Revised NBA Draft Lottery: A Much Needed Fix or An Unnecessary Twist?

Tonight, NBA basketball fans get to enjoy a unique and fun form of entertainment. While the highly anticipated Conference Finals also begin tonight, fans of less successful franchises will turn their heads towards the bouncing of ping pong balls that represent the NBA draft lottery. 

As a Chicago fan, I have never been more excited for the draft lottery. My Bulls have a 12.5% chance to land Zion Williamson with the number 1 pick. Their 12.5% chance ranks fourth behind the Suns, Knicks and Cavaliers, who all have a 14% chance. This year, the NBA revised the draft lottery odds in order to try to prevent tanking. The change, approved in September 2017, ensures that the bottom three teams all have an equal shot at the top pick in the draft. 

This is definitely the most anticipated draft lottery in many years due to the top prize that is at stake. I have written before in this section about Zion, who I consider to be the most anticipated and hyped basketball player since LeBron. The pick of a ping pong ball tonight will change the landscape of the NBA for many years to come. With the draft being in Chicago, here’s to hoping a little hometown magic will strike! With the excitement brewing, the question is: does the revised draft lottery system actually prevent tanking or is it a pointless change?

Side 1: Yes, this was a needed change that prevents tanking

Alright, let’s break down what these changes actually look like. Under the old lottery system, the team with the worst regular season record had a 25% chance to land the top pick. The second worst team had a 19.9% chance and the third worst team had a 15.6% chance. No one will argue that tanking has been a problem in the NBA for a while. For years, teams that are clearly out of the playoff race have been shutting down their best players around March to try to lose as many games as possible to secure better odds at the top pick. Honestly, it’s not hard to see why, as there was almost a 10% better chance if you were the worst team versus the third worst team. This tanking mentality ruins the integrity and competitive spirit of the game, while also having a strong impact on other teams. If you are a team that is competing for a playoff spot, it can be unfair. If you are on the verge of a postseason berth, or maybe a half game away from home court advantage in the first round, you can see why this would be a problem. A team in that situation who faces multiple tanking teams down the stretch has a clear advantage. 

This year, the bottom three teams have an equal chance at the top pick, while the fourth worst team has a 12.5% chance, the fifth worst team has a 10.5% chance and the sixth worst team has a 9.0% chance (continuing to decrease by 1.5% until the tenth worst team). Simply put, this is a more fair system and does a better job of preventing tanking. This is not a perfect system, but the NBA is headed in the right direction. Nothing is a guarantee in the draft. However, switching from a 25% chance to a 14% chance at the top pick for the worst team prevents competitive imbalance. 

Down the stretch, we pretty much knew it was going to be the three current teams with equal odds. We did not have a scenario where two teams were close and were trying to lose every single one of their last ten games to secure the best odds. That alone is already an improvement.

Additionally, you only have a 3.5% better chance to land the top pick if you are the worst team instead of the fifth worst team. Individually, even each of the three worst teams still have an 86% chance that they don’t land the top pick. Crazy things happen all the time in the NBA draft. One of the best examples is the Bulls back in 2008. They had only a 1.7% chance (ninth best odds) to land the top pick and they ended up getting it. They drafted a future MVP named Derrick Rose and changed my childhood forever. Imagine tanking all year to see the top pick go to a team that barely even made it into the lottery. The reduced odds for the worst teams, as well as equal odds for the bottom three teams, helps reduce tanking and is a great start to NBA lottery reformation.

Side 2: No, this change is pointless and doesn’t help the tanking problem

Teams are pretty much going to tank no matter what. Let’s say it is right after the All-Star break in February and you are the 12 seed in your conference. You may try to reel off a couple wins to make a push, but if this plan fails, you will be in full tank mode by March anyways. This is the perpetual and perhaps unfixable aspect of the tanking problem. If there are 4 weeks left in the season and you have almost no chance of making the playoffs, even if you are not one of the worst teams, you have nothing to play for. In that situation, from a realistic standpoint, there is no reason not to bench your best players (to prevent potentially devastating long-term injuries) and to play your young players to get them experience. This is a losing formula no matter how you look at it. 

While truly competitive people will criticize this move as cheap and immoral, it certainly makes sense from a long-term basketball perspective. If you are clearly out of the playoff picture, you are likely to tank no matter what the draft odds are.

Let’s look at this argument from another angle. I think most people would say this is a great step towards fixing tanking, but there is another problem here. If they continue to go this direction, they may, for example, allocate equal odds to the worst five teams. Is that fair? Let’s put aside tanking for a second. Assuming no tanking at all, let’s say the worst team in the league wins 15 games and the fifth worst team wins 28 games. Is it fair for these two teams to have equal odds? This year, there was only a two win differential between the worst record and the third worst record. The Bulls, with the fourth worst record, had three more wins than the third worst team. Based off of this one year sample, the numbers tell us that teams will always tank and go for the highest percentages at the top pick. Thus, this reformed system does not fix tanking. If the top 4-5 teams had equal odds, I guarantee the Bulls would have won a few less games. The point is, teams without playoff chances will always tank to secure the best chance at the top pick, regardless of how the actual lottery is set up.

My Take

The NBA draft lottery is unique. In the NFL, there aren’t enough games to have a tanking issue. In the MLB, the depth of players and minor league system make it very rare for teams to tank for a guy who can change a franchise from day one. It seems very appropriate that the revised lottery system is enacted in a year where the top pick is one of the most hyped basketball players of all time. 

I think this was a necessary change and the NBA is headed in the right direction. As of right now, it seems impossible to completely prevent tanking. However, this change helps prevent an all-out “lose every single game at all costs” race for the worst record and the best odds. Also, this new system makes the lottery more entertaining. Reduced odds for the worst team, as well as increased odds for other teams, makes it interesting to see how the lottery will play out. This lottery has the potential to change several NBA franchises (including huge market giants like the Bulls and Knicks) for many years to come. 

What do YOU think? Does this revised lottery system solve the problem of tanking? If not, what changes do you think would help the system?

NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax

Twitter: @realdmill