Commissioner Adam Silver got it partly right in noting the perception problem with the lottery, about how losing teams feel pressure from fans “to somehow underperform” to get the best picks in June and accelerate the elevator ride back up. That is definitely an issue. (Not as much as a weak owner and front office that would make basketball decisions based on public opinion, but, yes, a problem.)
What no one seemed to hit on, though, as the Board of Governors voted down dramatic changes to the lottery Wednesday was how the proposal was exactly about perception. It was about soothing, not fixing.
The system isn’t flawed because of tanking. The system is flawed because the team with the worst record does not get the No. 1 pick, and rarely does the second-worst move into that coveted position. Since the change to the current format, the club with the best odds has drawn the winning combination of ping-pong balls three times in 21 lotteries: the 76ers in 1996 (Allen Iverson), the Cavaliers in 2003 (LeBron James) and the Magic in 2004 (Dwight Howard). The next-best odds has moved to the top of the draft once in the 2000s, the Clippers of 2009 (Blake Griffin).
The suggested solution that went before the Board of Governors? Decrease the chances even more.
The proposal got 17 of 30 votes from the Board of Governors, one representative from each franchise, at a meeting in New York, short of the 23 needed for approval. The plan goes back for further review and likely tweaks within the competition committee.
The obvious intent was to discourage tanking — no need to try for losses, the teams were being told, because there is not a good chance it will get you to the top of the order anyway. Which was known anyway. It’s right there in the history books.
Tanking was one of the most oversold storylines of last season, if not the most, without nearly the race to the bottom too many would suggest. The 15-67 Bucks had the worst record in the league, but after making moves in the offseason to get better, not set themselves up for June. The 19-63 76ers — OK, apart from them. The Jazz had the worst record in the West, but improved after the first month or so, when a 1-14 start provided the perfect opportunity to cash out early. The Lakers were second worst, though obviously not out of preference. The Kings could have kept the roster in place, but traded for Rudy Gay in a win-now move.
The league went from years of no proposals moving to a final vote, and rarely so much as a public suggestion from one of the teams about fixing the problem, to possibly ratifying a jolting set of rules. There was such a whiplash effect that it may have been one of the reasons the new idea failed to gain the necessary two-thirds approval. While the need to deal with the image problem of tanking was obvious, with Philadelphia the current poster child, the result would have been to further penalize the teams that earned the spot through more-conventional means.
“I think we all recognize that we need to find the right balance between creating the appropriate incentives on one hand for teams to, of course, win, and on the other hand allowing what is appropriate rebuilding and a draft to work as a draft should, in which the worst performing teams get the highest picks in the draft, and we’ve tinkered with the draft lottery several times over the years,” Silver said. “I don’t necessarily disagree with the way it works now.”
He added: “I’d say from a personal standpoint, what I’m most concerned about is the perception out there right now. Frankly the pressure on a lot of our teams, even from their very fans, to somehow underperform because it’s in some people’s view the most efficient and quickest way to get better, so I think that’s a corrosive perception out there. Whether it’s the case, I’m frankly not sure. I think sometimes perception becomes reality in this league. There seems to be a certain group-think among general managers in terms of what the best ways are to build teams, and so it was a fascinating discussion [surrounding the vote] and I think a very appropriate discussion for the board.”
There are no shortage of suggestions to remedy the lottery dilemma. The proposal that got voted down just wasn’t one of them.