Thursday, May 19, 2011
Winning The Lottery
Do the results of this year's NBA draft lottery matter, and should the ping pong ball sweepstakes exist at all?
In Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, Tessie Hutchinson is the unfortunate town resident who selects the marked slip of paper. As a result, she is publicly stoned to death, a ritualistic sacrifice seen as a necessary tradition in order to ensure a good harvest.
The NBA draft lottery works quite differently. For starters, they use ping pong balls, not slips of paper. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, no person affiliated with the NBA lottery has ever been publicly stoned to death. (WOAH. I really, really, really want to make a Len Bias joke right now. It would be the kind of joke that you send to all your friends right away, the kind of joke that makes you laugh awkwardly loudly right in the middle of the classroom or office. But I just can't do it. May he rest in peace.)
In this year's installment of the NBA lottery, the ping pong balls fell in favor of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs will select at #1 and #4 on the June 23rd draft date. Unfortunately, Cleveland wins the lottery in a year that is considered to have one of the weakest draft classes ever. So, what to do, what to do, what to do?
The consensus amongst analysts is to take Kyrie Irving at #1 overall. I'm sure he's a good player, and I'm hardly qualified to judge. But still, if I were in Dan Gilbert's shoes, I would have a very hard time selecting a guy who played only 11 games last year and averaged a good-not-great 17.5 points per game. The Cavs would be better off selecting a proven winner like Derrick Williams or Kemba Walker. For Cleveland's sake I hope I'm wrong, but Kyrie Irving just doesn't seem like the kind of player who can shape a franchise, not the way LeB-...Derrick Rose has.
Regardless of who the Cavaliers pick, there is a bigger issue to address: the foolishness of the lottery as a whole. This is not a critique on the potential illegitimacy of the draft; I have no desire to indulge Minnesota's GM and his ill-advised comments. While I love a good NBA conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, I think David Stern deserves the benefit of the doubt this time around. Rather, my point is simple: the lottery should not exist.
In a league that stuggles mightily with parity (see what I did there?), the draft lottery makes it harder for bad teams to get better. Sure, the worst team from the previous season has the best chance (25%) of getting the first pick amongst individual teams, but odds are a different franchise wins it. Probability says that the league's worst team will pick first 1 out of every 4 years; history shows the percentages are even worse (3 out of 22 times since the league went to a weighted average lottery). The 2008 Chicago Bulls are a classic example of how the draft lottery stifles competitive balance. And sure, the fact that teams might lose games on purpose is a valid point, but it speaks more about other problems in the NBA, such as failing to properly incentivize players in a way that guarantees a desire to win.
As far as I can tell, the NBA draft lottery is an excuse for a brief primetime television party. The league would be better off without it. Still, congratulations to the Cleveland Cavaliers this year. Hopefully their #1 pick that results from winning the lottery keeps the club from being "publicly sacrificed" 63 times next year.