Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lotteries Are a Tax on the Unlucky

Feeling bad for the Boston Celtics is sort of like feeling bad for the New York Yankees, but has any team been more hosed by the draft lottery than the Celtics? In 1997, they had two lottery picks, and wound up with the #3 and #6 picks, missing out on Tim Duncan (they probably should have hung on to that Billups kid, but hey). This year, they stink it up again, there are not one, but two 19-year-old studs to grab, and... they end up with the fifth pick, the worst they could possibly do.
The NBA draft lottery used to be a great idea. Every team got an equal shot at the top pick; there was no difference between being the worst team in the league and being the first team to miss the playoffs. The best part of this scheme was that it kept the league competitive the whole season - it didn't matter if you finished one game or twenty-one games behind the eighth-place team, so if you still busted tail to win games until you were officially out, and even then you'd play hard, just to keep spectators in the seats. The point is, teams didn't tank.
Then, a couple of good teams had down years and wound up winning the lottery at key times - the Lakers got Magic Johnson, the Knicks got Patrick Ewing, a not-that-bad Spurs team got David Robinson - and the really bad teams cried foul, and we started the ping-pong-ball system. The first try at weighting the lottery was admirable - the best lottery team got one ball, the second-best got two, and so on. Unfortunately, the first time the system was tried, the one-ball Magic won their second straight lottery, and everyone decided to change the system again. Now, there's a weighting formula that gives the worst teams a much better chance at the top pick, and you get teams like the the 2007 Celtics, teams that could do a whole lot better, but who basically pack it in once they realize they're not playoff bound, in an effort to get more ping-pong balls. Or you get a team like the 1997 Celtics (come to think of it, there are more reasons not to feel bad for the C's), where the management fills a team with cheap stiffs while they wait for a couple of bad contracts to expire, because why bother to try fielding a competitive team? All it will do is reduce your chance of getting a good draft pick, keeping you mediocre longer.
Today, there is news that the NBA might re-examine the lottery system. Well, that's nice, and all, but who do they want to appease? The major issue with the current lottery (or no lottery) is that it provides weaker teams with a disincentive to compete, and that's a problem in the NBA the way it isn't in baseball (where the longer season weakens the effect of one team tanking) or football (where the short season keeps teams in the playoff race longer anyway). The original lottery system avoids this, but has the pitfall of often giving a high pick to a team that just missed the playoffs. As a fan, one might debate whether this is really a bad thing, but executives sure don't like it.
Here's my suggestion: go back to the original system, giving every team an equal shot at the top pick... but ONLY the top pick. If the worst team misses out, they get pick #2. You keep the excitement of the lottery, teams out of the playoffs have less incentive to lose late in the season, but the worst teams don't end up with the fourth pick in a league with a generally shallow draft.


Slim said...

Hi Stuckster! Nice to read some of your thoughts on sports. I've missed your erudite opinions on baseball, sushi and Indian cuisine.

Slim said...

Question (asked Dwight Schrute style): Is there anyone on the internet who has a more diverse set of nicknames (all self-designated) than JBL? :)

J. Bowman said...

Probably not - I rival Apollo Creed in the self-designated nickname category.