Don’t Reward Losing: Reworking the NBA Lottery

October 2nd, 2013 | by Clint Johnson

With every Jazz loss this season—and odds are there will be plenty—many Jazz fans will salve their pain with thoughts of the 2014 NBA Draft.  Enough L’s might translate into Andrew Wiggins, after all, with Jabari Parker and a slew of other potential franchise talents waiting as fine consolation prizes.

In this context, what I write here is likely to be particularly unpopular, but it’s how I feel:

I think the current NBA Lottery, which awards the best young prospects to the least successful teams, is a corruption of everything professional sport should be.  I don’t think losing should be grossly rewarded in elite competition. Ever. Doing so distorts the competitive core of athletics, positioning profitability and the self-interest of owners against the simple goal of winning as best one can under any circumstance.

I won’t rehash all the problems of incentivizing losing.  For a fine exploration on the subject, and alternate proposals different from my own, read ESPN’s TrueHoop series from 2012.

Of all years to change the lottery and draft structure, this would be the least palatable for Jazz fans—but that is exactly what I wish would happen.

I wish the draft lottery would change this season, and I wish it would change in such a way as to offer the Jazz zero consolation on a likely season of losing—just as it would never again reward any team for failing to achieve the primary goal of sport: winning.

Here is my proposal.

The NBA Lottery would no longer grant the greatest probability of landing high draft picks to the teams with the most losses.  Instead, the probability of receiving a high draft pick would be based entirely upon a team’s draft position the previous season.  The team coming off last draft’s first overall pick would have the lowest chance of getting a prime pick the following season; the team drafting thirtieth the previous year would have the greatest probability of landing a prime pick.

Pure probability, which might reward karma, but never losing.

The following particulars form what I believe to be a workable system, or at least the origins of one that could be built upon and refined through debate:

#1:  In the first year of the new system, every team would have an equal chance (3.33%) of receiving the number one overall pick.  For every selection thereafter, every team’s chance of receiving the next pick would increase equally, meaning teams with greater probability of getting the first pick will retain that advantage throughout the lottery until they draw their selection slot.  Where teams pick in the first round would be a pure luck of the draw.

#2: Second round picks would be allotted as under the previous system, with the earliest picks going to the teams with the worst records and the latest pick going to the NBA Champion.  This is all the charity I feel is warranted for the most prolific losers in the league.

#3: Every season after the first, teams would be awarded a probability of landing high draft picks in inverse proportion to their first round pick the previous season.  Thus, the team with the first overall selection the previous season would have the lowest probability of landing a prime pick in that year’s draft; meanwhile, the team that picked last in the first round the previous season would have the greatest probability of getting the first pick that year.

The probability of getting the number one overall pick would be assigned as follows:

Pick #30 the previous year: 13.000% change of getting 1st pick
#29: 11.000%
#28: 8.500%
#27: 7.500%
#26: 6.500%
#25: 5.500%
#24: 4.500%
#23: 4.250%
#22: 4.000%
#21: 3.750%
#20: 3.500%
#19: 3.250%
#18: 3.000%
#17: 2.750%
#16: 2.500%
#15: 2.250%
#14: 2.000%
#13: 1.750%
#12: 1.500%
#11: 1.250%
#10: 1.000%
#9: 0.950%
#8: 0.900%
#7: 0.850%
#6: 0.800%
#5: 0.750%
#4: 0.700%
#3: 0.650%
#2: 0.600%
#1: 0.550%

#4: With every pick drawn by a team, the probability assigned to that team would be evenly distributed to the teams still in the lottery.  Thus, after the first pick, the remaining 29 teams probability of getting the second overall pick would increase by 0.45% (13% / 29 teams), by 0.39% for pick three, and so forth.  Thus, teams at an advantage early on would retain that statistical advantage throughout the lottery.

#5: Teams paying the luxury tax (set for $71.748 million and above for 2013-14) would automatically be assigned the lowest probabilities of getting the #1 pick, the most over the cap receiving the lowest probability.  This is true even if they have received low picks the previous season.  Thus, if the system were in place this season, New Jersey ($101.3 million) would receive the lowest probability of getting a high pick, followed by Chicago ($81.4 million), Miami ($80.3 million), New York ($78.9 million), the Lakers ($76.1 million), and Toronto ($72.8 million) as the least likely teams to land a prime pick.

#6: Teams would receive lottery slots according to their pick the previous season before relegating teams over the tax level to the low end of the lottery.  Thus, if a team in the luxury tax picked thirtieth in the first round the previous season, they would be slotted into the highest probability of getting the first pick that season and then relegated.  All teams not under tax penalty slide up to fill the gaps left by those over the tax line.

#7: Draft picks traded by a team over the salary cap are subject to relegation to the end of the first round; draft picks traded by a team not over the cap that then spend into the cap following the trade are NOT relegated to the end of the first round but receive a standard probability according to the team’s draft pick last season.  This provision ensures teams who trade for prime slots in the lottery are not penalized if their trade partner goes on a spending spree later.

#8: Teams’ odds in future drafts are based upon their draft slot the previous season before relegation for being over the tax line, even if they have traded their pick.  Thus, a team receiving the fifth best probability of landing a prime pick that is then relegated to the lowest probability for overspending would still receive the fifth worst probability the following season.  Relegation to the tail of lottery odds for taxation would never reward a team

Why This System Could Work

It would reward all teams other than the perpetually lowest achieving.  Even teams over the cap—typically because they have a great deal of talent already they wish to retain—would have a chance, albeit small, of receiving a prime draft pick each season.  Teams at a plateau would no longer consider “tanking” in hope of receiving a franchise-changing talent in a top draft pick and would instead seek to improve through signing free agents, internal improvement, or better coaching.

