To eliminate tanking, the NBA must return to original lottery rules

May 14, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; A general view of the stage prior to the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery at the Hilton Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
May 14, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; A general view of the stage prior to the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery at the Hilton Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports /

Every few years, a prospect comes along who is so extraordinary that NBA teams are willing to throw away entire seasons just to have a shot at him. On other occasions, teams decide that there is no upside to being mediocre and that stockpiling draft picks and getting a good position in the draft lottery is a better strategy than fighting madly for the eighth playoff seed.

The optics of this are not great. Fans pay hundreds of dollars for seats to an NBA game, only to find out that one or both teams have no interest in being competitive. Coaches and players have a chunk of their careers wasted by front-office manipulations.  Even gamblers can be victimized by this practice if you need a reason to sympathize with gamblers.

So you think to yourself, “If there was an easy way out of this, I bet the NBA would do it.” In fact, there is an easy way, and the NBA knows about it because they used to do it.

The NBA had it right with the original lottery rules.

When the draft lottery began in 1985, every non-playoff team had an equal chance at the top pick. A team that just missed out on the playoffs had as good a chance as the worst team in the league. The only tanking that went on was when teams decided to throw away a chance at the playoffs.

In 1990, though, the league decided that the worst teams needed more of an edge. So they gave the worst team a one-in-six chance of getting the top pick, with everyone else getting progressively smaller odds. The odds have been tweaked every few years, but tanking has gotten more and more blatant. What has changed in recent years since the start of the “Process” in Philadelphia a decade or so ago is that tanking is just a general strategy, not to get a particular player but just to get high draft picks.

The downside of this is that it works, sort of. Philadelphia turned its high picks into Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and could have also had Jayson Tatum except for a massive blunder when they drafted Markell Fultz instead. The Thunder and Rockets each have a roster full of young talent that they accumulated by dumping veterans for picks and then finishing with high lottery picks for multiple years. Nobody has actually won a title as a direct result of tanking, but all of these teams have a better chance than they would have otherwise.

The original lottery model is the best option for the NBA.

So what is the downside of going back to the original lottery model? There simply aren’t any. If nothing else, teams that have no shot at the playoffs would have no reason to gut their roster and try to lose because winning 30-35 games would give them the same lottery odds as winning 15 games. This would instill some integrity at the end of the season instead of having multiple games every night where one team is putting G League-caliber talent on the floor, even when they have better players available.

The current season is a perfect example of the benefits of revamping the lottery. Teams like Indiana and Utah that are overachieving should not have to choose between gutting their rosters for a shot at Victor Wembanyama and trying to make a playoff run. Imagine if they could go all-out for the playoffs for as long as they stay in contention.

At the trade deadline, rather than dumping good players for nothing just to get as bad as possible, they would be realistically assessing their playoff chances and balancing short-term roster boosts against building long-term. If they keep playing well, the upside is a playoff run. If not, their consolation prize is a shot at Victor Wembanyama. The key, though, is that they have every reason to play the season out.

You might be thinking that this would hurt the teams that are in an actual rebuild, because they might get stuck at the back end of the lottery for multiple seasons and never get a real shot at a franchise player. The easy answer to that concern is the Sacramento Kings, who have not made the playoffs since 2006.

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On the one hand, you can point to lottery picks like Bismack Biyombo, Thomas Robinson, and Ben McLemore and say the Kings deserve the drought they are in. The flip side, though, is that the Kings have never bottomed out, so they have never picked first and have only picked once in the top three. A balanced lottery probably would have helped them—although not if they used the pick on Marvin Bagley.