some of the smallest-market teams like Oklahoma City, Portland and Memphis might still oppose lottery reform no matter what form it takes. Then again, the Grizzlies might soon be in position to benefit from the specific type of reform the NBA had pitched, and it's hard to imagine Portland or OKC bottoming out completely in the course of the current GMs' expected tenures.

The main arguments against lottery reform are becoming less viable. A common frame for arguing against reform is to downplay the awesome impact of winning the lottery. After all, the only team in decades to win a title with a player they drafted No. 1 overall is the Spurs. That's a binary result -- titles or nothing -- that obscures the impact No. 1 overall picks have on teams' revivals -- look at LeBron James in Cleveland, Dwight Howard in Orlando, Allen Iverson in Philly, John Wall in Washington and Anthony Davis in New Orleans. It also ignores that the lottery also decides the Nos. 2 and 3 picks, where players like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony have made huge impacts on their franchises without delivering titles.

Some argue that the lottery isn't broken because the worst team in the league so infrequently wins it. The worst team in the league has won the lottery two straight times now. More importantly, the worst team in the league has overwhelming odds to land a top-3 pick and can fall no lower than No. 4. Expanding the set of picks decided by drawing would hurt those odds significantly and make being the absolute worst team less attractive. The proposed lottery reform plan from 2014 does that.

Some argue that drafting is pure skill, and that you can find better players lower anyway. Check out those Warriors, after all. That's fine -- drafting is an art, and plenty of teams have done extraordinary work without a No. 1 overall pick.

But consider years like 2012, when Davis came out, or 2015, when Karl-Anthony Towns changed the course of the Timberwolves' future. Transformational talents do arrive on occasion, and in deciding who has the opportunity to sign those transformational talents, opening up the odds substantially will do well to weaken the perverse incentives to fail in the NBA.

That's the key goal here. Everything the NBA does is and should be focused on improving the game. That's how every revenue boost and rule change is justified, as it should be. Killing intentional fouling as a strategy is about improving the game. Adding jersey sponsor patches is about adding revenue to the league, which will expand what teams can do to improve the fan experience. Introducing officiating transparency into the final two minutes of games is about improving the game by building trust between fans, teams and the league.

Lottery reform, if molded carefully, would kill the rationale for being purposely bad for multiple years by decreasing the odds bad teams would be rewarded for the failure, intentional or not. Lottery reform would prevent a repeat of the last three years in Philadelphia.

Sam Hinkie's process worked. Let's make sure no one ever tries it again.

* * *

Why the Lakers didn't have to give their pick to the Sixers