Thursday, May 13, 2010

Volume 5, Number 12: The NBA Draft Lottery and Why I Don't Like It

Next Tuesday night, sports bars across Detroit could well be packed with die-hard Detroit Pistons fans hoping their team gets the first pick in next month's NBA Draft, by virtue of winning the NBA Draft Lottery. I won't be among them.

In my previous blog entry, I mentioned that I am opposed to that Lottery. The best draft among the major pro sports is the NFL Draft (in which the team with the worst record is first in the draft order, barring any expansion teams entering the league--no lottery). I stated my opposition to the Lottery in a letter I published in the Detroit News on March 17, 1985 (see below--not very well written, but in all fairness, the News cut out at least one "reason" to make the letter fit, and I was in 7th grade to begin with).

David Stern introduced the Draft Lottery after Dallas Mavericks head coach Dick Motta made allegations about the Houston Rockets throwing games in order to get the first pick in the 1984 Draft (they lost 14 of their last 17 games, got the first pick and would select center Hakeem Olajuwon). In addition, the Chicago Bulls went 1-14 in its final 15; they secured the third pick and would take now-legendary guard Michael Jordan with that pick.

Those losses may support Motta's argument, but that doesn't make it iron-clad. Let me poke a couple holes in it.

Generally speaking, when a sports team racks up so many losses, the cause is, simply put, a lack of talent, which in turn comes from these factors:
  • Bad drafting. Detroit Lions followers like me need no more than two words: Matt Millen. None of the players he drafted between 2002 and 2006 are members of the Lions today. Also, the Detroit Tigers had a string of bad drafts when Randy Smith was their GM, which meant that by the time owner Mike Ilitch fired him in 2002, the farm system was virtually devoid of talent.
  • Bad trading. Like when the Pistons traded M.L. Carr and two #1 picks to the Boston Celtics for Bob McAdoo (allegedly at the urging of then-Pistons head coach Dick Vitale). (The Celtics would use one pick to select PF Kevin McHale and trade the other to Golden State for C Robert Parish; McHale and Parish would help Boston win three NBA titles.) Or when the late Ted Stepien, who owned the Cleveland Cavaliers 30 years ago, traded away five future #1 picks for mediocre players he thought would be stars (in particular, he traded the 1982 #1 pick, which turned out to be forward James Worthy, to the Lakers in a February 1980 deal for forward Don Ford; he also dealt the #1 picks from 1983 to 1986 to the Dallas Mavericks in other trades; as a matter of fact, the NBA made a rule prohibiting the trades of first-round picks in consecutive years because of his bungling, informally known as the Ted Stepien Rule).
  • Injuries. The 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs were decimated by injuries (most notably star center David Robinson; forward Sean Elliott also missed half the season). As the result, a team that had averaged 59 wins over the previous three seasons finished 20-62.
  • Economics. Over the years, teams in various sports have had to gut their payroll, either due to debt or (as in the case of the 1998 Florida Marlins in baseball) the new owner didn't want to take on the old owner's payroll. Oftentimes, teams have too much money tied up in bad contracts, which precludes them from spending money on players they need. (The Detroit Tigers of the Randy Smith era are a big example; Smith signed Jeff Weaver, Damion Easley, Dean Palmer and Bobby Higginson to long-term deals. He also offered Juan Gonzalez a monstrous 8-year, $120 million pact that, had JuanGon signed it, would have paved the way for the Tigers to declare bankruptcy.)
Looking back at the Rockets, they had lost their best player, Moses Malone, to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982. Even with Malone, over the previous four seasons (1978-79 through 1981-82), the Rockets had never more than 47 games in a season. They went 14-68 in the 1982-83 season, not because they threw away games, but because after Malone's departure, they had no other talent.

What's more, sports teams are, frankly, too smart to throw games to get the #1 pick. Here are a few reasons why it would be against a team's best interest to do so:
  • #1 picks get bigger contracts with more guaranteed money and they (and the teams that pick them) face more media pressure.
  • Besides, having a high pick is not always an iron-clad guarantee you'll get a player who can improve your team. (I also touched upon this in my 1985 letter to the Detroit News, noting that Ralph Sampson did nothing to turn around the Houston Rockets' fortunes.) In the NFL, over the last nine drafts, the Lions and the Oakland Raiders have had top-10 picks year after year, with no winning seasons to show for it. The NBA is no stranger to #1 busts (Joe Barry Carroll, Danny Manning, most recently Kwame Brown).
  • Teams that throw games lose the respect of their fans as well as that of other teams.
  • Sports team owners generally understand that the main business they are in is winning games, not selling jerseys, building a better stadium or wowing fans with a mascot who can dunk while backflipping off a ladder.
Now I'll move on to the problems I have with the NBA Draft Lottery as it stands today.

