Nba nerd

Does the Lottery System Weaken the East?

On ESPN the other day, there was an article advocating that the NBA abolish the conference system and just put the best 16 teams league-wide in the playoffs. I agree. But in the middle I ran into this tidbit:

As Curtis Harris astutely pointed out, the NBA lottery system perpetually weakens the East. Good West teams miss the playoff cut, wind up in the lottery and receive high draft picks. Bad East teams make the diluted playoffs and receive low-quality selections. So long as the conference system and lottery system exist as they do, there’s no guarantee that the East rises. 

I'm confused. I thought the middle, where the Mavs will land, was the "treadmill of mediocrity", and that the "best way to rebuild" was to stink and get a top draft pick?

The media pushing the tanking narrative meme seems to want it both ways. If finishing at the bottom and getting a pick in the 1-4 range is the best way to "rebuild" and leapfrog into contention, then shouldn't this benefit the East? With their high draft picks, the absolute worst teams should eventually become powerhouses, displacing those 0.400 teams that currently make the playoffs, thus shifting the balance of power once again.

Of course, we've pointed out time and time again that this leapfrogging from getting a top 5 pick virtually never happens (unless maybe you have a hall-of-fame center who sat out the previous season). But that has never stopped anybody from claiming that high picks in the draft are the best way to get superstar talent.

So...which is it? Is tanking to be terrible the best way to build a future contender? If so, the East will look great in 5 years, right?

Or is floating around the edge of the playoffs, occasionally hitting a one-and-done year, while waiting for a superstar, and grabbing lottery picks from spots 10-20 really a better strategy?

I think Curtis Harris knows which one is best (and I agree with him). It just doesn't quite seem to fit the narrative that everyone else is telling about tanking, does it?

Somehow I doubt the Bobcats would give up a playoff berth - and first round playoff money, and the fan support that comes with making the playoffs - to move up in the draft from 16th to what would almost certainly be a late lottery pick.
Seems extremely dubious. The whole idea of tanking is that moving up in the draft order increases the expected value of the player drafted at that spot. Especially because drafting near the top gives you a much greater chance of finding a rare superstar, which means these picks are even more valuable than their expected value indicates. But by the time you get to the edge of the lottery, the difference in expected value between picks is so small, (probably on the order of 0.1 WP/season) I can't imagine it makes any difference.

A lot of media analysis in sports and politics fits this formula. Take two things "everybody knows" and combine them, usually using one to facilely explain the other. Everybody knows that teams tank and everybody knows the East sucks compared to the West, so why not use tanking to explain the East/West split (even though it doesn't even make sense on paper).
There are two options for fringe-playoff teams - they make the playoffs, are locked into their draft seeding, and then almost certainly lose in the first two rounds (most likely losing in the first round). Or their season ends early, they get locked out of the playoffs, and they end up with a variable draft pick that will most likely be a low-pick but has about a 2% chance of being a top 3 pick. What is the better scenario (better scenario being defined as the scenario that improves the team's chances of future success)? I'd say it's the first scenario - your season is virtually guaranteed to end in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and you are already also in a worse-off position for next season than you would've been had you not been in the playoffs because you're stuck with a lower draft pick that has no chance of improving at all.

Take the knicks as a concrete example (pretending that they still have a draft pick this year) - as things stand now the knicks would be the 10th seed in the lottery. The 10th seed in the lottery has a 4% chance of winning a top 3 pick. That's 10 times greater than the odds that Hollinger currently has the knicks of even making the finals, let alone winning them. Are those odds worth it for you to sacrifice a 4% chance of having a top 3 pick? If you were running the knicks (god help you if you were, and again, pretending you have a draft pick this year) would you rather try to make the playoffs or tank the rest of the season? Even ignore the 4% chance of winning a top 3 pick - if the knicks were to make the playoffs they'd jump from the 10th seed in the lottery (that has a 0.2% chance of being less than the 10th pick in the draft) to the 15th pick in the draft. That's a pretty big difference in its own right.

One thing to keep in mind is that there's a financial incentive for teams to make the playoffs, even if they get swept out of the first round. I can't find any great article that explain this right now unfortunately, but I've seen some estimates in the $1 million plus per game range, if you factor is ticket sales, merchandise, and extra TV money I can see it being a lot higher than that.

Considering that you can use a couple million dollars to flat out buy draft picks in the NBA (here's some examples of the Warriors doing that in recent years:, that extra playoff money is potentially more valuable than the 4% chance to move up in the draft.

Winning teams also draw better attendence per game (, which is even more money for the team.

There's also popular narratives in the NBA like good teams having an easier time attracting better free agents than bad ones, and while I have no idea if that's true or not the overall point is that there aren't only benefits for missing the playoffs, teams like the Knicks should also weigh that against the advantages of making it in.

