The NBA's pursuit of draft lottery reform is rooted in research that "many fans continue to say that so-called tanking is making them less interested in the league," president of league operations Byron Spruell told ESPN.
Lottery reform is moving toward a Sept. 28 vote at the NBA's board of governors meeting in New York. The league's competition committee has recommended passage of commissioner Adam Silver's proposal intended to curb the chase to the bottom of the standings for higher draft positions.
The NBA needs the vote of three-quarters of its teams -- 23 of 30 -- to implement the new rules, beginning in 2019. Silver fell short of the votes to reform the draft lottery in 2014.
"We are proposing that teams can no longer target finishing positions at the bottom, with a marginal difference in each seed from there on," Spruell told ESPN. "We need to continue to focus on competitive play and owe it to our fans and business partners to do that. It's the right time to take action."
Silver has made it clear to owners and team officials: Draft lottery reform is a measure, coupled with proposed rules on legislation for resting players, that is important for the integrity, economics and perception of the league.
The NBA needs a simple majority of votes on the resting rules at the board of governors meeting. The proposed guidelines for resting players will encourage teams to sit healthy players for home games rather than away games and discourage the practice during nationally televised matchups. That rule change is expected to pass easily, team executives told ESPN.
Lottery reform is a more complex idea. The worst three teams would now have an equal chance at the No. 1 overall pick: 14 percent. Presently, the teams with the three worst records have descending chances of 25 percent, 19.9 percent and 15.6 percent. Also, the worst record can drop as far as No. 5 in the new lottery proposal, down from No. 4.
ESPN has obtained further details on the proposed draft reform, which includes data on the "expected pick," based upon the new odds. The top three teams in the draft lottery's expected pick would drop from 2.6 to 3.7, 3 to 3.9 and 3.4 to 4.1, sources said.
The continuation of low odds on the back end of the lottery (Nos. 11 to 14) gives the NBA confidence that teams will not see a benefit to tanking out of the playoffs into the lottery. Under the proposed draft lottery changes, the last lottery team at No. 14 would keep the same 2 percent odds of rising into the top five of the draft.
"Any time you have taken odds away from the worst teams, you've redistributed them somewhere else," Evan Wasch, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, told ESPN. "But the odds are still low at the back end of the lottery. We don't fundamentally believe a team will want to so-called tank out of the playoffs. That could be worth $5 million to $10 million in gate, plus a lot of [other] value to your franchise. Even if you so-called tanked your way out of the playoffs to get to the 10th-worst record, it's only slightly higher odds, a marginal change.
"We just don't see an owner and GM giving up the benefits that come with making the playoffs."
Teams in the Nos. 7 to 10 range will have a greater chance of moving up into the top three picks, ESPN has learned, with No. 7's chances improving from 15 percent to 23 percent, No. 8 from 10 percent to 19 percent, No. 9 from 6 percent to 15 percent and No. 10 from 4 percent to 10 percent.
As an example, Detroit spent six straight years in the draft lottery (2010 to 2015) but never selected higher than seventh. The Pistons were active in free agency and had significant payrolls, but they struggled to rebuild on the run. Detroit never bottomed out to get a top-three pick, but those chances would improve now. League officials believe that the strengthening of odds in the middle of the draft lottery would open up rebuilding opportunities to a larger set of teams.
Nevertheless, there's a fear among small-market teams that decreasing odds on the worst teams to get the highest picks will take a disproportionate toll on nondestination free-agent markets. The league believes its data disputes that premise.
For now, the NBA has strong support among big-market teams for draft lottery reform. Many small- to mid-market front offices polled by ESPN are somewhere between neutral and opposed to the reform, but are hesitant to push their owners to vote against Silver's plan. Many are unconvinced that an anti-reform agenda is worth the expenditure of political capital necessary to challenge Silver.
As one high-ranking front-office executive lamented to ESPN, "We are putting a fleeting 'PR' win over the competitive balance and functionality of the league."
Some franchises have bigger issues on the horizon that will command league office cooperation and help. From revenue sharing to ownership and market instability, to GMs who will need the league office to help secure a big-market career advancement, there are those willing to surrender to Silver on the reform package.
As the vote gets closer, this can change. It did in 2014, when a late small-market push toppled the draft lottery reform. This time, teams believe Silver has sold the idea as a broader economic and perception issue that is vital to the NBA's business interests. The 2014 vote was taken at the height of the Philadelphia 76ers' dramatic tanking experiment.
"We think flattening the odds and distributing those percentages elsewhere is a really good solution," Spruell told ESPN. "But this is an incremental solution that doesn't erase other good ideas that can come up [in the future]."