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NBA Lottery Doesn’t Need Reform, It Needs Overhaul

In September, the NBA announced changes to the draft lottery, but the next few weeks will prove that major overhaul is what’s needed.

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The NBA’s annual race to the bottom is in full effect, but this year, we may see some unprecedented levels of tanking.

Start your engines.

Last week, in this very space, we gave Commissioner Adam Silver credit when he admitted that the league’s brass was looking at the possibility of cross-matching the league’s 16 best teams during the playoffs in an attempt to allow for the two best teams to meet in the NBA Finals, even if they happen to be teams from the same conference.

The potential of overhauling the league’s playoff system is one that excited many people who feel that the Eastern Conference playoffs have been devoid of the drama and fierce competition found out West.

Back in September, the league announced that it would be implementing changes to the NBA Draft Lottery. Under the current system, the top three picks are essentially put up for grabs, with the 14 teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs each receiving different odds for winning the top overall pick.

Under the new lottery system, the top four picks will be available via the lottery, with the odds being flattened out somewhat.

Tanking has become a major issue for the league, and this season, we may see unprecedented levels of intentional futility. Entering play on February 25, by virtue of the league beginning competition a full week earlier than it has traditionally, most teams have already played about 60 games.

Across the league, there are six teams that have won just 18 games, with the Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls having won 20 and 19 games, respectively.

Without question, each of the teams that have no shot at making the playoffs will be doing their best to increase their odds of landing a top pick in June’s draft, and revising the odds of the lottery won’t change that.

Although many believed it to be a foregone conclusion that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers would meet in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year, neither team enters play on February 25 leading their conferences. Those honors would belong to the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors.

In the Western Conference, the third to the ninth seeds are separated are separated by just two games in the loss column, meaning that, at least mathematically, it’s just as possible for the San Antonio Spurs to miss the playoffs as it for the the Los Angeles Clippers to make it.

Things are a tad more spread out in the Eastern Conference, but the third to the seventh seeds are separated by just two games in the loss column, with the Miami HEAT, Detroit Pitons and Charlotte Hornets apparently vying for the final playoff seed.

A similar story can be told as it relates to the cellar dwellers who will be engaged in their own race to the bottom.

The bottom eight teams in the league are separated by just two games in the win column, with the New York Knicks (24 wins) and Los Angeles Lakers (25 wins) sitting on the outside looking in.

The league’s quandary, which presents an issue that will be more difficult to solve than the non-competitive playoffs, will be to determine how to distribute top draft picks in a way that encourages competitive balance while also not exactly rewarding futility. The idea of the draft lottery, after all, is to provide less talented teams with an opportunity to improve. The thought is that if promising young players are funneled to those teams, with prudent management, they might be able to turn the corner. It’s a formula that has mostly proven to work.

With Mark Cuban recently coming out and admitting that it would be in his team’s “best interest” to lose games for the remainder of the season, though, it’s pretty obvious that the NBA has a problem on its hands, and as long as the current lottery process rewards the league’s biggest losers with improved lottery odds, teams will continue to tank games in order to give themselves the best odds.

This season, by virtue of how close the cellar dwellers are to one another, we may see unprecedented levels and futility, and it’s something that the league is going to have to think long and hard about how to address.

* * * * * *

If the current standings held, the Suns, Hawks and Mavs would have the best odds are securing the top pick in June’s draft, and with the talent pool thought to be somewhat deep, each of the three franchises may have a shortcut to having their fortunes reversed.

The teams right on the outside, however, have all the incentive in the world to supplant each of the three.

That’s the problem, and it’s likely to lead to a lot of less than stellar and spirited rotations over the coming weeks. The fortunate part is that there are only about 20 games remaining in the season—but the next few weeks are gonna be pretty long.

At the end of the day, the league deserves an immense amount of credit for tackling some of the major issues the have come to light over recent years, but the lottery continues to be an issue.

While the league may have implemented some minor reform which will become effective next year, in the case of the league’s lottery, reform won’t do. Overhaul is needed.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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