How the NBA distributes talent and stokes desire

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

NEW YORK – The NBA Draft Lottery, the league’s weirdest career-altering stunt, made peers of three people who will probably never be in the same room again: Sixers rookie Nerlens Noel, Lakers coach Byron Scott and Minnesota billionaire Glen Taylor. As the pageant reached its suspenseful conclusion on Tuesday night, the three stood onstage together as winners of the NBA’s biggest loser contest. They had just been told they were receiving the top three picks in the June 25 NBA Draft (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

Indeed, it was Christmas for losers, and the trio were here to accept gifts from the league on behalf of their teams, which this season collectively won 55 games, 12 short of the Golden State Warriors’ total.

For all of the failure that led to this night, the lottery was a giddy affair. Hundreds filled a curtained-off hotel ballroom in midtown Manhattan, on the floor and in the balcony. Onstage, 14 team representatives – from Larry Bird to Steve Mills to Russell Westbrook – waited with a mix of low-key resignation and high hopes.

On a nearby raised platform, ESPN’s broadcast team of Mark Jones and Jay Bilas narrated and evaluated, while on yet another platform, Cassidy Hubbarth served as a host of sorts when nothing else was going on. For the assembled crowd, she interviewed Willie Cauley-Stein, D’Angelo Russell and Frank Kaminsky, among other potential lottery picks. Off to the side, Heather Cox was dwarfed by Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, perhaps the top two picks in this year’s draft, as they watched video of themselves on the big screen and then talked about their bright days ahead.

The number of NBA players in the room – future, current and retired - added buzz. Before the presentation, Scott, Westbrook and Kings VP Vlade Divac talked in a triangle, a friendly players-only chat that ran 20 minutes. Bird held court off to the side with any number of admirers, while Hall of Fame center Alonzo Mourning and Suns center Alex Len were eye-to-eye in conversation. After the event, reporters – with cameras, phones and recorders – swarmed team executives and athletes alike for instant reaction.

The main reason we were all there: to find out how the NBA’s pingpong balls had reshuffled the draft order, which has the power to shape franchises and lives for years.

The reason to reshuffle: To reduce intentional losing, a.k.a. tanking. (As Phil Jackson might tweet, “Seriously, how’s it goink?”) By taking away a little bit of the certainty that teams crave, this system is supposed to prevent them from losing on purpose. And yet, intentional losing appears to be practiced more systemically than ever.

The fact that tanking can be labeled “rebuilding” and the fact that it’s generally done at the franchise level rather than the player level has allowed league officials to ignore the issue to a large degree. Commissioner Adam Silver denies that teams are tanking.

On the other hand, he and a large group of owners tried last October to push through a change in the lottery system because they saw how certain teams – most prominently the Philadelphia 76ers – were able to use the NBA’s draft rules to gain these valuable prizes, these high draft picks. The rules change was voted down, although it might be revived. The question remains, if teams aren’t tanking, why do we need to continue to change the rules to prevent tanking? (As noted, the lottery exists because of tanking.)

One reason tanking isn’t synonymous with game-fixing or match-fixing (which is illegal in sports across the globe) appears to be that it’s so ingrained in NBA culture that we expect teams to try to lose to improve their draft position – to win by losing. Indeed, the anger in New York among Knicks fans on Tuesday night appeared to be directed at Jackson, coach Derek Fisher and the Knicks for winning a pair of games at the end of the season that hurt their lottery odds -- rage that had flared up even as the games were happening, to the point where Fisher had to make a statement defending himself and his team for winning.

At ESPN and elsewhere, there have been many recommendations for better, fairer systems than the current draft. Celtics exec Mike Zarren proposed “the wheel.” At HoopIdea, we put economists and others on the case. FiveThirtyEight crowdsourced solutions. This week Amin Elhassan became the most recent analyst to call for an end to the draft, which would encourage teams to try to win and put together the best team possible at all times.

But with the success of the lottery and the draft as one-night TV and media fan-friendly events, the league is reluctant to look for a better way, even when tanking is the reason for one of those events.

A few quick case studies from Tuesday night:

Minnesota Timberwolves

Official position: 1st pick in the draft

Unofficial position: Ironic, but about time!

The Timberwolves have still never moved up in the lottery in 17 tries. (Since the draft is about fairness: Is that fair?) The irony this time – they didn’t want to move anywhere.

The other irony was voiced by owner Glen Taylor, the Wolves’ rep, who admitted that he had attempted and failed to make it harder for the worst team, which turned out to be his own team, to get the No. 1 pick.

Talking to reporters after the lottery, Taylor said that he had expected Minnesota to be a playoff team this season. “I wasn’t planning on being here this year,” he said. “We really thought we would get into the 7th or 8th position in the playoffs.”

In fact, he said he was so sure the Wolves would not be in the running for the No. 1 pick that he supported the plan to reduce the lottery odds of the worst team. The effort failed, and so did the Timberwolves, thereby succeeding.

Los Angeles Lakers

Official position: 2nd pick in the draft

Unofficial position: We deserve it!

I grew up a huge fan of the Magic Johnson-era Lakers, I know the size and strength of Laker Nation and I understand intimately the appeal of having the league’s marquee franchise win more than, say, 21 games. But even so, it’s a bit sad to see the Lakers go on corporate welfare and be granted one of the most valuable prizes the NBA has to offer, especially after the half-hearted way they finished the season. Magic himself celebrated the outcome on Twitter.

