Denton: NBA Draft Lottery May Need Repair

By John Denton
May 22, 2014

NEW YORK – All throughout the past season talk of rampant tanking to position for the star-studded 2014 draft class dominated NBA circles and even overshadowed some of the play on the court.

But what wasn’t talked about was how the NBA Lottery, the system used to determine the order for the June 26th NBA Draft, is so massively flawed and a process that continues to fail the teams most need infusions of top talent.

Understandably, the NBA doesn’t want teams purposely losing games and rigging rosters to lock up top draft picks. The league has tried to deter that by giving the rebuilding teams, at best, only a 25 percent shot at winning the top slot.

For the 20th time in the 23 years since the weighted lottery system has been in place, the team with the worst record failed to get the first overall selection. In fact, it’s been 10 years since the last team with the worst record – coincidentally the Orlando Magic – got the first pick.

So not only is the current lottery system not deterring teams from, umm, strategically positioning themselves, it also isn’t providing relief to teams that most need the help.

There was a distinct buzz throughout the NBA Studios at Times Square on Tuesday night over how the Cleveland Cavaliers shockingly won the NBA Draft Lottery for a second year in a row and a third time in the past four years. The Cavs captured the top spot despite having just a 1.7 percent chance (17 out of 1,000 four-digit combinations), bettering eight teams ahead of them with better odds. Lyle Lovett overcame fewer obstacles in marrying Julia Roberts a decade ago than the Cavs did in winning another version of NBA Powerball.

How, some wondered, could the Basketball Gods once again reward a Cleveland franchise that actually thought undersized and overweight forward Anthony Bennett was worthy of being the No. 1 pick last year? Hopefully, the NBA will invoke a three strikes-and-out policy with the Cavs – who also wasted lottery picks on Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters – if they whiff again a month from now.

The one silver lining from Cleveland’s lotto luck on Tuesday? It kept the Los Angeles Lakers from winning the top spot. Seeing the Lakers at the Lottery was just downright weird – kind of like if Heidi Klum were in a Dress Barn ad or if Kobe Bryant was at dinner with the deposed Mike D’Antoni.

Imagine the uproar throughout the NBA and the screams from the conspiracy theorists if the Lakers had finagled a way to get into position to land Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. It would have been new NBA Commish Adam Silver’s worst LA-based nightmare since bigoted Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling decided to sit down and talk race with the whitest man in America, Anderson Cooper.

One scenario that would have been downright hilarious on Tuesday night would have been if the New York Knicks would have won the top pick … only to have to surrender it to the Denver Nuggets as compensation for the Carmelo Anthony trade years ago. That would have been even more embarrassing for the mismanaged Knicks than getting left at the altar by the unproven Steve Kerr.

Milwaukee, a 15-win team this past season, had the best odds at the No. 1 pick in Tuesday’s draft lottery, but had to stomach seeing the underachieving Cavs win. Needless to say, Bucks GM John Hammond was none too happy – not even with the No. 2 pick in his pocket.

Orlando, rebuilding following Dwight Howard’s 2012 departure, had the worst record in the league in 2013 and hoped to get the top pick only to see Cleveland jump up and win the lottery. (Maybe God doesn’t hate Cleveland after all!) The Magic caught a huge break when Cleveland foolishly picked Bennett, leaving Victor Oladipo available. Following a stellar rookie season, Oladipo looks to be a franchise fixture for the Magic for years to come.

The 2013-14 season will be, in part, remembered for what teams did to ensure themselves of getting a high draft pick in the upcoming draft. I half expected the league to come out with one of those NBA Cares style commercials honoring fans who sat through a season of purposeful losing. You know, something like, ``Tank you very much, fans.’’

Philadelphia’s move to gut its roster of two starters at midseason was an abysmal surrender message and it promptly produced the desired result with an unsightly 26-game losing streak. Maybe it was karma that kept the Sixers from getting the top pick, but they did salvage the night by coming in at No. 3.

Milwaukee similarly pulled the plug on its season following a string of injuries and a poor start. (Side note: How bad were the Bucks to be able to hold on to the NBA’s worst record even as Philly was dropping 26 straight?!?!?) Orlando and Utah were competitive throughout, but they both had rosters full of young players and more growing pains than victories.

In many ways, you can’t blame teams for doing what it takes to position themselves for high draft picks. In the NBA, it’s most beneficial to be at the top or at the bottom, but not stuck in the middle. Often, the easiest way to go up in the standings is to plummet to the bottom first. Sometimes one great player or even a string of really good ones culled from the draft can reverse a team’s fortunes dramatically.

For some small markets/low profile teams, getting a top pick in the draft is their one and only shot at landing a franchise player. Let’s face it, elite free agents aren’t going to Milwaukee, Salt Lake City or, for that matter, Cleveland given the choice. Three teams in the NBA’s version of the Final Four – San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Indiana – built their teams through smart, efficient drafts. As for Miami, the Heat pieced their dynasty together with friendship bracelets (LeBron + D-Wade + Bosh = Forever), 85-degree weather and vistas that include string bikinis.

Getting back to the current lottery system in place, it simply can’t be called a success when only three teams ever – New Jersey in 1991, Cleveland in 2003 and Orlando in 2004 – have won the top pick after having the league’s worst record. Utah and Charlotte, two small-market teams that must build through the draft, have never picked first in their histories.
The Bobcats/Hornets/Jordans were devastated a couple of years ago when they had the worst winning percentage in NBA history and didn’t get the opportunity to nab Anthony Davis. Instead, they had to settle for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who couldn’t make a jump shot if he were locked in a gym by himself.

I personally think the five worst teams in the NBA deserve more overwhelming odds at nabbing the top pick in the draft. Those are the teams the most in need of talent and in the most need of shaking their fans out of the malaise created by losing. Such a move to a more heavily weighted lottery would likely keep teams like the 33-win Cavs from winning from the ninth spot in the pecking order.

I know that increased odds would only further encourage teams to tank away seasons, but the NBA could also put in place measures to make sure that purposeful losing is more difficult to accomplish. Teams would be required to not only start the season with a certainly salary base, but also finish it with a certain financial threshold. Also, Commissioner Silver could more freely invoke the ``good of the game’’ clause to veto lopsided trades, such as his predecessor, David Stern, did two years ago with Chris Paul.

Blatant tanking is a definitive issue for the NBA, and one that left a black mark on the league this past season. At times this past season, it seemed like there was more competition for the No. 1 draft pick than there was for the No. 1 playoff seeds. The league must put in more salary and trade restrictions to avoid more future tanking.

But the NBA also must address the gaffe that is the current lottery system. You know it’s flawed when the team with the worst record and best odds has lost out on the No. 1 pick 86.9 percent of the time (20 of 23 years). Give the teams that need the most help an added assist in the lottery. As long as they are losing without blatantly tanking and major mismanagement (yep, room for one more shot at the Cavs), the NBA needs to do everything in its power to help teams via a more heavily weighted lottery.
Tank you very much.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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