Why the NBA Owners Voted Against Changing the Draft Lottery

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No one outside of Philadelphia and Oklahoma City likes tanking in the NBA. That much is pretty obvious — it’s not exactly a secret that the league has been fed up with the 76ers, in particular, continuing to floor a legitimately terrible basketball team in an effort to get a series of high draft picks. It is, after all, the way the Thunder got to where they are today (both out of Seattle and as a team with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka), and even though they’re the only real example of the strategy succeeding, they’re a very good one. The Charlotte Bobcats? Not so much, although they caved when they signed Al Jefferson.

So when word got out that the league’s Board of Governors was voting to switch things up, or rather, to switch things back to the way they were by returning to unweighted lottery odds, it looked like a slam dunk. Naturally, the vote failed. Zach Lowe’s sources were fooled. Adrian Wojnarowski’s sources were foiled. Both of those guys are dependable sources. This was, in other words, not supposed to happen. So, why?

Looking through Woj and Lowe’s Twitter accounts, it’s clear that Orlando was a touchstone in the re-evaluation. Not the Magic of today, of course, but the Magic from 1992 and 1993, when they won back to back draft picks and got Shaq and Chris Webber, who they traded for Penny Hardaway. This struck people as decidedly unfair — the same way that many people have described Cleveland’s recent luck with the draft lottery. So they changed the draft, weighted the odds, and brought upon the system we have now.

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For a decade or so, things were right and good with the league. There were teams that won, and there were teams that were bad, but most of them were actively trying to get better. That’s not actually true, by the way — teams tanked for Tim Duncan and again in 2007 — but it felt that way for most of the league. There were one off bits of impressive odds beating, like when Chicago nabbed hometown hero Derrick Rose, but by and large teams were trying to compete. Then the Philadelphia 76ers blew it up.

By trading away Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala, and the rest of their important pieces of their team (save Thad Young) for draft picks and injured players, the team was consciously getting worse — a move cemented after their gamble for Andrew Bynum didn’t work out. So they threw up their hands, and said ‘nope.’ By making exactly no effort to put a competitive team on the floor, the terms were laid plain. Philly was going to get worse because the numbers were such that it was their best way to become good again. Fans think it’s gross, executives think it’s gross, but there’s no way to stop it.

Why? It’s because there’s no way to punish a team like Philadelphia without also being forced to punish teams that are legitimately bad, despite having good intentions. Reweighting the lottery odds would open up a Pandora’s Box, as the incentives for tanking become explicit, rather than likely. Also, for the record, the teams that voted against the change? “PHX, PHL, OKC, NO, DET, MIA, MIL, San Antonio, Utah, Wash, ATL, CHA, and Chicago,” per Woj.