Monday, December 23, 2013

Wheeling Out The NBA Draft Lottery

A recent proposal would get rid of ping pong balls as the NBA's method of determining the draft order.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Earlier today, Grantland's Zach Lowe outlined a proposal submitted to the league by an unnamed team official which would abolish the NBA Draft Lottery and replace it with a "Wheel" of 30 draft slots, visualized below.

In other words, teams would have their draft position determined 30 years in advance. The team drafting first in 2024 (or whatever year) would then draft 30th in 2025, then 19th in 2026, then 18th in 2027, and so on. You can read about the nitty-gritty details in Lowe's post, but the two key points (in terms of "fairness") are these:

1. Each six-year window (book-ended by top-six picks, highlighted in red in the graphic) are roughly equal. For example, the average pick of the 1-30-19-18-7-6 group is 13.5. On the opposite end of the Wheel, the average pick of the 5-26-22-15-10-3 group is also 13.5. That makes sure that no team gets stuck in an unfairly poor stretch of picks.

2. No matter where you start on the Wheel, there will always be two top-12 picks within a five-year window (and in most cases those picks are in back-to-back years). This ensures that a poor team will always have two top picks to re-build.

All in all, it's a rather fascinating idea. The goal is rather obvious - it completely and totally reduces any and all incentive to tank for a better draft pick. If your draft pick is pre-determined, there's no reason you shouldn't make every effort to put a competitive team on the floor.

But, of course, there are some potential problems, many of which Lowe discussed. For example, say in a stroke of luck, the worst team in the league did, in fact, end up at the No. 1 spot on the Wheel and gain the right to draft first. But what if that team either whiffs on that pick (Michael Olowakandi? Kwame Brown?) or the player's career never develops due to injuries (Greg Oden?). In subsequent years, the team would be drafting 30th, 19th, and 18th, draft spots where teams are usually incredibly lucky to find a serviceable starter, let alone a potential star. Missing one pick would mean three more years of futility before getting another chance at a blue-chip talent.

However, on some level that does make some sense, in a "karmic justice" type of way. If your team is consistently terrible, and no matter how many top picks you have in a row improve your team (looking at you, Sacramento, and your seven straight lottery picks), maybe you don't deserve to have top picks any longer. Maybe your front office shouldn't be able to hide behind "give us one more year, we have another lottery pick coming!" At a basic level, being rewarded for losing seems strange. But what seems more fair - awarding poor teams high picks in an effort to keep them competitive, or this scenario:

In 2008, Miami had the No. 2 pick in the draft, and took Michael Beasley. Working on the Wheel, in the summer of 2010, they would have drafted 20th. That summer, they signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh. In 2011, they would have drafted 17th. In 2012, 8th. In 2013, 5th. Miami could have signed LeBron and Bosh and then followed that up by conceivably adding Kenneth Faried in 2011, Andre Drummond in 2012, and Michael Carter-Williams in 2013? I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Here's another potential problem. Let's go back to the 2011 Draft. Cleveland had the No. 1 pick, and there was an overwhelming consensus that Kyrie Irving should be the No. 1 pick (a consensus that he has largely proved correct to this point). But what if Kyrie Irving had an aversion to playing in/for Cleveland? Would he have elected to go back to school, knowing that the following year, Cleveland would be drafting 30th and would have no chance to select him? Nowadays, players can't game the system like that, because they have to declare themselves eligible for the draft before the order is determined. But if the order is pre-set 30 years in advance, like it is in the Wheel? We could see players forgoing the draft in order to end up on a more favorable team.

In a draft like 2014's, this isn't so much of an issue. If Phoenix had the No. 1 Wheel spot, and Andrew Wiggins hated Phoenix and decided to stay in school, the Suns would probably be happy with a consolation prize of Jabari Parker or Julius Randle or whoever else. But in a year like 2011 (or 2009) where there seems to be a huge drop-off between the consensus No. 1 pick and everyone else, missing out on that player could be a major setback for a franchise in poor shape.

If I were a member of the NBA's board of governors, I would vote against this proposal. Not because I think it's a bad proposal, but because I think it's too far of a departure from the current draft system. I agree that the current system is flawed. But not so much that it needs to be scrapped completely.

There are two other ideas floating around, both of which are minor tweaks to the current system, that I think should be experimented with before we decide to tear the whole damn thing down. They are:

1. A weighted lottery based on the previous three (or five) years, instead of one. That way one-year aberrations, either because of an injury to a star player (1997 Spurs, 2014 Bulls?) or one-year tear-downs (2014 Lakers?) don't place undue weight on the team's draft odds, and it more accurately identifies the teams in the most dire straights, in need of top-shelf talent.

2. A no-weight lottery system, in which all fourteen lottery teams have identical odds to land top-three (or five, or whatever) picks. After the top three (or five, or whatever), the system would work as it does now, where the worst remaining team gets the next-highest pick. A full-scale lottery, where each team has identical odds to land any pick, doesn't seem feasible - it would eliminate tanking for the worst record, but could create a scenario where a team "tanks" out of the playoffs, hoping that even odds at a top pick is better than losing in the first round of the playoffs. But a system in which the top five (for example) picks are randomly selected could be the best of both worlds. Would teams really tank, hoping to secure the best odds for the 6th pick in the draft? It seems rather far-fetched.

As I mentioned above, I DO think the idea is interesting, and I absolutely think that the league should seriously consider re-vamping the draft lottery process. According to Lowe's piece, the league may float the idea to the owners as soon as next summer. No changes to the draft system can take place until all traded future picks are conveyed (which means that even if the owners approve these changes today, the new system wouldn't be in place until 2020), so we have plenty of time to discuss it. But for now, it represents the first legitimately constructive, official proposal for altering the NBA Draft Lottery. Let's see if it gets the ball rolling for more.

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