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Report: NBA considering modifying its draft lottery process to discourage tanking

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie
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Dr. J does the math. (Getty Images)

We’re not completely sure – our cable television doesn’t touch a sports network unless an actual game is on so we miss out on a lot of bleating – but it’s likely the NBA had to endure endless criticism during the 2013-14 season as media types watched teams in Philadelphia, Boston, Utah, Orlando, Toronto and Phoenix purportedly tank. Some squads were better than others at this – Toronto won its division, Phoenix missed the postseason but had a better year than all but two of the playoff squads in the Eastern Conference – but the intent was clear. Faced with a necessary do-over, for whatever reason, most of these franchises decided that a year off was in order.

Various influences were behind this – all but two of the teams listed above featured a general manager hired in the last two years, and 2014’s draft crop was one of the better groups in recent memory – and all seemed understandable. That didn’t stop the backlash, not coming from fans of the teams in those particular cities, but from outsiders – with many demanding the NBA rework or even abolish its draft lottery system in order to right this terrible, terrible wrong.

Grantland’s Zach Lowe is now reporting the NBA’s competition committee, meeting in Las Vegas during the NBA Summer League, is already one step ahead of the hand-wringers. They’ve drafted a proposal that would give the very worst teams an even crummier chance at the top overall pick. From Lowe’s report:

The proposal, which dominated the lottery-reform discussion in league meetings this week, is essentially an attempt to squeeze the lottery odds at either extreme toward a more balanced system in which all 14 teams have a relatively similar chance at the no. 1 pick, per sources familiar with the proposal.

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The goal of this initial proposal is obvious: to prevent out-and-out tanking among the league’s very worst teams for the No. 1 pick. Equalizing the odds for the five worst teams, and giving the next few clubs odds very close to that 11 percent chance, goes a long way toward removing the incentive to race toward the bottom. That slice of the reform targets team’s like last season’s Sixers and the 2011-12 Bobcats, both of which rather blatantly constructed rosters designed to be as bad as possible in those particular seasons. The end goal was a 25 percent chance at the top pick. The NBA’s proposal would grant such teams just an 11 percent shot at it, merely a hair better than the chances for mid-rung lottery teams that, in some seasons, are at least within spitting distance of the playoff race after 40 or so games.

By keeping the odds for the very best lottery teams on the low side — just 2 percent — the league is working to avoid building in any incentive for a team chasing the No. 8 spot to tank out of the playoffs.

This is basically a split difference between the initial lottery era, one that ran from 1985-94, and the current system. Prior to 1994, each lottery team received an equal shot at the top overall pick. After Orlando received back-to-back top overall picks in 1992 and '93, even after winning 41 games in 1992-93, the NBA reworked the system and handed weights to lottery odds based on records, using a complicated selection process that only used the lottery hopper for the top three picks, with representatives from Ernst & Young putting their company’s reputation on the line in observing the selections – something the tired, tin-foil-hatted conspiracy theorists always like to overlook.

Here’s the issue the chirpers seem to cheerfully ignore while they fill up the radio airwaves and Twitterverse with complaints about tanking:

The NBA’s lottery system works.

The Philadelphia 76ers attempted to tank all of 2013-14, sitting down their top draft pick for the entire season. They picked third in last June’s draft, and were not rewarded with the top overall pick.

The Boston Celtics attempted a watered-down version of the same routine, and picked seventh. The Milwaukee Bucks finished with the worst record in the NBA, and picked second.

Those same Bucks and Celtics teams tanked down the stretch in 2007 for a shot at Greg Oden and Kevin Durant with the top two overall picks, and they selected sixth and fifth in that year’s draft. The team with the worst record rarely selects first overall, and two of the NBA’s top point guards (Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose) were selected first overall by teams that had less than a 2 percent chance at the top selection.

A move like this isn’t going to dissuade Philadelphia from sitting Joel Embiid out for all of 2014-15, it’s not going to stop Orlando from working at a snail’s pace to recover from the franchise-shifting loss of Dwight Howard and it’s not going to convince Danny Ainge to give up any of his 192 future draft picks on the way toward acquiring players in their primes so that the C’s can shoot up to 45 wins.

Teams run by members of the newer wave of NBA GMs will lust over those 11 percent odds as much as they did the 25 percent odds finishing with the worst record in the NBA (a title won by a Bucks team that had hopes of making the playoffs last season, you’ll recall) currently allows.

In capitulating to a supposed media firestorm about tanking, the NBA is underestimating the intelligence of both its general managers (in previous seasons, not exactly a bad idea) and its fans. Of course paying customers want their teams to be very good and straightaway, but let’s give the diehards some credit, here. We’re at a point in NBA fandom where followers understand that shortsighted, win-now moves can often hamstring a team for years at a time. Fans in Milwaukee even raised billboards last season begging their team’s front office to stop going for mediocre players in the hopes of grabbing a low playoff seed for what seemed like the 14th time in 15 years.

Fans in Philadelphia want to see Joel Embiid play this year, and they wanted to see Nerlens Noel play last season, but they’ll be more than happy with the team’s outlook heading into 2015-16, with five lottery picks on the team’s roster, one former Rookie of the Year and heaps of cap space to use on complimentary players who are in line with their young roster’s age and skill set. Sixers fans don’t want their team to go after Jodie Meeks. Again.

Tanking is not a problem. Signing O.J. Mayo to a long-term contract is a problem. Hiring Doug Collins and Rod Thorn to run your basketball team is a problem. Allowing Bryan Colangelo to double down on his own mistakes is a problem. Shooting for 45 wins, and nothing else, is a problem.

You know what’s not a problem? Danny Ainge fleecing Billy King. Sam Hinkie taking advantage of New Orleans’ impatience, that ain’t a problem. Rob Hennigan intelligently figuring out how to restart a franchise without a 2012 lottery pick already in hand is not a problem. These are smart executives taking mindful, long-term approaches to rebuilding when an obvious solution (or, in many cases, a future problem disguised as a solution) isn’t available. Losses will result, and chances will be taken, but history has proven that if properly executed this is the right way to build, even on top of salted crops.

The quick, media-driven (and we’re not including the great Zach Lowe in this, he’s just reporting in this instance) turnover that simply wasn’t in place even in 2007 is the problem. It’s nice the NBA is thinking on its feet and talking about such things, but we’re not entirely convinced this is a solution to this particular “problem.”

Presuming that one exists.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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