Wednesday, May 27, 2015

4 comments How To Fix the NBA Lottery By Making it More Non-Sensical and Absurd

Has anyone been worried about the NBA lottery and how it rewards teams for tanking? No worries from here on out! This problem has been figured out by "Slate." There is a brilliant idea posted on the site on how to fix the NBA lottery and make everything more fair. The best part is this idea takes the lottery process and turns it into a circus atmosphere, where the intention goes away from choosing lottery spots for each team and becomes more of an exercise in creating manufactured drama. Why does everything have to be dramatic and overly-difficult?

On another note, does anyone but sportswriters care that the NBA lottery is fixed to where teams have some incentive to tank? Like, is this a big deal that the normal sports fan really cares about or is the complaining about tanking simply something the media cares about more than a sports fan does? Me personally, I could care less if the 76ers tank and get a high draft pick. It doesn't bother me. The idea some teams are so terrible they get rewarded for being bad just doesn't bother me that much (as long as I'm not a fan of that team). I could be in the minority, but I feel like others in the media are more concerned about this than I am.

This is the year that NBA tanking went off the rails. 

Every year over the past few years, this has been written somewhere. 

The Philadelphia 76ers, for starters, exemplified a whole new level of basketball seppuku with a team so willfully awful that the New York Times Magazine felt compelled to publish a feature story about their willful awfulness.

The 76ers were so terrible that people in the media noticed how terrible they were.

By descending into “tank mode,” the Sixers hoped to lose enough games that they’d receive one of the valuable first picks in the upcoming NBA draft.

Oh, so THAT is how tanking works? Thanks for clearing that one up. By the way, this is the third straight season the 76ers have essentially done this. So if they were "off the rails" this year then it isn't "the year" tanking went "off the rails." There are a lot of quotes in that sentence. More quotes than good points made in this column in fact.

The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, and other teams were accused of plunging into the tank for large swaths of this season. Which is sad.

Let's be slightly fair, the Lakers stumbled on to tanking. They managed to lose their first round pick to injury, their best player to injury, and their old point guard tried to come back from injury and had to retire instead. The intention wasn't to tank, but at some point they have to throw up their hands and realize it ain't their year.

Tanking makes for ugly basketball and it throws off competitive balance.

(Bengoodfella shrugs his shoulders) As long as a large percentage of the NBA isn't tanking then I really don't feel too concerned about this problem.

Perhaps worst of all: Fans of tanking teams find themselves not only watching putrid hoops but also perversely rooting against their hometown squads

And again, this is very weird and not good for the fans of these teams. Would fixing the lottery so these teams don't get good players really help the situation? The assumption is management would stop tanking, but would it really stop this strategy? I'm not entirely sure. Lest it be forgotten that the current lottery system was put in place to prevent tanking. From the Bondy column:

The lottery was put into place by David Stern after the spring of 1984 turned into an uncomfortable tank-fest. The way it worked, teams with the very worst record in each conference flipped a coin for the first pick and then other selections were made in inverse order of won-loss records. Not surprisingly, the franchises that still owned their first-round picks hemorrhaged defeats. The Rockets dropped 14 of their last 17 games, nine of their last 10, and their final five. They were rewarded with Olajuwon as the No. 1 pick. The Bulls lost 14 of their last 15 to land Jordan at No. 3.

To quell this perception, Stern instituted the draft lottery, which gave teams far less reason to throw away games.

Sounds a lot like the strategy teams are using 30 years later. The draft lottery was supposed to stop teams from tanking. It didn't. So changes are being suggested again. And again, teams will tank anyway.

You know something has gone awry when Knicks coach Derek Fisher feels pressure to apologize to fans for winning.

In that article, Fisher seemed to say he doesn't feel pressure to apologize to fans for winning. He's not going to apologize for it, so therefore I would say he doesn't feel the pressure. OR it could be we are arguing over semantics in regard to a lottery change that won't ever change the fact NBA teams are going to tank.

The best tanking solution would be relegation, as happens in European soccer leagues. Each year, the bottom three teams in the continent’s top divisions are kicked out of the league and relegated to a lower one. Regrettably, with NBA teams currently selling for $2 billion apiece, it's unlikely we'll get owners to agree that a few of them should be banished to the D-League each year to compete against the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Clearly the author is a fan of Bill Simmons since Bill has floated this idea jokingly (not jokingly?) in columns before. And yes, no NBA team will be relegated. I don't even know how that would work with the NBA Draft and I don't really care either.

