And just like that, another NBA Draft Lottery came and went. But this one felt different. It felt strange for very obvious reasons.
Tanking has always been an issue in the NBA and has only gotten worse with more and more bottom-feeder teams purposely losing games in order to move up in the draft order. The last couple of years has brought us the perennial tankers, like the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns, as well as the tactical tankers like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks.
This year things felt different because Adam Silver and co. decided to tweak the odds. Rather than awarding the worst teams the best odds of getting the coveted first overall selection, the odds were spread out much thinner.
In the old system, the team with the worst record had a 25 percent chance of landing the number one pick with a combined 75 percent chance of ending up no worse than fourth. In the new system, the bottom three teams all have an equal chance to get the first pick at 14 percent. The worst team also has a combined 86 percent chance to slide all the way to no worse than the fifth pick.
There are a lot more odds sprinkled throughout depending on the team’s seeding at the conclusion of the regular season, but you get the idea. In the old system, tanking made more sense. In the new system, it doesn’t give you nearly as good of an advantage.
It could be that the rest of the league – at least the bottom teams – didn’t want to actually believe the odds would change. The same teams continued to tank. But unfortunately for them, the statistics didn’t lie when the ping-pong balls were selected.
The New Orleans Pelicans – who finished with the eighth worst record – nabbed the first overall pick thanks to a six percent chance. Previously, the eighth worst team had only a 2.8 percent chance of drafting first.
The Memphis Grizzlies took the second overall pick after having a 4.8 percent chance to do so, much larger than the previous year.
The New York Knicks slid to third – much to the dismay of their hardened fanbase.
And the Los Angeles Lakers – who might have been the biggest winners of the night apart from the Pelicans – came in at fourth. They were 11th worst according to record and had a 2.8 percent chance to land the fourth pick – much better odds than the previous system.
Shortly after the lottery picks were announced, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had this to say on Twitter:
We just witnessed the end of tanking ??????. And we should be happy about it.
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) May 15, 2019
He’s not wrong. There was a sense around the league, by writers, GM’s, players, etc., that the new draft odds wouldn’t really change anything. On paper, the numbers don’t necessarily pop out dramatically when compared to the previous process. But anyone who has taken a statistics class in college – or high school for that matter – can take a simple glance at the new figures and see that things changed quite a bit. What happened on Tuesday night was a complete slap in the face for anyone who thought tanking still mattered.
It’s not like tanking will go away, teams will continue to lose games in order to better their draft position until the end of the time. The thing is, however, they’ll have much less reason to do so.
Imagine being the Phoenix Suns. You’ve lived basically every year post-Steve Nash in the lottery and in 2019 you hit your breaking point by adding Jimmer Fredette (who balls out in China by the way) to a contract near the end of the season. The only solid player you’ve drafted in recent memory is Devin Booker who went 13th overall back in 2015. You try your best to lose as many games as possible before the season is up and you finish with the second-worst record in the league.
Last year, the Suns would have had roughly a 20 percent chance at first, a 19 percent chance at second, a 17 percent chance at third, a 32 percent chance at fourth, and a 12 percent chance at fifth – with zero chance of dropping out of the top five. This year their odds were roughly 14 percent for first, 13.5 percent for second, 13 percent for third, 12 percent for fourth, 28 percent for fifth and 20 percent for sixth.
Guess what? They got sixth. It likely came as a shock to the entire Phoenix nation, but the position they got was essentially the second most likely scenario.
All that tanking for Zion, and it will only ever get them a Cameron Reddish or Coby White – if they’re still available by then.
The Suns and Knicks, as well as other tankers this past season like the Bulls and Hawks, not only had to endure the negativity that losing has on an organization, but now they don’t get a high enough draft pick to select the player we all knew they coveted.
Tanking absolutely has a negative effect on basketball teams. It doesn’t make fans happy – especially when they don’t even get to look forward to a high draft pick. It frustrates players who likely want to win. And it really irritates coaches who get paid actual American dollars to – you guessed it – win basketball games.
Is the new lottery system good for the NBA? Well, that’s all relative. Some view it as a stepping stone towards better things. Others could view it as a negative. If a team is truly bad and not purposefully losing games, it would be rather unfair for that team to not secure a high draft pick at the end of the season.
At the end of the day, each and every team is filled with NBA-caliber talent. Any dude on a roster is in the league for one reason or another, regardless of what team he is playing for. Even the worst teams can beat the best teams on any given night.
Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. No one truly has the right to say whether they are wrong or right. But one thing that most can agree on is that tanking is bad for this league.
Adam Silver may not have completely solved the overall dilemma, but he’s certainly provided a strong antidote.
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