Hughes: What if the NBA draft lottery was randomized?


As someone who covers the Washington Wizards, I have become a foremost expert on the conflicted feelings NBA fanbases can have late in the season when their team is on the bubble of making the play-in tournament. A split naturally emerges between those who want their team to win and those who would prefer them to secure a better draft pick.

Really, it's a phenomenon you do not see in other sports. Part of it is probably because the potential of a lower seed going on a deep playoff run is higher in the NFL, NHL or MLB. Part of it is also because one home run draft pick in the NBA can alter the course of a franchise in a more significant and immediate way than those other sports, with the exception of an NFL team landing a star quarterback.

Regardless, the diverging interests among fans are a reality of the league and it arguably shouldn't be that way. So, I have an idea to fix it, a new one. Previously, I have proposed the idea of weighting lottery odds to incentivize teams making the play-in tournament. Basically, the teams that got the final spots would earn higher lottery odds than those that fell just short. 

That remains a viable option, but the league could go further if it wanted to. Consider this: what if the draft lottery was randomized? The NBA Draft currently has two must-see events; the lottery and the draft itself. Add a third, which could be the night before the actual lottery or it could even take place just beforehand. You take the same odds structure the lottery currently has, but shuffle the team assignments at random, and do it live on television.


Essentially, it would work as a randomizer. Now, we can't use the term 'Randomizer' because that's taken by Guy Fieri's 'Tournament of Champions.' But the same principles apply, just instead of pork tenderloin, peas, waffle iron, glazed and 35 minutes it could be Spurs, Knicks, Wizards, Kings and Blazers.

The legend Guy Fieri next to the 'Randomizer'

Let's call it the Lottery Draw. How it would work in practice is, say the Orlando Magic finished with the worst record in the NBA, as they are on pace to do. They would then be just one of 14 teams to enter the Lottery Draw with the same, random chance of getting high lottery odds as the Hornets, who currently have the 14th-worst record in the league, and the Blazers, who are currently eighth-worst.

Immediately, you take away all the incentive to build the worst team in the league. You also eliminate the sort of undesirable middle ground of the NBA standings, as a team like the Hornets, or the Wizards, or the Knicks could luck into a top draft pick despite not tanking to the bottom. 

Here's an example of how it could look. The first number is where the teams would rank in real-life lottery odds if the season ended today. The second number is where they would be after my mock Lottery Draw:

1. Magic - 12
2. Rockets - 2
3. Pistons - 13
4. Thunder - 1
5. Pacers - 10
6. Kings - 14
7. Spurs - 7
8. Blazers - 8
9. Knicks - 3
10. Pelicans - 11
11. Lakers - 4
12. Wizards - 9
13. Hawks - 5
14. Hornets - 6

As you see, some teams moved up quite a bit, some fell down and others stayed put. The Magic, Pistons, Pacers and Kings wouldn't be happy with this. Meanwhile, the Knicks, Lakers, Hawks and Hornets would be thrilled. That is in addition to the teams who stuck around near the top, like the Rockets, Thunder and Spurs.

Now, here's what the draft order could look like after the odds were randomized, then sorted out in the actual draft lottery:

1. Hornets
2. Pacers
3. Magic
4. Spurs
5. Thunder
6. Rockets
7. Knicks
8. Lakers
9. Hawks
10. Blazers
11. Wizards
12. Pelicans
13. Pistons
14. Kings

Okay, so the Pistons and Kings would really hate how this turned out. The Hornets would be the big winners, going from the worst lottery odds in real life all the way to the No. 1 pick. Charlotte would be in position to draft Jabari Smith, Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren to play alongside LaMelo Ball. That could turn them from good to very good in a short period of time.

The Knicks, Lakers and Hawks would also get some luck. All three are currently in the NBA's middle tier, but could help themselves vault forward with a better draft pick than they are currently slated to receive.


Now, any major change to the lottery system would have some domino effects, perhaps some that would take time to recognize. In the case of randomizing the odds, trading future draft picks would be thrown for a loop, as it would become much harder to project where those picks might land. That said, some picks could take on much greater value if they currently project to be in the late lottery.

One problem with this model could also be how it affects the play-in tournament itself. While the worst teams would have reason to try harder, or at least less of a reason to lose, you may also create a situation where teams in the play-in tournament don't want to win and advance to the playoffs. Making the eighth seed as opposed to finishing ninth could cause a team to lose out on a top draft pick.

Because of that, the best system would probably include expanding the lottery, perhaps to 18 teams. That puts the cutoff after the top-6 seeds in each conference. So, either you are a contender or you have a chance at a top draft pick. There would be no in between.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has openly discussed his qualms with tanking and the league has taken measures to eliminate the practice. Whether he feels the NBA's middle ground is also an issue to address is unclear. But the ideas outlined above would change the dynamics of both of them. Front offices would no longer see value in building bad teams on purpose and the teams that are decently good, but don't have the draft capital or salary cap room to make another giant leap would have a chance at some lottery luck.

Those seem like potential positives worth looking into. Mr. Silver, you know how to find me.