The Lakers are worth an estimated 2.6 billion dollars, have won 16 NBA championships -- including two in the past six seasons -- and hold significant advantages over every other NBA team when recruiting players to join their franchise.

Now for the second straight year, they get an outright gift for failure – one of the most talented players coming into the league, on a rookie salary scale while the salary cap goes up and up.

The draft is generally understood to be an attempt to level the playing field and create competitive balance -- and particularly to provide small-market teams a way to compete. It’s an adjustment to the structural advantages that large markets naturally have. Given that, it’s amazing to see the league rewarding Los Angeles and New York for failure and incompetence by granting them the rights to the biggest prizes.

Scott and Kobe Bryant both said the Lakers deserved such a prize, though their takes were markedly different. Scott called the No. 2 pick in next month’s draft “a little bit of a reward” for all their recent misery. On Twitter, Bryant resorted to potty humor that hinged on the double meaning of “No. 2,” saying, “We played like crap all season.”

The draft is where crap turns to gold.

Philadelphia 76ers

Official position: 3rd

Unofficial position: It could’ve gone better, but we knew the math.

The 76ers are a lightning rod for critics because of their coldly methodical approach to creating a roster that, they hope, will eventually be able to compete for NBA titles. The Sixers have lost 127 games the past two seasons -- quite intentionally, many believe -- which has “earned” them a pair of high draft picks. Team president Sam Hinkie’s unorthodox moves, including trading away rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams for a future draft pick, have annoyed some observers and puzzled others.

After the lottery, Hinkie calmly described the Sixers’ process to reporters, noting that for a bad team looking for talent, it was entirely normal to churn through a lot of players before finding the ones to keep. As he said, if a player he picks up has a 25 percent chance of becoming someone you’ll want for the long haul, you probably need four such players to find the one you are looking for.

Hinkie understands that one part of the rebuilding process -– perhaps the most important part of the process - is to take full advantage of the NBA’s offer of free talent via the draft (free, as long as you don’t mind a losing season). Hinkie wants to win championships, and to do that he needs stars, the kind of players that are hard to get most of the time, but much easier to get through the draft.

He is wary of getting stuck in NBA purgatory, reserved for teams not good enough to compete for a title and not bad enough to get high draft picks. He wants high draft picks and has shown himself adept at acquiring them – so adept that some teams and fans are bothered by the way Hinkie, who holds an MBA from Stanford, and the Sixers have conducted business the last two years. But that’s just what it is: Hinkie’s judgment about what constitutes good NBA business sense.

So on the one hand, Tuesday night was a success – Philadelphia got the No. 3 pick and a potential star. On the other hand, it wasn’t quite the blowout victory the Sixers might have hoped for. Philly had a chance on Tuesday to set an NBA record by winning three lottery picks, because they hold rights to protected draft picks from the Lakers and the Heat. But the balls didn’t bounce quite their way, and now they have to wait for those latter two draft picks, which might become less valuable over the years as those teams improve.

Hinkie understood this, and noted that he and his staff had run the numbers already, saying, “We never anticipated we’d get the Lakers’ pick this year. We spend countless hours trying to evaluate those sorts of things, those sorts of uncertain things in the future.”

If you want to know where Sixers-style losing gets you, we saw that on Tuesday night. Like it or not, this is the system the NBA has set up.

New York Knicks

Official position: 4th

Unofficial position: OK, we’ll take it. Anybody wanna trade us a star?

Phil Jackson wasn’t there – he sent Steve Mills. After the Knicks “fell” to fourth, Mills said, "It's not a setback at all. We went into this draft knowing we can get a good player, anywhere from 1 to 5 [in the draft].”

Emotionally, that didn’t seem accurate, but technically, it was – the fourth pick in a loaded draft is the equivalent of a big bonus after a bad year at the office. And yes, we did just see the NBA grant James Dolan a prized top-four draft pick.

The Knicks will surely explore how to get a star player in return for the pick, as Mills acknowledged on Tuesday.

Before and after the lottery, I surveyed some of the executives and others attending the affair, to ask: Do the Knicks and these other teams deserve a lottery pick? I asked about a variety of teams, including three from large markets: Los Angeles, New York and Philly.

The consistent answer, which matched NBA doctrine, was that yes, they did deserve a high draft pick after successfully losing and/or tanking their way into the lottery.

And I get that. Losing is painful, as one longtime NBA executive noted in our chat.

But to say that teams “deserve” a high pick is to reward failure. In Malcolm Gladwell’s critique of the NBA draft, he noted the “moral hazard” of rewarding losing. Rewarding failure is generally considered bad policy, whether in sports or other endeavors.

Perhaps fans themselves do “deserve” to be rewarded for their loyalty. The excitement and the potential that stems from the lottery and the draft do indeed give fans a reason to hope, a reason to believe. Of course, if some fans “deserve” such rewards, that implies that other fans deserve them less.

When it comes to the teams themselves, “deserve” might be entirely the wrong word. Perhaps it’s another d-word that keeps the draft going, that creates excitement and buzz around something as peculiar as the lottery.

Perhaps it’s desire. Desire to have a shot, deserved or not, at a transcendent talent that can change team and career trajectories.

Desire. Isn’t that always the fuel that makes a lottery go?