A more likely solution would be for the NBA to flatten out the lottery odds. Right now the worst team has a 25 percent chance at the top pick while the 14th-worst team has a 0.5 percent chance. We could switch to a true lottery, in which all 14 non-playoff teams would get an equal 7.14 percent chance at the top pick.

So basically the same lottery system the NBA used to use, then got rid of in order to discourage teams from tanking? Get rid of the currently lottery system in order to go back to the old lottery system which was changed because it encouraged teams to tank? Gotta have a sense of history. The odds are not as great now that a team would land the #1 pick (it was around 14% thirty years ago), but the system was no longer used for a reason. 

Another draft scheme that’s gotten lots of attention is “the wheel”—a system in which the draft order would be set far in advance so that a team’s draft position would have zero to do with its on-court performance.

Sounds great, but I have a feeling teams would still find a way to tank. I have no idea how, but NBA teams have tanked at times for decades and it is almost a reflex for some teams who are looking to rebuild. 

This would eliminate any reason to tank, but it would also do nothing to help bad teams get better. The worst team in the league might end up picking dead last in the draft.

And therein lies the whole problem with the media's teeth-gnashing over fixing the lottery. How can a lottery be set up for the purpose to help teams that aren't very good so they do become very good, while also not giving teams incentive to tank? The NBA can't help bad teams, while also not giving teams incentive to be bad. That is, unless some convoluted lottery set up over a several year span where to occur. Something like a team can't get a Top 5 pick for a certain amount of years if they have had one in the previous year. But again, this would work at cross purposes to help a team that's trying to get better. The Thunder never would have had the chance to draft James Harden and Russell Westbrook if this rule were in effect over the last decade.

As horrible as the status quo is, some version of reverse-order drafting—and the increased parity it helps create—is still a worthy goal. So the problem seems intractable.

It is. It's very hard to help bad teams while not incentivizing these teams to be bad.

But fear not, NBA fans! A superior answer exists, and a friend of mine has invented it. It’s fair, it’s elegant, and it’s fun. My friend calls it the “You’re the Worst!” draft.

Maybe not ironically, this draft idea is the worst draft idea. It's convoluted and turns the lottery into a drama that becomes more game show than simple lottery to determine draft position.

How would it work? On the day before the regular season began, the NBA would hold a “You’re the Worst!” draft. Selection order for the YTW draft would be determined like any standard reverse-order draft—the team that had the worst win-loss record in the previous season would pick first, the team that had the best record would pick last. But the teams wouldn’t be drafting players.

(Cue overdramatic music)

They’d be choosing the rights to another team’s position in the next NBA draft.

I see that you, as a reader, maybe confused by one part of this. You may be asking, "But, would each team point at each other and say 'you're the worst' during this process?" Fear not, that is something that would happen. Just wait for the full plan to be revealed.

So, for example, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who finished this season with the worst win-loss record, would have the first YTW pick in the fall when the 2015–16 season started. One day before opening day, all of the league’s general managers would gather together in a room. The T-Wolves would look around that room and decide which team they thought would finish worst in 2015–16.

Again, this is over complicating the entire lottery process needlessly. There is no reason to do this, other than to provide needless drama and over-complicate the process. It's a fun idea, but not something that should really happen.

Minnesota general manager Milt Newton might predict that the Knicks would be the worst team next season. In which case he would shout, “You’re the worst!” while pointing at Knicks President Phil Jackson, stealing the Knicks’ position in the 2016 NBA draft.

I wonder if it doesn't count as saying a team is the worst if a team's GM chooses to point but not shout or simply decides to shout without pointing? I would say this is all a joke, but I really don't think it is based on the columnist really defending why this is a good way to determine a team's lottery position.

If the Knicks indeed finished worst next year, the T-wolves would then receive the top pick in the 2016 draft. If the Knicks finished with the third-worst record, the T-Wolves would receive the No. 3 pick.

I'll play this game. I feel like there is some issue with this method if one team owns another team's first round pick in certain situations (if it falls out of the Top 7, etc) that could affect how this idea would work. I'm trying to think of specific examples, but can't. Perhaps this isn't an issue, but it feels to me like this lottery set up could impact draft picks that are lottery protected.

