The NBA draft lottery began in 1985, and for the first five years, every team that missed the playoffs received equal odds. Then, the league switched to a weighted lottery, giving worse teams better chances of higher picks. That system remains in place, though the NBA continues to tinker with the odds.
The weighted lottery incentivizes teams to tank even after they miss the playoffs. The lower they fall, the better their lottery position.
In an unweighted lottery, once teams get eliminated from the playoff race, they have no incentive to keep losing.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was asked whether an unweighted lottery would cause teams to tank out of the eighth seed or cause a 10th-place team not to fully pursue the playoffs.
Morey – who worked for Boston at the time – brought up the 2003-04 Celtics. At 36-46, they’re the worst team to make the playoffs in the last 20 years. They got swept by the Pacers in the first round, losing by 17 points per game. If they had missed the playoffs, they would have held the 10th-best lottery slot of 14 teams, because four non-playoff Western Conference teams had better records.
Morey on The Lowe Post:
We had no business being the playoffs.
We should have. We didn’t. We were trying to win every game. But that would have been a year to be not in the eight seed.
On the scale of offending the NBA by revealing too much, this rates pretty low. Morey explicitly said the Celtics didn’t tank.
But this shapes what his future teams would do if in a similar situation. His perspective is important as the NBA considers new methods for curbing tanking, including returning to an unweighted lottery.
Right now, nearly every team with a realistic chance of making the playoffs shoots for the playoffs. It’s the teams that are too bad to make the playoffs that pivot into tanking mid-season.
If teams willingly dropping from the playoff race, that’d be detrimental to competition. A system that rewards that is a bad system.
That said, general managers rarely have the unilateral ability to implement tanking – especially when the playoffs are in reach. There’s fan pressure. There’s ownership pressure. There’s league pressure.
For what it’s worth, it worked out fine for the Celtics. They got the revenue and experience of a playoff appearance. They also got Al Jefferson with the No. 15 pick in the 2004 draft. He turned out better than anyone in the 10-14 range (Luke Jackson, Andris Biedrins, Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, Kris Humphries) and was used to trade for Kevin Garnett.
The league tries to frame tanking by its narrowest definition – players on the court attempting to lose. But tanking really comes from the front office, executives assembling rosters less-equipped to win in the name of improving draft position.
No matter how it publicly spins the public debate, the NBA should focus on finding a system that dissuades people like Morey from preferring to lose rather than make the playoffs.