Zach Lowe on NBA draft lottery reform and potential ramifications

Flattening the odds in the NBA’s draft lottery, a change passed Thursday by an overwhelming 28-1-1 vote of team owners, will not end tanking and may not reduce it much. The league knows that; it repeatedly characterized the proposal as “an incremental step” toward more potential tweaks, sources say. The NBA is concerned about egregious tanking from teams that are already awful — the sort of tanking that generates think pieces and angry tweets.

The reform seeks to accomplish that by cutting the odds that the worst teams win the best picks. Under the current system, the worst team has a 25 percent chance of nabbing the top pick. The second-worst team has a 19.9 percent shot. Starting in 2019, the three worst teams will have an equal 14 percent chance at the most coveted asset in basketball.

The very best team in the lottery will have the same miniscule 0.5 percent chance of skyrocketing to the top of the draft, and the same paltry chance of landing in the top three. The teams in the middle each get a big probability bump.

This is a less dramatic version of a flattening proposal that failed in 2014 amid resistance from small-market teams that feared it nipped away at their only path to acquiring superstars. That fear remains in some corners, including (presumably) in Oklahoma City, the only franchise to vote no — and one that, as the Sonics, tanked for stars. In other news: Russell Westbrook has still not signed his extension.

The league has a legitimate interest in its worst teams not feeling as if they have to get any more embarrassingly bad in order to secure improved lottery odds. The NBA does not want to relive Trust The Process, even though the architect of the most aggressive — and most coldly rational — multiyear tank job in league history was ousted precisely because of the scheme’s naked aggression. It would kindly prefer the Suns not send Eric Bledsoe home for two months; new rest regulations, also approved Thursday, may take care of that.

Reform may change team behavior on the fringes. Bledsoe types may play more. The next version of the Sixers might be more open to signing a couple of stable veterans, even at the “risk” of winning a couple more games. April basketball will be a little less bad.

But there will still be bad teams, and bad teams will still have reason to lose games. Some less-bad teams might have even more reason to lose games, especially late in the season. No league can legislate away rebuilding. Wins are a zero-sum game. A reverse-order draft, even one warped a bit by lottery odds, encourages losing. As long as the best young players go to a subset of teams at the bottom of the league, those teams will chase high picks.

You could argue that the league shouldn’t have a reverse-order draft at all. Some of my colleagues, including the estimable Kevin Arnovitz, have argued for the abolition of the draft. Mike Zarren, assistant GM of the Celtics, proposed a complex wheel system in which teams semi-randomly rotate between all 30 draft slots year-by-year. Some have argued the best teams should select first as a way to incentivize winning, or that all 30 teams should participate in a lottery with equal odds of landing in any spot.

Whether you prefer those solutions or not — I don’t, though the wheel intrigues — they would actually eradicate tanking by snapping the connection between team record and draft position. That is the sort of systematic overhaul it takes. “I don’t know what the final solution is,” Mark Cuban, the Mavs’ owner, told me in 2014, when the last attempt at lottery reform bit the dust. “But I don’t think only changing the draft will be the ultimate answer.”

Teams tank for many reasons. A lot are organic, the product of an inevitable rise-and-fall cycle to which none — not even the Spurs, tankers for Tim Duncan — are immune. They tank because in basketball more than any sport, singular superstars drive winning, and the only fail-safe way to get one is to draft very high in the right year. That is the best way to keep them, too; rookie first-round picks enter the league on four-year, cost-controlled contracts, and then proceed into restricted free agency — where incumbent teams can match any rival offer.

Barring a David Kahn-level snafu, a team that drafts a superstar gets him for seven or eight years. Make good choices during that time, and you should be able to convince that superstar to stay longer.

NBA Draft LotteryDavid Dow/NBA/Getty ImagesThe middle of the NBA lottery will be more appealing under new rules.

If you want to eliminate tanking, you have to change every part of that system. Shaking one branch of the tree isn’t enough. You do things that make superstars more portable — more available to everyone. Maybe you cut the length of rookie contracts, or eliminate restricted free agency. Maybe you raise the individual player salary limit, so that, say, the Magic could offer Ben Simmons $50 million a season three years from now.

Is that kind of league you want, though? Maybe it is. Player freedom of movement is a good and fair thing. Restricted free agency really isn’t. But you are crafting an entirely different league, with consequences we can’t anticipate.

What the league approved today will reduce only a tiny sliver of overall tanking, and that’s fine. Rebuilding is natural. The Charlotte Bobcats reignited the tanking debate in 2011-12, when they went 7-59 after trading Tyson Chandler, Gerald Wallace, and Stephen Jackson away from an aging and mediocre team — and then signing zero meaningful free agents in the summer of 2011.

But what should they have done? Doubled down? That sort of (gulp) process is exactly what teams experience in almost every major sport. They chase wins, top out, get old and expensive, and very reasonably decide to reset. Who knows what Philadelphia might look like today had Sam Hinkie retained Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, and Spencer Hawes. (Hopefully they would not be paying them half the salary cap combined.) It’s not clear that they would be in a better position, if you judge by future championship equity.

It is possible to enter the championship contention circle without tanking. Houston is there now, and Indiana did it a few years ago without drafting higher than 10th. But the odds of nabbing a championship-level building block that way are worse, and the risk of getting stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity even greater.

