Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fixing the draft lottery and tanking

I'm about to propose a radical idea that would both improve the NBA's draft, discourage tanking, and be insanely fun to watch. Now, of course, this will never happen in a million years, but hey, it never hurts to throw it out there.

I'm proposing an end of the year tournament for every team that doesn't make the playoffs. It would be a single elimination tournament, with byes for the teams with the worst records. Here's how it would look if we took the team records from last year. (And I'll use WhatIfSports to generate winners for each game.

Round 1 will feature two games and the teams with the four highest records not in the playoffs (regardless of conference or division). For last year, this would have been the Rockets, Suns, Bucks, and Trail Blazers, in that order. So we would seed them one to four and have the following games: Portland vs. Houston and Milwaukee vs. Phoenix. I wouldn't be opposed to having the team with the better record get home court advantage, but I think for a single elimination tournament like this, it would be cooler to have everything in one place at a neutral site (which cities could bid on for added fun). In this case, I'm just going to use Las Vegas.

So here's the results of our first round of games:
(4) Portland 92 - (1) Houston 96
(3) Milwuakee 76 - (2) Phoenix 110

Alright, so Houston and Phoenix advance. From there, we introduce the next six teams with the highest records and play round two. We will also reseed at the start of this round. So we've got (1) Houston, (2) Phoenix, (3) Minnesota, (4) Detroit, (5) Toronto, (6) Golden State, (7) New Jersey, (8) Sacramento. So it'll be Sacramento vs. Houston, Phoenix vs. New Jersey, Minnesota vs. Golden State, and Detroit vs. Toronto.

And the results of round two:
(8) Sacramento 107 - (1) Houston 111
(7) New Jersey 75 - (2) Phoenix 112
(6) Golden State 89 - (3) Minnesota 99
(5) Toronto 85 - (4) Detroit 112

Alright, now Houston, Phoenix, Minnesota, and Detroit have all advanced to the third round, where we add in our last four teams (New Orleans, Cleveland, Washington, and Charlotte) and reseed for the last time. This time we've got Charlotte vs. Houston, Washington vs. Phoenix, Cleveland vs. Minnesota, and New Orleans vs. Detroit.

Third round results:
(8) Charlotte 86 - (1) Houston 96
(7) Washington 102 - (2) Phoenix 75
(6) Cleveland 94 - (3) Minnesota 92
(5) New Orleans 95 - (4) Detroit 89

No reseeding from here on out, so the matchups become New Orleans vs. Houston and Washington vs. Cleveland.

Here's the Draft Pick Semifinals:
(5) New Orleans 103 - (1) Houston 112
(7) Washington 85 - (6) Cleveland 98

And the Draft Pick Finals
(6) Cleveland 106 - (1) Houston 120

And there you have it, Houston wins five straight games and wins the right to draft first. On the other hand, Cleveland pulls out two tough wins with a bad team and gets the right to draft second. From there, we'll go round by round, and the team with the worst record from that round gets to draft next. For example, Washington (20-46) would get the third pick while New Orleans (21-45) gets the fourth pick. Here's how the entire draft order would shake out if this tournament had played out this way (2012 record in parentheses):

1. Houston (34-32)
2. Cleveland (21-45)
3. Washington (20-46)
4. New Orleans (21-45)
5. Charlotte (7-59)
6. Detroit (25-41)
7. Minnesota (26-40)
8. Phoenix (33-33)
9. Sacramento (22-44)
10. New Jersey (22-44)
11. Golden State (23-43)
12. Toronto (23-43)
13. Portland (28-38)
14. Milwaukee (31-35)

Now, just try to tell me that wouldn't be awesome to watch. It rewards teams for trying to stay good year after year without tanking (like Houston has) and the byes still allow the legitimately terrible teams to have a fair shot at the number one pick. The best four teams that didn't make the playoffs would have to win five games to get the #1 pick, while the worst four teams would have to win three games to get that pick.

Plus, two of those best four teams are guaranteed to get the last two spots (Portland and Milwaukee in this case). And the absolute worst team (Charlotte) can draft no lower than 5th - which really isn't too bad. Actually, the worst four teams are guaranteed to draft no lower than the fifth through eighth spots if they all get swept in the third round. And - what I think is the greatest attribute of all - since it's a single elimination tournament, anything can happen in any game. Could Charlotte upset Houston in one game? It's not likely, but it could happen. Then Charlotte is looking at getting at least the third pick, while Houston goes down to eighth. I mean, how great would it be to watch that storyline from Houston's perspective - win that game, get at least pick four, lose that game, get pick eight. Furthermore, it adds a lot more weight and importance to those "protected picks" teams are so fond of throwing into trades. You want a pick top three protected? Great. Go win some games and protect it.

