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Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Vindication or Unfairness in Last Night's NBA Draft Lottery?
Last night's NBA lottery was an abject disaster for the Memphis Grizzlies and Boston Celtics. The two teams with the worst NBA records last season had the best odds of landing one of the top two picks, which will be used on Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But the "best odds" aren't the same thing as certainty, as the Grizzlies and Celtics only had a 48% chance and 37% chance, respectively, of landing one of those two picks.
And as you probably know, the Grizzlies won't be picking one and the Celtics won't be picking two. They will be picking fourth and fifth, respectively. And thus they will lose out on the two players who project as "franchise players," and instead draft among the left-overs. The Portland Trailblazers, which only had a 5% of landing the first pick, got really lucky (read all about it on True Hoop), as did the Seattle Supersonics, which will be picking second.
There are at least ways to view what happened last night.
One way is to say that there is a certain degree of justice in the lottery's outcome. The Grizzlies, Celtics, and Milwaukee Bucks were all accused of tanking games in their quest to get the most number of ping-pong balls. And yet they had the worst results last night, falling down in the draft as far as they possibly could under the lottery rules. Sure, there is probably 0% chance that Commissioner Stern or anyone at the NBA had anything to do with that, as an independent lottery firm performs the actual drawing of the balls. But those who were upset with the tanking may feel like there was some sort of vindication last night, even if the vindication resulted entirely from chance.
But Jerry West, President of the Memphis Grizzlies, has a different take on what happened last night. He sees profound injustice rather than coincidental vindication:
It's like pitching pennies. It's grossly unfair to the team, but I've said it before, I don't think the lottery is fair. I never liked it.West has a point. If the purpose of the NBA Draft is to redistribute talent in the most equitable manner, shouldn't the worst team get the best pick? Major League Baseball and the National Football League take that very approach, with the idea that the league product is enhanced when, at some point, every team has a genuine opportunity to become great through obtaining the best amateur talent. That idea hasn't worked in baseball because of the absence of a salary cap and because it's extremely hard to project the professional potential of amateur baseball players, but it seems to have worked pretty well in the NFL.
On the other hand, the NBA is likely worried that eliminating the lottery would give teams an even greater motivation to tank. But is that fear worth keeping teams like the Grizzlies and Celtics down for many years to come? Is the league product really better off with a weighted lottery, when Greg Oden and Kevin Durant don't go to the franchises most in need of their help? Should the sheer fortuity of how ping-pong balls come out of a machine really determine the fate of franchises for the next decade?