The NBA is on a quest to end tanking – or at least stifle its benefits – and Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery results were a massive step forward toward accomplishing just that.
The league was met with some resistance in 2017 when it approved the decision to even out Lottery odds among the worst teams in the league. Opponents of tanking were happy with the decision, but some felt the league was going too far. After all, the teams with the worst records – regardless of how they got to that win-loss total – needed the greatest opportunities to draft the league’s best prospects, and that meant the best Lottery odds and, subsequently, the top picks.
But Tuesday night proved to be a monumental outcome for the league. The New Orleans Pelicans entered the Lottery with a 6% chance at earning the top pick and yet were victorious, earning the right to draft Duke freshman Zion Williamson. The Memphis Grizzlies had a 12.3% chance to move into the top-2 and hit on those odds, sliding in to the No. 2 spot that should net them Murray State point guard Ja Morant. The Lakers made the biggest jump of all, moving from No. 11 to No. 4 despite having less than 4% odds of moving into the top-4.
The Nos. 7, 8 and 11 teams all moved up, past the 19-win Cavaliers and Suns, past the 22-win Bulls and the 29-win Hawks. The NBA couldn’t have asked for a better inaugural drawing with the revised Lottery odds.
The message? Tank if you want, but this system isn’t necessarily going to reward you like it used to.
A year ago, the Phoenix Suns had a 25% chance of earning the top pick. They won the 2018 NBA Draft Lottery with those odds, and the drawing for the second pick took three additional tries because the Suns’ four-digit combinations also popped up on the second the third tries. This time around there were five drawings for the four picks; incredibly, Memphis’ combination was chosen for the fourth pick. The balls were re-drawn and Los Angeles’ combination came up.
"Look at what happened tonight. It was, from a league perspective, they have to be thrilled with how it played out just in terms of the excitement of it, and they did it for a lot of different reasons," Bulls VP John Paxson said after the drawing. "They don’t want teams to throw in the towel 20 games into a season, so tonight showed what they envision probably held true. I had a funny feeling something odds was going to happen and it did."
It would have been difficult for the league to slow down tanking had there only been one team that made a jump. A top-4 that included any three- or four-team combination of the Suns, Cavs, Knicks and Bulls would have been more of the same like it had been in previous years. Of course teams knew about the new odds and how it could potentially affect the Lottery. But to see it play out in-person, to see three teams with minuscule odds jump up, could make teams think twice about sacrificing young player progression and chemistry late in the season for a couple losses here and there.
There will always be some incentive to tank. The Knicks went 17-65 and their NBA-best odds kept them in the top-4. As for a team like the Bulls, the case for them losing games in the short-term this season was not just to add 15 more combinations on Lottery night – moving from 12.5% to 14% - but rather to be ahead of other teams in case they weren’t chosen in the top-4.
Case in point: The Bulls finished three games ahead of the Cavaliers and Suns, two teams that also missed on moving up in the Lottery. When the remaining 10 teams were slotted in reverse standings order, Cleveland wound up with the fifth pick, Phoenix got the sixth pick and the Bulls were slotted at No. 7. Considering that Phoenix needs a point guard – same as the Bulls – they could grab the player the Bulls are after because of those three additional losses.
Until the league goes to a scenario in which every Lottery team has the same odds of landing the top pick – it’s difficult to envision them going to such drastic measures – there will be incentive to lose games in March and April to better position themselves for slotting in the case of not being one of the four teams chosen.
But Tuesday night went a long way toward slowing down tanking. It’s not as if the Warriors, Bucks and Nuggets jumped into the top-3. The Pelicans, Grizzlies and Lakers averaged 34.3 wins this season and all need help to make it back to the postseason. The new Lottery odds are still helping teams in desperate need of top young talent.
The chaos was fun and exciting. Teams in that 7 to 11 range don’t need to worry as much about squeaking out some late losses and then scoreboard-watching in hopes of the teams in front of them winning games. It’ll never be a perfect system, but what the league was hoping to accomplish played out in front of our eyes. It was a big win for the Pelicans, but the NBA took home a W as well.
"I think this is good for the league and our fans and how we should look at the game, because there are no guarantees," Paxson said. "You had much greater odds in the past and a lot of those teams benefitted from it, but I think in the long run this is going to be a really good thing for the league."