Making the NBA Lottery Great Again

On May 15, the NBA will hold its annual live drawing to determine the order of selection among the 14 non-playoff teams in this summer's NBA draft. A Pythagorean formula is used to allocate the chances of each team getting one of the first four picks, with the team finishing with the worst record having the greatest chance, after which the fifth through 14th picks are determined strictly by record, meaning that in no case can the team that was last overall get lower than the fifth pick.

But some observers claim that this is insufficient to take away the incentive to tank games. Are they right? An examination of the history of the NBA lottery is instructive.

The lottery debuted in 1985; in the 19 years before that, the teams with the worst record in the Eastern and Western Conferences (the last-place teams in the Eastern and Western Divisions prior to 1970-71) flipped a coin to decide the first two picks. In the 1984-85 season, the NBA had 23 teams, 16 of which made the playoffs, leaving only seven teams in the lottery.

In the first year — dubbed "The Ewing Lottery" because the Knicks won the top pick and selected Georgetown center Patrick Ewing — and in the following year, it was a flat lottery; that is, all seven teams had an equal chance of getting any of the first seven picks, regardless of record. This led to complaints from numerous clubs, and from the third year onward, the lottery had, until the upcoming one, been used to identify only the first three picks.

Furthermore, due to expansion of the number of teams without any concomitant increase in how many teams made the playoffs, by 1989-90, the number of non-playoff teams had risen to 11, causing the league to weight the possibilities of a team receiving the first three picks — touching off the first of four more "reforms" being adopted, each making the lottery more complicated and more unbalanced than the last, until a baby step backward has been made starting this year, when the first four picks rather than the first three will be decided by the lottery.

A few years ago, the NHL toyed with the idea of expanding its playoff field from 16 teams to 20. Maybe the NBA should do more than toy with it? For if they did do that, the number of non-playoff teams gets reduced from 14 teams to 10, making a flat lottery that would still guarantee the team with the worst record a top-10 pick in the draft fair and plausible.

But wouldn't this "dilute the playoffs" and violate "tradition"?

Hardly. For 20 of the first 21 years of its existence, and then again for five years in the 1980s, at least two-thirds of the NBA's teams made the playoffs — and an expanded playoff field could give the NBA the excuse it apparently needs to emphasize division rivalries, and then the 10 playoff teams in each conference could be the top three teams in each division and one wild-card team, with the third-place finishers and the wild card meeting in two best-of-three "mini-series" to decide which two of them advance to the conference quarterfinals (the current first round).

Fix the lottery, expand the playoffs, improve the schedule — the new "ring the bell, close the book, quench the candle."

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