That playoff money, ESPECIALLY New York media market money, is not something to take lightly.
The leaked Nets documents had profit from playoffs listed. It was close to a million a game. Add inflation, big market, and good team? Can only imagine it's higher.
Yes there is certainly financial incentive, but there's also a fair amount of revenue sharing in the NBA as well so even when a team misses the playoffs they still are going to be getting money from the playoffs taking place without them. Also we have to consider why people own NBA teams - there isn't an owner in the league who is in dire financial need of making the playoffs in order to remain owner of that team. The money we're talking about is gravy. The biggest determinant of a team's cash flow situation is whether or not they are successful on the basketball court - it seems pretty clear to me that if I were a general manager I'd rather be a fringe team outside of the playoffs looking in rather than a fringe team on the inside looking out because it increases my chances of being even more successful in the future. Think of the money lost on missing the playoffs as paying for the opportunity (as slim as it may be in some cases) of bringing in a player of Wiggins caliber on their rookie contract (which is a huge steal in its own right, if Wiggins was a free agent he'd be getting a max-contract).
What the teams do not have to share is playoff gate revenue (I think that is divided among the two teams playing). Or merchandise sales. Also they don't have to share fans of their team being excited for the playoffs and becoming more invested in the team. When you said that the 10th pick is so much better than the 15th pick, did you look it up? In some years it is but in other years I'd say the opposite is true:

10 Brandon Jennings
15 Austin Dave

10 Paul George
15 Larry Sanders

10 Jimmer Fredette
15 Kawhi Leonard (traded from Indiana to Spurs for someone the Spurs took with pick 26 in 2008)

10 Austin Rivers
15 Maurice Harkless

10 C.J. McCollum
15 Giannis Antetokounmpo (the Greek Freak)

So its not like the 10th pick is worth much more like you are claiming. There is uncertainty in drafting and trusting a poorly run franchise to get it right at ANY pick in the draft seems baked into your hypothesis that 10 is that much better than 15.
> ...Think of the money lost on missing the playoffs as paying for
> the opportunity ...

The economic argument here is totally apropos, but for it to be sensible, you need to evaluate both sides of the proposition. How much is *the chance* to move up the draft list worth in terms of expected value compared to the impact that more losses will have your other sources of revenue.

> ...there isn't an owner in the league who is in dire financial need
> of making the playoffs in order to remain owner of that team.
> The money we're talking about is gravy. ...

Just by walking down the street, I've noticed that the Lakers sell more merchandise in the years that they have better records. Surely the billionaire owners don't *need* the money, but I'm sure the like getting it.

> ... I were a general manager ...

We see a lot of talk here about the incentive that players have to take many shots - which helps them at their teammates' expense. Some similar conflict of interest surely applies to the GM position - it's easier to look good as a GM when you draft early, but a good GM should be able to maximize the value of any draft pick.

Of course, it doesn't matter whether tanking makes actually makes sense when the decision makers think it does. Apparently NBA tanking was a pervasive topic of discussion at Sloan. So odds are that change is coming. (Though it will never happen, I must say Van Gundy's suggestion of simply eliminating the draft and making all rookies free agents has a certain elegance.)
I don't know how gate revenue is distributed but I do know for a fact that merchandise revenue is shared. Plus I'm pretty sure that the bulk of revenue for NBA teams is generated from TV deals.

Also it's pretty much inarguable to say that sometimes a later pick is better than a higher pick going into the draft. Pointing out that there are some later picks that end up performing better than those drafted ahead of them is completely irrelevant, you can't base your argument on hindsight. Not only does a higher pick have the luxury of selecting from a larger draft pool, but also derived from this fact is the actuality that higher picks have more trade value.
"The economic argument here is totally apropos, but for it to be sensible, you need to evaluate both sides of the proposition. How much is *the chance* to move up the draft list worth in terms of expected value compared to the impact that more losses will have your other sources of revenue."

Absolutely, although I feel as if this talk of revenue is a bit of a derailment. As I said in my original post, I'm defining "better scenario" as the scenario that improves the team's chances of future success. A little extra money in an owner's pocket doesn't do that. It's not like it gives a team more cap room - it has nothing to do with the process of constructing a good basketball team so why should any of us care about it?
I don't understand this site's obsession with "refuting" articles about tanking. Do you deny that teams tank?
With a few exceptions, these owners all have huge businesses where they are making 100x what they would make in the NBA. Obviously some are focused solely on owning a team (the Busses), but, I don't think it's unfair to focus more on the basketball aspect than the business aspect of owning a team. Ie, winning championships matter more than making money for most of these teams. In championship terms, getting top 5-15 talent is the number 1 priority and the only real priority in decision making regarding standings. In business terms, maximizing profit and staying consistently successful, even if you never win a ship is fine. You can't decide what the best move is, unless you separate our their objectives. Some teams want to be the Lakers, some teams are ok being the Mavericks, and some teams are just incompetent.
I tried looking up actual merchandise (the article you linked to nos only referred to licensing) but wasn't able to fine much. At the very least though NBA do not share pretzel, soda, pop corn, etc money.

As for the higher vs lower draft discussion my main point was that NBA teams seem to have little ability to ascertain talent and poorly run teams seem to do even worse. If you are looking at any pick between 10-15 the chances of getting a valuable player are not that high for good franchises let alone bad ones. I previously have listed out the top 5 picks for every draft since 2003 on this site and I continue to maintain that only around 1.5 out of every top 5 pick is worth tanking over. Given that a bad team probably has failed to identify talent I don't think a 30% chance of getting a very good player is worth a darn.

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