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NBA Lottery reform will change perceptions but not reality

NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announces the draft position for the Minnesota Timberwolves during the NBA basketball draft lottery, Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/AP photo

Since replacing David Stern as NBA commissioner in February of 2014, Adam Silver has largely been viewed as a progressive leader for the league. He swiftly expelled Donald Sterling when the former Los Angeles Clippers owner’s racist comments became public. Silver has come out in favor of legalizing sports betting, feeling it’s the inevitable path of professional sports. He has also expanded the NBA regular season and reduced the length of the preseason in order to reduce the number of back-to-backs in the interest of player safety.

One topic on which Silver appears decidedly more old-school, however, is tanking. When Sam Hinkie was much too open about tanking as the overarching strategy in Philadelphia, the league orchestrated the installation of the Colangelos in his place.

Now, after trying and failing to pass a lottery reform measure in 2014, league owners will once again be voting to tweak the system on September 28. The proposed changes would include reducing the chance at the top pick to 14 percent for each of the three worst teams, and having the top four picks determined by lottery rather than the top three (e.g., the worst overall team could now potentially drop to the fifth pick).

An additional portion of the proposal would allow Silver to fine teams for having multiple players sit out for “DNP-rest,” or for any healthy players to rest during nationally televised games.

The consistent ideology through all of Silver’s actions: Create a positive perception of the league. That’s not a criticism — that’s essentially the commissioner’s main job function. He couldn’t have an openly racist owner in a league where around three quarters of the players are black. Nobody wants to see the best players in the league injured, so he is doing everything possible to keep them healthy. The wide adoption of fantasy sports has softened the public’s opinion on sports betting, so Silver jumped in front of that issue.

On the other hand, for better or worse, many people feel tanking is a scourge on the league. Whether or not tanking actually harms the NBA is certainly a debatable issue, but to me, the more interesting question is whether these reform efforts will even matter — have they ever?

The NBA has made three major changes to its draft system in its history. Before 1985, teams basically drafted in reverse order based upon record, much as the MLB and NFL do today. After accusations in 1984 that the Houston Rockets and other teams were deliberately losing (i.e. tanking), the NBA moved to a system where all non-playoff teams had an equal shot at top picks (the envelope system).

The envelope system persisted until 1990, when the league first adopted the weighted lottery system. Originally, odds were flatter, with the worst team having a 16.67% chance at the first pick. However, after the Orlando Magic won the lottery in back-to-back seasons, the second time despite having only 1 chance out of 66, the league changed the system in 1994 to give the worst team a 25% chance, which is still the case today.

In the past three decades, the league has gone from fully incentivizing losing to offering almost no incentive, and everywhere in between. The current proposal would return the draft lottery to a system much like the early 1990s, when other teams were frustrated that Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway were able to team up. With all the changes in the bylaws, did anything ever actually change in the standings?

I looked back at each season dating back to 1976-77 (when the league expanded from 18 to 22 teams) and counted the number of times when a team won under 25 percent of its games in a season (which equates to 20 wins or fewer in an 82-game season). It’s an arbitrary inflection point, but it provides a decent approximation for what constitutes a truly bad team and how wins are distributed across the league.

Period # of Seasons Seasons below .250 % Most teams below .250 in a season
1976-77 through 1983-84 180 6 3.3% 2 – ’81-82 & ’82-83
1984-85 through 1988-89 117 5 4.3% 3 – ’87-88
1989-90 through 1992-93 107 8 7.5% 4 – ’89-90
1993-94 through 2016-17 705 48 6.8% 6 – ’97-98

The first thing you notice is that there are more “bad teams” in the modern NBA than earlier in history, which I think speaks to the league expanding from 22 to 30 teams and the natural dilution of the talent pool. However, the percentage of bad seasons does not necessarily correspond to the incentives to lose games.

The 1984 to 1989 period featured a higher percentage of tanking than the prior period (4.3% versus 3.3%), despite having no incentive to tank under the envelope system, and having every incentive to tank before the change was made for the 1985 draft. Similarly, a higher percentage of teams were under a .250 winning percentage from 1989 to 1993 than during the current period (7.5% versus 6.8%), even though the odds were flatter then.

A whopping six teams were below the threshold in the 1997-98 season, with no seasons having more than three such teams since then. With Michael Jordan dominating the league, that season is viewed by many as part of a golden age of basketball, but it actually represented the worst-ever season for the NBA at the bottom end of the league.

Ultimately, a certain percentage of teams will always be bad. That’s the nature of playing a game where one team wins and one team loses. It’s up to people to decide for themselves if it really matters whether some teams are bad due to a calculated effort to improve, or merely through sheer ineptitude and/or poor luck. Does a team winning only 10 games rather than 18 games in a season (essentially one fewer victory per month) really qualify as a crisis for the league?

I can’t tell people what to think on that issue. I can tell them that the NBA has changed the lottery system in the past, and teams have still lost games to essentially the same degree. The league may revise the system again, but chances are nothing will really change in the standings. Among the general public, though, there may be a change in perception, and that’s what I think Adam Silver is really aiming at.

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