COLLINS: NBA Gets It Right With Changes To Draft Lottery
Maybe, I’m just
Maybe, I’ve just watched too much professional wrestling when I was a kid, got used to the set-up, started to understand that what was best for ratings was best for the game. Maybe, I began to see how tempting it must be for commissioners of the major sports to do what Vince McMahon did as he built sports entertainment. Can’t win? Just fix it so you can, baby.
Let’s face it, there’s probably nothing easier to fix in professional sports than the NBA Draft Lottery, which is probably why so many just assumed the New York Knicks would walk away from the lottery with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft June 20.
For starters, nobody really understands how that process works. We know that, starting this year, the league set up a new lottery system which ensures the three teams with the worst records — the Knicks, Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers — with equal 14 percent chances to win the lottery. But what isn’t as clear to the casual fan is how that’s determined, how drawing a series of four ping-pong balls numbered 1 through 14 possibly determines a franchise’s future.
It’s too technical a procedure to explain briefly here, but that process isn’t particularly germane to the point. Which is, the NBA doesn’t even pick these numbers live on television for fans and teams to watch. It’s done before ESPN turns the cameras on, in fact. It would be very easy to say, “This is a special case. A special, star-caliber player available. A downtrodden team in a major media market desperately in need of a special, star-caliber player. Let’s just make it work.”
Instead, the combination of four ping-pong balls that were pulled from the machine evidently handed the No. 1 pick to the New Orleans Pelicans, and judging by the party that went on after they won that pick, they fully intend to use it on Duke power forward Zion Williamson, who is arguably the biggest young star in basketball right now.
The Knicks ended up with the third pick; smack dab in the middle of the best possible result for them and the worst. Painfully far away from Williamson, the star power and the instant relevance that would come with both.
It’s a huge missed opportunity for the Knicks, for New York basketball, even for the NBA, which saw four marquee franchises in major cities — the Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers — picking in the lottery. But man, the lottery is just as big a piece of evidence as you could ever want that the NBA is the best-run of all the major sports in this country.
And that there’s not even a close second.
The fact that this league does not reward a team for losing is a pretty big deal, one that all sports fans should be able to appreciate.
It’s pretty clear the Knicks, as bad as they were on paper last year, were trying to look even worse on the basketball court once the paying customers took their seats at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks were 17-65, two games worse than any team in the league, and they practically celebrated it. Owner James Dolan infamously threatened to eject, forever, a fan who criticized the team’s performance under his leadership. The team’s one true young star, forward Kristaps Porzingis, publicly feuded with the front office until they relented, trading him to Dallas.
Clearly, they weren’t trying to be better than they were, because they didn’t want to be better. They wanted Zion. No other way to put it.
When asked about the Knicks’ performance at season’s end, coach David Fizdale said bluntly: “It went according to plan.”
In fairness to the Knicks, they weren’t the only ones angling for that best chance to win the lottery. The Phoenix Suns only won two more games. The Washington Wizards tanked down the stretch so they could pass several teams on the way up the lottery ladder. There were others who probably were just much better at hiding it.
But the Knicks wound up winning the third pick. The Suns, the sixth, and Washington the ninth, as bad a scenario as they could have conjured in their nightmares. New Orleans and Memphis, the teams the Wizards outlasted for a 9 percent shot at the top spot, wound up winning the first and second picks.
Sure, it’s probably an anomaly. Play the numbers long enough, and the numbers are going to go chalk. It’s the nature of math, after all. But hopefully, this will be a lesson to teams that want to play the lottery in the NBA and inflate their chances by messing with the integrity of professionalism. When there’s no guarantee there’s a reward for losing, winning becomes a better option.
Hopefully, the other leagues that are allowing teams to shoot for Ls rather than Ws will see the merits of a similar system.
DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.