The only flaw I could see is that teams could conceivably hold out their starters and tank to try and get the three game path to #1 rather than the five game path. However, I think the teams that are in the first round would still be trying their hardest to snag a playoff spot. The teams on the lower fringe of getting one bye could potentially tank to get the second bye, but we could always put in a rule that says something like, "a player must play 20+ minutes in at least 15 or the team's last 2o games to be eligible to play in the draft pick tournament."

Here's what the last draft would have looked like if this had been the system in place (assuming all the players go in the same slot, which they wouldn't have, but just roll with me for a bit here.)

1. Houston - Anthony Davis
2. Cleveland - Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
3. Washington - Bradley Beal
4. New Orleans - Dion Waiters
5. Charlotte - Thomas Robinson
6. Detroit - Damian Lillard
7. Minnesota - Harrison Barnes (this would have gone to NOH as an unprotected pick)
8. Phoenix  - Terrence Ross
9. Sacramento - Andre Drummond
10. New Jersey - Austin Rivers (this would have gone to POR as a top 3 protected pick)
11. Golden State - Meyers Leonard
12. Toronto - Jeremy Lamb
13. Portland - Kendall Marshall
14. Milwaukee - John Henson

Houston and Milwaukee also swapped picks the day before the draft, which I have a feeling wouldn't have happened had this scenario played out. One other flaw I just now noticed is Minnesota having nothing invested in that pick. So... I suppose we'd also have to throw in a rule that if you trade a first round draft pick, it has to be at least top 8 protected. That way everyone would have an incentive to win at least one game, and the four worst teams are guaranteed to not lose that pick.

So what do you guys think of this proposal? What suggestions do you have to improve it? Do any of you know a way to make David Stern make this happen?

As it's been pointed out to me in the comments, the 20 minutes a game for the last 20 games requirement doesn't really work, but I really want to try to prevent teams from doing what Golden State did last year and just blatantly losing as much as possible to improve their draft odds by not even playing their best players. So here's what I would propose instead: teams can only play their players the maximum amount of minutes they averaged over the last 20 games, plus 12 minutes (a full quarter). So, even if a guy didn't play at all in his team's final 20 games, he can play, at most, 12 minutes a game in the draft tournament. Here's how Golden State's team would have looked if that had been the case.

Klay Thompson - (33.2 mpg + 12) = 45.2 max
Brandon Rush - (27.0 mpg + 12) = 39.0 max
David Lee - (23.2 mpg + 12) = 35.2 max
Charles Jenkins - (22.8 mpg + 12) = 34.8 max
Jeremy Tyler - (22.1 mpg + 12) = 34.1 max
Richard Jefferson - (21.3 mpg + 12) = 33.3 max
Dominic McGuire - (21.2 mpg + 12) = 33.2 max
Dorell Wright - (19.8 mpg + 12) = 31.8 max
Nate Robinson - (14.3 mpg + 12) = 26.3 max
Mickell Gladness - (10.2 mpg + 12) = 22.2 max
Andris Biedrins - (7.2 mpg + 12) = 19.2 max
Mikki Moore - (5.9 mpg + 12) = 17.9 max
Chris Wright - (5.3 mpg + 12) = 17.3 max
Andrew Bogut - (0 mpg + 12) = 12 max
Stephen Curry - (0 mpg + 12) = 12 max

I feel like that's entirely more fair for the Warriors to actually be forced to play with the team they earned their record with. A starting lineup of Thompson/Jenkins/D. Wright/Lee/Tyler is far more accurate and fair for the purposes of this tournament than one of Curry/Thompson/Biedrins/Lee/Bogut.


  1. That seems pretty fun....I was surprised Washington won any games at all, but in the end, I like the strategy actually. Like, much better than the present lottery. Although the 15 out of 20 rule (along with 20 min, there wouldn't be enough players probably....) might backfire due to injury etc. But I like it.

  2. Yeah, the minutes requirement is a hard thing to figure out how to handle. I wouldn't want teams benching their starters, or just starting for two minutes and coming out at the first whistle. Maybe the "average number of minutes played during the last 20 games" is the max minutes a player could play during this tournament

  3. Maybe you should eliminate the last 20 games part of it. One badly placed injury can screw over a team for the tournament.

  4. The biggest fly in the ointment is the incentive of the players to participate in this. If you're a vet what incentive to you have to play hard (and risk injury) for the future of the team? What if your contract expires next season - what do you care about the draft position of your team?

