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The Truth About the NBA Draft Lottery

The NBA Draft Lottery was under heavy scrutiny this past month. Considering the amount of talent that is expected to come out of this upcoming draft class, there was a lot riding on this year’s lottery- which randomly places lower finishing teams into a draft order, not necessarily representing the final regular season standing. Of the four teams with the worst records in the NBA in 2018-19, only the New York Knick secured a top-4 pick following the drawings on May 14th in Chicago. And while many are complaining about the lottery structure, with some analysts going as far as saying that the lottery needs to be abandoned altogether, this year proved the effectiveness of the system. This season, many teams participated in “tanking” in order to receive a top pick. Instead of competing for a playoff berth, these teams came into this season committed to lose and attain the number 1 overall pick. What makes it worse is that many of the teams that purposefully tanked are in incredibly big markets with solid fan bases. New York, Chicago and Atlanta, for the majority of the season, appeared to not look overzealous to make a run at the playoffs (coincidentally behind Golden State and the LA Lakers, the Knicks and Bulls have the next highest ticket prices according to Ticket IQ Blog). This is unfair to any fan that purchases a ticket, as they are essentially watching a team purposefully try to lose. This type of behavior conducted by teams is unacceptable, but there is no real way to punish teams that are purposely tanking. However, the lottery system is the best way to discourage teams from this type of egregious behavior. In this lottery, despite the tanking done this season, many teams failed to acquire the top picks in this draft.

Ironically, the teams that ended up attaining the top 2 picks were teams that had started the season with a winning mindset. Both Memphis and New Orleans had lineups that fought extremely hard in the beginning of the year, but due to extenuating circumstances they ended the season as lottery teams. In the case of New Orleans, their all-star center Anthony Davis essentially quit the team half way through the season and created a trade fiasco that lasted for months, and for Memphis, to put it bluntly, their team offensively could not keep up with the pace of today’s game. In essence, this system proved that even if a team decides to tank, it could end up providing fruitless results. After the results of this draft lottery, teams should be extremely cautious on their approach to tanking. It is clear that it can end up being a waste, and especially for small market teams, it can cause fans to lose interest in their local team.

If the playoffs this year have demonstrated anything, it is that creating a culture and a winning environment is more important than attaining top picks. Simply look at the two teams competing in the NBA Finals this year. The fact is that the two stars that headline the pinnacle of NBA basketball were not top picks in the draft. Stephen Curry was the 7th overall pick in 2009, while Kawhi Leonard was the 15th pick in 2011. Both of these players were selected (Kawhi was technically drafted by Indiana then traded) by teams with the proper pieces and culture that allowed each player to develop. This can be seen with other players in the organizations, like Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and to a lesser extent, Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson.

Without these two components, it is impossible for a team to achieve high success in this league. Simply look at the Minnesota Timberwolves. Since 2010 they have had 6 top-10 draft picks, yet only made the playoffs once since 2004. This year’s lottery encourages team to compete each season instead of going into seasons purposefully trying to tank.    

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