The Philadelphia Problem or How to Fix The NBA Draft

BY ANDO

I hate the Philadelphia 76ers.

I hate them more than anything in the NBA, and I hate them because they have embraced the single worst thing about the league: tanking. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s when teams deliberately try and lose games — doing everything but intentionally throwing them. And there’s nothing worse for a basketball fan than after the All-Star break, when teams who know they’re not making the playoffs decide to go into full tank mode, literally trying to lose as many games as possible to give them the best chance at the number one pick, which means they get the first guess at picking a superstar.

Because it is a guess. We mustn’t forget — at the core of all this, the lottery and the draft are gambling. Pure and simple, you are betting on uncertain odds, both on the pick and the player. In some ways, it’s kind of remarkable that a multi-billion dollar league leaves one of its biggest and most crucial decisions to chance.

But to be fair to the process, the draft has historically been the best way to get a superstar. It’s not the only way, but it has been the most common and consistent over the years. So in recent years, it has led to tanking becoming a mainstay of the second half of the season. It’s the NBA’s annual “race to the bottom” and it’s horrible. Bad basketball, laughable lineups, fake injuries, poor attendance, unwatchable games and lower TV ratings — and all of it tarnishes the product.

Philadelphia has fully embraced tanking again this season and in their defence (something I will never say again), all they have done is not wait. Why wait until the halfway point of the season to see how bad you are, why not try and be bad from the outset? In fact, why not tank for 3 years straight and put yourself in the best position to get a number one pick, or a series of high picks, and therefore the best chance at a star (or multiple stars)?

On paper it makes sense — it’s a number crunchers view of the NBA — and it will (and has) given the Sixers a chance at the top pick. But on the floor it’s led to disgraceful play, a lack of interest in being competitive, a laughable roster, low attendance and TV ratings, all of which has annoyed the other NBA teams (along with the league), and set the wrong kinds of records. There’s no point listing them all, but one sticks out — in his third season at the helm of this tank-fest, Brett Brown has a chance at having the WORST winning percentage in NBA history. Think about that.

Philadelphia’s approach has prompted discussion of revamping the draft — changing the lottery to make this kind of situation less likely — but when changes were voted on this past off-season, the owners got cold feet and didn’t vote for them. Because in the end, as much as teams hate what Philadelphia is doing, they may be in the same situation at some point, and when they are bad, they want the same high chance of getting the number one pick. Because make no mistake — if the Sixers tank their way into Ben Simmons, everyone will say they were geniuses.

But I think it’s disgraceful. Any system that incentivises losing in such an egregious way is wrong. I understand the need for a system to help rebuilding teams to reload, but the draft can’t be the ONLY way. Asset collecting is becoming more common in the NBA — trading for players, acquiring draft picks, gaining salary cap space — Houston, Dallas and Boston are good examples of this, building their teams by acquiring assets. Houston acquired James Harden and Dwight Howard because they had the assets to trade at the right time. They are proof that the draft isn’t the only way.

The first step to encouraging teams to not be Philadelphia is to remove the massive incentive to lose and keep losing. There are a stack of proposals on the table to reform the draft process (many are detailed in a great article by Zach Lowe) and you can add this one to the pile. But for me, the difference is this one is simple and effective — it gives an opportunity for rebuilding teams to get a high pick, but it also removes the incentive to be bad for a long period of time. Teams have no choice but to try and make their team better. I call it the 7/7 proposal.

The 7/7 NBA Draft Proposal

  1. The Lottery is split in two

The first and most crucial part of this proposal is to split the draft into two halves. The Top 7 (Picks 1-7) and the Bottom 7 (Picks 8-14). This split is the key to the whole proposal, as the division between these two sections affects all parts of the draft. The Top 7 and Bottom 7 are determined by record

  1. Two lotteries, even odds

There’s no weight to the lottery. It’s an even number of balls for every team, and both the Top 7 and Bottom 7 groups have a lottery to determine the order of ALL picks. So firstly we remove the value in having the worst record in the league — it doesn’t guarantee you the fourth pick anymore. It only guarantees you have a 1 in 7 chance at the top pick. The value of tanking a season or the rest of a season has been diminished, and the only reason you would tank is to have one of the seven worst records in the league in order to be in the Top 7, but…

  1. You can’t be in the Top 7 two years in a row

This will probably be the most controversial part of the 7/7 proposal. But I think it’s the part that really makes the difference — we give teams a chance at a top pick one year, but we don’t encourage them to keep losing.

