But if there’s one thing we NBA-heads will admire about the NFL, it’s their ability to turn everything into a spectacle. Football is very much a year round sport. Sundays in the fall and winter are dedicated to NFL football, and even preseason games are given a high degree of attention. NFL free agency and the draft combine dominate headlines. The NFL Draft is a three-day, primetime extravaganza of must-watch TV, as well as the lead up to the draft and the days following the draft. The NFL leaves no stone unturned. Anything they can do to attach entertainment value to their brand, they’ll do it.
The NBA Conference Finals are underway, and will continue tonight when the Toronto Raptors travel to Cleveland to play the Cavaliers. But for 14 franchises and their loyal fan bases, all thoughts and prayers are focused on the night’s opening act: the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery.
How the Lottery works
Alright, stay with me here:
14 ping pong balls numbered 1 to 14 are placed in your run-of-the-mill lottery ball machine thingy (I think that’s what it’s called?). There are 1,000 possible 4-ball combinations for those 14 ping pong balls. There are 14 teams that did not make the playoffs, and each of those teams are given a certain amount of 4-ball combinations based on their record. The team with worst record receives 250 different combinations, whereas the team with the 14th worst record is only given 5 different combinations.
The ball machine proceeds to spit out four balls, and the team who possesses that combination is awarded the first pick of the draft. Rinse, and repeat for the second and third picks. After that, the machine is placed back into hiding for another year and the remaining lottery picks are awarded based on record.
- The order of the balls does not matter. All that matters is the combination of the balls. For example, if the Philadelphia 76ers have the 1-2-3-4 sequence, and the machine spits out 4-3-2-1, then the 76ers are awarded the first pick in the draft.
- If the 76ers are awarded the first pick and another one of their combinations are selected for the number two pick, the process is repeated until there is a new team.
- This is ALL done behind closed doors. Meaning the Draft Lottery Special is only used to reveal the results.
2016 Draft Lottery odds (Credit USA Sports)
Now let me walk you through the draft lottery special. Try not to fall asleep at the computer…
The whole thing takes place in an ESPN studio. We’re first introduced to about 10 prospects that will presumably be lottery picks. After that, we might get one or two interviews with the players expected to be taken with the number one pick.
We then go to another room where a reporter stands next to a mock lottery machine, explaining the rules of the Lottery that I explained earlier. From there, we get about 10 good minutes of pre-draft analysis; even though the draft isn’t for another six weeks and nobody knows where anyone is picking.
We are then introduced to the representatives from the 14 lottery teams. There are usually no rules to being a representative. However, this year the NBA ruled that the owners' children will not be allowed to be representatives. There’s usually a nice mix of players, executives, coaches, and franchise legends sitting awkwardly in two rows. We’re then directed to a Master of Ceremonies, who reveals picks number 14 to 4.
Picks 3, 2, and then 1 are all announced in the span 25 seconds. There’s no showmanship, no Ryan Seacrest lead-up, or literally anything to be excited about. It's over before you even realize what's happening, There’s some awkward jubilation with the representative of the team that won the top pick; whereas the reps who were awarded picks 2 and 3 stand there looking pissed off.
A couple more interviews, some more draft analysis, and then it’s all over. 30 minutes of my life that I can’t get back.
How is that fun? I feel awkward watching it. I understand it’s a moment dedicated to the lottery teams; but if you’re going to televise it, at least make it entertaining to watch. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver once worked as the President of NBA Entertainment, so I would assume he knows a thing or two about what qualifies as entertaining television. He’s been the NBA Commish since 2014; how he has not put this Lottery format to pasture is beyond me.
The Draft Lottery Revolution
There’s nothing that makes me want to watch the Lottery. This is why I’m here today! I’m here to offer Mr. Silver, the NBA owners, and most importantly the fans a solution; an entertaining one, for that matter. A solution that will turn Draft Lottery Night into one of the most entertaining draft spectacles across the four major American sports.
First, no more putting Draft Lottery night before one of the conference finals games. That sends the fans a message saying “Yea, watch the Draft Lottery! I mean, what else are you going to do before the big game tonight!?” We, as fans, are basically being swindled into watching the Lottery. And if the Draft Lottery is a bust, who cares, there’s NBA Playoff action immediately following; and then we forget how unmemorable it was.
If the NBA is going to make this an event, at least give it its own night. That way it shows the fans you’re really taking the event seriously from an entertainment perspective. I’d air the Draft Lottery one of the nights between the end of round two and the beginning of the conference finals. Adverse effect: Fans are tuning into an NBA event on a night without basketball. That’s a win.
In 2013, Boston Celtics GM Mike Zarren proposed his own radical change to the NBA Draft format. His concept was aimed at completely eliminating tanking. He came up with his lottery wheel, in which teams spend 5 or 10 years (depending on which wheel the NBA would employ) cycling through different sections of a wheel. The five year wheel, for example, would have five sections with six picks per section (1-6, 25-30, 19-24, 13-18, 7-12). If the Knicks were scheduled to pick in the first section in year one, they’d spin the wheel for a 1/6 chance of landing the top pick. The next year they’d spin from ‘25-30,’ and so on. The 10 year wheel has 10 sections at three picks per section. You get the picture. If not, I’ve provided some literature for you to read more about Mr. Zarren’s idea.
