Basketball: Fixing the NBA Draft - Sorting the Lottery by Wins Achieved above Expectation
From 2013 to 2016, the Philadelphia 76ers went 47 and 199. 47 and 199. On purpose. And yet Sam Hinkie, the team’s former general manager and resignation-letter virtuoso, brainwashed many of the 76ers’ fans into “trusting the process.” They did so because that process—intentionally losing as many games as possible in order to guarantee a high draft pick—was logical. Under the NBA’s current system, there’s arguably no better way to rebuild a team and establish it as a contender.
This system sucks.
Tanking, as the pseudo-strategy of boldly failing your way to victory is known, isn’t about developing young players, or nobly doing your best with lesser talent. It’s about teams being so terrible that the NBA rewards their incompetence with some of the most valuable assets in the league. Which is less than awesome. There’s nothing like watching your favorite team give up in November and actively try to lose for the rest of the season. But as long as the NBA keeps incentivizing bad teams to be worse, they’ll keep telling healthy players to sit and playing dudes who have no business jacking seven threes in nine minutes.
Again, the system sucks.
Ways It Could Suck Less
To be fair, the NBA recognizes that the status quo needs to change. Starting this year, the worst three teams will have the same lottery odds (instead of giving the worst team the best odds). The update might result in less-blatant tanking, but it won’t disappear. Teams that don’t have a shot at the playoffs will still pack it in by February. Meaningless games will still multiply.
Other proposed fixes include setting draft position on a rotating schedule, basing each team’s odds on another team’s performance, and replacing the draft with rookie free agency. These options all remove the negative incentive for teams to lose, but rookie free agency does away with draft night, which—while ridiculous—is an institution in itself. And the other two changes don’t have much of a positive incentive. You can still be awful at your job and get the #1 pick. No thanks. What we need is a reason for bad teams to keep playing hard.
Here’s one: instead of tying a team’s draft position to how many games they lose, tie it to how many games the team wins above expectation.
How It Could Work
For example, say a non-playoff team was only expected to win 26 games during the season, but they won 36 instead. If that +10 is the best variance of the non-playoff teams, that team gets the first pick. (Or the highest lottery odds, if you want to continue the spectacle of swirling ping-pong balls determining the future of billion-dollar franchises.) The non-playoff team with the next-best variance—say a +8 because they were expected to win 17 games but won 25 instead—gets the second pick. And so on. Playoff teams could do the same thing for the non-lottery picks. (I.e., the best variance among playoff teams gets you the 15th pick, the second-best variance gets you the 16th pick, etc.)
Obviously, this all hinges on how you establish those expected win totals. The simplest way would be to use Vegas’s over/under lines and round down (or up, if you want to be a hardass). This might tether the NBA tighter to gambling than Adam Silver would like in legalized betting’s infancy, though. A wins-projection algorithm would also work, but good luck finding one everybody’s happy with.
A more-entertaining option would be for the league to send each general manager a spreadsheet before the season starts. Those managers would then use the spreadsheet to project each team’s win total, with the sum required to equal the combined number of wins for all games played (1230 ÷ 2 = 615). Finally, the league would collect those projections, average them, and publicize the results—both the individual spreadsheets and the target averages.
There’s some potential for comedy here. “Oh man, the Kings really messed up their spreadsheet.” Or, “LOL, Boston boned LA with 77 wins!” But the real benefit is that teams that are eliminated from the playoff race still have something to play for through the last day of the regular season. Can you imagine Orlando and Charlotte killing each other in Game 82 for a right to pick the next “surefire” Hall of Famer? Playoff teams whose seeds are secure might also think twice about resting their starters down the stretch, since they can still improve their (non-lottery) odds. In other words, everyone would be trying to win all the time. Like they’re supposed to. How quaint.
The league office would probably have to tinker with the spreadsheet to make this viable. Most teams would just put themselves at zero wins so they could inflate everyone else’s win total. So maybe you throw out teams’ projections for themselves, or go a step further and customize each team’s spreadsheet so that it removes their games entirely. (Like if Golden State were going to play Denver three times, you’d have Golden State pick Denver’s record out of 79 games: 82 – 3 = 79.)
If you don’t think teams who’ve clinched a playoff spot will care enough about their draft pick to play hard at the end of the season, give them something else to strive for. Maybe the best variance gets a certain number of replays to use during the playoffs (with no other replays allowed)—kind of like challenge flags in the NFL, but for the entire second season. The next-best variance gets slightly less replays, and on down the line. Or maybe it’s a pool of extra fouls to give to players so they don’t foul out. Except I think most teams will want that higher draft pick. This is probably fine as is.
The biggest issue is the new inflection point: what if a team that’s projected to be bad outperforms expectations so much that, near the end of the season, they both have a top pick sewn up AND are on the cusp of making the playoffs? Should they punt their last games to miss the playoffs and keep their pick, or forfeit that pick by making the playoffs (and in all likelihood, be eliminated by a higher seed)? That’s a shitty choice.
To avoid that quandary, the league could institute a variation of Bill Simmon’s Entertaining as Hell Tournament. Basically, the top seven teams in each conference automatically make the playoffs, and the bottom sixteen teams play an elimination tournament for the final two playoff spots. The teams that win also keep their lottery draft position.
Of course, this creates a new inflection point. Teams in the position to get both a high pick and a seven-seed might throw a game or two so they can drop enough in the rankings to enter the play-in tournament. And you know what? I’m fine with that. It’s a ballsy move—you might lose in the tournament and not make the playoffs. We’re also talking about a few teams tanking one or two games per season, rather than half the damn league effectively forfeiting the balance of their schedule. (If you don’t want an inflection point at all, the only real solution is to throw playoff and non-playoff teams into the same draft-order pool. And that won’t fly. People will be pissed if a one-seed gets the #1 pick.)
My only other reservation is that, in this system, injuries kill you. If your star is out half the season, you’re likely looking at a reduced chance to draft your next star. And that stings, especially for teams that are rebuilding. But I’m not sure we need consolation prizes in professional sports. I’m also okay with teams putting a bigger premium on depth. Even so, if you’re worried about teams burning out players in pursuit of a top pick, you could cap the number of regular-season games any single player can play.
Other wrinkles: if you’re concerned some teams might wait to add impactful players until after the spreadsheet is due, you could cap contracts signed after Projection Day to the veteran’s minimum. Players who can get more than that will sign earlier. If you think Boston boning LA with 77 wins isn’t funny, or that some managers might collude to lower each other’s targets, then put a ceiling and floor in place for the number of wins teams can assign each other, and/or throw out the highest and lowest projections for each team.
No matter what you do, the smartest teams will figure out ways to game the system. But as long as the majority are trying to win the majority of the time, I’m good with some scheming. That’s part of the fun, right?
Let’s Be Real
Sadly, none of this—not even the mildest version—will happen. It’s too radical. The NBA is minting money, and they’re not going to risk that with big changes. But when you’re looking at your League Pass options in late March and scrolling past that Kings-Mavs snoozefest, take a second to picture what it would be like if that game actually mattered. If all the crappy teams still cared at the end of the season, and were going all out until the final buzzer. How thrilling would that be?
Instead, we’re going to give the best lottery odds to the teams that step on the most rakes. Again.
47 and 199, people. It’s faaaaaaaantastic.