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The NBA Draft: Tanking and the Lottery Problem

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It is surprising to me that the one question that continually divides NBA fans, pundits, GMs, and administrators is that of determining the draft order. The NBA is unique from any other league in that its draft structure and talent pool create a condition under which teams are often incentivized to fail. A team barely missing the playoffs is awarded draft compensation commensurate with their placement on an overall leaderboard- usually somewhere in the middle of the order- whereas a team that performed much worse is given a more premium placement. Ordinarily, there are only a few players in a given draft pool who can have the effect of truly changing a franchise's fortunes, and such players are almost exclusively found at the top of the class. Therefore, it can be said that it is more economically and strategically beneficial for a team to finish with the worst record in a given year than it is to finish one game out of the playoffs.

The NBA instituted the draft lottery in an attempt to counteract this incentive, and yet it has seemingly produced greater inequity between teams. Of the 26 draft lotteries held since 1985, the team with the worst record has won only 4 times. Since the current weighted lottery system was instituted, the last-place team secured the 1st pick twice in 18 attempts, or 11.11% of the time- far below the expected outcome of 25%. The more paranoid among us will attribute that to David Stern's whims while others will just characterize it as small sample size, but the fact remains that if you are a terrible team, you have a better chance of surviving a plane crash than you do of getting the first overall pick. (No, really.)

It seems the NBA decided that it is more important to counteract malicious tanking than it is to fairly redistribute new talent in an attempt to create parity. I find this troublesome in that it essentially punishes the weak in order to make being weak appear less enticing. The draft lottery is the NBA's version of trickle-down economics- a policy with good intentions that bears almost no resemblance to the way things work in reality. Similar to supply-side champions, talent-rich teams say, "I was able to draft smartly and acquire good free agents. Why can't you?" The reality is more nuanced and complex.

The number one draft pick in the lottery era has been a surprisingly good investment. Of the 26 first-overall picks, 18 have been selected to All-Star teams. 12 have won Rookie of the Year. 2 have made the Hall of Fame and several others are sure to join them. This is a greater success rate than is seen in the NFL or MLB. All but one of the 8 teams that have won championships in the modern era are in top 15 media markets. That lone team, the San Antonio Spurs, plays in the 30th largest market, but has won the lottery twice in that time span (drafting franchise centerpieces David Robinson and Tim Duncan). It is indisputable that winning the lottery has a direct effect on franchise success. The majority of teams with 1st overall picks made multiple playoff appearances within 5 years of making the selection.

The Charlotte Bobcats had a historically awful season. They won a mere 7 games and posted a winning percentage of .106- good for the worst single season winning percentage in NBA history. For some perspective, 20 out of 32 NFL teams won more games in a 16 game season than the Bobcats were able to win in 66 chances. Charlotte's squad set a new record for futility, and yet, they only have a 25% chance at the first-overall pick. In fact, the combined odds of picking 3rd or 4th are greater than the combined odds of picking 1st or 2nd. I will never understand how it's fair that the worst team of all time (by one measure) will likely not have the best pick in the draft.

Trying to eliminate tanking is a fool's errand. Even with the draft lottery, tanking is as rampant as ever. This year, two teams exhibited egregious tanking in the final month of the season: the Golden State Warriors and the New Jersey Nets. Both teams had protected draft picks at stake and would only keep them with a sub-optimal finish. In the closing weeks of the season, New Jersey shut down Deron Williams, and Golden State benched Stephen Curry after giving Monta Ellis away for the injured Andrew Bogut. Anyone who watched either team saw what was, even for a strike season, absolutely horrific basketball.

