The Nays Have It: Lotto Lives On

October 23rd, 2014 | by Dan Clayton
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Well, it turns out the Philadelphia 76ers are capable of winning something after all.

Thirteen teams, rallied by the Sixers and Thunder, blocked lottery reform that most people assumed would pass without a fight. Those two might seem like odd bedfellows: a small market team and a big market team; a team that’s mid-rebuild and a team that, when healthy, will contend for the West; a team that draws derision for its team-building approach and a team that coined the term “the Presti model.”

Really, these two teams’ motivations for nixing the deal — and convincing 11 other teams to join with them — couldn’t vary more. We’ll get to that in a minute.

According to tweets from Grantland’s Zach Lowe, this is how the proposal would have redistributed the odds of landing a #1 overall pick.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 10.14.14 PM

But that’s just the beginning. Along with those percentage reassignments, the structure would have called for the first six draft positions to be determined via the lottery, not just the first three. For some teams, lottery day would be a complete adventure. Take the 4th worst. Sure, they’d actually gain 1 extra chance out 1,000 at the top pick, but they could pick anywhere 1 through 10, which means their likelihood comes down for #2, #3, #4, etc. If you finish 7th or 8th worst, you could head to Times Square in May with 13 of 14 lottery positions in play for your team.

That’s where the real shakeup would happen, and it’s hard to represent that just by showing the #1 pick percentages1. The whole lottery range would be a complete jumble, as opposed to a system that largely followed the script. But that’s what 17 owners wanted: a true “lottery”.

Reward the lucky, not the sucky.2

Jazz impacts

According to multiple sources3, Utah joined Team Status Quo in the last couple of days before the vote.

Depending on where you think the Jazz will finish in 2014-15, that was either shrewd or clueless in relation to their short term outlook. But to suss out Utah’s motivation for a last-minute about-face, we need to return to the question of Philly and OKC, who I think represent the two very different reasons to oppose this reform.

Philly is going to lose again. A lot. They have purposely stocked their roster with guys they know they can’t play yet because they’re openly planning for another year. Their 2015 pick — which, in the current system, is almost sure to be a top 4 pick — is a big part of how they plan to put Humpty Dumpty back together again after years of falling off walls.

But OKC is in a completely different position. They’re not going to be in the 2015 lotto, and even if they were4, it would be in a late slot where better chances at dumb luck would actually help them. So their motivation has nothing to do with the Sixers’. Their motivation is that they’re in the third smallest market, a place that has never attracted a marquee free agent. They know that someday they may need the lottery again, and when they hit the bottom of their cycle, they don’t want to be looking at the wrong side of the coin while some team that just missed the playoffs leapfrogs them.

So what about the Jazz? It’s possible that they spooked, that they looked around and thought, “Wow, maybe this is going to be a tough year in the W/L column,” and decided to protect the percentages that are owed the worst three or four teams. In other words, it’s possible that they were swayed by the Philly logic.

But I doubt it. Look at how the Jazz are talking — or for that matter, playing. This isn’t a team that looks like it’s planning on losing another 60 games. They understand they’re on a long journey, but I think they view themselves as starting the ascent, however slowly. Most likely, they’ll wind up right in that terrain of teams that would have benefited the most in 2015, at least in terms of pre-ping pong odds, if Wednesday’s vote had gone differently. So I don’t think they see themselves as sharing Philly’s objections.

My best guess is they voted “no” for OKC reasons. The Jazz don’t even need a full Homer Simpson hand to count the number of Jazz All-Stars they acquired via free agency5. They know their best chance of landing franchise talent is in June, so they want a way of doing so that isn’t a total crap shoot. Hell, they already their best two chances in 35 years messed up by backward bounces in 2005 and 20146. So you can understand why they’d be a little skittish about adding even more chance into the equation.

In essence, Philly voted no to protect a short term need. OKC voted no to protect a long-term means of acquiring top talent. I think the Jazz were following the latter’s lead when they cast their ballot Wednesday.

Let’s get crazy

So what happens next? The league probably tinkers with percentages, educates the owners on the impacts it will have throughout picks 1-14, and ultimately comes back with something in the same concept of today’s proposal. And it probably gets passed. But in case they want to conjure up something a little further from the box, here are a couple of ideas.

I played with an idea a couple years ago that I forgot about until I was cleaning off an old computer. The problem we have with tanking is that it motivates teams to strip their roster and put forth a bad basketball product. But what if we found a way to make a late-season game between the Bucks and the Magic mean something?

My idea — you could mess around with the specifics — is to stack-rank teams based on two criteria: reverse-order record (like today’s system) making up something like 65% of the ranking, and win percentage against other lottery teams making up the remainder. Or make it 70/30, 60/40, whatever. Point is, it keeps the dregs a little bit honest. They can’t shut down a player for months over a sore earlobe or trade half their roster for expiring bums if part of their future is determined by games against lottery peers. And since playoff spots often aren’t clinched until April, they wouldn’t even know which games they needed to try to win.

