Breaking down the luck of the lottery
Apr. 11, 2007 | feedback
I couldn't cram everything into this week's 1,200-word magazine column about the NBA Lottery, so let's follow up with some hardcore data to fully illustrate the futility of the current system.
The basic premise of my magazine column was twofold: First, the LOTTERY system encourages the same thing it was originally created to prevent (tanking); and second, since weighted Ping-Pong balls effectively guarantee that elite rookies will start their careers on terrible teams, the overall quality of the league has been compromised (because we effectively eliminated the chance of an elite rookie giving a boost to a half-decent team). Right now, there aren't enough good teams or enough bad teams -- hence, the nearly unwatchable 2006-07 regular season, when four-fifths of the league seems handicapped by its roster to some degree -- and as the past 13 years have proven, we're much more likely to see a top-four pick make the conference finals or NBA Finals with a team other than the team that originally drafted him.
One other note that was left on the cutting room floor from that mag column: The three most dominant teams from 1977-1988 came together more because smart teams snookered dumb teams over anything else. The Celtics stole Kevin McHale and Robert Parish from Golden State for Joe Barry Carroll. The Sixers landed Julius Erving because the Nets couldn't afford him after the ABA/NBA merger and sold him for $3 million. The Lakers landed Magic Johnson and James Worthy by trading New Orleans and Cleveland mediocre players for future first-round picks (for instance, Marc Stein's head would explode if a 2007 team made the equivalent trade of Cleveland giving up an unprotected 1982 first-round pick for Don Ford). One-sided heists simply don't happen anymore, so it's harder and harder for good teams to become great (especially with the salary cap and luxury tax hindering everyone).
Anyway, check out the following top-four picks in every draft since 1994. In parentheses, we put the Ping-Pong seed of the team that drafted in that spot (for example, Dallas had the worst record in '94):
1. Glenn Robinson, Milwaukee (No. 2, tied)
2. Jason Kidd, Dallas (No. 1)
3. Grant Hill, Detroit (No. 2, tied)
4. Donyell Marshall, Minnesota (No. 4)
1. Joe Smith, G-State (No. 5)
2. Antonio McDyess, LAC (No. 1)
3. Jerry Stackhouse, Philly (No. 4)
4. Rasheed Wallace, Washington (No. 2, tied)
1. Allen Iverson, Philly (No. 2)
2. Marcus Camby, Toronto (No. 3)
3. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Vancouver (No. 1)
4. Stephon Marbury, Milwaukee (No. 4)
1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio (No. 3)
2. Keith Van Horn, Philly (No. 5)
3. Chauncey Billups, Boston (No. 2)
4. Antonio Daniels, Vancouver (No. 1)
1. Michael Olowokandi, LAC (No. 3)
2. Mike Bibby, Vancouver (No. 5)
3. Raef LaFrentz, Denver (No. 1)
4. Antawn Jamison, Toronto (No. 2)
1. Elton Brand, Chicago (No. 3)
2. Steve Francis, Vancouver (No. 1)
3. Baron Davis, Charlotte (No. 13)
4. Lamar Odom, LAC (No. 4)
1. Kenyon Martin, New Jersey (No. 7)
2. Stromile Swift, Vancouver (No. 4)
3. Darius Miles, LAC (No. 1)
4. Marcus Fizer, Chicago (No. 2)
1. Kwame Brown, Washington (No. 3)
2. Tyson Chandler, LAC (No. 8)
3. Pau Gasol, Atlanta (No. 5)
4. Eddy Curry, Chicago (No. 1)
5. Jason Richardson, G-State (No. 2)
1. Yao Ming, Houston (No. 5)
2. Jay Williams, Chicago (No. 1, tied)
3. Mike Dunleavy, G-State (No. 1, tied)
4. Drew Gooden, Memphis (No. 2)
1. LeBron James, Cleveland (No. 1, tied)
2. Darko Milicic, Detroit (thru Memphis, No. 6)
3. Carmelo Anthony, Denver (No. 1, tied)
4. Chris Bosh, Toronto (No. 3)
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando (No. 1)
2. Emeka Okafor, Bobcats (expansion)
3. Ben Gordon, Chicago (No. 2)
4. Shaun Livingston, LAC (No. 3)
1. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee (No. 6)
2. Marvin Williams, Atlanta (No. 1)
3. Deron Williams, Utah (No. 4)
4. Chris Paul, New Orleans (No. 2, tied)
5. Raymond Felton, Bobcats (No. 2, tied)
1. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto (No. 5)
2. LaMarcus Aldridge, Chicago (via NY, No. 2)
3. Adam Morrison, Charlotte (No. 3)
4. Ty Thomas, Portland (No. 1)
Some follow-up notes ...
