Skip to main content

Main content


Could Draft lottery be improved? These tweaks could help

POSTED: May 21, 2014 10:55 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


David Griffin clapped a few times, patted Julius Erving on the back and accepted a handshake of congratulations from the 76ers legend and lottery representative standing to his left on stage in New York, and broke out a smile that reached Lake Erie. Griffin's eyes bulged and his head briefly shook in disbelief. Quietly, he said, "Wow."

2014 NBA Draft Lottery Behind the Scenes

The Cavaliers had just won the lottery Tuesday night for the second year in a row and the third time in four, um, tries. That would have been enough. But the new general manager was also repping the team that had the ninth-best odds of owning the correct four-number combination that would be drawn from ping-pong balls, all of a 1.7 percent chance of making the leap to the top of the board on June 26. "Wow" seemed about right.

Cleveland had something to celebrate and the NBA had a continuing problem. When the Bucks landed at No. 2 despite a 25-percent shot at the top spot, it meant the team with the worst record had won the lottery all of three times since 1990 and the club with the second-worst mark four times.

Teams have only themselves to blame because rarely, if ever, do front offices raise the issue when the competition committee meets, advance proposals via the Board of Governors or advocate meaningful change in any form despite years of evidence the system is flawed. The suggestion of the wheel system that would rotate the top pick, rather than have it determined by a drawing, has generated months of conversation, but has holes and still has not been voted through channels.

All the while, tweaks exist that could be implemented.

1. Remove the No. 9 team in each conference from the drawing. If a club is close to the playoff pack, don't incentivize taking the foot off the gas to someone who might find playing the lottery, however long the odds, a better outcome than becoming first-round road kill. While that wouldn't ordinarily happen because owners love the postseason as the chance to make money -- fans come through the turnstiles while no money goes out for player contracts -- eliminating the consolation prize will driving competition.

2. Increase the odds for the teams with the three worst records and especially the absolute worst. That creates the risk of rewarding the ultimate in tanking, but also bends to the reality that the worst is often the worst without trying and that the system in place isn't working. Take the ping-pong balls from No. 9 in the conference, shave some off the current format for the other teams, make a market adjustment to react to the results of more than 20 years.

3. Create tiers. Hold a lottery for the teams with the worst three records to determine one through three, draw another set of ping-pong balls for the next four, then the next four, and then the next three. Some combination. But no one goes from ninth-best odds to No. 1. Thresholds work.

4. Add a sandwich pick at the end of the first round if the team with the worst record does not get the top choice. Getting No. 31 in a draft of 61 selections would not be incentive enough to go all out to sink to the bottom but would be enough to compensate a bad loss to the system. It's not the best of ideas, maybe more of an acknowledgement there is something wrong with the system beyond the tanking card.

5. Make the lottery odds based on the last two finishes, maybe longer. No one would purposely be bad for back-to-back seasons for the right to possibly get the top choice when part of the rollover totals would be so far in advance that it would be more difficult to know for sure who jumps into the Draft and who stays out. For a chance -- a chance -- at No. 1 when the numbers show the payoff almost never happens. The obvious drawback is that it hurts teams in transition and genuinely in need of a prime selection right away, as in the case of the Celtics going from a final playoff push with a veteran team to splitting with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to begin the next generation. But a two-season body of work is an accurate read on a franchise, not about dealing with injuries or its ability to commit to stockpiling ping-pong balls.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.