The Draft Lottery Is Broken—But ‘The Wheel’ Isn’t The Answer
Another year, another broken NBA Draft Lottery.
Tonight’s drawing (airing at 8 p.m. on ESPN) figures to be must-watch TV, if you happen to root for a terrible basketball team. (For once, that cohort doesn’t include the Wizards.) The Milwaukee Bucks ended up with the most potential combinations to win the top pick and the Phoenix Suns possess the least. Brett Pollakoff has a more complete breakdown.
As usual, tonight’s Donner party includes a mix of franchises starving for young talent: perennial losers like Sacramento, along with a few teams (cough cough Philadelphia) that openly abandoned the 2013-14 season to try and maximize their chances of winning big in a draft that has several top prospects.
But something changed this season, possibly because of the 76ers’ blatant tanking. More pundits than ever punditificated about potential replacements for the lottery, such as using a weighted average—i.e., Philadelphia only won 19 games this year, but the franchise has a three-year average of a 32-win team—or simply allowing all rookies to enter the league via free agency.
Perhaps no idea picked up more speed than “The Wheel,” a model floated by Boston Celtics executive Mike Zarren and even praised by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Too bad that proposal is busted, too.
The Wheel is Bumpy
There are things to like about “The Wheel,” which would eliminate the lottery and basically slot each team into an assigned draft spot for years to come. (Zach Lowe’s excellent write-up of Zarren’s proposal is here. Reportedly, Zarren has since refined his idea but isn’t sharing any updates.)
Namely, it gives smart executives a clear picture of their future assets—Indiana’s GM would know he’s picking 24th this year, 17th next year, and so on. A team with holes could more strategically build toward success.
At the same time, there are serious issues with “The Wheel,” beyond the superficial and not-substantive complaints. For one, it would dramatically decouple present performance from future opportunities in the name of “parity,” which is arguably overvalued in the NBA. The least interesting years of my fandom weren’t the seasons when the Wizards were bad (which has been most years)—it was the years when the league lacked a super-team. The NBA’s “decade of parity” was similarly drab and bad for business.
But I’m just an infrequent TAI blogger. What do I know?
So I asked someone with a better understanding of markets: Tyler Cownen, famed economist, New York Times contributor, and NBA fan. And he doesn’t roll with The Wheel, either.
“My sense is that right now a number of teams would be bankrupt, including of course Orlando” and other small market teams, Cowen told me. He cited the examples of Shaq and Dwight Howard, who were drafted by the Magic but eager to leave for a bigger-market opportunity … like Los Angeles.
“It diminishes the production of hope in addition to taking away the best young players from the worst teams,” Cowen added. “Imagine the Wizards with John Wall having gone to the Celtics a few years ago.”
An Alternate Approach
Cowen does think that competitive balance is a reasonable goal. “There is some value to (semi) parity, in my view,” he acknowledged. But compared to many critical economists, he’s generally a fan of the lottery model, pointing out that every franchise needs some opportunity to win young talent and vault into contention.
And generally, I think the NBA Draft model is pretty salvageable, too. All it needs is one key fix: Make the franchises accountable.
Here’s how you’d do that.
- Keep the existing super-structure of lottery and draft, but give players the right to refuse their draft spot. Imagine if the Milwaukee Bucks win the No.1 pick … but on Draft Night, Andrew Wiggins tells them no.
- This empowers players by giving them some agency over their fate, which most draft-replacement proposals ignore.
- It also creates an incentive for teams to make a compelling case for why a player should join their franchise, rather than simply tanking their way toward talent.
This model maintains the unpredictability of the lottery, the fun of a live draft, and the value of steering talent toward mediocre teams.
At the same time, it puts pressure on those teams to be appealing destinations. What top player wants to join a no-hope franchise if a better opportunity is looming, one slot down the lottery?
Perhaps a player can only say no once, to ensure that Wiggins or whomever can’t slide all the way down the draft to his preferred spot.
But just think… How great would NBA Draft night be if a team had tanked its way to the top spot … but got rejected, again and again, because the NBA’s next LeBron James thinks the franchise doesn’t have enough players to win?
That’s the Wheel, alright—the karmic wheel.