Minnesota Timberwolves: NBA Draft Lottery reform fails the league

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images /

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ tortured NBA Draft Lottery history continued Tuesday night, bringing the new system’s failure to light.

The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery was a wild success by the league’s standards. Chaos reigned, with the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers all moving up into the top four. Beyond the obvious “losers” of the lottery, one that was rarely mentioned in the media frenzy following the event was the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Any team that fell backwards (which was the majority of the lottery) came away disappointed and frustrated, but the Timberwolves have a better gripe than any of them. How’s that, you ask? Well, the Wolves continued their story history of moving back in the draft lottery, entering the night with the 10th-best odds but ending up with the 11th overall pick. Minnesota has been in countless lotteries due to the franchise’s own ineptitude, but in nearly 20 tries, it has not once had the ping pong balls go its way.

The NBA is a superstar-driven league; just by the nature of the game, any one individual can alter the direction of a franchise far more than any player could in baseball, football or hockey — that isn’t new insight. The league’s knee-jerk reaction to tanking, dramatically flattening the lottery odds, might have stirred up social media Tuesday night, but in the long run that change will harm the league by highlighting a variable in drafting that will never satisfy anyone: luck.

These were the odds heading into the 2019 NBA draft lottery:


The odds of the Lakers, Grizzlies and Pelicans all moving up were infinitesimal. The odds of the Timberwolves moving back were just 20.1 percent. Bemoaning the fact isn’t just sour grapes either, looking at the overall scope of how the lottery played out:

Yep, that’s the bottom of the Western Conference, and yes, that is the Timberwolves enclosed in misery among teams that now have chances to draft superstars and All-Stars because of ping pong balls.

Somehow, this is what the NBA wanted. Years of behind-the-scenes deliberation on how to end tanking — which assumes that tanking in bad in the first place — finally decided on a system where teams that tried to win but didn’t have the talent to make the playoffs have a realistic chance of striking gold.

Copious fans of some of the worst teams in 2019 — the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls — openly voiced their displeasure with the new system on social media. Of course, the ensuing backlash came, with opponents rushing in to defend the new system. The most common defense lobbed at the bottom-feeders? Your owners are the reason your franchise is bad.

There is plenty of merit to that idea, as ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz explored in his piece on the Suns in March. However, it seems like people sticking to this defense didn’t watch the 2019 NBA Draft lottery.

  • The Los Angeles Lakers are run by trust-fund babies who’ve done nothing to demonstrate competence and who’ve turned one of sports’ most celebrated franchises into a laughingstock.
  • The Memphis Grizzlies have had ownership battles for years now and are owned by Robert Pera, likely the poorest majority owner in the league.
  • The New Orleans Pelicans are owned by Tom Benson’s widow, who went to court against the late billionaire’s children to wrestle control of the team away from them. By all accounts, she barely does anything, leaving control of the team to people heavily focused on the New Orleans Saints.

Are Robert Sarver, James Dolan and Dan Gilbert bad owners? Yes. Is Glen Taylor a bad owner? Yes, he is too. But the role an owner plays is gigantic, and if we honestly assess all 30 NBA ownership groups, many of them would fail an in-depth inspection. The NBA Draft Lottery should not be about punishing teams that are poorly run, because there simply are too many in the league.

Some losers will eventually get a lucky bounce. That is, every loser but the Minnesota Timberwolves.

That tweet is in the context of the Dallas Mavericks’ lottery misfortunes. However, the Timberwolves are far behind the Mavs as the most unlucky team in draft lottery history. Minnesota has never moved up and after Tuesday night, has moved down from the team’s expected pick outcome 17 times! 

Having such a prolonged streak of lottery failures seems impossible. This is not to say that the draft lottery is rigged, as that would be incredibly difficult to do, but looking at the skew of the numbers in that tweet shows that randomness does not always correct itself, even once small sample sizes grow.

New Orleans is getting its second chance to resurrect its franchise around a once-in-a-decade talent because of pure luck, while bottom-feeders like the Knicks, Suns and Bulls will be forced to find new methods to succeed and middle-of-the-pack teams like the Wolves and Charlotte Hornets will be forced to just keep running on the treadmill of mediocrity, hoping next year the balls bounce their way.

That is a more unhealthy ecosphere for the NBA than the tankathon that Sam Hinkie kicked off. The Knicks and Lakers are the two lottery teams most primed to become contenders next year even without the chance to draft Zion Williamson, and that’s all thanks to free agency.

Pitting small markets against each other does not increase parity, because the main outlet those franchises have to improve is now even more a crapshoot. All the while, larger markets can still rely on free agency and players forcing trades.

2019 was the first year of the new lottery odds and no matter how exhilarating the event was, it’s already exposed a fundamental problem in the battle to “fix” tanking.

Simply by eschewing a traditional 1-30 draft order based on worst-to-first records, the league makes tanking a precarious thing. With the new odds, tanking will still happen (it will always happen), but now losing itself — whether 50 games or 60 — is precarious because nothing is guaranteed; you can move back no matter where you are in the lottery.

This is not a defense of bad franchises that are perennial losers like the Timberwolves, but winning in the NBA is hard. There aren’t any Detroit Pistons or Orlando Magic fans out there deluded enough to think cracking 40 wins changes their franchise’s direction.

If the worst teams can’t count on even reliably getting top-five picks and teams stuck in the middle are pinning their disappointing seasons on a six percent shot, the playoff picture in six years is going to be littered with teams that aren’t well-run, but merely got lucky in the lottery.

dark. Next. Winners and losers of the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery

The Timberwolves sure aren’t equipped to be one of those lucky few teams, and if by some miracle they hit the jackpot, the euphoria will be laced with short-sightedness. Enjoy the feeling while it lasts, New Orleans.