Why the NBA's draft lottery reform is a slippery slope

Adrian WojnarowskiThe Vertical
Why the NBA's draft lottery reform is a slippery slope
Why the NBA's draft lottery reform is a slippery slope

Everyone understands the reasons the Philadelphia 76ers want the NBA to wait on implementing a plan to reform the draft lottery: They need one more season to complete a most brazen two-year tanking cycle. The Sixers didn't invent the idea of gutting a roster to short-circuit a path to the No. 1 overall pick, only perfected the pursuit.

The strategy of Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie – who came with his ownership's full endorsement and support – has inspired an immense level of resentment and disdain within the NBA. There's a movement to punish the Sixers and discourage the practice. So on Wednesday, the league's owners will vote to change the way bad franchises bottom out for the chance to select transcendent talents.

Philadelphia's campaigning to ease the implementation of the rule over the next several years has struggled to gain traction, but there's been an improbable voice that has risen in recent weeks, advocating a stay of execution for the current system: Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti.

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In conversations with small-market executives, Presti, a member of the influential NBA competition committee, has tried to warn peers that changing the system is a risky proposition for small-market teams.

Presti declined comment to Yahoo Sports, but his case, laid out to others, is this: The big-market teams badly want this change because it'll give them one more advantage over small markets in securing top talent. Big-market teams have an advantage signing superstar free agents and an advantage trading for them because those players are far more apt to agree to sign a contract extension. And, now, the big market teams will get better access to top players higher in the draft.

Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie had the third pick in the 2014 NBA draft. (AP)
Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie had the third pick in the 2014 NBA draft. (AP)

Gone will be a weighted system where the worst team has 25 percent of the pingpong balls for the No. 1 overall pick and a guarantee it'll drop no lower than fourth in the draft order. Now, the worst four teams have a 12 percent chance at the first pick, No. 5 has an 11.5 percent chance, No. 6, 10 percent, and on down. What's more, the worst team can drop as far as seventh in the draft order, the second worst can drop to No. 8, and so on.

Now, the bottom three teams have 64 percent, 56 percent and 47 percent chances of getting top-three picks, and that'll change to 35 percent, virtually the same as the fourth- (35 percent) and fifth-worst (34 percent) teams.

As one GM sympathetic to Presti's concerns – and employed by an owner who has decided to vote for the new system – told Yahoo Sports: "Everyone is too focused on Philly, on one team in one situation. The only chance for a lot of teams to ever get a transformational player is through the draft, and eventually we are all going to be in the lottery, in that spot. The teams that'll drop from two to eight, or three to nine – that's just going to take the air out of those fan bases and franchises. They'll get little, if any chance, to improve.

"We are going to see more big-market teams who just missed the playoffs jump up and get a great young player at the top of the draft. And people are going to go "What the [expletive] just happened?"

Presti hasn't so much campaigned for "no" votes, executives told Yahoo, as much as he's used his platform on the competition committee to remind teams of the possible consequences for smaller-market franchises. Still, most executives don't see this issue as big market vs. small, but rather a short-term opportunity to get a better pick, perhaps a longer-term play to discourage tanking.

Thunder GM Sam Presti is opposed to the proposed lottery changes. (USA Today)
Thunder GM Sam Presti is opposed to the proposed lottery changes. (USA Today)

Nevertheless, the issues between big and small markets arose again in Monday's round of Board of Governor meetings in New York. Owners started a conversation on future revenue sharing. With possible change still two years away, sides are forming again. As the $24 billion TV deal starts to pour into the league, as payrolls expand, small-market advocates made a preliminary presentation about further payouts in revenue sharing. Portland's Paul Allen offered an idea on bringing smaller-market profit margins closer to those of big-market teams, and it wasn't met with much enthusiasm.

Several big-market representatives bristled, including Dallas owner Mark Cuban. For a few minutes anyway, Cuban sparred with Allen, league officials in the room told Yahoo Sports.

"Are you from China?" Cuban asked.

Everyone had a laugh over it and considered the barbs part of the busting of chops that forever goes on. That's forever the big vs. small conversation among these billionaires.

Nevertheless, everyone left the meeting with an understanding that revenue sharing promises to become a difficult issue again. "The small markets want more, because there's more to give," one high-ranking Eastern Conference official told Yahoo Sports.

That's still a fight for a different day in the NBA, but draft lottery change is coming on Wednesday and there's no stopping it. Philadelphia and Oklahoma City need six more teams to align and block the reform, and their officials have already given up on the possibility of defections to their side.

Whatever the motivations for change – a referendum on Hinkie's approach, a self-serving short-term strategy to steal a higher pick or two, an honest belief in the new system – Oklahoma City's Sam Presti made his case to executives that this could turn out to be one more way for the rich to get richer in the NBA. And, as one Western Conference GM said, "Then there will be no going back. I hope we know what we're doing with this one."

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