    1. I wouldn't really be too concerned about that. I mean, just look at Phoenix last year. If they were in this tournament, don't you think Steve Nash and Grant Hill would play their butts off? And if they don't want to play hard, bench them, and good luck getting another team to sign them next year. Plus, you have the incentive of why any veteran plays for any bad team: money. I'm sure a team would be willing to cut it's players 1-5 prorated checks if it helps their draft standing.

  5. That's true, but shouldn't how hard they try in meaningless (to them) games reflect on what kind of person they are? And how much you'd want to sign them for etc. If I see a vet trying his hardest despite his end of contract, I'm sure as hell resigning him, or trying lure him away from another team.

  6. Yeah, the injury thing/playing requirement is tricky. I'm not sure how to go about it. I just wouldn't want to see a team who knows it's going to miss the playoffs hold out its stars for the last games of the regular season to give them the easiest path in the tournament, and then play the stars once the tournament starts.

  7. Also, I feel like everyone would try in this tournament. Cleveland, Washington, New Orleans, Charlotte, Detroit, Minnesota, Sacramento, Golden State, and Toronto are all in full on actively rebuilding mode or at the very least, building with good pieces signed and looking to add a couple more. As for the rest (Houston, Phoenix, New Jersey/Brooklyn, Portland, and Milwaukee)had at least 3-5 decent players signed for multiple seasons, who would have every incentive to play hard. And even worse case scenario, the guys at the end of the contracts should want to play their asses off in "win or go home" situations to improve their chances of getting a good contract, or even increasing their own trade value if their not at the end of the contracts and they still don't care about their team.

  8. There's perhaps a scenario in which a team on the cusp of making the playoffs, and a date with a #1 seed juggernaut and certain first round sweep, decides to tank the last couple of games and go for the #1 pick sure-fire superstar. I mean, the playoffs are huge when the alternative is missing them but getting a pick one or two spots lower, but if you've got a very good shot at a superstar in the draft would it be worth the first round sweep and two home playoff games?

    1. That depends on the situation I guess. Being in the playoffs brings in a lot of revenue for teams with those home games (well, maybe not a lot, but nothing to shrug off), which is also why I'd want these games at a neutral site. But even if that team decides the money doesn't matter, that's still a pretty big gamble to intentionally lose. Let's say Utah had done that this year, putting them in the best spot instead of Houston. They still have to win five games in a row to get Anthony Davis. There were quite a few upsets in my simulated games from whatifsports, but without any upsets, Utah would have been looking at facing Portland, Sacramento, Charlotte, Detroit, and Phoenix. That's definitely not a sure thing. It might be worth it to try to get a guy like Anthony Davis, but a guy like Davis isn't going to be available in every draft. And let's also remember Davis himself is no sure thing. I think most teams would try for those playoff games rather than risking a #14 pick almost every year.

    2. I always think there is a guy like Davis....Overhyped, overvalued, and eventually overpicked. I say Anthony Davis is a bust (as my bold prediction).

  9. Way to hate on the Bucks, they were a borderline playoff team and arguably had the most talented healthy roster of the teams in your bracket and you don't even have them show up. Moving on...

    I've had this idea for a few years, with a slightly different structure of course. Just goes to show that everything is derivative and a lot, and I do mean a lot, of NBA fans want to see a single elimination tournament, even if it involves the worst teams. I don't really think that structuring it so that it favors the absolute worst is necessary, the Donald Sterlings of the world don't deserve to be rewarded for being cheap, racist scumbags. My favorite part about a tourney is that it rewards teams for at least attempting to be competitive. I feel like the "tanking when on the cusp of the playoffs" thing is overblown. Owners make bank even in a first round sweep (playoff sales and inflated season ticket sales over the summer), so I think there's still enough incentive to get there rather than to take the long shot that you make it to the top of the bottom heap.

    1. I agree with everything you said in the second paragraph. As for how the Bucks did, I was surprised by that too. But that was just what the simulator at WhatIfSports.com cranked out. I had no input or influence in that whatsoever. I imagine a lot of these games would turn out differently and be much more competitive if the players knew the #1 pick was on the line.

  10. What's the incentive to play hard for a team that has traded away an uprotected pick. Like Minnesota in the above example. Would you really expect Minnesota to try and win games to make the Hornets pick better?

    1. No, I said above, first round picks would have to be at least somewhat protected. And it could adjust from year to year (as they often do now), like top 8 protected the first year, top 5 protected the next year, top 3 protected the next year, and top 1 protected the year after that. Basically, you'd have to get rid of unprotected picks altogether, and make every pick traded at least "top 1 protected" so every team still has incentive to win this thing.