The Cleveland Cavaliers are currently 2-12, the worst record in the NBA. It appears as if Cavs fans are in for a long season, as this is clearly the worst the team has been since the 2013-2014 season, the year before LeBron James returned.
Normally, this depressive thought could be combated with the old “at least we’ll get a high draft pick”, a specialty of Cleveland Browns fans. After all, the 2019 draft class looks like one of the best of the decade, with the Duke Blue Devils alone boasting three players who would have been the first overall pick in years past. By finishing at or near the bottom of the league, the Cavaliers would be in position to secure the new face of the franchise, whether that is R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, or someone else. There’s just one problem.
The NBA had to go and ruin Cleveland’s rebuild plan by changing the odds for the draft lottery. The NBA is unique among the professional sports leagues in that it employs a draft lottery, rather than awarding selections based purely on record. This is designed to disincentive “tanking”, or intentionally losing games in order to gain higher draft picks, and thus, increase parity.
However, the NBA has continually been the pro sports league with the lowest amount of parity and most tanking teams. This rule change is a direct result of the Philadelphia 76ers “process” implemented by former general manager Sam Hinkie, which allowed the franchise to accumulate a plethora of top draft picks that eventually became Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz.
After realizing that their anti-tanking strategy had backfired, what did the NBA do? Instead of replacing the system with a normal draft, they doubled down on the lottery, changing the odds for the highest selections. The changes aren’t widespread, but they are significant, especially for bad teams like Cleveland.
Under the old system, the worst team had a 25% chance at landing the first overall pick. The second-worst team, 19.9%, and the third 13.8%. The worst team was guaranteed at worst the fourth overall selection. Under the new rules, the bottom three teams all have identical odds for the top four picks. However, the first seed has a 47.9% chance of obtaining the fifth pick, compared to 27.8% and 14.8% for seeds two and three.
The only benefit of gaining the first seed is that team is guaranteed a top five selection, although that comes at the cost of having a nearly 50/50 chance at ending up with that fifth pick. The second and third seeds have a 20.1% and 26% chance of getting the sixth selection.
This new approach punishes the worst team for being the worst, which was the goal. However, that’s not a good thing, as the middle-lottery teams benefit from the worst teams’ failure. Now, it isn’t worth it to tank for the first overall pick, which was the original goal.
Now, the draft will be akin to spinning a roulette wheel, with the worst teams having spaces only marginally larger than the middle of the pack. The end result is likely to be more competitive playoff races, especially for the final seeds, but also bad teams staying bad for longer, as they will often miss out on the best prospects just because they were the worst teams.
This change is a reaction to the formation of Super Teams, and the severe lack of parity across the league. However, the NBA changed the wrong aspect. Of the best teams currently, the vast majority built their squads through free agency and trades, not through the accumulation of top draft selections.
Golden State acquired Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins through FA, but they became great because of the selections of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, who were not high picks. The Celtics have Jaylen Brown, Jayston Tatum, and Kyrie Irving because of top picks, but those picks were not their own. The Brooklyn Nets owed pretty much all of their selections to Boston because of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade. Since that deal was a huge bust, the Nets have been terrible.
They had absolutely no reason to tank, yet they were still bad. Philadelphia remains the only team to employ an outright tanking strategy, and they have yet to prove they are a legitimate championship contender.
Now the Cavaliers have to deal with the punishment for the sins of good teams. This is not a good situation for the team to be in, as it’s pretty much boom or bust. R.J. Barrett should be the target for Cleveland, and Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, and Bol Bol are solid consolation prizes. The problem is, if the Cavs finish with the worst record in the league (which is fairly likely at this point), they don’t have a better shot at landing their top guy than the two teams that finish behind them.
In fact, they have a better chance of ending up with the fifth pick and missing out on the top players entirely. The second position looks like the best situation to be in, as that team will have the same odds of getting a top four selection as seed one, but with less than half the chance of getting the fifth pick, at the expense of a 20.1% chance of dropping to six.
The thinking would be that if the drop-off from a top-four selection to even pick five is that significant, why not drop to the second or even third spot and divide up your odds of not getting a top-four pick among the five, six, and seven spots?
R.J. Barrett seems like the perfect rookie to add to this team next year, but the chances of landing him are not great. The Cavaliers aren’t responsible for the problem that lead to these changes, but now they have to suffer the consequences of a “solution” that does nothing to solve the real issue.