Fix the Lottery…by Ditching the Draft

Anthony Davis has long arms

For the first time since 2004 in several years, Timberwolves fans are not watching games with an unblinking eye on the NBA Draft. The team is in the hunt for a playoff spot, and even if they fail, the lottery pick is owned by the Hornets (REVERSE MORAL HAZARD!).

We used to spend equal time on the ESPN Lottery Machine as we did reading box scores and watching games. And you couldn’t blame us. Striking gold in the lottery is the fastest way – and sometimes the only way – to add top-shelf talent. And you need elite talent to win in the NBA. And so we obsessed over the Lottery Machine. It wasn’t exactly harmless, but you could take a type of sick pleasure from dreams of the future that weren’t available in the realities of the present.

The problem with all of this was, and still is, that fans aren’t the only ones who look ahead. Teams look ahead too. And the teams that have reason to look ahead are the same teams that have an incentive to TANK.

Teams unload veteran talent via personnel transactions or simply shut down their best players down the stretch with phantom “injuries.” We in Minnesota haven’t been immune. Remember when Marc Madsen was sent out to bomb three-pointers in the season’s last game? A win would have jeopardized a bottom-ten finish, and the Wolves would have forfeited the lottery pick that it will send to New Orleans this coming summer. If I were David Stern, I wouldn’t have let Minnesota win the lottery either. So we must ask ourselves: Was Corey Brewer really worth it?

There is a growing sentiment that the lottery system is broken. 

It doesn’t address tanking and it rewards certain teams for being atrocious. Ethan Sherwood Strauss recently wrote that the lottery should give equal chances at the Number 1 pick. While there is merit to his argument, my counter is that would-be 7 and 8 seeds would perhaps prefer to dip into an equal-opportunity lottery rather than get pummeled by Miami or Oklahoma City in Round 1 of the playoffs. There is no great way to have a lottery system that balances the tanking incentive with principles of fairness for making bad teams better.

Why not just ditch the draft?  Or at least ditch the draft for the first handful of picks. Instead, use the auction-style format that is commonplace in fantasy sports leagues.  The benefit of this plan is that it eliminates the incentive to lose. The new incentive for teams looking to hit it big with an incoming player would be to shed salary.  It would be important to have harsh salary cap rules to prevent rich teams from simply outspending small markets, like the Yankees do in baseball.  There would be a “hard cap” for purposes of this auction, the way that there is in NBA free agency.  Perhaps there could be a new exception carved out for bad teams–maybe even a progressive exception level that allows the worst teams to dive deeper into the luxury tax with an auction acquisition, should they need and choose to do so.  But the general principle would be that the best incoming players, who would still have to declare for the auction/draft, would be put up for bidding instead of selected in an order.

The coolest part of this process would be the unpredictability of it all, and the stress it would put on front offices to “get it right” with top-notch picks. If the auction contract scales were allowed to be large enough (let’s say they allow these auction bids to reach 25 or 30 percent of the salary cap–salary ranges of guys like Kevin Love and Dwyane Wade, currently) teams would be heavily tested in evaluating the “upside” players who might be complete busts.  If there is a LeBron James or Tim Duncan entering the league, the bidding will go sky-high.  If it’s Kyrie Irving or Derrick Williams, not so much. Tiebreakers for “max bids” could be solved by any number of factors, such as a coin flip, lottery, or even win/loss record.

This coming June, Anthony Davis will likely hear his name called by David Stern as the first pick in the draft. One of the horrific teams such as Charlotte, New Orleans, or Washington will probably get to sign him to a bargain contract, preset by the rules currently in place.

Wouldn’t you rather see a bidding war up to $15 Million a year for the rights to have this guy for five years or beyond?

Now there are holes in this plan that would need to be addressed. Who gets put on the auction block? Who makes that decision? It could be the worst teams that nominate players, but if they don’t have cap space they’d sabotage it by not nominating the best players. Perhaps the league office could create a committee of disinterested basketball people, or media people to choose the top ten (or so) incoming and declared players, with an order for who gets bid on first.

The details are less important than the concept. By changing the conversation from “Should we reward the worst teams?” to one about cap management, talent evaluation and game theory, the league would only increase competitive incentives and make the whole process a lot more fun.

Just a thought.



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3 responses to “Fix the Lottery…by Ditching the Draft

  1. Ebomb

    This is a really interesting proposal. Zach Lowe at Point Forward just wrote about another proposal whereby teams are awarded the number 1 pick based on the amount of games they win after being eliminated from playoff contention. I think I like your version better.

    The one caution I would have is that the Union would have to get involved as I’m sure they don’t an auction system where high bid underperforming rookies can’t get cut like without guarantees and that the total amount of salary going to rookies didn’t get too high or too low.

    This type of system could create wide talent gaps though, as I suspect that a lot of NBA teams with suspect management could abuse the auciton system to a major disadvantage for not only themselves, but other teams deseprate for players that need to bid high enough to win the auction rather than correctly valuing the player.

    All in all, a great thought. I agree that something needs to change.

    • Thanks, Ebomb, and good point about the labor aspect — I tried my best to not even think about how difficult the union and league could make the process of changing the lottery. It just brings back bad memories of Adam Silver press conferences.

      Another reason I like this idea is that it would remove the issue of “weak draft classes” and how much luck goes into getting a top pick in the right season. Winning the lottery when Shaquille O’Neal is in the draft is so different than winning it with Kwame or Olawokandi. It would be nice if the differences between top prospects was accounted for in some way, and a bidding system would help do that.

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