Lottery remains source of consternation

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Lottery remains source of consternation

Postby rlee » Sun May 19, 2013 6:32 am

NBA draft lottery remains source of entertainment, consternation

Determining first pick changed to help most needy teams

Dallas Morning News

It started with a coin flip — and suggestions from a certain Mavericks coach that a team was intentionally tanking games to make sure it was part of the toss.

That protest Dick Motta made against the Houston Rockets helped plant the seed of a draft lottery that would ostensibly stop teams from dumping games late in the season to get into the coin flip. And so ended the prehistoric ritual of the worst teams in the Eastern and Western conferences calling heads or tails to get the No. 1 overall pick.

That was 1985, when New York’s envelope was picked out of the hopper by commissioner David Stern and Patrick Ewing became a Knick.

From there, it’s been nearly three decades of controversy, coincidence, blind luck and, usually, the LA Clippers.

And, during the ’90s, the Mavericks, too.

The lottery hasn’t changed much from the last time the Mavericks were in it, in 2000, when they had a 0.6 percent chance of winning the lottery. Since their lucky number didn’t come up, they drafted Etan Thomas 12th then traded him.

And while nothing has changed with the lottery since then except the number of teams involved thanks to expansion, the event has been a source of entertainment and consternation for many NBA people through the years.

“It’s an imperfect system,” says Joel Litvin, president of operations for the NBA. “But nobody’s come up with any better ideas.”

Having the best odds in the lottery is no guarantee. In fact, it’s more like a kiss of death. The team with the most chances has won the lottery twice in the last 22 years.

That would seem to indicate the odds still are not weighted heavily enough to benefit the teams that need help the most.

When territorial picks were abandoned in 1965, a coin flip was instituted so the teams with the worst record in each division had an equal shot at the No. 1 pick. Divisions became conferences, and No. 1 picks became more valuable because more teams were brought into the league and, by the early ’80s, accusations of tanking were becoming common.

In 1984, Motta saw the Rockets sit Ralph Sampson and Rodney McCray, arguably their two best players, for considerable stretches as they lost nine of their last 10 games. They finished one game below the San Diego Clippers and won a spot in the coin flip with Indiana, which Houston won for the rights to the guy who then was Akeem Olajuwon, before he added the “H” to his first name.

There are many in NBA circles that believe that was the final blow to convince the league to get rid of the coin flip. In 1985, a lottery was created where the seven teams that did not make the playoffs in the then-23-team league would have an equal shot at the top pick.

League officials agree there was concern that the Rockets lost games purposely, Litvin said. So a system was put in to balance the goal of helping the teams that needed it the most, but not having teams try to manipulate the system.

Though it was never proven, legend has it that the Rockets’ general manager at the time, Ray Patterson, had a good laugh when the lottery was instituted. He knew with back-to-back No. 1 picks Sampson and Olajuwon that he couldn’t possibly finish with the worst record in the Western Conference.

But as the legend goes, Patterson told confidants that if the Rockets had an injury, they could still miss the playoffs.

“And I could win the top pick again,” he may have said.

At any rate, the league heard howls that the proceedings were rigged when New York won the first lottery, bringing the highly regarded Ewing to the No. 1 market in the NBA. There were conspiracy theories that the envelope bearing the Knicks’ logo was creased when it was flopped into the hopper.

Proving anything untoward was impossible, of course.

“People forget that in any kind of lottery, unexpected results happen,” Litvin said. “We revisit it on a periodic basis, but again, we haven’t thought of a better way.”

Three years after the Ewing pick, an adjustment was made so that only the top three picks were chosen via the lottery. Then the other four teams picked in inverse order of their record. This ensured that the team with the worst record could pick no worse than fourth.

As the league expanded, a major tweak took place before the 1990 lottery, when a weighted system was employed. The team with the worst record had 11 of 66 chances to get the top pick. The second-worst team had 10 chances, and so on.

The top three picks were chosen randomly, then the rest of the teams fell in line according to worst record picking fourth.

This eventually evolved into a system more heavily weighted toward the teams with the worst records to the point where today Orlando has a 25 percent chance at winning Tuesday’s lottery.

Universally, the lottery is seen now as the fairest system to determine the draft order of the 14 teams that don’t make the playoffs. There has been no movement afoot to give the worst teams more of a chance, which in turn would increase the likelihood that bad teams would try to finish as poorly as possible in the regular season.

Even Mark Cuban, who can find fault with just about anything if he has enough time to analyze it, doesn’t see anything wrong with the lottery. He likes the fact that the favorites don’t come in very often.

“The reality is that even the team with the most losses has only a 25 percent chance to get the pick,” Cuban said. “So [even if] teams tank to improve those odds, the team with the most losses hasn’t gotten the No. 1 pick more times than it has. So I guess I’m OK with the way it is now.”

Notable moments in draft lottery history

1985: The first draft lottery takes place and New York’s pingpong ball comes up first. The Knicks draft Patrick Ewing, much to the dismay of their competitors. The Knicks had a 24-58 record that season, third-worst in the league ahead of only Indiana and Golden State. Ewing played 15 seasons for the Knicks and led them to the playoffs in 13 seasons.

1987: The board of governors voted to have the lottery determine only the top three teams of the draft. This ensured that the team with the worst record the previous season would draft no worse than fourth. In 1986, New York had the worst record in the NBA, but ended up drafting fifth, perhaps accelerating the desire to make the lottery more fair for the worst teams.

1990: With 11 teams now in the lottery because of expansion, the league weighted the crapshoot by giving the team with the worst record 11 pingpong balls, followed by 10 for the team with the second-worst record, and so on. There were 66 pingpong balls in all, giving the team with the worst record a 1-on-6 shot and the team just missing the playoffs a 1-in-66 shot. Again, the top three places were picked, with the other teams falling in line after that.

1996: With the addition of Vancouver and Toronto, the number of teams in the lottery rose from 11 to 13.

2004: The number of lottery teams increased to 14 with the Charlotte Bobcats joining the league. The chances of winning the No. 1 overall pick remained the same for the team with the worst record, 25 percent
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