Hughes: What if the NBA draft lottery was randomized? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
As someone who covers the Washington Wizards, I’ve become a leading expert on the conflicting feelings NBA fanbases can have late in the season when their team is poised to make the play-in tournament. Of course, there is a split between those who want their team to win and those who prefer that they secure a better draft pick.
Really, this is a phenomenon that you don’t see in other sports. Part of that is probably because the potential of a lower seedling going into a deep playoff run is higher in the NFL, NHL or MLB. Part of that is also because a home run draft pick in the NBA can change the course of a franchise in more significant and immediate ways than these other sports, with the exception of an NFL team landing a star quarterback.
Regardless, the diverse interests of fans is a reality of the league and arguably shouldn’t be. So, I have an idea to fix it, a new one. Previously, I proposed the idea of weighting lottery odds to incentivize teams entering the play-in tournament. Basically, the teams that snagged the last spots would get higher lottery odds than those that just barely finished.
That remains a viable option, but the league could go further if it wanted to. Consider this: what if the draft lottery was randomized? The NBA Draft currently has two must-see events; the lottery and the draft itself. Add a third, that could be the night before the actual lottery or it could even be close to it. They take the same odds structure that the lottery currently has but randomly shuffle the team assignments and do it live on TV.
Essentially, it would work as a randomizer. Now we can’t use the term “Randomizer” because it’s used by Guy Fieri’s “Tournament of Champions”. But the same principles apply, only instead of pork tenderloin, peas, waffle iron, glazed and 35 minutes it could be Spurs, Knicks, Wizards, Kings and Blazers.
Let’s call it the lottery draw. How it would work in practice is, say, the Orlando Magic finished with the worst record in the NBA because they’re on the right track. They would then be just one of 14 teams entering the lottery draw with the same random chance at high lottery odds as the Hornets, who currently have the 14th-worst record in the league, and the Blazers, who currently rank eighth. worst.
Immediately you take away everyone’s incentive to build the worst team in the league. They also eliminate that kind of unwanted middle ground in the NBA rankings, since a team like the Hornets or the Wizards or the Knicks could get lucky in a top draft pick despite not tanking all the way down.
Here’s an example of what it might look like. The first number indicates where the teams would rank in real lottery odds if the season ends today. The second number is where they would be after my played lottery draw:
1. Magic – 12
2nd Rockets – 2nd
3rd piston – 13th
4th Thunder – 1st
5. Pacemaker – 10
6th Kings – 14th
7. Spurs – 7
8. Blazer – 8
9. Knicks – 3
10. Pelicans – 11
11th Lakers – 4th
12. Wizard – 9
13. Falcons – 5
14. Hornets – 6
As you can see, some teams have gone up a fair bit, some have fallen and others have stayed. The Magic, Pistons, Pacers and Kings wouldn’t be happy with that. Meanwhile, the Knicks, Lakers, Hawks and Hornets would be ecstatic. Add to that the teams that have stayed near the top, like the Rockets, Thunder and Spurs.
Well, here’s what the draft order might look like after the odds have been randomized and then sorted out in the actual draft lottery:
Okay, the Pistons and Kings would really hate how this turned out. The Hornets would be the big winners, from having the worst real-life lottery odds to being No. 1. Charlotte would be able to draft Jabari Smith, Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren to play alongside LaMelo Ball. She could go from good to very good at that in a short amount of time.
The Knicks, Lakers and Hawks would also have some luck. All three are currently in the middle tier of the NBA, but could help themselves up with a better draft pick than they’re currently meant to receive.
Well, any major change to the lottery system would have some knock-on effects, perhaps some that would take time to detect. In the case of odds randomization, trading future draft picks would be thrown into a loop as it would be much more difficult to predict where those picks might end up. However, some picks could take on much greater value if they currently assume they are in the late lottery.
A problem with this model could also be how it affects the play-in tournament itself. While the worst teams have reason to try harder, or at least less reason to lose, you can also create a situation where teams don’t want to win in the play-in tournament and advance to the playoffs. Finishing in eighth place versus ninth place could result in a team losing a top draft pick.
Because of this, the best system would likely involve expanding the lottery, perhaps to 18 teams. That puts the cutoff behind the top 6 seeds in each conference. So, either you’re a contender or you have a shot at a top draft pick. There would be nothing in between.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been open about his concerns about tanking, and the league has taken action to eliminate the practice. Whether he thinks the NBA’s middle ground is also a problem is unclear. But the ideas outlined above would change the dynamics of both. The front offices would no longer see any value in intentionally building bad teams, and the teams that are decently good but don’t have the draft capital or salary cap space to make another big leap would have a shot at something Lucky in the lottery.
Those seem to be potential positives worth exploring. Mr. Silver, you know how to find me.