And yes, this effects traded picks as well. You can’t cheat the system by trading for someone else’s pick — it’s a simple, iron clad rule. If you picked in the Top 7 one year, you can’t pick in the Top 7 the next year. Period. No matter what you do, there are no exceptions.

Which means if you pick in the Top 7 in Year 1, the best you can do is Pick 8 in Year 2. The worst is Pick 14. Would you really tank an entire season for a 1 in 7 chance at the 8th pick (and potentially the 14th pick)? And if you would, perhaps you shouldn’t be running an NBA team…

The Application

So let’s see how this would have played out in years past. I’m going to take the past 4 years, from 2012–2015 as examples, but this is a rudimentary test. It can’t factor in how teams would approach their season differently if they had different chances at the top pick, or if they had different rosters as a result of changes. It also doesn’t show what the lottery results would be, simply those teams who would be in the Top and Bottom 7 groups. Let’s start with the 2012 NBA draft. Below is the original results of the lottery and the records of the teams:

2012 draft order
The 2012 draft on the right, in the new format on the left

Now, look at the effect using the 7/7 system has on the following year. Based on the order of the picks for 2012, and the records of teams for that season, this is the Top 7 and Bottom 7 originally and with the 7/7 format for 2013. You can also see the eventual pick next to the team on the left:

draft order 2
The original 2013 draft split into the new format on the right, the revised order on the left

 

Look at the difference. Five of the seven teams who would’ve had a chance at the Top 7 were excluded because they picked in the Top 7 the previous season. Washington finished in the Bottom 7 on record, but with four teams excluded, they were next in line, but given they had picked in the Top 7 the previous year, they were also excluded. Immediately, we see the benefit in tanking multiple years is removed.

Follow that through to 2014. Based on the records, this is the Top 7 and Bottom 7 originally, and again with the 7/7 format applied (and eventual picks on the left):

draft order 3
The 2014 draft on the right, adjusted on the left.

Again, the difference is clear. Four teams were excluded because they picked in the Top 7 the previous year. Two directly and two from the bottom seven that were denied promotion. Cleveland did end up with the top pick, but only because they jumped from 14th position. That cannot happen under the 7/7 format.

Finally, let’s complete the four year progress by following the experiment through to 2015. Below this is the Top 7 and Bottom 7 originally and again with the 7/7 format applied:

draft order 4
The 2015 draft on the right, adjusted on the left.

With the number of new teams in the lottery, only 2 teams were excluded from the previous year. But the effect of the 7/7 is clear. Cumulatively, across the four years, you are reducing the teams continually drafting in the Top 7. Sacramento goes from four picks in the Top 7 to two, Philadelphia would lose a Top 7 across the four years, the Lakers don’t pick in the Top 7 in consecutive years and so on.

Obviously this isn’t a perfect experiment — it doesn’t factor in those teams that jump in the lottery from the back of the pack (like Cleveland in 2014), nor does it factor in how the teams would change their approach with a new system, or what the actual lottery results were (this has just gone off record). But regardless, I think what this shows is that the idea has the potential to work. The incentive to tank in order to stay high in the lottery across multiple years is removed, which is strengthened further by having an even number of balls. No weighted lottery means there’s no value in being as bad as the Sixers are now, and no value in being really bad over multiple years. But it still gives those rebuilding teams an opportunity to get a Top 7 pick, and that chance at a superstar.

What’s the downside? I’m sure the main argument (as it always will be) that it hurts the small-market teams, and reduces the opportunity of those really bad and rebuilding teams to snag the number one pick. Another one could be that you can now alternate the years you tank, but I’m not entirely sure how practical that is when applied. Having a non-weighted lottery also increases the chance that a team with a decent record gets the number one pick (especially if they jump from the Top 7 from the Bottom 7), but so what? It’s not the worst thing to have a semi-decent team get a potentially great player — for that team, the player and the league.

No system is perfect, there’s always an inflection point where a team can exploit the system, where it becomes smarter to lose than keep winning, but the current system is fatally flawed and is being exploited so badly that it is hurting the NBA. When teams tank the product becomes unwatchable, fans lose interest, and that’s when the league has a serious problem. They need to do something about it and this is an idea. They need to pick one of them and they need to do it soon.

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