One thing the Draft Lottery has done very well is take players away from the teams that sorely need them. Take 1985, the very first year of the Lottery. The Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors tied for the league's worst record that year and one reason was that they didn't have a center. Patrick Ewing would have filled that need for either team. Yet, due to the Lottery, he went to the New York Knicks (a team that already did have a center in Bill Cartwright). Other examples over the years:
  • 1992: The Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that had been struggling for respectability since joining the league in 1989, had the league's worst record at 15-67, but they ended up with the third pick and missed out on the best centers the '92 Draft had to offer, Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning. Instead, the Wolves take forward Christian Laettner.
  • 1993: The Dallas Mavericks threaten the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers' all-time mark for futility before finishing 11-71. Under the NFL Draft rules, they would have had the first pick. But the Orlando Magic--who narrowly missed the playoffs--end up with the first pick. They select Chris Webber, then deal him to the Golden State Warriors for the third overall pick and three future first-rounders. The Mavericks pick fourth.
  • 1997: As mentioned earlier, the San Antonio Spurs were decimated by injuries, but under the NFL Draft rules, they actually would have picked third. Tim Duncan would have gone to the Vancouver Grizzlies (14-68), but because Vancouver fell to fourth in the lottery, they settle for point guard Antonio Daniels, who quickly proves to be a bust and only plays in Vancouver for one season.
  • 2005: The Atlanta Hawks, whose best center is 42-year-old Kevin Willis, finish with a sorry 13-69 record. But the top pick in the draft--center Andrew Bogut--goes to the Milwaukee Bucks, who won more than twice as many games as the Hawks.
In the NFL, if a team has a .500 or better record, there's no chance of it having the top pick in the draft (unless they acquired that pick from the team with the worst record). But last year, the Phoenix Suns were in the Draft Lottery because they didn't make the playoffs; never mind that they had a better record (46-36) than four of the Eastern Conference's playoff teams. I touched upon a similar issue in my letter to the News: In 1984, two Western Conference non-playoff teams had better records than the Eastern Conference's #8 seed.

To be fair, the Draft Lottery has been improved somewhat over the years. When the Lottery began 25 years ago, every team that didn't make the playoffs had the same chance of getting the first pick, and the team with the worst record could fall as low as seventh. Today, the team with the worst record is guaranteed no lower than the fourth pick, while teams that barely missed the playoffs get about a 0.5% chance of getting the top pick.

But in summation, the NBA Draft Lottery is still a flawed system founded on a flawed argument. Let the worst team get the first pick. Period.

One postscript I'd like to add: Motta didn't exactly do himself any favors by complaining about the Rockets' throwing away games. His Mavericks owned the Cleveland Cavaliers' first-round pick in 1986. If the 1986 NBA Draft was "NFL-style," that pick would have been the third overall pick. But instead, thanks to the Lottery, it was 7th. I pity the fool who complains like that, and I'm sure Mr. T would agree.

NBA Team Nickname Mix-up
So long as I'm talking about the NBA:

Don't you think it would make sense for three certain NBA teams to be called the Utah Bobcats, the Charlotte Hornets and the New Orleans Jazz instead of the mess we have now (Utah Jazz, New Orleans Hornets, Charlotte Bobcats)? Jazz and New Orleans have always been strongly associated with each other, Charlotte's history with teams called the Hornets goes all the way back to 1901 (it had a minor league baseball team by that name until 1973, and the very next year, when the World Football League's New York Stars relocated to Charlotte, they were renamed the Hornets as well). To complete the nickname switcheroo, bobcats are plentiful in Utah!

"Utah Bobcats" also sounds a heck of a lot better than "Utah Thrust," the name I wanted to give the Jazz when they relocated from New Orleans in 1980 because, prior to that relocation, the #1 sporting event in the whole state of Utah was high-speed racing at Bonneville Speedway, where all sorts of land speed records are made and broken.

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