Power of the Pong Balls
*This article was posted on May 15, 2016, in anticipation of the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery. All data is from a year ago and has not been updated.
It’s just about that time of the year where 14 franchises and their fans are glued to bouncing ping pong balls on their TV screens with their fingers crossed as tightly as possible. The fate of each of these organizations isn’t in the hands of their general managers, coaches, or players anymore, but rather a 2.7 gram plastic ping pong ball. You’ve better been nice to the Basketball Gods this year!
I will show you why the NBA Draft Lottery has flaws, the impact that these flaws have on the given franchises, and some possible alternatives.
Getting The Bounce
There is more often than not at least one team that gets shafted by the NBA Draft Lottery and publicly air their grievances of the system afterwards. Others end up getting the lucky bounce and getting rewarded high picks over teams that are in more need of talent.
Here are the odds for this year’s lottery:
Despite these odds, history has had other plans for the lottery. Using some images from a previous article in which we looked at the way the lottery has gone in the past, let’s again observe the odds for the top two picks in the draft lottery based on the outcomes from the past 15 years:
The moral of the story here is that the given pre-lottery odds don’t mean too much. The 2nd worst teams (projected to have the No. 2 pick) get ripped off by the NBA Draft lottery: They haven’t won the lottery at all since 2001 and only get their projected No. 2 pick 13% of the time.
This is terrible news if you’re a Laker fan, especially considering that their top pick will magically disappear (to Philadelphia) if it falls out of the top 3.
You will also note how the worst team has had the same odds of getting the No. 1 pick as the 3rd and 5th worst teams. Philadelphia can attest to this- the 76er’s have been the worst team for the past three years, yet haven’t even had a top two pick in any of those three drafts.
This is frustrating for a team trying to rebuild, but how impactful is dropping down two or three draft slots?
I don’t need to tell you the importance of the lottery, it’s pretty straight forward. The higher the pick, the better off you are. The real question is how significant are the fluctuations in the athletes that come from those draft picks? Is there that big of a difference between the player drafted No. 1 versus the player drafted No. 2, the No. 5 player versus the No. 6, and so forth?
Let’s dive into what the past 15 years have shown us. Keep in mind that we will only be looking back to the 2001 NBA Draft. Therefore, there have been 15 players from each selection (When you see “total players” it is out of the 15 players). Also, since we want to know the impacts of just the lottery, we will only be looking at the top 14 draft picks.
Let’s start with the basics. What are the odds of getting a player capable of starting at the professional level? There is a bit of error here because there are some decent players that are starting for bad teams that otherwise wouldn’t be, and some good players that are limited to reserve minutes on a good team. However, going back to 2001 gives us a better sample size:
A top 5 pick tends to produce starters at about a 50% rate, which drops down quite a bit after. Again, this isn’t saying too much about the players because it depends on a lot more on the teams picking the players instead.
To really dissect each draft pick, we want to look at which selections go on to become stars in the league. This is much more telling of how valuable a team’s draft pick is. Since 2001, there have been as many All-Stars from the first overall pick (8) as the next two picks combined:
It is clear that getting awarded the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft is dramatically more impactful than the the No. 2 selection. For some reason, the No.9 and 10 picks have fabricated more All-Stars than many of the other top 10 picks, and the No. 8 pick has yet to yield an All-Star in 15 years.
To further emphasize this relation, look at which picks produce the most players that have made an All-NBA Team:
Half of the All-Stars taken at No. 9 and No. 10 have never made an All-NBA Team, while all of the All-Stars taken in the top three have also been All-NBA. This illustrates that although you can get great athletes in the top 10, the most elite talent usually comes from the very top of the draft.
You can now understand the vexation of franchises like the Philadelphia 76ers, who haven’t gotten their deserving No. 1 pick and therefore see a major drop-off in talent.
This will be as crucial as ever in this year’s draft since it is one of the shallowest drafts in recent years. There is a substantial dip in potential after Ben Simmons and Ben Ingram are off the board. The pong balls will be spinning again this summer, but given the importance of every draft pick, are there better solutions for the future that are more fair and concrete?
Alternatives to the Lottery
Numerous alternatives have been proposed to the NBA to either make this process fairer, reduce teams from tanking, or both.
Removing the lottery and simply assigning draft picks based on records would be the most fair for teams that have truly been struggling. Going back to the 76er’s, it’s tough to rebuild when your ping pong balls aren’t cooperating in the lottery, so this would guarantee them the top talent available. At the same time, this would highly promote tanking and decrease competition.
Some have advised implementing a tournament between the 14 lottery teams that would make them actually compete for the draft order. This would encourage competition and eliminate any form of tanking, but would also make the rich richer and leave the weakest teams with little ways to rebuild.
Now onto the most compelling alternatives that have already gotten the attention of the media and many NBA executives: The draft wheels. There have been a couple different ideas like this- both would scratch the lottery entirely and replace it with a more long-term, fair solution.
One was proposed by Zach Lowe at Grantland to scratch the whole lottery system and replace it with a wheel that presets each teams picks for the next 30 years. Every franchise would have one No. 1 pick in the thirty years, along with a top 6 pick every five years (click on the link above for a clearer explanation).
Another wheel was drafted by Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren. The idea is pretty similar, but is less of a commitment (not as long-term) and involves a bit more luck than Lowe’s wheel:
To clear up any confusion, this is what Zarren’s wheel on the left would look like:
The Celtics, Lakers, and other 4 teams in the top section have a 20% chance to land No. 1-6 this year. Next year, they own a 20% chance to get No. 25-30, then a 20% chance to get No. 19-24, and so on. You continue to rotate the wheel clockwise each year to see where your team would choose between.
Both of these wheel solutions are intriguing. It would eliminate tanking and would evenly distribute all picks in the future. There would be no more ridiculous “protected picks” or complicated branches of who draft picks would go to if option A, B, or C happened during the lottery. The only complaint-which is a major flaw- is that it wouldn’t really allow the draft to do its job: Help struggling teams advance themselves every year.
I personally believe that the lottery is the best option available. Many teams are simply just not good and need the young talent to reestablish themselves. I don’t think draft picks should be random, but instead should reward the teams stuck at the bottom of the league.
Let me know what you think!
Featured photo by Michael Knowles on Flickr
Draft Lottery odds found here