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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.

It's not sour grapes. I just think it's a terrible system and it needs to be addressed. Every other league in the other professional leagues, they all draft according to how they finish the season.

There have been a lot of picks in the lottery that have (failed). There are two in the lottery this year that are not going to fail. There are two superstars in the draft. I think for the teams fortunate enough to get them, the fortunes of their franchises have changed forever.

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?


West's comments assume the won-lost records are a perfect indicator of goodness and badness. He's wrong. Randomness is certainly present in sports, thus it's very possible that the team with the worst record is not actually the "worst" team in the league. In other words, if you were able to play the NBA season 1,000,000 times, you'd get a good feel for what the worst team is. But since that's impossible, determining the draft probabilistically makes sense.

Further, a hard draft order makes less sense in the NBA because injuries in the NBA can have a much more significant impact on team performance than any other sport. For example, only because David Robinson was injured were the Spurs able to get Tim Duncan. Were the Spurs really a terrible team, or did they just have a temporary setback due to the injury of a key player?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/23/2007 10:29 AM  

If the aim of the very restrictive (from a labor and especially anti-trust perspective) draft is to balance out the league but distributing talent, it seems the draw seriously compromises the legal validity of the system.

If the draft is an exception to anti-trust and competition principles, it needs to work without any chances (even a 5% chance) of not performing the end it was originally designed to pursue... Am I wrong, Michael?

Anonymous Luis Cassiano Neves -- 5/23/2007 10:29 AM  

If you got rid of the lottery teams would tank even more egregiously than they did last season. The Celts, Grizz and Bucks got what they deserved.

Anonymous nyfan -- 5/23/2007 11:06 AM  

I don’t know if having a pure merit (or lack thereof) based draft system is the best way to improve the NBA, vis-à-vis the draft. Tanking already occurs which seriously mars the last month of the season. If I am a season ticket holder I do not want to go see the Wizards play the tanking Celtics. That is not what I paid my money for. Tanking will and already does happen. I think the lottery should be adjusted, slightly, with the really bad teams getting higher percentage chances than they already have and only the bottom six or eight teams with any chance of getting the top pick. Some teams that just barely missed the playoffs (Kings, Sixers, Pacers, etc.) are not bad enough to deserve a shot at the top pick. Only the bottom six or eight teams with the bottom two or three teams taking 80+% of the chances at the top pick and 90+% chance at the second pick. It should be more heavily weighted but not absolute.

Can you imagine a draft with Lebron James coming out and two teams tied with the worst record in the league going into the last couple weeks of the season? The tanking would really harm the league, more than it already does.

Anonymous Jono -- 5/23/2007 11:20 AM  

A couple points:

1) The Celtics were accused of tanking, there is no evidence they were actually tanking. Has anyone who throws this term around seen Doc Rivers coach? I honestly think he's really that bad.

2)Does the NBA really benefit from this system? I'm looking at a lot of large market teams with horrible records and no shot of recovering next year. I don't think that's necessarily good for the league.

3) That being said, the NBA is different from the NFL/MLB. In the NBA a superb player can come right in and really impact a team. In the NFL a good rookie could help the team, but will not make a huge difference. In MLB the player is years away from even seeing a major league park.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/23/2007 12:44 PM  

For me the lotto is great for the NBA it at least keeps the tanking from being completely out of hand because there is no guarantee like there is in football. Also one player can change an NBA team far more than 1 player in the NFL or MLB can change theirs so just purely handing a great player to whoever tanks the most makes the lotto seem like an awkward but effective (in this case) safeguard. Without it we may have seen the Grizz perform even worse if they were guaranteed the 1st pick for the worst record

Blogger B Squared -- 5/23/2007 2:29 PM  

Please note that while Portland was lucky,and they were, last year they had the worst record and ended up with the forth pick. No system will prevent tanking. I think there will be a change next year, but there will always be perceived unfairness.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/23/2007 5:43 PM  

Thank you all for these excellent comments.

