NBA must avoid chasing 76ers’ ghost with lottery reform

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When the NBA considered lottery reform in 2014, a 29-1 vote in favor seemed possible.

The lone dissenter? Philadelphia.

The league was mad at the 76ers, who had just tanked their way to a 19-63 record and indicated a plan to tank for years to come. This was a large market team enacting a strategy that would reduce revenue, revenue that could have been shared among the NBA’s 29 other teams.

But no matter how much ire the 76ers drew, they were just cleverly working a system that rewards losers with high draft picks. So, the league tried to change the system.

Flattening lottery odds to disincentivize all-out tanking came up for a vote, a majority of teams – 17 of 30 – approved. But the measure fell short of the 23 votes (75%) necessary to pass. NBA commissioner Adam Silver put the issue on hold as new national TV contracts sent the salary cap skyrocketing.

The 76ers tanked again. And again. And, though not as forcefully, again.

Now, the league is re-considering lottery reform with a proposal similar to 2014’s.

NBA owners, who were once in a fervor to stop Philadelphia, ought to think twice about voting yes. It’s too late to punish the 76ers, who’ve moved past the extreme-tanking phase of their plan onto vying for the playoffs. Consequences, intended and unintended, of these rule changes would reach far further than Philadelphia.

Lottery reform isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Tanking hurts the product and should be disincentivized. Would flattening lottery odds actually do that, though?

High draft picks would remain just as coveted. They’d still provide dibs on elite prospects for four cost-controlled years plus a leg up for the following nine years, especially with designated-player contracts. That’s so valuable in a sport where it’s nearly impossible to win without a superstar. The easiest way to acquire a superstar, especially for small markets, is a high draft pick.

Maybe teams wouldn’t tank, because that’d be a too-uncertain path to a high draft pick. Or maybe they’d tank longer, needing more time until their reduced lottery odds resulted in a high pick.

Teams that are earnestly bad could get stuck, as they’d be less likely to land the star who lifts them from the cellar. It’s easy to say not to reward failure, but hope sells. In a collective like the NBA, it’s not a terrible idea to give fans of the most helpless teams reasons to be invested.

Maybe owners will cerebrally consider these issues and the countless others related to this proposal. After all, about a dozen owners changed their leaning in 2014 after hearing all the arguments.

But staying hell-bent on stopping the 76ers is the wrong approach. It’s too late for that. They’ve already built their young core – led by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz – with high draft picks.

There should be better logic behind lottery reform this time around.

Perhaps, owners realize this and just want to stop the next multi-year tank. But the league might have found a more effective prevention mechanism.

The Process was massively successful at acquiring elite young talent. And Sam Hinkie still got forced out! What general manager would dare emulate his plan after that?

Hinkie was the first to set out to tank for so long, and it cost him his job. No matter how wise the strategy, real people are involved, and Hinkie’s bosses were ashamed of all the losing. That experience will curb tanking.

The lottery reform being discussed might. It might not.

It might curb tanking and lead to worse unintended consequences – like the 76ers barely missing the playoffs then riding increased lottery odds to another high pick.

They’re too good now to tank fully, but they’re also not playoff locks. In other words, they’re the exact type of team that would benefit from this proposal.

So, if the owners are going to get this right, they must find better rationale than the Philadelphia resentment that popularized this issue three years ago. Those 76ers are gone.

The bigger issues of competitive balance, tanking and revenue maximization remain and are ready to be tackled thoughtfully.