Why NBA lottery reform is punitive garbage

Why NBA lottery reform is punitive garbage
August 4, 2014, 4:00 pm
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The NBA is angry. The NBA is not going to take it. The Sixers must be punished. That’s essentially the narrative right now.

When the lottery reform was initially reported, it was obvious that the proposed changes would impact the Sixers. And it was no surprise when the Sixers pushed back against that reform. We previously went into detail about how the new rules would differ from the old rules. But here’s a quick recap: The worst team in the NBA currently has a 25 percent chance at the top pick. The second-worst team has a 19.9 percent chance. The odds dip from there.

Under the new proposal, the four worst teams would each have about an 11 percent chance at the top pick, while the last lottery team would see its odds of landing the first selection jump from 0.5 percent to 2 percent. And while only the top three picks are currently selected with ping-pong balls (teams are slotted by record thereafter), the new proposal calls for the top six picks to be randomly chosen. That means the worst team in the league could drop as low as the seventh selection.  

This is about the Sixers. You know it. The Sixers know it. The rest of the league knows it. Sam Hinkie manipulated the rules to his potential benefit, which apparently made some other people around the league none too pleased. One league executive told me he thinks the new rules will be implemented this year, and that it’s a direct attempt to prevent the Sixers from moving forward with Tank 2.0.

“It’s absolutely about them,” the exec said. “They did this to themselves, but it affects the rest of the league.”

Some people are happy about this. While we were sitting around at training camp the other day, one media member -– part of the staunch anti-Hinkie faction –- said the changes were necessary. Like so many of the breathless how can the Sixers do this?/won’t someone think of the children crowd, he droned on and on about how tanking –- or, if you prefer, rebuilding -- damages “the integrity of the league.” It was such a hollow hot take that it almost floated away. Even he couldn’t pin it down. (Perhaps the Spurs' title is counterfeit because the Sixers took advantage of the league’s lottery-rule incentives better than any organization in recent memory?)

His general gist seemed to be two-fold: that you should always try to win, because competition and sports. And it’s not fair for the Sixers to tank/rebuild because then they don’t sell tickets and instead debit from the league revenue sharing system rather than contributing to it.

It’s nonsense. Both points.

We’ll take them in order. 

Some teams, and this is the hard truth, can’t win –- not in any real or satisfying way. Perhaps, if the Sixers had kept Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes to go with Thaddeus Young and whatever else, they could have stitched together a 40-something win season and made the playoffs in the diluted Eastern Conference. And then what? What exactly does that get them -– or you -– besides another mid-round draft pick and several more seasons stuck in the NBA’s mediocre middle? The best chance to win later –- to actually compete in a meaningful way -- is to rebuild now. Otherwise, you’re opting for willful self-delusion and indefinite purgatory. (See: Phillies, Philadelphia.)

As for the argument that the Sixers are cheating the system by not selling tickets while debiting from the revenue sharing stream, it’s simply not true. The Sixers somehow made money last season, with a projected net profit of about $10.4 million, according to Grantland. Certain big market teams -- New York, Brooklyn, Toronto, both squads in Los Angeles and, yes, Philadelphia –- are prohibited from getting any of the revenue sharing cash, also according to Grantland. So much for the money/fairness gripe.

In attempting to punish the Sixers, the NBA is also sweeping the leg of other organizations that are trying (and failing) to put up a good fight and win games. The proposed system would damage bad teams and make it more difficult to land that top pick -- one of the best and biggest assets in the NBA, the one that can quickly reverse your fortune and transform you from a loser to a contender (because competition and sports).

The Bucks were the worst team in the NBA last year, even after assembling a roster they thought might challenge for one of the back-end playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. They did it the right way to start, then cratered through no fault but bad play. Under the new system, despite trying and failing, they might have picked as low as seventh. How is a team like that supposed to hoist itself out of the mediocre middle if it doesn’t have access to the best of the incoming player pool? If the Bucks had landed, say, Nik Stauskas instead of Jabari Parker, would they be in better shape today? And would the fan base -– the people the team hopes to sell tickets to in order to one day pay into the all-important revenue sharing system, thereby upholding the integrity of the league (sarcastic italics are fun) -– be as interested in that product? Would they buy as many Stauskas jerseys as Parker gear? Doubtful.

Other teams that have already made trades could also be harshly penalized. The Lakers still owe the Suns a 2015 first-round pick (top-five protected) as part of the Steve Nash deal. Under the current system, the Suns have a good chance of collecting. But if the rules change, the Lakers have a much better shot of leaping to the front of the lottery and landing in that safe zone so they don’t have to pay the Suns. Sorry about your tough luck, Phoenix.

The Rockets landed a coveted asset from the Pelicans in the move that sent Omer Asik to New Orleans: A 2015 first-round pick that’s reportedly protected if it’s in the top-four selections or falls at 20 or worse. Again, under the current rules, there’s a good chance the Pels land in that sweet spot and have to pay down the pick. Both sides made the trade with that understanding. But shift the rules and suddenly things get better for the Pelicans. If they miss the playoffs and end up at the edge of the lottery again, they’ll suddenly have increased odds at leaping into that top-four protected zone, which would allow them to keep that valuable selection. Great for them. Not so great for the Rockets.

If the NBA waited to implement the new rules until all the picks that have already been swapped are actually dealt, that would make much more sense. That would be understandable. Moving forward now is harder to justify. It’s a gross overreaction/overcorrection to the Sixers' using the recently negotiated CBA rules as best they could in an attempt to fix a franchise that has been broken for a long time. It would be easier to digest if proponents of the changes served up a better explanation. At present, the best they’ve cooked up is something on the order of “but look at the Sixers. It’s not fair.” That’s a hard argument to stomach.

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