Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Fixing the Lottery

Today the NBA plays its annual version of Deal or No Deal (alas, with some pasty old guy in a suit in place of the models). But before the envelopes open, I'd like to officially register a long-standing complaint about the process: it's unfair. And lest you think I am whining for the home team, the fact that Portland owns the worst record this season is coincidental to the argument. I've said this for years. Simply put: there are too many teams involved and the worst teams don't have enough of a shot at the #1 selection.

I understand why the league would never do away with the lottery system altogether. The overt reason is to prevent tanking games (thanks Houston...right there buddy). The behind-the-scenes motive is the excitement and attendant publicity it generates. But there's a basic issue of fairness to be considered as well. When the worst team in the league only has a 1 in 4 chance at the top pick and actually has a greater statistical chance of getting the fourth pick than the first, something is wrong.

This has been an issue in the past. Remember the Minnesota Timberwolves' run at futility from '89 to '95? There's no arguing they were the worst team in the league during that stretch. And part of the reason is because they had horrible lottery luck, consistently picking below their record position. Had more people known about KG in 1995 (Joe Smith went #1, Garnett fell to the 'Wolves at #5) they might still be there.

The fix is relatively easy. The NBA should institute a two-tier lottery system, separating the drawings for the first and second half of the participants. The split could come after the 5-spot or be a true halving by cutting it off at the 7-spot. Only the top group would be drawing for the #1 pick. The percentages for each team to win the top pick could look something like this:

5-team split: (worst record) 40%, 30%, 15%, 10%, 5% (best record)
7-team split: (worst record) 40%, 25%, 15%, 10%, 5%, 3%, 2% (best record)

Under this system the worst three teams have a better shot at getting the #1 pick than they do now while the other teams' chances are slightly reduced. The current method of drawing only for the first three picks and then seeding the remainder of the group by record should be retained.

The second tier of teams lose all chance at the #1 pick, but that's as it should be. There's no way that a team that missed the playoffs by one game should have ANY chance at that spot. Not only is it unfair, it's irrelevant to the internal logic of the process. The closer a team is to making the playoffs, the less likely they are to lose games intentionally to move up in the draft order. Also, while having a 41-41 team get the top spot would certainly generate publicity, I'm not sure it's the kind the league wants. Honest fans will point out the issue of justice. Skeptical fans will talk about the process being rigged, especially if the winning team happens to be in a big market.

The second tier could just be seeded by record, but if the league wants to preserve the system, let them have their own lottery for the remaining spots (top pick being #6 or #8 depending on how you split the group). It may not be quite as big of a jump, but a team with the 14th-best record in the league would still be plenty excited about getting the #6 or #8 pick. And since the number of teams in the drawing is smaller, you could adjust the odds to raise the chances of advancement happening in this group. You'd still have the excitement but without the potential P.R. nightmare.

The NBA has a track record of not fixing things until disaster strikes. (See also: New York winning the first lottery, Orlando's back-to-back first picks, the current playoff seeding system.) I hope it doesn't take a bizarre 10-spot jump for the Lakers to open their eyes. The fact that most of the worst teams aren't getting the #1 picks right now should be enough to do it. But given league history, I'm not holding my breath. We've got a better chance of seeing Howie and the models opening envelopes.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

2 Comments:

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