Lottery “reform” doesn’t solve tanking. It just gives the league a chance to claim it’s doing something about it.
The NBA Draft Lottery is truly one of the preeminent American traditions that you’d have the hardest time trying to explain to one of your friends from overseas. That was true from the beginning, but intervening years of attempted Lottery reform have only made the process increasingly confounding even for basketball’s most Sloan Conference-y superfans.
In fact, as the Draft Lottery returns Tuesday night, it’s gotten so confusing and its purpose has become so muddled that it’s hard to understand why we even still do this thing at all.
The NBA Draft Lottery and the draft itself exist to help struggling teams pull themselves up off the canvas after a rough season or three. In theory, anyway. Unfortunately, providing incentives for failure would seem to go against the premise of not just professional sports, but the very idea of competition itself.
The NBA’s ongoing, ever-evolving tank-a-thon has claimed the jobs of countless coaches and front office bosses. It’s given fans in markets great and small an artificially depressed product. It’s normalized the idea that sometimes, daring to attempt to win games is painfully naive.
(Again, try explaining that to your friend who supports lower-division soccer and be prepared to slip the jab that’s sure to come flying directly toward your face area.)
And if you’re wondering about whether the single “best” example of years of strategic tanking still holds up, ask a Philadelphia 76ers fan how they’re feeling right about now.
When Adam Silver and the vast majority of NBA owners successfully championed Lottery “reform” in 2017, the insistence was that flattening the odds — the three worst teams in the league would now share a 14% chance to earn the No. 1 pick — would discourage tanking. Combined with the addition of play-in games that offer a path to the playoffs for teams that ostensibly finish as low as 10th in their conference’s standings, it is true that tanking isn’t as teeth-gnashingly inane as it once was.
But tanking still happens — just not strictly for the No. pick. If you watched any Detroit Pistons game during the second half of the 2020-21 season, you know this painfully well.
Ultimately, as long as there’s an NBA Draft with an ordered determined in some way by a team’s regular season record, tanking will continue to exist in some form.
No amount of Lottery reform is going to change this.
America is supposed to be the land of competition and free markets. Curiously, that tends not to apply to our sports, where parity is worshiped as the ultimate virtue.
Are you the next great superstar poised to enter the league? Have you always had your heart set on playing in Los Angeles, Miami, or New York? Well, the reward for your years of hard work and sacrifice could be no less than five years of employment for a team (and a city) you may have zero interest in being associated with.
Yes, an NBA Draft without a Lottery process would make this dynamic worse and than it currently is. But the fact remains that the Lottery doesn’t actually solve any of the NBA’s problems — it’s a convoluted, head-spinning method for making them not quite as bad.
This isn’t even to mention the various conspiracy theories from Lotteries past, from 1985’s infamous, alleged “frozen envelope” to New Orleans beating the odds and lucking into Zion Williamson immediately upon losing their last No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Davis. With these moments in mind, if you value a made-for-TV spectacle above all else, perhaps the Lottery needs to be expanded into a whole weekend, handed over to Triller, and infused with musical performances by Migos, DJ Khaled, and a Vanilla Ice hologram.
(Yes, I am aware that Vanilla Ice is not dead.)
But if the prevailing interest is in providing the most compelling basketball product possible season after season, sending Cade Cunninghams and Jalen Greens to small markets in need of star power isn’t the worst thing in the world — but doing it with a system that based on a combination of sheer luck and strategic losing never made sense.
It still doesn’t.