The 2018 NBA Draft Lottery, held just over a month from today, will be the last before the NBA institutes the new odds formula cooked up last September, designed to reduce or eliminate tanking. Spoiler alert! The new formula will not solve tanking, an inevitability that Adam Silver recently acknowledged. Per ESPN:
“We’ll see how much of an impact that has, but my sense is we’re still going to have some work to do,” Silver said after meeting with owners at the Board of Governors meeting in Manhattan.
“We recognize that our goal was to put the best competition on the floor, and it’s balanced against legitimate rebuilding of some teams. But I know we’re not there yet, and I certainly wasn’t satisfied [this season],” Silver said.
The new lottery system flattens the odds for the top pick among the three worst teams in the NBA, and adds the fourth pick to the lottery draw, so that the team with the worst record in the NBA could wind up with the fifth pick in the draft. The idea is to still give the worst teams first crack at franchise-altering draft talent, without providing such a strong incentive for not-good teams to throw away their seasons in pursuit of lottery gold. Hey, while we’re here, the order in which odds will be distributed for the upcoming lottery has been determined:
If the new system makes tanking even slightly less viable across the league, the change will be welcome, and right on time. Nine NBA teams finished with fewer than 30 wins this regular season; 18 teams finished with winning records; just three NBA teams won between 30 and 41 games. I looked back as far as the 2002-2003 NBA season—so far back that there were only 29 NBA teams in the league—and in no other season did fewer than five teams finish in that 30-to-41-win range (or its equivalent in the lockout-shortened 2011 season); in only one other season (2010) did as many as nine teams finish in that bottommost group. Part of the reason why so many teams finished better than .500 this season is because so many teams were throwing away games; part of the reason why all of the teams who finished with fewer than 30 wins won at least 21 games is the sheer number of double-tank games played in the season’s second half. The numbers are all screwed up. This regular season felt slightly rigged.
That middle range of wins—more than 30, but not enough for a winning record—has become like the standings version of the mid-range jumper: modern ideas about successful basketball say it should be avoided. But that place in the NBA’s hierarchy used to be the domain of a few specific kinds of teams, not all of whom were doomed to long-term obscurity: rising young cores on the happy side of a rebuild; or veteran teams whose places in the playoff field were unexpectedly usurped by the next era’s contenders; or, you know, the Bucks. It’s never exactly where an NBA team wants to land in the standings, but, hard as it may be to believe, there are circumstances when winning 35 games in an NBA season is a good result.
This season, the three teams who finished in that range fit into a couple of illustrative moulds: the Pistons and Hornets boinked up against depressingly low ceilings on earnest multiyear team-building projects, and probably require complete rebuilds; the Lakers, without a draft pick to strengthen, and positioned with a wealth of young players, made the admirable decision to just see how many games they could win. The nickname for the positioning of teams like the Hornets and Pistons is the “treadmill of mediocrity,” but that’s not a fate to which teams in that middle range are doomed: of the 11 teams to finish in the 30-to-41-win range last season, five (Portland, Miami, Denver, New Orleans, Minnesota) blossomed into genuinely good playoff-caliber teams this season. Four others (New York, Chicago, Sacramento, Dallas) went into the tank, for various reasons. Only the Pistons and Hornets stuck around. Not coincidentally, the people in charge of building those two teams suck at it— throwing themselves into a tanking project three months ago would not have changed that fundamental truth. All it would’ve done would’ve been to kick accountability for losing too many games a few years down the road.
At any rate, tanking sucks. This season it had the effect of virtually wiping out an entire class of NBA teams. A consequence of that is a regular season that seems illegitimate, with 18 “winning” teams whose records were bloated with low-hanging fruit, and a group of bottom-feeders so deep that teams trying to lose couldn’t help but win. I am extremely looking forward to a time when every NBA team sincerely wants to win as many games as it can.