This wouldn’t do much to make Philly-Cleveland games competitive, but I don’t think God and Congress combined could make Philly-Cleveland games competitive. What it will do is keep a lot of basketball games interesting, and allow fans to — gasp! — root for their teams to win.

If that’s not crazy enough, Ryan Hess (@hessrp) has a suggestion that takes the lotto from a redistributive exercise to pure capitalism.

Ryan, a Jazz fan since the glory days, didn’t like that Utah worked hard to do things the “right way” year after year, only to see teams like the Clippers rewarded with a bright, shiny pick at the end of each season. “Simply shuffling around the draft odds,” Ryan said in an e-mail, “will only shift the negative incentives from the worst teams to the lower-middle class teams.” He thought, what if teams that make the playoffs in consecutive years got some kind of credit that could improve their pick. That idea and some good old Adam Smith sparked a whole new concept.

Basically, Ryan wants to create a system where bad teams aren’t directly rewarded with picks. Instead, they get draft credits. But teams can also earn credits “in any number of ways.  The way they are earned, and how much, will be decided by smart economists who will create a distribution mechanism that diminishes negative incentives as much as possible, and is the most equitable to all teams.” So you might get a wad of credits because you’re the 2015 Sixers and you’re awful, but you also might get some because you’re Memphis and you should be rewarded for consistently being a playoff team. Really, you could build the system to allocate credits for any number of behaviors you want to reward. His ideas include things like consecutive playoff appearances, and reduced incentive for repeatedly NOT making the playoffs. But you could bonus teams for hitting attendance targets (another way to reward fielding an interesting team), for avoiding behavior problems, whatever.

Then, the top 3, or 5, or 10 picks each year will be auctioned off using those draft credits as currency. The teams who bid the most move into those spots, and everybody else retains their reverse order spot. They can use those credits to bid on a draft pick, or they can accept their current draft position and save those credits for next year, which might be a stronger draft.

It wouldn’t just be a new system — it would be a whole new philosophy on how teams have to treat asset collection relative to the draft. I’m not sure the idea is fully fleshed out yet, but it’s worth spending some time thinking about.

Neither of those ideas are likely, and the most probably outcome is still some version of Wednesday’s proposal getting reworked. In the meantime, no change will be made, and Philly got its way.

And so did the Utah Jazz.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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6 Comments

  1. Mewko says:

    I think it would be interesting if there was a tournament for the worst 4 teams. Winner gets best odds, 2nd place gets 2nd best odds, etc. The series is best out of 1. It’s do or die.
    Then the other 9 lottery teams get the same odds. If it worked that way last June, than I think the Jazz would’ve had best odds, followed by Orlando, Milwaukee, and Philly.

    • Dan Clayton says:

      Another interesting idea. Not sure if it would necessarily solve tanking, though. You could still spend November through mid-April sucking as bad as you wanted and then play hard for a little 2-game tournament. But the basic concept is one I like. That logic (force tankers to care about winning at some point) is behind my idea above, too.

  2. Ryan Hess says:

    Thanks, Dan, for sharing my idea! Another benefit of my idea is that it would create more realistic values on drafts. Currently, each draft is treated equally, despite the disparity of talent between years. In 2011, the Jazz had the third pick and drafted Enes Kanter. A year later, the Jazz would have been able to pick Damian Lillard or Bradley Bill with the third pick. By creating a marketplace with the currency of draft credits, proper value will be given to weaker drafts because teams will bid less for picks than they would during stronger drafts. Under the current system, you better hope that the year your team sucks, the draft doesn’t suck as well. Unfortunately for us, 2011 was a really poor draft.

  3. Don says:

    The draft is supposed to be a way to build equity between teams so that the games are more entertaining. That worked until we got free agency, where big and desirable market teams can build championships without the draft.

    If the stated goal is still to build parity (…any given Sunday), then draft position needs to take free agent acquisition into account. Teams that take valuable free agents from other teams should be penalized, and free agency losers should be compensated via the draft.

  4. Clint Johnson says:

    I’m disappointed but believe you’re right, Dan: this proposal or one very like it will pass sooner rather than later. That said, I still don’t believe the lottery helps small market teams as much as it does dysfunctional teams. I hope very much the league eventually adopts the Wheel proposal that takes luck out of the equation (as much as possible) and simply penalizes teams for becoming raging dumpster fires.

  5. Aaron says:

    The groaning about the lottery this season was about Cleveland getting three #1 overall picks in a four-year stretch, not that a slightly less sh–ty team won.

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