NEW YORK – Dealing with ultra-competitive people who’ve chased down success in both sports and business, vying in an industry with millions and these days even billions of dollars at stake in revenue and franchise valuations, it’s no wonder that every NBA rule on and off the court gets bent nearly to the point of breaking.
So dialing in the right mix of incentives, disincentives and weighted percentages in crafting or reforming a draft lottery is like dribbling through the Chicago Bulls defense – in a minefield of unintended consequences. Veer this way and … kaboom!
That, ultimately, was why a proposal from the league’s Competition Committee to modify the lottery failed to pass at the Board of Governors meeting that concluded Wednesday in midtown Manhattan. A 17-13 vote in favor of some significant changes still fell short of the 23 votes needed, based on the league’s by-laws. The issue goes back to the committee for further study.
“We’ve tinkered with the draft lottery several times,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “I don’t necessarily disagree with the way it works now. I’m concerned with the perception.”
Silver, in fact, considers it a “corrosive perception” held by some fans, media types and people within his own league that teams can win big by losing big.
The essence of a draft is to deliver the best young talent to the neediest team. Yet “neediest team” is a moving target: Sometimes it’s a good team whose star player has gone done for a season – or left for good as a free agent. Sometimes it’s a chronically mismanaged roster full of players who never quite panned out. And still other times it’s a crew in need of serious rebuild whose front office has determined that “tanking” in search of a high draft pick is the surest way out of Stinkville.
The Philadelphia 76ers are the current poster guys for that strategy, using lottery picks on injured Joel Embiid and Euro-stashed Dario Saric one year after adding hurt-and-redshirted Nerlens Noel and finishing 19-63. Other teams such as Milwaukee and Orlando lined up with them – the 15-67 Bucks actually undercut the field in 2013-14 – in pursuit of the same prize.
The sense that one or several of the league’s 30 teams would take the court intending to do anything but win is one that rankles Silver. But for every tweak in the lottery system allegedly keeping teams honest in one direction, there was potential for a different club to game the system in another.
“Whether it’s the case, I’m frankly not sure. Sometimes perception becomes reality,” Silver said. “I think there’s an unfair pressure on some of our teams to actually underperform. There’s a view in those markets that they’re better off performing poorly in order to win in the long-term.”
Teams voted for or against the lottery reforms for other, more specific reasons. Some franchises in small-revenue markets feel they’re at a disadvantage in free agency (luring players) or trades (keeping acquired players long-term. They see the draft – and the rules of rookie contracts that can stretch as long as five seasons, at salaries lower than market value – as an equalizer. Teams in larger markets, with greater pressure from their fan bases to win, may view the draft as rewarding the league’s laggards or, worse, the intentionally bad.
According to Yahoo! Sports, the votes broke somewhat, but not entirely, along market-size lines. The 13 “no” votes reportedly were: Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, Washington and Utah.
The proposals floated this week called for broadening the lottery’s sweet spot and giving more teams a better shot at landing the top picks. In flattening the odds among the teams with the four worst records, the “neediest” team’s chance at the No. 1 pick would have been cut from 25 percent to 12. Also, it would be guaranteed no worse than the seventh pick, rather than fourth in the current system, if its lottery numbers proved unlucky.
“People want a change,” one Eastern Conference GM told NBA.com, “but they weren’t happy with the proposal.”
Other topics addressed at the Board of Governors meeting included:
- Reports on revenue sharing and the new TV and digital rights extensions with Turner Broadcasting and ABC/ESPN that will pay the NBA $24 billion over nine years beginning in 2016-17, approximately triple what the current deals generate.
- Discussion about the league’s latest marketing campaign and the status of the Atlanta Hawks’ unsettled ownership situation.
- Presentations on domestic violence, diversity and other workplace concerns.
- The extension of Minnesota owner Glen Taylor’s term as Board of Governors chairman for one more year.
- The establishment of the David J. Stern Sports Scholarship, a $30,000 package based on merit and need for a student in sports management. Included: an internship at the NBA office in New York as a junior and direct mentoring from Stern, who retired as NBA commissioner after 30 years in February. “He was honored, flattered,” Silver said. He’s looking forward to engaging directly with these young students.”
The TV money issue looms large over the next two years because, while the infusion of cash won’t occur until 2016-17, all parties know that it is coming. NBA players already have talked about getting back some of what they felt was sacrificed in the last round of collective-bargaining talks in 2011, when their share of league revenues fell from 57 to approximately 50 percent. Owners reportedly are questioning revenue-sharing arrangements agreed to at about that same time and fine-tuned since.
Silver said Wednesday that one-third of the league’s 30 teams still are not profitable, though he added after the news conference that the onus still is on the individual teams to manage well their business. Some in attendance raised the specter of labor strife again in 2017 when the current CBA can (and likely will) be re-opened, and the possibility of a lockout similar to or worse than 2011 in a squabble over the flood of dollars.
The commissioner wasn’t ready to go there.
“So many great things are happening in this league right now,” Silver said. “Putting money aside, I think the system elements are working in the new collective bargaining agreement. I can’t remember a time when we had so many competitive teams in the league, so much hope in markets throughout the league.
“As I’ve said to the players, from day one when I became commissioner, my focus is on growing the pie. And if we do our job growing the pie, the incremental differences in percentages will be rounding error compared to us both sharing in the success of the league.”