Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A rough draft

The NBA regular season is over which means you’re either celebrating a playoff bid or you’re getting ready for the lottery.

Since the first envelope emerged from the freezer in time immemorial,* teams have schemed for ways to get ahead using the draft. Of course, the NBA has a lottery system to prevent just that. Instead of distributing picks according to record alone, the NBA introduces an element of randomness to discourage teams from losing on purpose to secure a good draft pick.

*Ed note: 1985

Over the last several years it’s become clear this isn’t working. In probably the only intersection of stock car racing and basketball since…ever, more and more teams have taken the wisdom of Ricky Bobby to heart: “if you’re not first you're last.” And really it’s hard to fault them since that is the reality of the NBA’s incentive system. If you’re not a championship contender it’s best to bottom out in an attempt to land an elite, cost-controlled talent through the draft. No matter what you want to avoid the no man’s land of the middle class – not good enough to be a real threat in the playoffs but not bad enough to get a top-5 pick.

Some of that conventional wisdom has been called into question by this season. The Atlanta Hawks have risen from that dreaded middle class to the top seed in the East and the draft darlings in Oklahoma City have seen their promising core ravaged by injuries, trades, ineffective coaching, and plain bad luck. Nevertheless, plenty of teams are racing to the bottom including franchises in big markets like Los Angeles, New York (whether intentionally or not), and Philadelphia.

To discourage this kind of behavior, plenty of ideas have been kicked around and one even voted on by the NBA’s Board of Governor’s in late 2014. All have had one thing in common however: they cling to the antiquated notion that draft picks should still be seen as team building mechanisms, rather than powerful incentives in and of themselves. In fact, with the exception of a championship, there is likely no more powerful carrot in today’s NBA than a generational talent on a bargain-rate contract.

That’s why I propose completely reclassifying the draft as part of the league’s incentive structure instead of its team-building structure.

A championship is still the ultimate goal for every team, but right now teams want to be in order:
  1. Really good
  2. Really bad
  3. Just ok 
In order to flip #2 and #3 in that list, the NBA should still distribute draft picks according to record, but start in the middle and work its way out. The first team to miss the playoffs (essentially the 17th-best team in the league) would get the #1 pick. The first to make the playoffs (16th-best) would get pick #2. The 18th-best team would get pick #3 and so on.

There would, of course, be questions to be worked out regarding conferences and the like, but this general structure would realign the incentives of the draft to match the type of behavior the league wants. In effect, it moves the inflection point of when a draft pick becomes more valuable than winning games to the edge of championship contention. In other words, if you can’t win all the games, the next best thing is to win as many as you can. Front offices no longer have to choose between going for it and rebuilding. Going for it becomes part of rebuilding.

Because the draft is no longer available as an explicit team-building tool,* the NBA needs to decides how** it well help those truly bad teams*** get better.

*Remember it’s now part of the incentive structure.
**Some people don’t think they should at all and I’d love to see a relegation system in at least one of the major North American sports, but who are we kidding? That’s not happening…ever.
***O hai Minnesota!

My suggestion would be to offer various salary cap or trade exception privileges that allow  front offices greater flexibility in acquiring veteran talent. Unlike the draft, which is all upside, something like cap and/or trade privileges would allow a team to get better while still exacting a financial price that discourages them from relying exclusively on it as an improvement strategy.

Out of all the proposals I’ve seen (including the discarded “draft wheel”) this is the only one that manages to realign the incentive structure to encourage winning across the board while still providing a viable – if unpalatable – route for teams at the bottom to improve. Let's just implement it riiiiiiiiight after the Timberwolves get the #1 pick this year.

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