Rather than to fight tanking, I propose to embrace it. If a team really wants that first overall pick let them do so. It's a risk/reward proposition at any rate, and to do it successfully requires great sacrifice by a franchise. If the drafted player is a Dwight Howard-level talent, so much the better, but if they take a Greg Oden turn-for-the-worse, you'll be setting your franchise back years. Tanking should be embraced, but it should be made more challenging to achieve. In order to get a good draft pick, a team should truly have to be bad- not simply appear to be bad. Shutting down a bad player to get a better pick obscures the overall quality of a team. What if there was a way to find an objective answer to the question "who was the worst team in the league?"

As a thought experiment, I decided to construct my own system of analyzing a team's overall talent level. I wanted to create a sort of bizarro-BCS system in which a computer model analyzes a set of data and decides which team was the worst that year. The model weighs several different categories together- each assigned a specific point value- and then adds them all up. The categories are, except for team record, based on the individual achievements of the players. The team with the least points gets the first overall pick, and we continue down from there. No lotteries. What you see is what you get.

I want to make one point clear: I lack any real understanding of the inner-workings of advanced statistics. I appreciate them, study them, and follow them, but their construction is somewhat of a mystery to me. I'm a big saber-person with regard to baseball, and yet I wouldn't know where to begin figuring out how to adjust for park factors. The system I constructed is wildly arbitrary and almost certainly an imperfect picture of a team's quality. Yet, I do believe that there is a gem of truth in it and is, at the very least, the spark of something interesting.

Here is my proposed NBA Draft System:

Teams accrue points in three different categories- record, statistics, and awards. They break down like this.

1) Record

a. Each record is ranked 1-30

b. Number 1 gets 30 points

c. Number 30 gets 1 point

2) Awards- Within the last 3 seasons

a. MVP : 10 points

b. All-NBA First Team: 5 points

c. All- NBA Second Team: 4 points

d. All-NBA Third Team: 3 points

e. Defensive Player of the Year: 5 Points

f. Defensive First team: 4 Points

g. Defensive Second team: 3 points

h. Rookie of the Year: 4 points

i. Rookie First team: 3 points

j. Rookie Second Team: 2 points

k. All-star appearances

i. Current season: 5 points

ii. Last season: 3 points

iii. Season before: 2 points

iv. Any season prior: 0 points

3) Stats- This season only

a. Scoring Leader: 7 points

b. Top 5 Scorer: 5 points

c. Rebound Leader: 5 points

d. Top 5 rebounder: 3 points

e. Assist Leader: 5 points

f. Top 5 Assists: 3 points

g. Blocks Leader: 3 points

h. Top 5 Blocks: 1 point

i. Steals Leader: 3 points

j. Top 5 Steals: 1 Points

k. PER

i. Top 5- 10 points

ii. Top 10- 7 points

iii. Top 15- 5 points

iv. Top 20- 4 points

v. Top 25- 3 points

vi. Top 50- 1 point

vii. Top 100- .5 points

A couple of notes on this- players who were traded mid-season have their points assigned only to the team that acquired them. The reason for this is so a team that really wishes to improve its draft position would have to trade away its star player and add a danger to intentional tanking. The biggest example of that is with Orlando, but we'll get to that in a moment. The second note is that at the time of this writing, the annual awards have not yet been released. For this reason, I've used the three year span ending with last season. I did, however, use this season's all-star appearances in the formula. Here are the rankings for each team, along with their system score:

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Draft Position
1 Charlotte Bobcats 5
2 Washington Wizards 6
3 New Orleans Hornets 9
4 Cleveland Cavaliers 11
5 Toronto Raptors 12.5
6 Houston Rockets 16
7 Milwaukee Bucks 17
8 Detroit Pistons 18.5
9 Golden State Warriors 19.5
10 Sacramento Kings 25
11 Philadelphia 76ers 25.5
12 Portland Trail Blazers 26.5
13 Utah Jazz 28.5
14 Denver Nuggets 29
15 Phoenix Suns 30
16 New Jersey Nets 35
17 Indiana Pacers 39.5
18 Memphis Grizzlies 41
19 Atlanta Hawks 47.5
20 Dallas Mavericks 49
21 Minnesota Timberwolves 49.5
22 New York Knicks 57
23 Boston Celtics 79.5
24 Chicago Bulls 83
25 San Antonio Spurs 84
26 Orlando Magic 87
27 Los Angeles Clippers 89.5
28 Oklahoma City Thunder 102
29 Los Angeles Lakers 108.5
30 Miami Heat 156