Borderline playoff teams, such as the Jazz the past few seasons, would have every incentive to push for the playoffs to the very end and no incentive to mail in the season.  Every team would know its lottery slot before the season begins, making draft picks less variable currency early in the season.  Each season, twenty-four of the thirty teams in the league would have a better chance of getting a top draft pick than under the current system, which strips all that advantage and gifts it to the six worst performing teams.

Another benefit of the new system would be discouragement of teams with the top slot in the lottery from writing off a season in the belief they’re guaranteed a game changing player with whom they can turn things around in a single off-season.  The team with the highest odds of landing the first overall pick would only have a 13% chance rather than the 25% enjoyed by the Magic last season.

In short, while every team in the league would have a chance of a franchise-changing draft pick every year, no team could wisely bet on that outcome in any particular year.  No longer could teams make a succession of poor decisions, lose a lot of games, and count on being bailed out by a lottery advantage for their losing.

Without that incentive for failing to compete, franchises would prioritize good management far more than some do currently.  They would be forced to do so.

Would already elite teams be made stronger with top picks?  Yes, occasionally.  Could teams be caught in a new kind of “middle morass,” ending up with bottom twenty picks season after season?  Yes, but the sheer variability in the system, combined with penalty for teams paying luxury tax, suggests that is unlikely to be common for a long stretch of successive seasons.  As an added bonus, every team’s fan base would be able to hold to the unlikely hope that every year’s draft just might change everything for the better.

Is the system perfect?  Certainly not.  There are bound to be problems with any system, and it’s quite possible there are possible improvements I haven’t recognized.

But is the system better than what the league does now?  For anyone who believes the NBA should not reward losing, I believe the answer is yes.

And you can hold me to that no matter how many games the Jazz lose this season.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. In addition to his writing center work at Salt Lake Community College, he designed, coordinates, and teaches in an experimental author residency program for a West Valley City public charter school. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.
Clint Johnson

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9 Comments

  1. Clint,

    Nice thoughts on how to rework the draft. I’m glad you threw in the caveat of teams over the tax threshold hold automatically receive the lowest odds. Had this not been in there I think it would be very tough for small market teams to remain competitive as all the top talent would go to mostly big market teams each year. Yes OKC and San Antonio are exceptions to that. I agree mostly with your train of thought here. I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. The teams that are around .500, IMO, should be the ones being rewarded. They’re trying hard but for whatever reason aren’t able to make that big push (like your example of the Jazz the past couple of seasons). This way they get the needed talent to get them over the hump while the teams with the worst records get moved down in the draft order but still able to acquire players to help them move up to the .500 mark. Teams with the best records would still be toward the bottom but more often than not this does not affect them. The Lakers, Heat, Knicks and Nets of the world will always have the money and markets to sign whoever they want most of the time. Nice work and I agree, a change definitely needs to made.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Thanks for the well thought our reply, Luke. I can see a system designed along the lines you propose working. You might check out the Sloan Solution mentioned in last year’s ESPN discussion: http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/39750/fix-tanking-the-sloan-solution. Basically, it rewards the #1 pick to the team with the most wins AFTER being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. It is similar to what you’re proposing, at least in effect.

      • Eric Rooks says:

        I just read the Sloan solution and i love it! I honestly didn’t think there was a good solution to the NBA lottery, but I’m convinced now the Sloan solution is it.

        When your team gets eliminated, as a fan you then get to root for your team to win (instead of lose) to get the lottery pick. It works so well because the first teams eliminated have a good chance against the last teams eliminated because they get more games to play. It’s still in favor of the worst teams in the league, but it reverses the whole dynamic. It’s brilliant!

        I’m sold! Let’s do it!

        • Clint Johnson says:

          I would support that proposal, certainly. The only reservation I have, and the reason I developed my own approach, is the Sloan Solution still rewards mediocrity. I can see how the system might result in inverse tanking: trying to lose games early and often in the season in order to get a great draft pick then trying to win games late.

          That being said, I think this solution would be a huge improvement. My only qualm is it goes against my philosophy of never reward losing, at the beginning or end of a season.

  2. Ryan Strebel says:

    People need to also remember that its not just about the #1 pick. Typically people hear about changing the lottery and they immediately assume that the #1 pick is all that matters. We always forget about the Paul George’s, and jump to the conclusion that the teams at the top will remain at the top. I truly agree with you that something needs to be done. I want to someday see an NBA, where all 30 teams try to win. We deserve more than 20 or so teams competing every year. With that said, I don’t necessarily agree with your idea. But I do agree there is a solution, and the NBA and all the owners are very capable smart people who could come up with some sort of a solution that would be better than what they have now. I do like a lot of your ideas though.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ryan. And just to be clear, my proposed system would change the dynamic of the entire first round. Under the current system, 5 of the top 8 picks are guaranteed to go to the 5 worst performing teams in the league and all playoff teams have set picks. This would put all of that into flux, forcing every team to use middle of the round picks well to excel consistently. That’s my theory, at least.

  3. Pingback: Don’t Reward Losing: Reworking the NBA Lottery – Salt City Hoops | Lottery

  4. scotty says:

    Clint, I agree the NBA lottery system is broken. However, I can’t embrace your proposal. The reason, I have to believe whatJazz mgmt along with other NBA execs say that small market teams need the draft to help them compete. Therefore I would tweak the current system. The lottery team with the most wins at the end of the season has the greatest % of winning the number one pick. (I might even support increasing the teams % of winning the lottery from what it is now) Then work backwards.The lottery team with the most losses is the least likely to win the lottery.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I see your point. I think the same teams that would claim my proposal hurts small market teams would say the same about your idea. It sounds to me that you like the Sloan Solution, which I quite like, might appeal to you. I posted a link to it in my reply comment above to Luke.

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