In this scenario, say the Knicks plan on tanking during the 15-16 year to get a better pick and everyone knows this. The Timberwolves know they will end up getting a high pick in the draft no matter what because they have chosen the Knicks as the team with the worst record, so it won't affect whether THEY tank or not. They are free to tank (again) because they know they will get the first (or really close to first) team choice again the next year. Alternatively in this scenario, say the Timberwolves plan on trying to win as many games as possible and they are chosen to have the sixth worst record in the NBA. If the Timberwolves know the Knicks are tanking during the 15-16 season and they are guaranteed to have a high lottery pick, then what's the point in trying to win games? They have another chance to pick early during the 16-17 lottery! Why should the T-Wolves care if another team gets a higher pick through the T-Wolves deciding to tank as long as the Knicks keep losing? At that point, the T-Wolves can continue to tank, but just as long as they know the Knicks are worse than them.

(Hopefully that made sense. Basically, the T-Wolves still have no incentive to be a good team in this lottery system.)

After the Wolves picked, Jackson and the Knicks, with their second-worst record this past season, would look around the room, predict which remaining team might perform most horribly in 2015–16, and select that team’s 2016 draft pick. Preferably while pointing and shouting, “You’re the next worst!”

Yes, preferably there would be pointing and shouting.

Let’s look at how things would have panned out if we’d held a YTW draft for the 2014–15 season. Since the Bucks accumulated the worst win-loss record last year, and the 76ers appeared to be clearly the worst team entering this season, the Bucks would've selected the 76ers first in the YTW draft. It turned out that the 76ers earned the third-worst record, so the Bucks would be getting the third pick in this June’s NBA draft. 

And the Bucks made the playoffs, so naturally they should be rewarded for making the playoffs by receiving a higher draft pick. Wait, that's not the purpose of the lottery is it?

Here’s how the 2015 NBA draft might look if there’d been a YTW draft on Oct. 27, 2014, the day before this season started (we’ll use SCHOENE projections from the start of the season as a proxy for how general managers might have projected other teams):

  1. Denver Nuggets (The Nuggets had the 11th-worst record in 2013–14, so they’d pick 11th in the YTW draft; the Timberwolves were projected to be the 11th-worst team this season, so the Nuggets would have stolen their pick. Since the T-Wolves finished with the league’s worst record, the Nuggets would get the first pick in June’s draft.)
  2. Sacramento Kings (seventh-worst record in 2013–14, steal New York Knicks pick)
  3. Milwaukee Bucks (worst record in 2013–14, steal 76ers pick)
  4. Boston Celtics (fifth-worst record in 2013–14, steal Lakers pick)
  5. Philadelphia 76ers (second-worst record in 2013–14, steal Orlando Magic pick)
It’s a pretty good result. 

It is a pretty good result based upon your guess on which teams other teams would choose as being the worst. It's always fun when a writer wants to prove his point as correct and then uses his assumptions as the "factual basis" that shows the underlying points as correct.

And it's not exactly pretty good. Two of these teams made the playoffs and out of the 10 worst teams in the NBA this past year only 3 will get a Top 5 pick and of the 5 worst teams in the NBA, only 1 of those teams gets a Top 5 pick. So if the purpose was to stop tanking, it would work, but if the purpose was to help teams like the Knicks, Lakers, T-Wolves, and Magic get better (and really, I would only count one of those teams as truly tanking) then this result doesn't work well at all.

Although the Bucks, last year’s worst team, wouldn't end up with the first pick in this year’s NBA draft—something that often doesn't happen anyway, due to the lottery—the new positions still would be heavily weighted toward the bottom feeders.

As long as you ignore that of the bottom 5 teams in the NBA, only 1 of them gets a Top 5 pick. As I said, it works at cross-purposes to decrease tanking while trying not to award the worst teams with the chance to draft the best players. It's very hard to do both.

Though the Timberwolves wouldn't receive the first pick in the upcoming player draft, despite finishing with the worst record, they would own the YTW No. 1 this fall, which would very likely pay off in 2016.

I like how the author tries to sell this. He sells it as "the T-Wolves didn't get the first pick in the draft, so preventing tanking works, but next year they will get the first chance to pick which NBA team will be the worst, so tanking does pay off."

Funny how that works isn't? Tanking isn't necessarily discouraged any more than a team knows the pay off for tanking will come, but maybe not immediately. The author can't have it both ways. He can't have this system as a way to prevent tanking, then point out how a team that tanks will be set up to have an early pick two drafts from now.

