Warning: the following may hit home about your favorite NBA team. Soft hearted basketball fans should avoid reading this and getting dampened spirits; those who continue from this point and have their egos bruised, well, I’m telling you up front, so toughen up, ya babies.
The NBA Draft Lottery, which somehow has been turned into its own tepid thirty minute show, has come and gone, with this year’s top pick falling into the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and with it, a real shot at combining a 2015 pick with their existing young stars Andrew Wiggins (another #1 pick) and Zack Levine to actually start winning again, something they haven’t done consistently since Kevin Garnett was on the roster. Will they actually do that? No idea, but if they do, it will buck the odds of most teams who get the top pick.
Of course, much hand-wringing always accompanies the draft lottery as well, this year from the fans of the downright awful New York Knicks, who fell to fourth in the draft order. I’ve got good news and bad news for Knicks fans; the good news is that the lottery doesn’t have anywhere near the impact that most people think. The bad news is that your team is still horribly mismanaged and that is the dominating reason why any sports franchise wins or loses over time. It won’t matter who is on the Knicks roster as long as Dolan still runs the team. Bad management trumps all. Sports teams are just companies, after all, and many companies are poorly run. Well run companies excel, and poorly run companies limp along trailing the competition. Pointing out that the Knicks are a poorly run company takes about as much diagnostic effort as finding the Sun in a cloudless sky.
I’ve seen some fans (and journalists like Stephen A. Smith) angrily denouncing the fact that the Knicks didn’t do a good enough a job of ‘tanking’ the season in order to increase their odds of getting the number one draft pick. Let’s unpack the absurdity of this a bit. And as a side note, don’t email me, yes, Stephen A. Smith might be ridiculously inaccurate but he is, or at least some of the time is, actually a journalist. He studied journalism at Winston-Salem State and worked at Greensboro’s News & Record as a staff reporter years ago. I remember reading his work but who knew he would go from covering local sports to screaming at Skip Bayless for money? But, still, he did work as an actual sports reporter. But, I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the draft and the misguided logic of tanking as a winning formula.
First, let’s just look at the strategy behind losing on purpose to get a higher draft pick. We would have to assume that getting the number one pick must be so valuable in ROI (return on investment) that losing the massive amounts of money on home games for the last half of the season would be worth it. Well, it could be, with television contracts. Maybe. But that would mean that you would have to land a star player that would mean filling the arena and selling jerseys within a year or two, and hopefully building around that player to get back into the playoffs and contend for a title.
Teams that lose too long fold or get sold. It has been true that in the past there has always been another buyer who is willing to pay an even higher price for teams despite the record, so team owners don’t always care so much about winning when their team’s value continues to rise regardless of the record. That’s not really a business model as much as it is an investment in some type of collectible. I’m not sure if a team owner who just buys a team without much intention of winning, just because they know they can sell it later at a profit is really good for sports in general. I’m looking your way, Robert L. Johnson.
But let’s not talk about billionaire hobbyists, let’s talk about team owners who genuinely want to own a valuable, winning franchise. They want their team to win titles, or at least make the playoffs and work towards being a real contender. They want the arena full of rabid local fans and they want those fans to embrace the team as hometown heroes. That’s certainly been the case with successful sports franchises such as the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
There is no legitimate reason the Knicks aren’t one of the best sports franchises in existence; they have the market size, they have prestige of location, they have history, they have grassroots support. To tank the season, it would need to be really worth it. But since 1985, the year the lottery was introduced, the teams who landed the number one pick and have gone on to win an NBA title is exactly one – the San Antonio Spurs. A few lottery picks have gone on to win titles – Shaquille O’Neal and Lebron James are the most notable examples – but none of them won their titles with the teams that drafted them. At best, they did make it to the NBA finals with O’Neal and James, as did Philly with Allen Iverson, so there is some success there. But the reality is that getting a number one pick has only led directly to a title for one team in thirty years. To be sure, this is just a cursory view of draft effectiveness, but digging into the draft deeper hammers home one defining principle: it matters far more how well you draft as a team than which position you are picking in.
So let’s go back again to the Knicks and their much-maligned fourth-place pick. Chris Paul was a number 4 pick, as an example, but it doesn’t even matter to go back and look at all of the specifically-picked-at-number-four selections. Just look through the list of players who were picked at 4 or lower to see how it matters more in correct evaluation of players as opposed to just landing a higher draft spot. Steph Curry, who just took home MVP honors for the season, was a number 7 pick. Paul George was a number 10 pick. Dirk Nowitszki was a number 9 pick. Tracy McGrady was a number 9 pick. Jason Terry was a number 10 pick in the same year that Rip Hamilton was a number 7 and Ron Artest was a number 16 pick.
