Ping Pong Balls and the NBA

posted in: Opinion, Sports | 0

As professional athletes get younger and quicker, building through the college ranks becomes increasingly necessary.  Within the NBA specifically, college athletes can make their jump to the pros after one year being squashed under the boots of the NCAA.  If they’re picked within the first thirty picks, they are maintained under the rookie scale contract corresponding to their pick for the first four years, completely under their team’s control.  They can’t make any more than $4.6 million in their first season, the rookie scale number for the first overall pick in the draft, and with the salary cap due to inflate up to $62 million, getting these young players on the cheap becomes one of the most valuable assets in basketball.  And get this: the top assets in this multi-billion dollar industry are awarded to teams according to a weighted lottery system.

Fourteen ping pong balls numbered 1-14 are placed in a lottery machine, and four balls are drawn at random to determine the owners of the first 3 picks–there are 1000 four-number combinations total.  Each team is assigned a certain amount of randomly ordered four-number combinations, and the team with the worst record the season before (in the case of this year, the Milwaukee Bucks) gets the most four-number combinations.  That worst team is awarded 250 combinations, thus giving them a league-leading 25% chance at landing the number one overall pick in that draft.  Once the first three picks are drawn via the lottery, the rest is determined through reverse order of how they finished last season.  But, with teams jumping into the top three, other teams tend to move around a lot from their originally projected position.

This year, the ninth-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers lucked out and won the lottery, winning one of the most valuable merits in the game–a young player on a bargained, rookie-scale contract–with an off-chance drawing of a ping pong ball.

The lottery is exciting–it keeps fans on their toes, draws millions of TV viewers as well as, of course, the league’s favorite thing: money.  But it’s not necessarily the right system to employ.  The league actually wants to rid itself of the lottery system because although anything can happen, it’s mathematically probable that the worst teams will land top picks and it thus incentivizes teams to lose.  The worst team in the league is guaranteed a top-4 pick, the second-worst is guaranteed a top-5 pick, and so on, and the NBA wants to abolish team results from the draft selection process.  A league executive actually proposed a wheel scenario in which each team will pick in each draft slot from 1-30 once over a 30-year span, and all the spots are predetermined so it’s not possible to lose for a top pick in the draft.

They want to discourage concerted losing, which makes sense in a vacuum, but the NBA isn’t in a vacuum.  They’re a major American association with organizations in 22 different states, mostly in small, unattractive markets for players.  Every year a talented player or two force their way out of an uninteresting small market like Milwaukee or Utah and force their way via trade to a booming market like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.  It’s part of sports, unfortunately – millionaires want to make more of their millions in big cities under the big lights.  But it puts the little fish in an unfair position in terms of competitive balance.  Do they sign mediocre veterans and be an average team to put a somewhat attractive product on the floor for their fans, or bottom out for a shot at a young player who can be a star?  If the NBA takes away the options for teams as unfortunate as Utah, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Minnesota, how else can they compete with the big fish?

They can sit around and stockpile players to trade for a disgruntled star on the market, but there’s no assurance that player will stay.  Look at Kevin Love: He wants out of Minnesota, but will only resign in Los Angeles, New York in Chicago.  The competitive balance ring comes full circle again, and talent is yet again leaving for the glamour of a big city.

The lottery doesn’t assure small-market teams a high enough chance at landing a top pick, and the proposed wheel solution doesn’t offer them more than a chance or two every thirty years. The NBA needs to institute the NFL’s policy – worst record gets the first pick, second-worst gets the second pick, etc. It’s the only way to assure competitive balance, a trait that the league so craves.

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