NBA draft lottery reform worked exactly as planned … for now

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The NBA’s goal was to deflect attention away from tanking, and that worked — at least for this year.

NBA teams still tanked this year. The prize for successful tanking — generational prospect Zion Williamson — is as promising as any over the past decade. The worst teams in the NBA are really bad.

The worst teams in the NBA did not succeed. The No. 1 went to the Pelicans, who had the seventh-worst record. The Knicks, who had the worst record this year, will pick third. The Suns and Cavaliers, who had the same odds as the Knicks, will pick Nos. 5 and 6, respectively.

But even before the lottery results were unveiling, it’s indisputable that NBA Draft lottery reform has been a success. The tanking has remained largely out of headlines and out of the public eye.

The Pelicans’ season was derailed twice: first by an Anthony Davis injury, then by Anthony Davis’ trade request. The team has sort of been tanking since, though it’s most egregious crime is benching Davis when no one is looking. But the other Pels continued to compete hard, a real credit to Alvin Gentry for playing lineups that try hard and can actually do some things. Maybe the basketball gods saw that and rewarded New Orleans with the top pick.

That was the whole point of NBA reforms: to diffuse the issue of teams being bad on purpose to get the best chance at blue-chippers who would help them eventually be good. The Suns, Knicks, and Cavaliers were all truly atrocious, and made roster decisions to make them worse. The Suns traded Trevor Ariza, bizarrely signed as a high-dollar rental in the offseason. The Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis and its best healthy players for prospects and players it could slot into minimal roles down the stretch. The Cavaliers … well, the Cavs didn’t have to do much once LeBron James left in the summer and Kevin Love suffered an injury that cost him half the season.

Other teams saw the writing on the wall after the midpoint of the season and went for broke. The Mavericks and Grizzlies are engaged in some situational tanking after coming into the season with legitimate hopes of competing for the playoff nod. Both teams owe out protected picks, and Dallas at least certainly seemed to wanted to keep its selection. It worked for Memphis, who jumped to No. 2, but not for Dallas, who fell to No. 10 and will hand its pick to the Hawks.

But the fact that teams are still tanking is beside the point. Reform was all about convincing enough NBA franchise leaders, the media, and fans that tanking was actually not a major league crisis. Mission accomplished!

The biggest factor in defusing the issue was leveling the odds for the worst three teams to win the No. 1 pick. In prior years, the worst team had better odds of winning No. 1 than the second-worst team, and the second-worst team had better odds of winning No. 1 than the third-worst team, and so on. Now, the three worst teams share equal odds, and those odds are lower than what the two worst teams used to receive.

There was still an advantage to being the worst instead of the second-worst, because the reverse standings determined how far you could potentially fall in the draft order. Hence, Cleveland drafting fifth and Phoenix picking six. But the impact was minimal compared to what existed prior to this season.

That simple change already altered how we collectively watched the tank-off between the Suns, Knicks, and Cavaliers. In fact, it has essentially destroyed the tank-off! The Knicks, Suns, and Cavaliers were in strong position to claim the three worst records for a couple of months and just had to avoid self-destructive win streaks. The Bulls were almost bad enough to be in the mix, but the Hawks were a little too good to tank, and the teams that decided midseason to give up (Wizards, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Mavericks) had too many victories to get into the muck.

The Suns, Knicks, and Cavaliers are so bad that none of them have had to egregiously tank under the new lottery rules. Mario Hezonja pivoting to point guard was seen as more novelty than tank-off necessity. Devin Booker chasing records was just part of the deal of having a talent-depleted roster. Collin Sexton getting the keys to the car was legitimately about developing Collin Sexton, not playing to lose.

But there’s a catch

By decreasing the incentive to be the worst, it increased the incentive to be merely bad. This is the range in which teams who gave up around midseason have ended up, and two of those teams — New Orleans and Memphis — leapfrogged into the top two. The odds are getting a top-five pick were much higher under the new rules for those mid-lottery teams.

Did those increased odds influence any of those teams to turn toward darkness in January or February? Probably not: for the West teams, the playoffs became a pipe dream early as it became clear that it’d take a record well over .500 to make it to the postseason (again).

But that increased benefit of being mediocre is something to watch in the future, especially if the West postseason race continues to be as exclusive as it has been. The tank-off might change from a race to the absolute bottom to a shifting set of criteria for mid-tier teams on when to give up and aim low.

The NBA’s interest should be in maximizing the number of teams who remain competitive through March and early April. On paper, lottery reform goes the opposite direction. We’ll see how that plays out in practice as franchises adjust their team-building strategies.

For now, the heat is off the NBA, just as designed.

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