Bobcats show that NBA Draft Lottery needs change

Coming off a historically awful 7-56 season, the Charlotte Bobcats' set 25% in the NBA Draft Lottery highlights a glaring need for reform. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, May 3, 2012 — The time has come for the NBA draft process to experience reform. The cause this time around is not accusations of neither draft-fixing, nor fundamentally flawed equal odds, or the need for more glitz and glamour. The truth, rather, is that NBA leadership must seize the initiative and ensure that steps are taken towards an equal chance at success for each and every team. The necessity is nowhere more obvious that in the 25% chance that the Charlotte Bobcats, owners of the worst record in the NBA this season at 7-59, have to win the top pick.

By the current lottery format, the chance of receiving the top pick is set by position in the final standings, not by any criterion that deals with the spread and variance of win percentages or win-loss records. This means that the Bobcats and their .106 win percentage, the worst in NBA history, have the exact same chance to win the top pick this year as the Portland Trail Blazers of six years ago who put up a .256 mark over the 2005-06 season.

Under the current system, Charlotte is locked into a 25% chance of winning the top pick, just as the Washington Wizards, with the second-worst record, automatically get a 19.9% chance, and just as the Houston Rockets, the only lottery team with a winning record in the 2011-12 season, have their chances fixed at 0.5%.

All this means that the Bobcats, with the worst win percentage ever recorded by an NBA team, only a get a chance of winning the top pick that is 5% better than that of a team that won three times as many games. 

The best way to ensure competitiveness, then, is the age-old refrain – end the draft lottery once and for all. Shutter the machine; smash the ping-pong balls, and set the draft order as the reverse of the standings, just like every other major sport in the United States sans the NHL.

There can still be a flashy, prime time, draft show, just sans the drama of unveiling the top three picks. After all, just look at the NFL – has its offseason suffered in terms of spectacle and hoopla from having no draft lottery?

Even if the lottery must stay, there is still need and room for reform. A simple possibility is to tie each team’s chances to their win percentage relative to the variance and spread of records in that particular season. Thus, a historically horrid team like the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats would end up with a significantly higher chance at the first overall pick than the 2005-06 Portland Trail Blazers. 

NBA Commissioner David Stern has steadily talked up the league’s commitment to parity throughout his tenure. The first step towards that stated goal is reforming a broken draft. To be sure, the current odds are nowhere near as bad as the equal odds that famously sent Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks in 1985, or even as bad as the flawed percentages that gave the Orlando Magic the top pick in 1993.

Still, as Charlotte’s record-breaking season demonstrates, a set system needs some flexibility, a maxim that could be applied not just to the draft, but also to the entire NBA. Change has to start somewhere, and fixing the draft lottery is an easy first step towards leveling the playing field.

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Arjuna Subramanian

Arjuna Subramanian is an aspiring baseball writer living in the Washington D.C. area.  He started his writing  with his blog Painting The Black on MLBlogs in May of 2009.  He fell in love with the sabermetric movement during the 2008-2009 offseason, and strives to provide balanced articles from both sides of the statistics/scouting divide.  

When not writing, watching/listening to baseball, over-analyzing his Chicago Cubs, staring in disbelief at the writing of Thomas Boswell, or keeping tabs on the latest Milton Bradley blowup, he can usually be found at the DC Fencers Club, where he is a competitive epee fencer.

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