Engaging tank mode in February and March remains the objectively correct path for teams hopelessly behind in the playoff race. If you are going to finish 10-plus games out of the playoffs in a league that uses a reverse-order draft, you should play your prospects — the NBA’s version of September call-ups — and absorb a few extra losses as the price.

Is that bad? It depends on what kind of league you want on a fundamental level. If you think the worst teams should have the best chance to draft the best prospects, then the status quo is largely fine. If the tankery that system encourages offends you, then you have to be open to a system in which the best teams might draft the best players — or at least have an equal chance at them.

That sounds good in theory. Hell, if you play it out over 40 or 50 years, it may well produce a better league than the one we have now. I don’t know. I do know that good teams drafting high — or at least having an equal chance to do so — would make the league and its owners nervous for good reason. The minute a 55-win team wins the lottery, critics would howl about the system that enabled it.

That is kind of how we got here. In 1993, after the Magic won the lottery despite the worst odds, the league tweaked the system so that the worst teams had a better chance of picking at the top. They changed the rules because they didn’t like one outcome. They changed them again today because they didn’t like another set of outcomes. Philadelphia opposed reform three years ago because they were terrible. They voted for it this time, when it might help them.

(Speaking of unwanted outcomes: The Board of Governors was also initially set to vote on a rule that would ban pick swaps between drafts in which a team already owes its pick to other teams — i.e., the Not Another Nets Rule. It was pulled from the agenda Wednesday so as not to distract from the lottery reform vote, sources say.)

What will the league do if a bad team wins the lottery one year, gets a little better, and then wins it again from the ninth slot — as the Cavaliers did in winning three lotteries in four seasons? What if another 48-win team misses the playoffs in the powerhouse West and zooms into the top-3? Conference imbalance touches the lottery issue, too.

The league did not enjoy Cleveland’s repeat success. They just approved an odds tweak that will inject more of precisely that sort of randomness into a draft process that has a decent amount of randomness already. Those 7-59 Bobcats fell to the No. 2 pick, and missed out on Anthony Davis. The Magic fall almost every year.

Now, more awful teams will fall in the draft. More mediocre teams will move up. It might not happen all that often — the “expected” landing spot for teams in the bottom half of the lottery moved up less than one pick, per data from the NBA — but over time, there will be more randomness.

The proposal may also encourage more late-season foolishness. The fifth-best team in the lottery will now have a 10 percent chance at a top-3 pick, and a 14 percent chance of hitting the top five — up from 4 percent apiece in the outgoing system. The next team up in the lottery order will have a 15 percent chance of a top-3 pick, and a 20 percent shot at the top three.

The meaty middle of the lottery just got more appealing, each step up on the ladder more meaningful. If you are 10th in the pathetic Eastern Conference with a month to go, three or four games out of a playoff spot, the incentive to pack it in for better lottery odds will — in some places — outweigh the incentive to go all-out for the No. 8 seed. Perhaps that would change if the league returned to best-of-5 series in the first round, increasing the chances of an upset. Again: Every branch of the tree is connected.

Teams will not tank out of a playoff spot for a lottery ticket. That would alienate fans, and cost precious revenue from playoff home games. But teams might tank out of the back end of the playoff race, like a behind-the-pack runner pulling a hamstring, and teams in the 4-through-8 lottery spots will jockey for positioning.

(This is to say nothing about other sorts of late-season tanking: teams losing so they can keep protected first-round picks, and playoff teams tanking down to preferred first-round matchups. Again: Both are rational choices under current rules.)

The Thunder voted no, just as they did last time, and there is a concern among small markets that flattening the odds imperils their best and only roadmap to acquiring superstars, according to several league sources. Trading for in-their-prime superstars is hard, and usually requires taking on a star with one or two years left on his contract — a gamble. Bigger markets have an advantage in free agency.

The league would argue that advantage is overrated. The Celtics had zero history of signing free agents — until they lured Al Horford, and then Gordon Hayward. San Antonio coaxed LaMarcus Aldridge two summers ago.

Those players are good, but they are not single-handedly changing your franchise for a decade. They are not top-10 or top-5 players. Those guys, the super-duper stars, are the ones at issue in the lottery reform debate.

More than anything, those guys want to win in their prime. The Knicks and Lakers have signed precisely no such players away from other teams during their recent (or for the Kazoos, not so recent) downturns. Chris Paul chose Houston because James Harden was there. LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh chose Miami together. One class down, Hayward chose Boston because of the talent already there.

Being good can put you in the star-catching game almost regardless of market size. But that path is a longer long shot, with more moving parts, than catching one of those stars at the top of the draft. And in the aggregate, the glamour markets do have a better chance at pulling it off. The Lakers have cleared cap space for a coup only they might be able to execute. The Bucks get meetings with Greg Monroe instead.

Small and mid-market teams can nudge their free agency chances up by building good teams before dipping into the free agency pool, but they cannot flip the equation on its head. The big-city teams will always have an edge in July, even if it’s a small one. Today’s reform is probably marginally bad for small markets.

But it won’t change the behavior of bad small-market teams much, and it shouldn’t. The draft still represents the best way for any team to nab high-end talent. Rebuilding and tanking won’t go away.

The league reduced the value of blatant late-season losing from terrible teams. On balance, that is probably a good thing. But no one should be especially outraged or emboldened by what happened today.

Zach Lowe

ESPN Senior Writer

Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.

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