Anonymous 1,

You raise a good point that won-lost records aren't perfectly reflective of goodness and badness. I can't dispute that--just check out the Celtics' record this year with Paul Pierce injured and with him healthy. But what would be a better metric?


That's a great point about how if the NBA Draft should enjoy an exemption from antitrust laws, it should at least live up to its alleged distributive purpose--and the very notion of a lottery seems to interfere with that purpose. But I imagine that one of the problems in legally contesting the lottery is the likely absence of a party with adequate standing (since NBA teams and their owners have presumably assented to the lottery arrangement). But I still think you raise an important point that warrants further study.


I agree, the tanking would be worse without the lottery. But is the league better off with Greg Oden going to a team that had a better record than five other teams? Should the Celtics have really lost out on both Tim Duncan in 1997 and Greg Oden in 2007?


I agree with your idea: make sure the late lottery teams have no shot at the first pick; that would be better than the current system where a team that barely doesn't make the playoffs still enjoys a chance (albeit a slim one) of getting a Greg Oden or Kevin Durant type of player.

Anonymous 2,

Your comments about Doc Rivers' coaching are definitely shared by many Celtics fans, but some of the lineups he had towards the end of the season were truly--and suspiciously--baffling. I also agree that the NBA does not benefit by having large market teams like the Celtics and Knicks be bad for long stretches of time. A related point: does the NBA benefit by having its new two best young players play on the West Coast, where many of their games will begin very late in the evening for those on the East Coast?

B Squared,

You make a good defense for keeping the lottery, but I still think there is something wrong with what happened last night.

Anonymous 3,

You are right, Portland's lottery luck changed dramatically this year. And I think they would gladly take the trade-off of not getting Andrea Bargnani last year for getting Greg Oden this year!

Blogger Michael McCann -- 5/23/2007 8:38 PM  

As much as I agree that the lottery is a joke, Jerry West is wrong. While MLB and the NFL both use the worst picks first system, the NHL has a lottery - just another way that Gary Bettman is killing the league.

Anonymous Sean Boulton -- 5/23/2007 10:06 PM  

Seems like Boston is under a curse of some sort--ever since Len Bias died, it's as if there is a dark cloud over the Celtics especially when it comes to the lottery.

Ten years ago, it was Tim Duncan; this year, it was Kevin Durant and/or Greg Odin. As a fan of a team who has had the worst record twice (Denver) and ended up #4 both times, I sympathize.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/23/2007 10:40 PM  

I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- the draft should be in inverse order of the record of those who did not make the playoffs. The team with the best record that missed the playoffs gets the first pick. Eliminates tanking, and allows a quality player to go to a team that he can actually help right away. Also punishes consistently bad front offices.

And Celtics fans... you did not miss out on Tim Duncan, because you're conveniently forgetting that y'all have had some of the worst coaches in the NBA over the last 10 years. What...Pitino was the guy to take advantage of Duncan's skills? I think not. Don't complain about missing out on a franchise player until you've got a decent franchise to put him in.

Blogger Collin -- 5/23/2007 10:54 PM  

Prof. McCann:

In response to your question, there is no better metric than won-lost records, but those records should be looked at probabilistically. In other words, based on each team's record, what are the chances that they are the worst team? Once those percentages are determined, distribute the ping-pong balls accordingly and have a lottery.

In short, the current system works.

As for standing to challenge the draft, the players would certainly have standing. The draft is a horizontal agreement among employers to eliminate competition in the labor market. But for the reasons noted above, I think the challenge as put forward by Luis does not hold water.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/24/2007 9:03 AM  

This may be the most important lottery in a long time.

The Griz have a 25 year lease but can leave after 10 years. By most reports the franchise is seriously struggling and I've yet to attend a game with a full house. Missing one of the two "franchise" players after a dreadful year may be the killer for the team.