If you put these picks on a graph, you'll see there are essentially four groups in the league: the lesser teams (the red circle), the fringe-contenders (the green circle), the elite teams (the black circle), and the Miami Heat (the yellow circle). This holds pretty consistent with the narrative that follows the NBA- any given year there are really only 8-10 teams who can make a deep playoff run, 8-10 teams who can make the playoffs if things all break the right way, and 8-10 teams who have no chance at the playoffs whatsoever. What I find most interesting is that the Bobcats win this year's 1st overall pick in this scenario, but just barely. The Wizards and the Hornets both came close, but for the presence of John Wall and Eric Gordon.

So, beyond netting the Bobcats the first overall pick, what benefits does this system have? To start, look at the Nets and Warriors. In the current system, they are slotted at 6 and 7 respectively (barring the lottery drawing, of course.) In the new system, the Warriors would have the 9th pick, while the Nets would have the 17th pick. The 17th pick!!! That is a differential of 11 picks: good enough for the largest differential in the league. They also would lose their top-3 protected pick with certainty, as opposed to having a 25.2% chance of keeping it with the lottery. Under this system, if the Nets truly wanted to protect their pick, they'd have to trade away Deron Williams and Brook Lopez by the deadline, receiving only young, unproven talent in return.

Similarly, a team's record is only one means of determining the draft order. Intentionally losing games can help draft position, but not nearly to the same extent as it could with a straight worst-to-first order.

Let's look at the case of the Orlando Magic. In this system, the Magic would slot into the 27th pick in the draft. Their system score was 87, of which Dwight Howard accounted for 65. If they traded him away before the deadline, they'd be picking 11th. This doesn't include the effect D12 had on the Magic's record. Without Dwight Howard on the team, it's within the realm of possibility that the Magic would have a top 5 pick. This opens up a whole new world of NBA trade logic. A straight swap of Howard for Andrew Bynum improves the Magic's draft position slightly- in the 5-10 pick range- while having no effect on the Lakers pick. If the Magic traded him for, say, Brook Lopez, Marshonn Brooks, and a future draft pick, the Magic would now have a top 5-10 pick, and be able to build around Lopez, Brooks, and a Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall-level player.

If a team wants to rebuild, the option is there, but they must truly commit to rebuilding. Tanking is a fully reasonable strategy, but the risk must be as great as the reward. Would the Magic be better off keeping Howard and trying to fit pieces in around him, or blowing the whole thing up and starting again with an elite prospect? Should the Suns trade away Steve Nash in help their draft stock, or hope he can will them to one more playoff appearance?

More transparency in roster building is good, not bad. If a team knows where it stands at all times, it can better make decisions to protect its future. GMs make horrible decisions all the time, and when they do, they deserve to be fired. A franchise should remain in the cellar for those reasons and those reasons alone.

Random chance is what makes sports so beautiful, certainly. There's a mythic quality to a buzzer-beater that is predicated on that very randomness, and when a player like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or Larry Bird seemingly manipulates that randomness all eyes turn skyward and all fists clench tightly. But that entropy should remain on the floor. The fact is, the result of the randomness permeating from the games creates a certain order. That order is what allows teams to build rosters and compete for championships. The front office should be where randomness stops. A franchise's future should be decided by its management, coaching staff, and roster, not by the chaotic rumblings of a few unforgiving ping-pong balls. There should be, in some capacity, a glowing light at the end of the lonely and unrelenting tunnel. 7-66 is as awful as any season in history. Don't the Bobcats, and others like them, deserve some hope?

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