The NBA league office loves to point out that the final four teams standing in the NBA last season were smaller markets — San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Indiana and Miami (remember Miami is the nation’s 16th largest television market, behind places like Minneapolis and Phoenix).
Notice how those teams got their stars: The Spurs drafted Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; the Thunder drafted Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; the Pacers drafted Paul George and Roy Hibbert; and while the Heat got LeBron James via free agency he’s not coming there (and Miami doesn’t win its 2006 title) if the franchise doesn’t draft Dwyane Wade.
Which brings up an interesting discussion going on in NBA front offices right now: Does changing the lottery odds to punish tanking teams such as the Sixers — a reform expected to be voted in on Wednesday — hurt small market teams?
Presti declined comment to Yahoo Sports, but his case, laid out to others, is this: The big-market teams badly want this change because it’ll give them one more advantage over small markets in securing top talent. Big-market teams have an advantage signing superstar free agents, an advantage trading for them because those players are far more apt to agree to sign a contract extension. And, now, the big market teams will get better access to top players higher in the draft.
As one GM sympathetic to Presti’s concerns – and employed by an owner who has decided to vote for the new system – told Yahoo: “Everyone is too focused on Philly, on one team in one situation. The only chance for a lot of teams to ever get a transformational player is through the draft, and eventually we are all going to be in the lottery, in that spot. The teams that’ll drop from two to eight, or three to nine – that’s just going to take the air out of those fan bases and franchises. They’ll get little, if any chance, to improve.
“We are going to see more big-market teams who just missed the playoffs jump up and get a great young player at the top of the draft. And people are going to go “What the [expletive] just happened?”
Presti is the success story of making a team bad to get good. He took over a struggling Sonics team and with top four picks in consecutive years got Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. There was certainly good scouting and some luck involved, but Presti played the system and as Seattle moved to Oklahoma City they had a powerhouse.
What Philadelphia did is model that, but take it to the next level — if you’re going to be bad, be very bad. For years. That has led to discussions of tanking in the media and among fans, and with that frustrations among owners at the system. But is throwing out the system really going to solve the problem?
Under the current system, if you have the worst record you have a 25 percent chance at the top pick and can’t fall lower than fourth, and if you are the second or third worst your odds are significantly higher than others down the board. In the new, likely to be approved draft lottery system the four teams with the worst records all have a 12 percent chance at the first pick, fifth is at 11.5 percent, then six at 10 percent, and teams farther down the board have better odds. The team with the worst record could fall to seventh. What that is designed to do is encourage teams not to be Philadelphia bad because you don’t gain any real advantage.
However, the flip side of that is some team that is not that bad (and maybe from a bigger market) can fly up the board more easily.
The nature of basketball as a sport is that if you have the best player you are far more likely win. This is true at every level.
In the NBA, if you don’t have at least one, maybe two of the 10 (give or take) true elite players in the league at the time you are not winning a title. History shows it. The Spurs have Duncan and Parker. The Heat had LeBron James. The Lakers had Kobe Bryant (and before him Magic Johnson and his super team). The Celtics had Kevin Garnett (and before him Larry Bird’s super team). The Bulls had Michael Jordan.
A market like Milwaukee (reportedly now against the reform, with OKC and Philly) or Minnesota or Oklahoma City or Orlando or a number of others are not going to get one of those star players to come there as a free agent. Well, unless they already have one in house. One they drafted. Does LeBron return to Cleveland without Kyrie Irving having been drafted there?
NBA owners can be very short sighted, thinking about how any move impacts them now not down the line — particularly true with franchise values way up like they are now, so the owners know if they cash out they are going to make a boatload of profit. The flood of cash from the new television deal makes that even more true — why worry about the long term if you don’t plan to be in for it?
With that, lottery reform will pass. Easily.
Then watch after the draft lottery next year when a team like the Lakers, Celtics or Knicks jumps way up the board so they can draft a young star and some smaller market owners cry it’s unfair (or rigged).