The NBA’s Possible Solution for Tanking: Good-bye to the Lottery, Hello to the Wheel
Nearly the entire history of the NBA suggests that a team wishing to win the title must have one of the 10 or 15 best players alive — and preferably one of the half-dozen best. There have been exceptions, including the famous 2004 Pistons. But they are rare.
The most common means of obtaining said franchise player is via the draft when he is first eligible to enter the NBA. You can certainly land those guys after the top few picks; the Mavs did so with Dirk Nowitzki (no. 9), the Celtics with Paul Pierce (no. 10), the Lakers with Kobe Bryant (no. 13, in a draft-day trade Kobe’s team strong-armed in concert with Jerry West), and now the Pacers with Paul George (no. 10). And the Rockets have recently reminded us that shrewd cap management and a pile of gain-an-inch trades can provide the flexibility required to either sign a star-level free agent or trade for one seeking a new environment. That’s how the Celtics got Kevin Garnett, and Boston (along with Phoenix and a handful of other teams) may be in the early stages of a similar process now.
But the best odds of snagging such a player lie in being very bad, getting some lottery luck, and drafting in one of the first two or three slots. That path is NOT a fail-safe, of course. The Bobcats tanked the 2011-12 lockout season and ended up with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead of Anthony Davis. The Bucks, Raptors, and Blazers won the lotteries in years when most of the league found itself infatuated with big-man prospects who turned out to be the wrong choices at the very top.
Failed bottoming-out schemes do not stand as evidence that tanking doesn’t work, or isn’t worth trying. It’s one of several paths to a superstar, and it may well be the best one; smart GMs with deep backgrounds in analytics are still trying it today, despite all those horror stories. We can debate whether tanking is a huge problem, or the degree to which it works, but we cannot debate its existence. Harrison Barnes plays for the Warriors, and not the Jazz or some other team, after all. The 1996-97 Celtics are in the historical record.
We can also search for solutions, and there are lots of folks in the league office and among the 30 teams who find tanking abhorrent — who bristle at the idea that the league has incentivized teams to be anything but their best every single season. One detailed proposal, submitted by a team official, has gained initial traction among some high-level NBA officials — to the point that the NBA may float the proposal to owners sometime in 2014, according to league sources. Other top officials in the league office have expressed early opposition to the proposal, sources say.
Grantland obtained a copy of the proposal, which would eliminate the draft lottery and replace it with a system in which each of the 30 teams would pick in a specific first-round draft slot once — and exactly once — every 30 years. Each team would simply cycle through the 30 draft slots, year by year, in a predetermined order designed so that teams pick in different areas of the draft each year. Teams would know with 100 percent certainty in which draft slots they would pick every year, up to 30 years out from the start of every 30-year cycle. The practice of protecting picks would disappear; there would never be a Harrison Barnes–Golden State situation again, and it wouldn’t require a law degree to track ownership of every traded pick leaguewide.
The system is simpler to understand in pictorial form. Below is the wheel that outlines the order in which each team would cycle through the draft slots; the graphic highlights the top six slots in red to show that every team would be guaranteed one top-six pick every five seasons, and at least one top-12 pick in every four-year span:
Put another way: The team that gets the no. 1 pick in the very first year of this proposed system would draft in the following slots over the system’s first six seasons: 1st, 30th, 19th, 18th, 7th, 6th. Just follow the wheel around clockwise to see the entire 30-year pick cycle of each team, depending on their starting spoke in Year 1.
The system is designed to eliminate the link between being very bad and getting a high draft pick. There is no benefit at all to being bad under a wheel system like this. If you believe tanking is morally wrong, or that it hurts business by alienating fans and cutting into attendance, this is a system you could get behind.
The Potential Case Against It
One criticism will get very loud, very fast: Would this system eliminate hope for bad teams? If your team is terrible and just whiffed on the no. 2 pick (and perhaps the no. 11 pick right before that), you’re looking at the 29th, 20th, and 17th picks over the next three drafts — places where the expected outcome is a borderline rotation player. Would fans of such a team just check out for an entire half-decade, until the next high pick rolled around?
Perhaps. But teams today generate draft-based hope by bottoming out on purpose. Bottoming out also provides GMs with comfortable long-term cover. They can tell their owners, “Sure, we’re terrible now, but it’s all part of the plan. Just give me time.” Ditch the lottery and the league’s incentive structure would change. Perhaps the pits of hopelessness wouldn’t be as deep, and games in the meantime would be more competitive. Remember: The NBA is the most predictable of the four major U.S. sports leagues, in terms of single-game outcomes.