The league rejected Zarren’s lottery wheel idea because it doesn’t do much for struggling teams. If their top pick is a bust due to injury or some other unforeseen circumstance, then the team has to wait for the cycle to come back around 5 or 10 years later; doesn’t exactly do much for parity.
The concept of a ‘lottery wheel’ stuck with me, though. And so I came up with an idea that will revolutionize Draft Lottery night forever.
There are two lottery wheels in play. The first wheel has seven sections, each labeled a number between 8 and 14. The second wheel also has seven sections, but each section is labeled with a number between 1 and 7. Ok, so you can probably guess where I’m going here. The teams with the 8th to 14th worst records will be spinning the ‘8 through 14’ wheel, where as the league’s seven worst teams will be spinning the ‘1 through 7’ wheel.
On the outside, it probably doesn’t move the needle for you. But just like a good magic trick, it’s the showmanship that blows you away. You see, the current system wouldn’t be so bad if we lightened up the process. But I like my idea better anyway. And so, let me take you through my blueprint for the ideal NBA Draft Lottery special.
Draft Lottery Night
The Draft Lottery would take place in an amphitheater like the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Much the like the NBA Draft, tickets would be sold to the public for about $20 to $25 a pop. We’ll need more electricity in the room to really get the blood flowing.
Adam Silver will walk out to the podium and welcome the spectators to the Draft Lottery Special. He’ll then explain the rules, as I am about to explain them:
Each of the 14 teams eligible for the lottery will be represented by three individuals of the franchise’s choosing. The reps from the ‘1 through 7’ group will make their way onto the stage joining Adam Silver and the ‘1 through 7’ wheel**. The number 1 team will then be asked which turn they’d like to spin the wheel**. That’s right. The representatives will decide when they will be spinning the wheel, somewhat controlling their destiny (or so it would appear). The team with the worst record will then choose at which point they will spin the wheel.
The 2nd team’s representatives now have 45 seconds to decide when they would like to spin the wheel; then the 3rd team, then 4th, and so on. And then, after a brief commercial break, one representative from each team will spin the wheel in their chosen order.
Each time the wheel stops, the pick the flapper (a.k.a. clicker) lands on will be removed from the wheel. Repeat the process to decide picks 8 through 14.
**Note 1: The night would actually have teams "8 through 14" choosing and spinning first; I chose to explain the ‘1 through 7’ group first for the purpose of this article.
**Note 2: This makes for an interesting dynamic and debate point. Where would you choose to spin? If you choose to spin first, you have a 14.29% chance of winning the top pick; but if you let someone else choose to spin first, then you’re saying they have an 85.71% chance of NOT winning the top pick. If you choose to spin second and the top pick is still there, your chances of winning the Lottery jump to 16.67%. Third – 20%; fourth – 25%; fifith- 33.33%, sixth – 50%, seventh – 100%. That’s why I chose to have three reps from each team. There would be some real conversation in-between picks.
Why it doesn’t work
- There’s usually only one to three franchise center pieces in each draft (if that). If a team is in a flux for multiple years and keeps spinning a ‘5’ on the wheel, then that team will continue to struggle until they catch a break. Fans of that franchise probably won’t have the patience for this, and could lead to fans leaving the NBA fanhood due to the circus that is the NBA Draft process.
- Tanking is still present with teams in the “5th to 10th worst record” range.
- Not saying that the Draft Lottery is rigged (Although, I'm also not saying it's not rigged); but there’s literally no way for the NBA to fix a Lottery Wheel on live television. Therefore if the draft lottery is based on league agenda, then that upper hand disappears.
Why it does work
- It makes lottery night more entertaining to watch. It’s great TV. The wheel concept has worked for The Price is Right for 60 years, why wouldn’t it work for the NBA once a year? Great TV leads to more viewers, which leads to more commercials, which leads to more $$$.
- It actually gives the media something to talk about the days leading up to the Draft Lottery. Debates like where the 76ers should choose to spin, where the best turn to spin is, and how the Knicks will screw this up will keep us occupied for days! It also allows us to scrutinize certain teams for picking certain spin spots post-Draft Lottery.
- No more scenarios like the 2014 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 2008 Chicago Bulls winning the lottery when they weren’t even one of the worst seven teams in the league. It’s better for parity this way.
- The NBA’s refusal to fork over the number one pick to the league’s worst team will be alive and well for the foreseeable future.
- Curtails tanking to a certain degree. Chances are you’re still going to have teams close to that 7th worst spot doing fishy things late in the season, but at least you won’t have teams close to making the playoffs go into tank mode, because their best case scenario would be the number 8 pick in the draft.
Also, there’s no incentive to being the worst team in the league. The league’s worst team would have the same pre-lottery odds of landing the top pick as the 7th worst team (14.29%). Therefore, teams will actually try to win more games down the stretch to develop their players and instill winning habits. Fans of these teams will be delighted to see their teams actually trying to win games late in the season.
- It puts even more emphasis on scouting and drafting well. Players like Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George were all taken outside of the top 5. So there are players you can build around later in the lottery.
The Knicks do not have a first round pick in 2016, and the draft class doesn't wow me enough to want to watch bad TV. I can’t be the only one who has this mindset. Adam Silver has made strides in making the NBA more viewer-friendly. Please, make sure this article gets to Adam Silver! If not to employ my Draft Lottery idea, then at least to change the current system to make it more entertaining.
If the NBA is going to catch up to the NFL, then everything must be a spectacle!