Given that, as a NBA General Manager, you have a really good chance of landing a star player just because so many other teams are bad at picking, it would be almost ludicrous to tank your already dismal season just to get a couple of spots higher in the lottery. I would ask, as a team owner, what is the point of having a General Manager on your team who consistently makes bad picks? Why is it that so many teams who have held #1 or #2 picks basically end up with players who are just role players in the NBA?
If you have faith in your personnel and abilities as a GM, you wouldn’t worry too much about where you are picking, but if you didn’t have much confidence, then well, yes, in that case, I would think you might consider tanking an entire season, then pick up the newspaper and read whoever is listed that you are supposed to pick and draft them. Given how badly NBA teams generally draft, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they are just going with the common thinking on who they should pick.
Consider the fact that in the last 15 years, the Lakers and Spurs have reached the NBA Finals 13 times, winning 10 of them, with only once having a lottery pick, which the Lakers used on Andrew Bynum at #10 in 2005. In fact, multiple times during that stretch, the Lakers and Spurs didn’t even have a first round pick in the entire draft. There are number one players who have helped their teams win – John Wall is a recent notable example – but the overall numbers point much more to picking the right players over just getting lucky with the odds and taking the consensus top pick.
And, oh yeah, the Lakers landed back in the lottery this year (2015) – under new management, of course. Remember how I told you how it matters who owns the team?
So a really good GM with a good scouting team should be able to use the draft to their advantage regardless of position. We’ve established that a team which tanks a season just on the chance of moving up a spot or two in the draft wouldn’t be a team smart enough to build a contender regardless of how many number one picks they get. In fact, that’s actually the case for many franchises – while the Spurs and Lakers have stayed out of the lottery, some teams have pretty much lived there without making much noise even getting high picks year after year.
There has been some discussion over whether doing away with the lottery would be a good move – the concern has always been the idea that teams would lose on purpose, and stupid teams already do this, so it’s a valid concern. However, there has also been some discussion about not giving the worst teams the top picks simply because so many of those teams are always in the lottery hunt and aren’t doing much with their opportunities. I’ve wondered if the top pick shouldn’t go to the last team that missed the playoffs, because that would create real effort to win and get into that spot, but also I think this could mean teams who were on the cusp might actually lose on purpose, and in that case it could even make sense – a team that is on the playoff bubble really could be a number one pick away from a title. It’s possible that even though that would seem to be underhanded, it might actually be much better – teams who are on the fringes could shake things up pretty quickly at the top, unlike today where teams just languish in the pro basketball basement. There’s also the very palpable perception that the NBA uses the lottery for conspiratorial purposes – ensuring specific teams get specific picks every year. I have no idea if that’s true, but if so it may just be the worst-executed conspiracy in history, developing zero champions and sending dozens of potential money-making superstars to teams where no one will really see them play.
Probably the best snow job in all of sports is the teams that put in half-hearted efforts at building a real team and insult their fans by showing up in their finest suits to the draft, year after year, promising that starting with this draft, things will change. These are bad-boyfriend type of relationships and the fans who stick with them are…well, let’s drop that analogy. Let’s just say it’s not healthy and leave it at that.
Another option to help improve the draft process considerably would be to expand the NBA roster by one player and incorporate the D-league into the draft process, much as baseball does – more players drafted, more development, more chances to build your team with young talent, and more chances for young players to actually stick around and become NBA players. The current situation is that players who arrive in the NBA are pretty much expected to make an impact from the moment they step on the court, but that is rather unrealistic in most cases and goes directly against the developmental model that works in every single other sport. Sure, there are always players who come in, regardless of sport, and have an ability to play at the pro level quickly, but that is extremely rare. Almost all players need at least 2-3 seasons before they become serious contributors.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I know the current system is broken, a combination of weakly managed teams with lackluster scouting efforts, and it’s possible that the current system just rewards poorly run teams with lottery picks. I don’t think tanking a season is even close to a viable strategy for teams that want to achieve long term, sustainable success and any team that employed this tactic has other, deep rooted issues that would also prevent them from winning. This isn’t a new thing, this draft lottery, we’ve got 30 years of history and data now to show the effects and implementation and it’s almost certainly time to try some new wrinkles.