On the other side of the “no hope” argument is the danger of a very good team getting a top-five pick just because the wheel dictates it should. This is LeBron’s fourth season in Miami; chances are, the wheel would have slotted Miami into a juicy draft slot at some point during LeBron’s prime. That’s an issue worth considering, but it’s not as serious a worry as it would be if the league adopted the idea, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, of abolishing the current lottery and replacing it with a system under which the teams with the best records get the best picks in some seasons. There have already been instances of solid teams winning long-shot lotteries — the Bulls snagging Derrick Rose, or the Magic winning back-to-back lotteries in the early 1990s. This year brings the chance of a 45-win lottery team from the Western Conference beefing up with a lottery shocker.
There’s also a counterargument to the “no hope” anxiety: Fan bases that don’t have much use for the draft now would suddenly be buzzing about it. All fan bases care about the draft to some degree, but fans of teams picking in the bottom 10 — good teams, basically — understand that odds are stacked against their pick turning into anything useful. And if those good teams wish to trade their picks for present-day help, this system would still allow them to do so. (It would also include some version of the current Stepien rule, which prohibits teams from trading first-round picks in consecutive drafts.)
Other Important Points in the Proposal
• The wheel, which has all sorts of complex algorithms behind it, is designed in such a way that each half-decade mini-cycle has at least two top-12 picks clustered next to each other — a means of encouraging long-term building around young players, and of allowing bad teams to get better quickly if they draft well.
• Each six-year set of picks is roughly equivalent to all other six-year cycles, so no team is ever stuck in an unfavorable cycle of bad picks.
• It would not kick in until all current draft-based trades have been executed, so there would be a nearly decade-long preparation process. Teams would look nothing like they do now by the time this system came into play.
• There is the thorny matter of deciding the starting point on the wheel for all 30 teams. The current proposal solves this by holding one last lottery, using the same weighting math the league uses now, to determine which teams pick in each of the first 14 draft slots in Year 1 of the system. In other words: The winner of that lottery would get the no. 1 pick in the first wheel draft, and then cycle to no. 30, no. 19, no. 18, and so on. The team that finishes second in that lottery would begin with the no. 2 pick, and then move to no. 29, no. 20, etc. The team that ends up last in the lottery would pick at no. 14, and go around the wheel from there.
That still leaves picks nos. 15-30, each a starting point on the wheel. How to divvy those up among the teams who make the playoffs — the non-lottery teams — ahead of the first wheel year? This is where things get kind of fun: Playoff teams would get to pick their starting points from those still available. The worst playoff team would get first dibs, allowing it to select among 16 starting points along the wheel. With that bundle of picks off the board, the next playoff team in line would select from the remaining bundles, until the team with the very best record came up with just one bundle left.
For clarity’s sake, here are the first six-year pick bundles, from top to bottom sequentially, that would be available to these playoff teams:
Think of how much fun that would be! A team in dire straits, hankering for that no. 1 slot as soon as possible, might choose to start at pick no. 24 since that starting point is the first among these to land at no. 1. A team that is already quite good and/or capped out might seek some cheaper midtier rookie contracts and drool at that 17-8-5-26-22-15 sequence you get if you volunteer to start at no. 17.
The machinations behind this choice would be loads of fun, though they are a one-time-only thing, or at least a once-every-three-decades thing. The league could even scrap the very last lottery and let all 30 teams choose their bundles this way, starting with the worst team, though the results would look pretty similar.
The proposal also accounts for adjustments to the wheel in the event of contraction or expansion, though I’ll spare the details on that stuff for now.
Let’s be clear: This proposal is in the very early stages of a life cycle that may lead nowhere. It has engendered both excitement and strong opposition in the NBA’s offices, and it would require the support of three-quarters of the NBA’s ownership groups in order to actually become a real thing. And there are some fairly conservative folks among the league’s ownership groups. Also, the players’ union may demand a say in any full-scale makeover of the draft process.
There are also other ways to get at this problem that may be easier sells. Almost since the league created the lottery system in 1985, very smart people have kicked around methods of changing the lottery weights so that being very bad wouldn’t be quite as beneficial. Solutions have ranged from giving the worst teams slightly worse odds of getting a top-three pick, or scrapping the weights altogether, so that every lottery team has the same odds of landing on any of the top-14 picks. People in the league seem to like the idea of incorporating a team’s record over the three prior seasons, instead of just the most recent season, into their lottery odds. That way, a team that was very good before suffering a one-year blip of injuries or intentional flat-lining would not be rewarded as richly as it might be today.
But as long as there is a lottery in some form, there will be incentives to lose in some particular way — to be as bad as possible (the current system), or to tank out of the no. 8 seed and into the bottom of the lottery (under a system that treats all lottery teams equally).
This proposal may have unintended ripple effects. Almost all major changes do. Any change of this magnitude is, almost by definition, a long shot. But it is perhaps the most fleshed-out proposal the league has seen. And it is certainly worth consideration.