OAKLAND, Calif. -- When the Minnesota Timberwolves select first in this June's NBA draft, they will do so with full knowledge that they earned it. While plenty of teams embraced losing throughout the 2014-15 season, none reached the level of futility of the 16-66 Wolves, a squad that fell below several other win-averse squads in the pursuit of a high draft pick. Although the ping-pong balls still had to bounce Minnesota's way at the draft lottery, the system in place benefited the Wolves.
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According to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, it looks like any teams in the Wolves' position next year will get the same 25 percent odds of the top pick. Silver stated Thursday that he wishes to hold off on draft lottery reform for at least one more season in his news conference prior to Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers at Oracle Arena.
"I'm currently of the view that's actually one I think we should park at least for a year because when all this [salary] cap money comes in ‑‑ like we're going to go from a cap of I think approximately $67 million next year in the '15‑'16 season to a cap of roughly $90 million in the '16‑'17 season," Silver said. "What I've learned from this league, having been around a long time, is that our smart teams figure out angles, approaches, that we just can't possibly model."
Silver previously supported a proposal to reform the draft lottery, but that plan was voted down by 13 teams at the league's Board of Governors meeting in late October. While the commissioner still supports reform, he does not see it as a prudent step at this time.
The idea is that the sizable cap increase, made official in March when the players' union rejected a cap smoothing proposal, will change not just the amount that teams can offer their players in salary, but also the ways in which franchises go about adding players. On at least one level, Silver's logic follows from a belief in the ingenuity and creativity of general managers and other personnel executives.
However, he also expressed concerns about unforeseen consequences of the boost.
"It's a massive amount of capital that's going to come in from one year to the next. Something that's never happened before in the history of this league," he said. "That's one issue where I feel that even though I think a change in the draft lottery is needed, we should wait and then take a look at it holistically when we see how the whole system will operate under much higher caps."
Without specifics, it's difficult to know exactly where Silver sees potential shifts, and it's possible that he is simply supporting a conservative plan of action in which the league does not seek solutions to problems that could very well become less or more important in a little over a year.
Regardless, Silver's approach to lottery reform jibes with his reasoning for proposing cap smoothing in the first place. Smoothing would not have changed the total sum of money earned by players in 2016-17 and other affected seasons, but it would have have limited what free agents could have earned in the free agent summer of 2016 and beyond. The stated rationale behind smoothing was that it would allow the league to avert potential economic destabilization. Silver seems to foresee the same possibility of short-term chaos (or at least discomfort) now.
That wariness makes sense considering the lengths that several general managers have taken to assemble championship-level teams. Although Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets has employed an analytics-based approach for the better part of a decade, figures like Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers have embraced much deeper campaigns in which teams assemble cheap, low-potential rosters in the hope of building a title-level roster over many, many years. Enough teams have proven their willingness to lose intentionally over the long haul (or tank, if you want to use a dirty word) that they could decide the cost-benefit analysis will shift with a change in salary structure. To give just one example, a team could decide that having to pay higher salaries will make collection of multiple draft picks much more important than getting one very high one. These are just guesses right now, but it's exactly that sort of uncertainty that has Silver inclined to wait.
These thoughts on lottery reform follow a line of thinking that Silver expressed throughout his press conference. In both his prepared remarks and answers to questions, the commissioner emphasized that sound, creative management can bring a team from the depths of the NBA to its biggest stage. Silver praised the owners and front offices of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers just as much as he did more famous figures like LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
Perhaps such impulses are not surprising given that Silver ultimately represents management. Yet the conservative approach also makes sense given that ownership holds a much stronger hand now than it did before the 2011 lockout. Ultimately, a group in charge is going to avoid risking their position whenever it can. The cap increase may not create large-scale shifts in the way teams operate, but the mere fact that it could is enough to pause the reform process. If Silver didn't want to change the economics of the league too rapidly, it's because the present situation looks pretty good for him and his colleagues.
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