Why did the NBA flip-flop on the draft and what does it mean? An explainer for the casual fan

The stage is being prepared for the NBA Draft.

The stage is being prepared for the NBA Draft.

So, what happened?

On Oct. 22, the NBA’s board of governors voted against a proposed change to the Draft Lottery.

What’s the lottery?

The weighted lottery, established in 1990, is supposed to create equality between teams. The concept is simple: Worse teams get to pick earlier from the incoming class of rookies, so they get better players. The system has worked well for the most part, but it creates an incentive for bad teams to stop trying. To migitate that, there is a lottery, where the first three picks are assigned. The worst team has a 25 per cent chance to get the first choice, the second-worst 19.9 per cent , the third-worst 15.6 per cent and so on. This is supposed to discourage teams from so-called “tanking,” because even the worst team might only end up with the fourth pick, although that’s unlikely.

Why did they try to change it?

Over the past year, the Philadelphia 76ers have taken tanking to the next level. They gutted their roster in every conceivable way in order to end up at the bottom of the league. The Sixers did not invent that strategy, but the extent to which they pull it off had been unseen before. Their boldness alienated many of their competitors, to the point where a change to the system seemed imminent.

What did they do?

On draft day 2013, they traded away their only all-star, Jrue Holiday, for the injured rookie centre Nerlens Noel, knowing that he would probably not play a game during the whole season. At the trade deadline last February, they traded away two of their three remaining NBA-calibre players, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner, again mostly for draftpicks and bad players.

In the 2014 draft, they brought it to a boil. GM Sam Hinkie picked another injured center in Joel Embiid and went on to take Croatian Dario Saric, who still has two years left on his contract in Europe. The Sixers went in with the third and 12th pick and left without any help for the upcoming season. Thaddeus Young, the last capable veteran on the roster, was traded during the summer. They also refused to sign any good players in free agency. Some of the Sixers’ starters would not play a meaningful minutes for a good team all season. At least the roster prompted an absolutely hilarious piece by Deadspin.

So what did the league try to change?

The proposed change that ended up being voted on would have increased the chance for a middle-of-the-pack team to land one of the coveted top draft picks while decreasing the chance of a lottery jackpot for the bottom-feeders of the previous season. The four worst teams would have had an equal 11 per cent chance to get the first pick. Additionally, the first six picks would have been drawn instead of the first three, enabling the worst team to conceivably fall to number seven; currently, it is guaranteed at least the fourth pick.

Sounds good. Why did they vote against it?

With all the disdain for the Sixers, the proposal was expected to get far more than the 23 votes it needed to go through. It ended up being 17 for, 13 against — back to status quo.

According to Yahoo!, the biggest reason was that small-market teams were afraid to lose their only true way to get a generational superstar. With free agency, the allure of New York, Los Angeles or the state-tax free Dallas and Houston, has repeatedly beaten out less glittery destinations such as Milwaukee and Denver.

The San Antonio Spurs keep getting into the finals. San Antonio is not very attractive.

If small-market teams want to enjoy endured success, they have to strike gold in the draft (excellent management also helps). The San Antonio Spurs did it with Tim Duncan, the Cleveland Cavaliers did it with LeBron James (who left for sunny Miami in 2010, only to go back to his hometown Cavs this summer) and the Oklahoma City Thunder did it with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, two players who already have L.A. Lakers rumors swirling around them in expectation of their free agency in the summer of 2016.

It is true that Memphis and Sacramento will always face large odds when they’re trying to steal away players from legendary franchises like the Boston Celtics or the Chicago Bulls. But the result of the NBA’s effort to balance this out is the monster the 76ers are putting on the court this year.

Is there a solution?

All this is the result of the NBA trying to create equality where there are no grounds for equality. In a world where cities are different and the Lakers’ local TV deal is worth $200 million annually, some teams will always have advantages, even if the league’s intricate revenue sharing system shrinks the difference between the teams. The NBA has teams in the U.S.’s 45th, 50th and 51th biggest TV markets in Oklahoma City, Memphis and New Orleans, per the DMA. Not coincidentally, brand-new arenas, built with public money, were instrumental in luring these franchises to their new homes.

Aren’t there any other ways to create equality apart from the draft?

The salary cap has been the other major contributor to equality, but even that has proven to have its shortcomings. Last year, Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov shelled out $144 million in luxury tax, a punishing tax applied to teams that go over the hard salary cap. On the other end of the spectrum, Thunder GM Sam Presti broke up a championship-level core in the much-maligned James Harden trade for financial reasons.

Why not create a stricter salary cap?

Since any major change to the salary cap mechanics can cause dissent between the player’s union and the team owners, the general sentiment seems to be to push off any binding negotiations until the end of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. The CBA runs until 2021, but the players will most likely use their opt-out in the Summer of 2017.

So, we’re stuck with teams that insult their own fans with their strategies?

For now, yes. But change might still come. Zach Lowe noted that some teams simply wanted more time to think about the bigger implications of the lottery reform. The mammoth TV deal the league just signed will flood the league with money and nobody really knows what that means yet. There will be some kind of change, and the opportunity to improve the draft process might come again.

Martin Schauhuber

I'm an exchange student from Austria. If you speak german (or like photos), you can find more of my work at martinschauhuber.com.

1 Comment

  • Ryan Lehal
    Reply October 27, 2014

    Ryan Lehal

    Definitely agree that this years 76ers roster is one of the worst I have ever seen, but we can’t really blame them for doing what they are doing. In a sport where only one or two all-star caliber players are needed to win a championship, you need to get lucky in the draft. This is especially true for smaller-market teams that dont have the same appeal as the Lakers, Celtics and Knicks. Just look at what the Raptors have had to deal with since coming into the league. I was unaware of this event prior to reading this article and feel that it did a good job in explaining the situation. The links definitely helped to put everything in context.

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