The obvious benefit of this system is that no team would have an incentive to tank throughout the season (barring collusion). Just think about how this season could have been different.

But a team would still have incentive to tank, because as the author just said, the Timberwolves wouldn't receive the first pick in the draft by having the worst record but they would still have the chance to pick the worst team in the NBA the next year. In fact, the author says having the worst record during the 14-15 season would "pay off" in 15-16. So there's the incentive.

If the Knicks didn’t derive a direct benefit from being so terrible, would they have shut down Carmelo? Would the 76ers dare to build a team so nakedly atrocious?

Yes, because teams that tank aren't thinking about the short-term, but only in the long-term. In the long-term, tanking will "pay off" through having the first chance to choose the worst team in the NBA for the upcoming season. There is the incentive to tank.

Another benefit to the “You’re the Worst” system: It would be exciting! 

No, this is the only benefit. Something being exciting doesn't mean that it's also a good idea. I don't think this system would prevent tanking, especially since most teams that are tanking aren't looking at the short-term view. Having to wait another year for tanking to pay off wouldn't be a big deal to an NBA team.

With YTW, we’d replace the lottery with even better drama. Wouldn’t you tune in to see Newton, or better yet Wolves president and coach Flip Saunders, walk up to the podium on national television, look Phil Jackson straight in the eye, and say, “You’re the worst!”? (OK, it would be more like, “With the first pick in the preseason selection-order draft, the Timberwolves select the Knicks.” But the implied insult would be there.)

I probably would not be more inclined to watch this than I'm inclined to watch the current lottery selection show.

Because NBA fans have long memories, animosity would instantly sprout. Consider: If the Knicks visited Philadelphia right after calling them “the worst,” the Philly crowd might get rowdy

There's nothing like trying to manufacture a rivalry AND manufacture drama.

It stinks to root against your own team, but it’s hella fun to root against other teams. Players would also be eager to prove rival teams’ projections wrong. Ultimately, YTW would enhance—wait for it—competitiveness!

It would not in the same way the current lottery system was supposed to stop tanking and it did not. But it's hella fun to pretend NBA teams aren't going to just tank anyway in an effort to stop something that will happen as long as the intent of the lottery is to get the best players to the worst teams.

To be sure, this system is not perfect.

Noooooooooooooooooo. This system seems pretty perfect to me.

It might take a casual fan a few run-throughs to understand. And it puts a heavy premium on the forecasting skills of NBA front offices. Nerdy spreadsheet jockeys would become even more valuable than they already are.

Does the author really believe the Sixers would not have tanked over the past three seasons in an effort to get a good draft pick if they knew they had to wait another year for the tanking to pay off? This is a real belief the author has? A team like the Knicks or 76ers that are trying to cut salary and gather high draft picks won't be willing to wait another year for the tanking to pay off? These teams know they would get a pretty good pick if they tank, because they would get to choose which NBA team they think will be the worst during the upcoming season, and they know a 3-5 year rebuilding plan takes 3-5 years. So what's waiting another year for tanking to pay off?

But it might be better for Sam Hinkie to put his geek skills to use in the service of predictive analysis—or maybe even figuring out how to help his team win—instead of searching for the most efficient way to lose.

Because he wouldn't use that predictive analysis to find out which teams will be the worst so that once the Sixers continue to tank they can choose another team that's just as terrible as they are, all in the name of getting a higher pick. This system won't stop tanking any more than the change to the system used prior to 1985 stopped tanking. 


Chris said...

I don't think the Knicks should really count as a team that willfully tanked the season. They were probably gonna be that shitty regardless.

I can't believe that someone at Slate, a supposedly professional news/general interest site, is convinced that the NBA Draft lottery should become a big game of duck duck goose like the NBA teams are a bunch of children sitting in a circle in kindergarten.

Bengoodfella said...

Chris, I think because the Knicks were going to be shitty, it was seen as part of the plan. Perhaps they tanked accidentally.

I hate this idea. I'm not sure I could hate it more.

Eric C said...

I am rooting for the "Adam Silver Rides a Bear" method of determining picks. Clicky here

Bengoodfella said...

Eric, that's a good idea. I have thought about maybe just the lottery teams picking out of a hat to determine which teams gets which pick. All teams have equal odds to get the #1 overall pick. But of course, that won't help crappy teams get better.