NBA lottery changes would be nice, but will not fix the league's real problem
Teams playing poorly isn't the league's problem; the issue is franchises under bad management
The NBA lottery system is again under scrutiny, and it looks like this time, there may be some real change. A report last week from ESPN outlined myriad changes the competition committee and NBA Board of Governors were to examine this week to the NBA's system for determining draft order. Among them, the proposal suggests flattening odds for the top three teams, reducing the disparity between them and the rest of the lottery, and even a proposal to prevent teams from drafting in the top three in consecutive seasons.
It's all in response to one man's plan -- affectionately known in Philadelphia as "The Process," as these proposals started to bubble up during GM Sam Hinkie's controversial tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers. Their venture into regular-season spelunking crossed boundaries of what league personnel found acceptable. It was deemed a threat to everything that defines the sport in the minds of its critics.
Eventually, the league felt compelled to step in, after Adam Silver consulted with ownership. Jerry Colangelo was brought in. He in turn hired his son Bryan. The Process, much like the league's intervention, completely misses the point in confronting the real issues with competitive balance and the inability of franchises to right themselves.
The most common argument against tanking -- setting aside the notion that watching these teams in March and April is like having your soul sucked out through your nostril -- is that it rewards failure. There's implicit distaste for being rewarded with the No. 1 pick for losing on purpose.
What the reforms won't handle
Here's the issue: teams that lose on purpose for a season or two are not the problem. They're most often going through a typical cycle of contention. A club gains a star, builds around him, reaches the highest level it can, the core is disrupted, the star leaves, the team rebuilds. Imagine Adam Silver as Rafiki from "The Lion King," and it's the Circle of NBA Life.
The problem is not a team like the Sixers, who were stuck in mediocrity, opted for a hard rebuild with a set plan it took to the extreme -- resulting in awful teams along the way. Their planned route back to competitiveness was clear and pretty sound. The problem is with teams hopelessly lost. It's easy to claim there's no difference between a 19-win Sixers team and a 21-win Knicks or Kings team. Except the Knicks and Kings have been bad for more than a decade.
The reason so many bad teams drain life from the final three months of the season is not a single tanking team looking to improve its draft pick, but so many teams lost on an organizational level. We examine teams as if talent is the precursor, and bad teams are simply unable to identify (in the draft) or acquire (in free agency or trades) the right talent. But we've seen time and again it takes more than talent to build success. The best organizations sustain momentum. If you're smart in constructing a team, talent will be found. Hiring the right people who weigh the right things to gain proper insight to make solid decisions -- that's the way to build a team where talent wants to play.
The Warriors were the result of tremendous fortune, not only in the draft (Draymond Green in the second round), but in how the team came together (Stephen Curry's injury reducing his extension value, the 2016 cap spike enabling the Kevin Durant signing). But their organization, under Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, built the infrastructure to capitalize on that good luck to make the team what it is. The Spurs have been a 50-win team for going on 20 years. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers, gifted one of the greatest athletes of a generation, are in danger of losing LeBron James for a second time, and have gone through three general managers and three coaches in four years. They may be in the midst of an implosion, despite returning much of the same team (and perhaps improving it somewhat with Celtics megadeal) that has reached three straight Finals, and favored return for a fourth.
Yet the Cavaliers are infinitely more stable than the perennial lottery squads. Some of those teams aren't spearheaded by bad management or lack of planning; it's just bad luck or one key bad hire. But those teams help create the disparity we see in the NBA. Teams mired in prolonged droughts is a reality in any sport. But the NBA is in position to drastically alter fortunes through the draft, given how important one star can be to reshaping a franchise.
That some teams continue to struggle for long stretches, sometimes decades -- even with the lottery -- is a signal of a greater problem that won't be solved by anti-tanking proposals. The Pelicans were gifted an elite talent in Anthony Davis but have reached the playoffs once since he was taken No. 1 overall in 2011, though that failure requires more context than simply blaming the organization. The point: While efforts to reformat the lottery are interesting, they won't solve the NBA's real issue. The league interfered with the Sixers, who had strong ownership and a plan (regardless of how one may feel about it) to return to contention. Meanwhile, the league has taken no such measures with the Knicks (four playoff appearances since 2001, constant upheaval), the Wolves (no playoffs since 2004), the Kings (no playoffs since 2006) or Suns (no playoff appearances since Amar'e Stoudemire left in 2010).
Teams that continue to be run poorly will keep piling up picks, and those teams often aren't in the bottom three, but in the 5-12 range every season. Players drafted in those places will continue to waste away. Ultimately, these efforts will not keep the from NBA rewarding poorly managed clubs. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe not, but it's important to remember how the entire tanking conversation went awry. That doesn't mean these changes are all bad, though.
Chaos is good
Here's why these changes could be good. Even if they're borne out of a misguided attempt to correct wrong behavior, they would continue a trend that this summer has proven powerful for the league's popularity: These measures would increase chaos.
Flattening the odds means there's a better chance of teams that are further ahead in their process will land transcendent talent. It means teams with incentives to trade valuable picks for stars will get better picks. The Chicago Bulls had a core in place when they landed Derrick Rose with the ninth-worst record in 2008. The Blazers never fulfilled their promise because of injuries, but they had Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge when they won the lottery in 2007 and took star-crossed Greg Oden. Had that team been healthy, it could have been special.
You will see more of those teams spring up if these measures are adopted, and that's a good thing. It injects a wild card into more set dynamics, much the same way this summer's wild array of trades introduced more uncertainty in the standings next season (outside of the heavily favored Warriors). That kind of uncertainty is gold for the NBA, and only further will heighten the fun of future offseasons, even if they don't match the sheer guano insanity we've seen the past three months.
The final form these changes will take has yet to be determined. How they are formatted will determing how much change they represent. But going in, we know two things: They won't actually cut to the bigger problems with NBA failures, but they could create more chaos which is always good for the league.
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