Issue: Unlike other team sports in the US, NBA teams generally superstar players to have any realistic chance at winning a title. The difference in effect between a superstar player such as Lebron James and an average player is enormous, and as such these few players in the NBA are highly coveted such that teams will purposely dismantle and undermine their team’s current winning capability to get such a player in the draft or via free agency.
In the NBA draft the difference in talent between a top 5 pick and a mid-first round pick is huge. The difference between a mid-first round pick and late round pick is also huge. Compare this to the NFL or NHL where there is good talent available late in the first round and later draft rounds. This huge disparity in the reward value of various NBA draft picks encourages teams to field poor teams (tank) in order to get one of the coveted high draft picks who could make their team a championship contender for years to come.
Proposed Change: My plan for fixing the NBA draft lottery would be to make the first ten picks lottery based. For the first five picks, all teams would be eligible except the four teams that make the conference finals. Each team’s odds of winning the lottery would be on a sliding scale based on record, however the team with the best odds (the team with the worst record) would have no more than a 2:1 advantage over the team with the worst odds. For picks six (6) through ten (10), all thirty teams would be eligible, however the odds spread would be increased to 3:1 between the worst and best team. The remaining picks would be assigned in order of win/loss record.
Pros: The benefit of this plan is it would eliminate both tanking by teams and the pressure on middle of the pack teams to rebuild when they are really one good player away from being a contender. Teams who finish just outside the playoffs or a lower end playoff team would have a reasonable chance of picking up a top 5 or top 10 player that could put their team over the top. This would encourage teams in that mid-tier position to keep their good players and work on a multi-year plan to build for a championship.
From a sales and marketing angle, a mediocre team could sell the potential of getting a high lottery pick within the next couple years as the ticket to big time success. This would be especially attractive to small market teams who typically can’t attract free agents since they could build smartly through the draft and trades over time without being penalized for being middle of the road. It would also reward well managed teams who grow step by step, and discourage the all or nothing tanking approach that is going on currently to get good players in the draft.
Cons: The only real downside would be for teams who are struggling and don’t end up with a top 10 pick. The sliding odds should prevent this most the time, but it could occur where a team loses a player unexpectedly (e.g. major injury), but doesn’t get a high draft pick to help them rebuild, and as such ends up with a bad year or two.