Tankers beware, NBA Draft lottery changes are coming
Tanking – or deliberately losing games to get a better shot at the top draft pick – may be a thing of the past. That is, if a proposal to change the NBA’s draft lottery system is approved by the league’s Board of Governors during its preseason meeting later this month.
The proposal, according to veteran NBA scribe Zach Lowe, is expected to pass “easily,” if only to show many teams’ displeasure at the apparent strategy being employed by the Philadelphia 76ers of “bottoming out” completely to put themselves in position to secure the top picks.
During the past two years, the Sixers have secured such blue-chip draft picks as Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams (the 2014 Rookie of the Year), Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in an apparent effort to build exclusively through the draft. This strategy has been adopted under new management led by owner Joshua Harris, who took over ownership of the franchise from Comcast-Spectacor in 2011, and president Sam Hinkie, who replaced Tony DiLeo as top basketball man in 2013 (more on this in the second part).
The focus on preventing the worst teams from taking advantage of the best odds at getting the top pick has ironically shifted attention from what has happened in the draft over the last few years. While the primary concern used to be the uncanny trend that has seen the Cleveland Cavaliers win the lottery for the second straight year and for the third time in four years, the main focus now is on how a greater balance among the non-playoff teams can be achieved in terms of setting the lottery odds among them. This is despite the aforementioned trend that has rarely given the team with the worst record the top pick in the draft, including this year when the Cavaliers won the lottery despite just a 1.7 percent chance of doing it, which was actually just the ninth-best odds among the 14 non-playoff teams.
It is an apparent indictment of deliberate efforts by certain teams – aware that they would not have a chance to make the playoffs at a certain point in the season – to deliberately lose games, which has been at the root of all previous efforts to fine-tune the system of determining who would win the top pick in the NBA draft since time immemorial.
In 1984, for example, the league introduced the lottery system precisely to stem accusations that Houston, after winning the top pick for the second straight year – securing Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon after just getting Ralph Sampson the previous year – intentionally lost games to secure the chance of obtaining the first pick.
The system, which replaced the long-time method in use since 1966 – the coin flip between the worst teams in each division or conference – involved a random drawing of an envelope from a hopper where the envelopes of non-playoff teams were contained. The process was then repeated until the rest of the lottery picks have been determined.
Starting in 1987, the NBA modified the system such that only the first three picks were determined in the lottery. Three years later, the weighted lottery system was introduced to further give the team with the worst record the best chances of landing the top pick. Among the 11 non-playoff teams that season, the team with the worst record had 11 chances out of 66, the second-worst had 10 chances, and the third-worst nine, with the rest of the clubs selecting in reverse order of win-loss records.
In 1993, however, the team with the best record among the non-playoff squads, Orlando, secured the lottery victory, ironically just a year after winning it and taking the undisputed top franchise player of his generation, Shaquille O’Neal. This enabled the Magic to pick Chris Webber, whom they quickly traded to Golden State for the third choice, Anfernee Hardaway, along with three future first-round picks. They then paired the All-American guard with O’Neal to become the second-fastest franchise in history (six years) to reach the NBA finals two years later.
The Magic experience prompted the league to again modify the weighted system in October 1993 in order to give the worst team an even bigger chance to win the draft lottery while decreasing the better ballclubs’ chances to do the same. This was the system that raised the odds of the worst team winning from 16.7 percent to 25 percent and reduced the best non-playoff squad’s chances from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.
The new system used 14 table tennis or pingpong balls numbered 1-14, with a four-digit combination from the 14 balls this time being drawn from a standard lottery machine to determine the lottery winner. Some 1,000 possible combinations were assigned to the 14 non-playoff teams, with the worst team getting the most number of combinations (250) as indicated in the percentage given to each team and the best squad getting just five. The draw process used for the winner is then repeated to determine the second and third pick.
With the increase of non-playoff teams from 11 to 13 in 1996 after the addition of expansion teams Toronto and Vancouver (now Memphis) and, finally, to 14 in 2004 with the entry of the Charlotte Bobcats, the draft lottery odds have also been accordingly refined. The finetuning was done such that the worst team’s chances remained at 25 percent but those of the rest of the non-playoff clubs were correspondingly adjusted to what they have been to this point.
