NEW YORK – The NBA draft, once dedicated to the general proposition that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, had its lottery system tweaked Thursday in a vote of the league’s Board of Governors.
In an attempt to discourage, if not outright thwart the strategy of “tanking” pursued by teams in recent seasons to win (better lottery odds) by losing (regular-season games), the new proposition might be summed up thusly:
The worst could wind up fifth and the league’s 18th best has a greater chance of ending up first.
Under a new weighting system approved by the owners to take effect in 2019, the teams with the three worst records each will have a 14 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick. Currently, there is an advantage to being the league’s most inept (or clever) bottom feeder – a 25 percent shot at that top pick. The odds for teams with the second- and third-worst finishers have been 19.9 percent and 15.6 percent respectively.
“There was a perception in many of our communities that the best path to rebuilding their teams was to race to the bottom,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “It became currency in this league.”
So much so, Silver said, that even some teams that didn’t want to embrace the bad-leads-to-good strategy felt pressure from fans to go that route.
“To trade away otherwise very serviceable players and embark on a strategy that requires them to, in essence, field poor teams,” he said. “I felt it was corrosive to this league.”
The perception that certain teams weren’t committed to winning during the 82-game regular season devalued individual games and gave fans little to root from October through April other than some ping-pong balls in May.
The Philadelphia 76ers are the most glaring recent example. They made no pretense of trying to win or climb from horrible to mediocre. Instead, Sixers management devoted itself to what it termed “The Process,” posting a 47-199 record from 2014-2016 while positioning itself to draft top prospects Joel Embiid (No. 3 overall), Jahlil Okafor (No. 3) and Ben Simmons (No. 1). Despite Philadelphia’s status as one of the league’s legacy franchises, it also ranked 29th, 30th and 28th in home attendance in those seasons.
So, starting in 2018-19, the reward for losing in mass quantities will be lessened and slid a bit to the left. Having the third-worst record will reap maximum lottery chances. Also in the new format, the top four slots will be determined by the lottery, rather than the current system of three.
That means, depending on how the balls bounce, the team with the worst record could drop to fifth in draft order. The fourth-worst team could select as late as No. 8.
The odds for the Nos. 5-13 teams to improve their draft positions went up slightly in the new lottery. Their odds will be scaled from 10.5 percent to 1.0. Currently, those teams had odds ranging from 8.8 percent down to 0.6.
The odds for the best of the bad – that is, the lottery team that just missed snagging the final playoff spot – are unchanged. That team still will have only a 0.5 percent chance of vaulting up to No. 1. But that means reaching the postseason, with playoff pay days for the players and home teams, hasn’t been de-incentivized.
The changes will begin with the 2019 draft, allowing teams that are in the rebuilding process – think Chicago Bulls – to react and recalibrate. The vote, as reported by ESPN.com, was 28-1-1, with the Oklahoma City Thunder voting against the new format.
Not rewarding small-market teams after especially difficult season – frequently triggered by the departure (or threat of departure) of a star via free agency – was one reason a team such as the Thunder might disapprove of the change in odds. Other NBA cities not considered to be “destination markets” for free agents, such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Indiana and a few others, could wind up in lose-lose situations if their stars leave, the record organically plummets and the next crop of young talents gets diverted away because of 14 percent odds vs. 25 percent.
“What we did was a compromise,” Silver said. “What we’ve put in place is far from perfect.”
The lottery dates back to 1985, a major revamping of draft procedure that had the worst team in each conference participate in a coin flip for the Nos. 1 and 2 picks. It was created in the wake of what the NBA considered bad optics the year before when the Houston Rockets were accused of losing games to get that 50 percent shot at the top spot. (Notably, Houston did get No. 1 and selected Hakeem Olajuwon. Michael Jordan, also in that draft, was picked No. 3 by Chicago.)
So, the next year, with Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing the presumptive top prize, the lottery was created, with envelopes representing all non-playoff teams in a spinning drum and randomly drawn out, providing each an equal shot at every pick. Two years later, the format was massaged so only the top three spots were determined by chance, the other teams positioned in inverse order of their records.
The NBA began to weight the lottery in 1990 to improve the odds that the club with the worst won-lost record would end up drafting No. 1. The weighting was tweaked in 1993 and changed again as Toronto and Vancouver were added in 1995 and Charlotte got its replacement franchise in 2004 to divvy up the odds among 14 lottery teams.
In other league business at the annual autumn meetings in midtown Manhattan:
- A formal policy on resting healthy players was approved. Beginning this season, teams are prohibited from doing that on “high-profile, nationally televised” games, with violations subject to a fine of at least $100,000. Teams are advised not to rest multiple healthy players from the same game or to rest healthy players from road games. And when a player is given a game off, he should be visible and available to interact with fans. Discipline is possible for all of the above situations, though Silver said his preference would be to avoid that as much as possible. “I recognize that there are legitimate reasons for sitting down players at certain periods of time,” the commissioner said. “It comes down to a sense of obligation our teams have toward the league that they’re a part of.”
- Larry Tanenbaum, co-owner of the Toronto Raptors, was unanimously elected chairman of the Board of Governors, replacing Minnesota’s Glen Taylor.
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