NBA PM: Draft Lottery Reform Approved, But Changes Are Minor

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Since the day he took over the NBA, Commissioner Adam Silver has made it his point of duty to cure some of the ailments of the league’s business. Lottery reform is just the latest example.

Per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the NBA’s Board of Governors have voted in favor of draft lottery reform, though the change to be enacted is probably not as dramatic as some would have believed to be necessary to cure the league’s tanking problem.

With 28 NBA franchises voting in favor or reformation, beginning with the 2019 NBA Draft, the three-worst NBA teams will each share a 14 percent chance of winning the lottery. This is a significant difference from the current system, which awards a 25 percent, 19.9 percent and 15.6 percent chance to win the lottery to the worst, second-worst and third-worst teams, respectively.

The most obvious question that follows will be whether and to what extent the new system will discourage tanking. The answer may very well be not much.

In general, teams tank because they believe that doing so gives them the highest odds of changing their crumby fortunes. Although there are few surefire stars (we probably see one every four or five years), the simple truth is that any team would rather have the third overall pick than the seventh overall pick, and that will always be true no matter how many times a player like a Paul Millsap, Isaiah Thomas or Draymond Green slips through the cracks.

The other significant change to the current lottery system is that four teams will be a part of the draw, rather than three under the current system. As a result, the team with the worst record, instead of being guaranteed a top-four pick, will now be guaranteed a top-five pick. Similarly, it’s mathematically possible for any of the other four-worst teams to up to four places in the lottery.

As the Philadelphia 76ers have become the poster child for the need for lottery reform, Commissioner Silver and the NBA’s Board of Governors deserve credit for amending the current system to allow more teams to the table. But most NBA teams will still view the draft lottery as the primary means by which they can improve their future fortunes, and many teams that don’t believe themselves to be close to contention will still willfully field rosters that are capable of competing at the highest level.

The likelihood of the new lottery system solving the league’s tanking problem isn’t high. It’s quite possible that the unintended consequence will be a more dramatic race to the bottom, as teams may now deliberately aim to be one of the league’s four worst teams rather than being the worst. In other words, if there are more seats at the table, it’s quite possible that there will be more teams deliberately vying for a spot.

All good things take time, and there is certainly good reason for tweaking the current lottery system and seeing how teams react to it before taking a more dramatic approach. However, the only true way to end the league’s tanking problem is to find a way to completely remove the incentive for losing. It’s obviously something that’s easier said than done, but until the league implements some sort of single-elimination tournament or system that encourages lottery-bound teams to actually compete, merely shuffling the percentages and numbers assigned to cellar-dwelling teams isn’t likely to have a significant impact on the way teams go about their business.

Entering this season, the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have an unimaginable amount of talent on their rosters. For teams that appear to be far from contention, aside from pride, there is no real incentive to maximize the resources at the team’s disposal. For the teams in the Eastern Conference vying for the seventh or eighth seed, the best case scenario is probably extending one’s season by six games and having a total of 47 home games as opposed to just 44 (this sum includes the three preseason games each team potentially hosts).

In the end, those three games and a few more weeks of competition, in most cases, simply wouldn’t be deemed to be worth giving up a lottery ticket. That’s especially true if the league begins to even out the odds of winning the lottery and ends up giving the teams with the better records higher odds of landing better picks.

For sure, it’s a slippery slope with an imperfect answer. But the unfortunate truth is that reforming the league’s current lottery system isn’t going to end tanking at all.

It’s a good start, but eventually, a complete overhaul is likely to be needed.