With the league’s apparent plan to further refine the system, however, these odds would now be drastically different. This is because under the terms of the new system, the league’s four worst teams will have an equal 12 percent chance of getting the top pick, and the next two teams after them will have only slightly worse odds at 10 percent. The NBA will now draw pingpong balls for the top six spots instead of just the top three, giving the worst team an even lower worst possible prospect of picking seventh instead of the previous fourth.
As we’ve earlier said, the league seems determined to discourage tanking altogether, as it will give at least the four worst ballclubs the same chance at winning the top pick. The decline would be more gradual from there, with the No. 7 team getting an 8.5 percent chance, No. 8 seven percent, No. 9 5.5 percent, and No. 10 four percent. The four remaining teams will have, in order, a 0.5 percent, one percent, 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick, still a better chance than they have right now besides the bigger shot that they have at moving up to the top six spots.
One other change in the draft will see a longer interval of 15 minutes in between picks, allowing trades to take place in real time during the draft instead of getting players on stage and being made to wear the drafting team’s cap only to be told a little later that they have been traded.
Of course, the center of the draft changes is focused on the lottery and preventing a scenario of teams deliberately losing games with an eye on the future, thus sacrificing the integrity of the league in some measure. While the Competition Committee needs to approve the proposed plan before it gets to the Board of Governors for final adjudication, it certainly looks like all these procedures will just be a formality and some landscape-altering reforms in the lottery are indeed forthcoming soon.
The Philadelphia 76ers are not happy, of course. They feel – justifiably or not – that teams are ganging up on them for looking after the best interest of their franchise, which is to build a championship team through the draft.
There’s a little rub in the method, however, as they can’t possibly do this without losing consistently – and badly – for several years.
In this year’s draft, for example, the 76ers found a way of building their team by drafting pieces they can use as a foundation for the future but at the same time remaining bad to enable them to obtain some more pieces in the next year.
This is because the players they obtained – No. 3 Joel Embiid and No. 12 Dario Saric for whose rights they traded – are potentially great players but will not play for them for sometime. In fact, the earliest Saric, a 6-10 forward, can join the Sixers is 2016, when the first two years of his contract with Turkish league powerhouse Anadolu Efes are completed. Embiid, meanwhile is expected to miss at least the first four months or so of the 2015 season in a campaign following one in which Philadelphia’s previous first-round pick, Nerlens Noel, also missed the entire season because of injury.
For the Sixers to take such moves in this year’s draft is therefore a bit audacious considering that they’ve been perceived to have tanked the last two years precisely for a shot at the top pick and immediate help.
The drama, however, has played out this way all because Sixers president Sam Hinkie, with the acquiescence of the team’s new owners, has chosen the path of going for the homerun instead of a conservative way of rebuilding, even at the risk of failure with the bold moves he has taken and incurring the ire and possible alienation of fans in the process.
“There’s a longer conversation you could have about this, especially in the year-round NBA era we’re entering now. Is it better to root for the process of building a great team the right way, or to root for a good basketball team with a chance to actually entertain people?” Grantland’s Andrew Sharp says. “Right now ‘the process’ is all Sixers fans really have. They’ll probably tank again next year – I don’t know if they have a single player with a decent jump shot – and land in the lottery again.
“Whether that’s exciting or depressing probably depends on who you talk to. I live with a Sixers writer who loves the plan, loves Sam Hinkie, and loved that draft. I have other friends from Philly who officially can’t stand Hinkie after last night.
“Embiid was pretty great all year – on the court and in interviews – and he’s someone I’ll root for no matter what,” Sharp continues. “But there were always injury questions... Not only does he have the back problems, but his foot problems, too. It’s still unclear how he even injured it, but it was the worst possible bone to fracture. He just seems like the type of guy who’s going to struggle with this stuff his entire career.”
“We have never seen an experiment quite like this,” Sharp’s Grantland colleague Zach Lowe says. “This is an unprecedented convergence of a GM with big dreams and a new ownership group happy to empower him to pursue those dreams. The Sixers and Sam Hinkie don’t really care about being good, or filling the arena, or pleasing season-ticket holders. I mean, they care about all of those things, to a degree; Brett Brown is already legendary inside the team’s offices for his cold calls to season-ticket holders and his rollicking in-person speeches before groups of them – speeches that convince people to re-up and watch a miserable team lose by 20. But those cares don’t drive their vision. The Sixers want to win big. They have no interest in being the late-2000s Hawks. They know the easiest avenue to win big is to find a superstar.