• The No. 5 seed (Smith, Bargnani, Yao) won the lottery more times than the No. 1 seed (LeBron and Howard) and the No. 2 seed (Robinson and Iverson). Kinda funny when you consider the widespread tanking that's happening right now.
• Out of 39 potential top-three spots in those 13 lotteries, teams seeded lower than No. 5 cracked the top-three five times: two 6-seeds ('05 Milwaukee and '03 Detroit via Memphis), one 7-seed ('00 New Jersey), one 8-seed ('01 Clippers) and one 13-seed ('99 NO/Charlotte). In other words, you had about a 13 percent chance of seeing ANY TEAM seeded lower than No. 5 crack the top three in any given year ... which means the league's crappiest teams had an 87 percent chance of grabbing an elite rookie and infecting the first stage of his career with nonstop losing (call it the Elton Brand Corollary).
• Since 1994, the Grizzlies have drafted in the top-four seven times (with their 2003 pick going to Detroit); the Clippers have done it six times; and the Bulls have done it six times since 1999 (once via a New York pick). Why do we keep rewarding poorly managed teams with elite rookies? Why? It makes no sense.
• Four teams had top-four picks for at least three straight years: The Sixers during 1995-97, the Grizzlies during 1996-2000, the Clippers during 1998-2001 and the Bulls during 1999-2002. The Sixers eventually played in the 2000 Finals (and lost). The Grizzlies haven't won a single playoff game. The Clippers finally made the playoffs last season ... now they're on the fringe of the lottery again. And the Bulls made the playoffs in 2005 and 2006 but never seriously contended.
• Since 1994, only three top-four picks won a title: Duncan three times with the Spurs (who drafted him), Wallace with the '04 Pistons (his fourth team) and Billups with the '04 Pistons (his fifth team).
• Only two top-three picks played in a Finals with the teams that originally drafted them: Martin (the '02 and '03 Nets) and Iverson (the '00 Sixers). Only one top-three pick played in a conference finals with the team that originally drafted him: Robinson (the '00 Bucks).
• Seven top-four picks played in either the NBA Finals or a conference finals with a different team than the team that drafted them: Kidd, Stackhouse, Wallace, Van Horn, Billups, Bibby and LaFrentz. All of those players were traded by their original teams within four years.
• Only four teams immediately became playoff teams by landing a top-four pick: The '98 Spurs with Duncan (20 wins to 56), the '00 Hornets with Davis (26 wins to 49), the '04 Nuggets with Anthony (17 wins to 43) and the '07 Raptors with Bargnani (headed for 45-plus wins and a top-four seed).
• Four other teams became playoff teams within two years of landing a top-four pick (without help of a trade): the '96 Pistons (46 wins, first-round loss), the '04 Rockets (45 wins, first-round loss), the '05 Bulls (47 wins, first-round loss) and the '07 Jazz (headed for 50-plus wins and a top-five seed).
• Of the 15 different franchises that had top-four picks from '94 to '99, eight landed back in the top four within five years: the Bucks ('94/'96 and '05), the Grizzlies ('96-'98 and '03), the Warriors ('95 and '02), the Clippers ('95 and '00; '98-99 and '04), the Hornets ('99 and '04), the Nuggets ('98 and '03), the Raptors ('98 and '03 or '06), the Bulls ('99 and '04) -- and two more are slotted for top-five picks in this year's lottery (the Celtics and Hawks). That's 10 of 15 teams.
• The top six 2006-07 teams (Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Detroit, Utah and Houston) feature just six top-four picks (Stackhouse, Duncan, Wallace, Billups, Deron Williams, Yao), only three of whom were drafted by their current teams.
What does all of this mean? We can summarize it in four points:
1. The lottery system was originally created to prevent teams from tanking for better draft picks ... which is exactly what's happening right now (as described in the magazine column). So they completely failed in that regard.
2. The lottery system also hoped to turn the fortunes of struggling franchises. Well, as we just proved, it completely failed in that regard, too. If anything, top-four picks have a significantly better chance of struggling for a few seasons, then getting traded before finally landing on a contending team. It's much, much, MUCH less likely that they will turn around their first franchise themselves.
3. We've had one major lottery success story so far -- the Spurs winning three titles with Duncan -- which was actually a complete fluke because the Spurs averaged 59 wins from '94 to '96, then dropped to 20 wins because their best two players (David Robinson and Sean Elliott) played a combined 45 games in '97. In the past 20 years, only two No. 1 picks won titles for their original teams: Robinson ('87) and Duncan ('97).
4. For everyone rooting for tanking franchises right now and dreaming of multiple titles with Oden or Durant ... just remember, you never know.