On Thursday, the NBA board of governors approved changes to the NBA draft lottery that were proposed last month. The changes will be instituted for the 2019 NBA draft. Under the revised system, the team with the worst record will now have a 14 percent chance of landing the first overall pick, compared to 25 percent chance under the current system. Here's a primer on how all of it works and how it will impact team-building in the NBA going forward.
Why did the NBA want to change their draft lottery rules?
In September, president of league operations Byron Spruell said that "many fans continue to say that so-called tanking is making them less interested in the league." With a new $24 billion television deal that kicked in at the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, the NBA has been focused on improving their product in every way possible for their partners. This is why the league has shortened the pre-season, eliminated four games in five nights on the schedule for the first time this season and want to deter teams from resting their players (more on this later). And this is also why the league wants new draft lottery rules to prevent teams -- like the Philadelphia 76ers, who purposely lost as many games as possible for three straight seasons in order to increase their draft lottery odds -- from being non-competitive during the regular season.
Is there a chart that can summarize everything before we get into the details?
Yes. Here is the impact on lottery odds for the bottom 14 teams in the league:
Here is an ESPN graphic on how NBA Draft lottery odds change in 2019 pic.twitter.com/Jk8X7q0J3Z- Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 28, 2017
So, what is changing?
Here's the easiest way to process the draft lottery reform. In the past -- assuming for simplicity, every team owns their first round pick -- if you finished with the worst record in the league, you were guaranteed a 25 percent chance of landing the first overall pick. The second worst team had a 19.9 percent chance. The third worst team had a 15.6 percent chance. Now, the bottom three teams will have an equal chance of landing the first overall pick at 14 percent. As well, teams previously dropped no more than three spots in the draft (ie. the number one lottery team would fall no lower than fourth), now each team can drop up to four spots (ie. the number one lottery team can fall to fifth under the new rules).
Will teams no longer tank to increase their lottery odds?
The short answer: no. The longer answer: teams are no longer incentivized to finish with the worst record in the league, now you're only required to finish in the bottom three to have the highest lottery odds. But that doesn't mean every team will not suddenly be trying to make the playoffs. Instead, the tanking target has now moved. Instead of teams jostling to finish with the worst record in the league, rebuilding teams will now simply be aiming to be in the bottom three. So, instead of monitoring where every team is finishing at the bottom of the standings towards the end of the season, now, the new tanking watch will be who can finish in the bottom three. If you're a team with the fourth-worst record in the league with a month left in the regular season, there will be every incentive to fall into the bottom three now.
Was there other proposed options that would eliminate tanking completely?
You can't eliminate tanking completely unless you eliminate all incentive for losing games. With this draft reform, you're only altering the expected value of an increase in lottery odds with each loss. There was one proposal several years ago which would have eliminated tanking completely. In 2013, Grantland's Zach Lowe detailed what was known as The Wheel, in which the lottery format would be eliminated, and instead, teams would pick in a specific first round draft slot once, over 30 years. Under this format, every team would know going into every season which slot they would be picking at the end of the year, and could construct their teams accordingly. The problem under this system would be at its most extremes. Imagine the competitive imbalance if the Warriors landed Kevin Durant in free agency and had the number one overall pick in the same year. Or imagine a rebuilding team, like the Bulls for example, being stuck with picking in the 20s for several seasons. The lesson here is: there's no perfect system.
What were the larger arguments regarding the draft lottery reform and competitive balance in the league?
The Warriors are set to dominate the league for the next half-decade. The Cavs, Celtics, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder have assembled enough talent to consider themselves championship contenders. And then, there are a bunch of teams in the middle who are either rebuilding, waiting for their young players to develop, or have become perennial playoff teams. All of those teams face the same problem: unless they can add a superstar (or three) to their roster, they will never compete for a championship. The problem for these teams is that the draft is a much more realistic route to land a star player than in free agency, where these teams have historically been shut out. These are the circumstances that drive teams to tank to increase their lottery odds. Tilting the odds and not rewarding the worst teams in the league with a chance to land that superstar can be seen as a detriment to competitive balance in the long-term.
What are some other potential impacts of the draft lottery reform?
We've established that tanking isn't going away with the new draft lottery reform. In fact, we might see different variations of tanking happen moving forward. At the moment, there's significant competitive imbalance between the conferences. The West is stacked while it's unclear whether it will take an above .500 record to make the playoffs in the East. It's possible we might see a bunch of teams in the East compete to miss the playoffs. In a scenario where making the playoffs as the eighth seed would mean getting swept by the Cavaliers in the first round and eliminating yourself from winning the lottery, versus missing the playoffs and potentially being a top-five worst team where you could have a >10 percent chance of landing the number one pick. It's not out of the realm of possibility for teams under the new rules to tank their way out of the playoffs because it provides no long-term benefits for the franchise, which would create another optics issue for the league.
And there's also a new rule to prevent player resting?
Yes. Under the new rules, commissioner Adam Silver has the ability to exercise discretion in issuing fines to teams for resting players, if they choose to sit multiple players outside of unusual circumstances for a game, or if healthy players are rested for nationally televised games. Because the rule is at the discretion of the commissioner, it remains to be seen how it will play out next time Gregg Popovich decides to leave all his starters at home for a nationally televised game against the Warriors.
The league has taken steps to make the schedule easier for teams this year, and have made sure teams aren't playing on back-to-back nights before key nationally televised games. Last season, a much-anticipated Warriors-Spurs showdown on national television in early March turned into a pre-season scrimmage when Golden State -- playing their eighth game in 13 days and on the second night of a back-to-back -- rested Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Spurs did the same thing, resting Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. We'll still see coaches rest their starters throughout the season, but in exchange for making a regular season schedule easier to manage with more rest days, the league is hoping coaches like Kerr and Popovich will choose to bench their starters on games that aren't broadcast on national television.