“They also get that the NBA’s draft lottery is at once an uncertain bet that might slay your dreams, and a smart wager at superstardom,” Lowe goes on. “Tankers fail, as Bill Simmons pointed out this week. Tank for Anthony Davis and you might get Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But that doesn’t mean playing the lottery is dumb, especially if your only goal is to maximize your odds at nabbing a star. If your owners are cool with playing the lottery two or even three times, and really playing it, you only maximize those odds.”
But now, Philly will find that plan put in a straitjacket as the league intends to “combat the issue of intentionally poor performance,” in the words of Gus Turner of Complex.com, by altering its percentage system to create a more level playing field in the draft.
“I’d expect this to pass easily if vote happens. Vote might reach 29-1, with only Philly against. Might be a few more ‘nos,’ but not many,” Lowe says of the NBA plan.
Sixers owner Joshua Harris, who led the investment group that purchased the Sixers from Comcast-Spectacor for $280 million in 2011, is saying, however, that the Sixers have always been after the franchise and its fans’ interests, and will therefore vote based on what’s best for them.
“Certainly we are advocating for positions that benefit the Philadelphia market and the Philadelphia76ers,” Harris says. “That is what we should be doing. Other people are advocating for their markets. It’s the league’s job to best build consensus around those decisions.”
Not everybody is actually ready to condemn Philadelphia and what’s generally perceived as its not-so-secret direction to tank to get better. ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez, for example, questions people who laud successful teams that are built “organically” (through the draft and player development instead of through free agency or trades) but rip Philly for wanting to build through the draft.
Turner himself says that the Sixers are playing by the rules. “It’s clear that there are parity issues in the league right now, and while Philadelphia may not be making the most palatable decisions for their fanbase, we have to accept the fact that they’re looking to rebuild in any way they can right now,” Turner says.
While acknowledging that the Sixers are following rules, however, Lowe states that the “leaguewide displeasure” with the Sixers are “big,” and will certainly tell on the decision-making process.
Still, Harris continues to assert that his franchise will keep doing what its braintrust feels will help it win an NBA championship. “Being a good citizen in the NBA is important for us,” he says. “We are cognizant of being a good member of the league. But at the same time, balancing that against what is the right thing for Philly and the Philadelphia 76ers. We are trying to balance that line the best we can. There is always going to be different views on different strategies that teams are taking.”
Now, that strategy to capitalize on the draft lottery will certainly be put to a severe test, and chances are, Harris and his 76ers will not come out happy once that test is completed.
SHORTSHOTS: Joel Embiid, Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel all went to Spain to show support for Philadelphia 76ers draft pick Dario Saric, who was acquired on draft night by the Sixers. Saric played for Croatia in the FIBA World Cup, and his trio of future teammates went with coach Brett Brown and team president Sam Hinkie on the trip. Saric ranked second on the Croatian team that was eliminated by France in the round of 16 in both scoring and rebounding with averages of 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds, and also normed 2.3 assists… Lebron James has put his waterfront Miami mansion – complete with sommelier’s wine cellar and custom theater – up for sale, just two months after deciding to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The asking price: A cool $17 million. Any collector out there?… LA Lakers guard Nick Young completely tore a ligament in his right thumb after jamming it against Kobe Bryant’s arm while trying to steal the ball in practice over the weekend. Young, who will undergo surgery on Monday, will be out for 6-8 weeks. The 6-foot-7 guard was the Lakers’ leading scorer last season, his first with his hometown team, with an average of 17.9 points per game. He was a fan favorite with his ebullient style during the club’s worst season in 50 years… Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain is set to appear on a commemorative U.S. postage stamp. Chamberlain died in 1999 of a heart ailment at age 63. The U.S. Postal Service and the Philadelphia 76ers, with cooperation from the NBA, will formally dedicate the Wilt Chamberlain Forever stamps in a halftime ceremony during a December 5 game against Oklahoma City. Chamberlain joins Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens among the sports legends with their own stamps… Carmelo Anthony thinks his New York Knicks need more help for them to succeed with the triangle offense and for him to benefit fully from the new system. “I didn’t want to have to do it night in and night out,” Anthony said. “I wanted some nights when somebody else can pick up the load. Right now, with the way we’re playing (in training camp), I don’t have to do everything. But we haven’t played one game... So we’ll see what happens.” – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.