If the financial problems are as significant as rumored, could a trip to bankruptcy court to bust the lease and transfer the franchise to Oklahoma City be on the agenda?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/24/2007 11:01 AM  

The real shame for the league is that they continue to have teams in the Pacific time zone at all. Kobe on the Lakers it TERRIBLE, since the Lakers are NEVER on national TV, the east coast never sees Kobe. And the Warriors, that's awful for the league, having Baron Davis languish on the west coast. Why don't you just move the Blazers to Portland, Maine? The Sonics can go to Tampa, the Lakers can move to South Carolina, the Kings could move to London, the Warriors can move to Hartford and then we can always make sure the east coast can see quality basketball and quality players. Because that's what's important, making sure that we break up the blatant West Coast Bias so prevelent in the NBA and sports media.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/24/2007 1:40 PM  

In my opinion the ONLY way to avoid tanking in professional sports is to have to divisions, an upper and a lower. The worst teams each year are relegated to the lower division (say four to eight teams). This may not be practical in an established league such as the NBA but perhaps some variation could work. The current lottery does not serve its purpose well but I am tired of the mismanaged, poorly coached franchises feeling entitled to the prizes of the draft, there must be some randomness.

Anonymous Wade -Blazer Fan -- 5/24/2007 7:27 PM  

Possible solution:

Have a secondary NIT-style tournament during the NBA playoffs. Winner gets the first pick in the draft.

To make it fair, give the teams with the worst two records first round byes then seed the other 12. After first round, you'll have 6 teams left and then insert the bye teams. Then you have an "elite 8"..."final four"...and draft championship.

No need for 7-game series. When you lose, you are done. Losing teams will be seeded by round you go out and then worst record.

I am convinced that you can sell tickets to a game featuring teams fighting it out for a lebron, oden or durant. I ask you...Why not?

Blogger Adam W -- 5/24/2007 11:05 PM  

Anonymous 1:40--put away the meds and step back slowly...."WEST COAST media bias"???
Think about what you said--"put a team in LONDON"???? Then you'd be in the same boat as you are now, since a home game in London means 3000 miles out and back for road games, plus a 5-6 hour time difference (means that an early-evening game in London would likely mean a noon-1 PM broadcast in New York)! Make more pots of coffee and smell them!

Wade-Blazer fan is onto something here; most soccer leagues around the world already have divisions and promotion/relegation in some form already (automatic by final record, plus playoffs). Given the NBA unbalanced schedule, that might cause a problem, but something could be worked out.

Melvin H.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/26/2007 12:54 PM  

The NHL lottery is nothing like the NBA's. The NHL has only one choice, and no team can move up more than four places. Under the NHL's system, which is also weighted, the team with the worst record can pick no lower than second, the second-worst team no lower than third, etc. It gives teams a chance to move up without totally ruining the bottom dwellers.

Anonymous Dr Don -- 5/26/2007 9:58 PM  

Just use something similar to the RPI, like here: , such that the worst teams are more likely to really be the worst (there can be a spread of about 4 or so games on this, so it does have an effect). Also, don't count the last 20 games into the equation. Finslly, the order is just to give the number 1 pick to the lowest team, number 2 pick to the second lowest, and so on, all the way to the 30th pick to the best team, no matter who made the playoffs.

One further benefit from using something based on SOS like this is that it also helps keep the two leagues more balanced compared to each other in the long run.

The only problems with this could be that somehow, a team's last 20 games could happen to be, abnormally, their most difficult matchups, meaning their earlier easier schedule wasn't showing them as bad as they really are, meaning they hypothetically should have gotten a better pick than they did. This is very unlikely that that could even happen to such an extreme to really affect it, and it would be really hard for this to visibly create controversy. As long as they make sure that the schedules are mostly homogenous, this shouldn't be an issue.

I also can't think of a way where teams could somehow selectively play badly against only certain teams as to make their RPI worse, and this wouldn't really be tried by teams before the last 20 games of the season.

I think after you have played 60 games in the NBA, it is a good enough estimate of where everyone is as a team to at least pick the order of the draft.

This way, the last twenty games, teams would be playing to get into the playoffs, or for pride, or as spoilers.

Blogger mmortal03 -- 6/14/2007 7:22 PM  

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