The NBA’s current lottery system incentivizes less-than-blessed franchises to do all they can to do as little as possible in order to be in the best position to draft someone like, say, Victor Wembanyama.
The league has tried various initiatives to curb the scourge that is tanking — something NBA commissioner Adam Silver addressed after a question by team employees with the Phoenix Suns recently — a franchise that seemingly has very little chance of such a worry.
As tantalizingly good as Wembanyama is, it isn’t exclusive to his future draft eligibility. It’s a strategy so many struggling franchises have engaged in it’s almost common practice.
But the league should consider taking a more drastic step, one that would at least prevent years on years of tanking that embarrasses the competitive balance of the league and its integrity.
The NBA should implement a rule preventing teams that wind up in the top three of the draft to be eligible for the top three of the next draft — by way of the lottery.
Rarely do teams get top-three picks in consecutive years, which is decided by the randomness of the draft lottery. But fixing the draft lottery isn’t the problem; fixing the regular-season tanking is the issue.
In this scenario, Orlando, Oklahoma City and Houston would not be eligible to obtain top-three picks in next year’s draft lottery. The best any of the teams could do would be fourth, and that’s if — if — they finish with records that would have warranted the absolute best odds at 14 percent.
Under the current system, the worst three teams have equal odds, followed by teams’ odds starting at 12.5 percent and descending by order of record. Here’s where it can potentially be fun.
If Orlando, Oklahoma City or Houston is in that top tier of worst records, the best odds for a top-three pick would go to the next teams in descending order. It's almost as if those three teams don’t exist. And the NBA could heavily tilt the numbers in favor of the teams involved in the play-in by applying those odds from the ineligible teams.
Of course, it could result in those teams slotted ninth and 10th to tank the play-in games — as an unintended consequence. But usually, one would find it hard to believe a team would go 82 games competitively to submissively drop one or two in favor of better draft odds.
The idea does increase the chances of seeing better basketball later in the season by more teams than the current form. And it could make teams more incentivized to get to the play-in, if the draft odds are more to their favor — as opposed to the sometimes slog-like finish to the regular season, when fans still pay the full freight not knowing if they’ll get requisite effort by teams with varying objectives.
“I like the idea,” a general manager told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday afternoon. “It doesn’t stop tanking altogether, but it does keep more teams competitive as late as possible.
“And it prevents that losing culture from hurting really good young players.”
That sentiment was echoed by other front-office executives reached by Yahoo Sports recently.
It was revealed to Yahoo Sports recently that a form of this — at least preventing teams from getting in the top three two years in a row — was proposed by the NBA in talks. Commissioner Adam Silver was in favor of a form of the idea, Yahoo Sports learned. It gained traction in preliminary meetings but was met with resistance by a small handful of general managers, sources told Yahoo Sports.
It’s not often teams finish in the top three in consecutive years. Houston getting the second pick in 2021 and then going third in 2022 is a rarity of sorts. But consider the circumstances. The Rockets sat a healthy John Wall for the entire season under the guise of putting themselves in the best possible position for this past draft, enabling them to select Jabari Smith third.
Are there ways for teams to try to game the system? Of course. But there are some mechanisms that can prevent such chicanery. Say a team is looking two years ahead for the next Wembanyama and wants to trade out of a top-three slot to get in position for the next draft — in the event it got unlucky by getting lucky in a draft where there aren’t as many top prospects.
Once the ping-pong balls work in your favor, you can’t rig it to get back in by trading out. But say, by a stroke of front-office genius, a team trades into the top three after the lottery has been conducted.
It would be eligible to be back in the top three the next time around.
This proposal isn’t to eliminate methods by teams getting better by any means necessary, it’s to prevent the perception of the regular season becoming meaningless.
One would say it isn’t fair to the Oklahoma City Thunders of the world, where second overall pick Chet Holmgren missing his rookie season seems to be a possibility because of an injury he suffered in a summer pro-am game, and it would be tough to swallow for a singular fan base.
But it would force the Thunder or any team in their position to explore other ways to get better as opposed to the wait-on-the-ping-pong-balls strategy that is so prevalent.
There have been successes of building through the lottery with perhaps a little luck but doing other things around it. In 2018, the first five picks went to Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta, Memphis and Dallas.
Other than Sacramento, all of the teams have been to at least the second round since, and Phoenix went to the NBA Finals in 2021.
The NBA is full of haves and have-nots, and not everyone will be successful. But if preserving integrity is the objective, a slight tweak to the lottery system could be an answer.