The Phoenix Suns (24-58) won the fourth pick.
The Philadelphia 76ers (28-54) won the third pick.
The Los Angeles Lakers (26-56) won the second pick.
The Brooklyn Nets (20-62), the worst team in the league, won no pick.
The Boston Celtics (53-29), the best team in the League won the first pick!
As Kevin Hart would say, let me explain:
Started in 1947, a year after the NBA launched, the Draft allowed professional teams to recruit the best amatuer college (and sometime high school) players. The draft began with, and continues to be based on, the premise that weaker teams should a chance to rebuild with the best young talent and become competitive once again.
NBA teams picked in reverse of their regular season record, i.e. the worst team picking first, second-worst team picking second, and so on. Teams, in this era, were also allowed to forgo their first pick if they wanted sign a more popular local player who had not declared for the draft. The sanctity of this pure belief was steadfast and remained so until the NBA began tweaking the system in ‘66, and continued to do so until ‘90.
First came the simple coin flip, to decide which of the two worst teams (one from each conference) would pick first. Then facing accusations that teams (in this case the Houston Rockets) were tanking to get a better chance at the first pick, the NBA once against changed the system in ’85, this time overhauling it to a “lottery”, that simply involved envelopes containing the names of all 32 NBA teams, thus giving them all an equal chance at the No 1 pick. Despite the conspiracy theory surrounding the infamous 1986 “Ewing Draft”, the NBA stuck with the envelope lottery for three seasons, tweaking it to determine just the first three picks, and the remaining 20 teams being sorted in reverse order of their records, a process that stands till date.
Unhappy with the egalitarian system, the NBA decided to once again weigh the odds in favour of the weaker teams. Under the new system instituted in 1990, colored ping pong balls representing each of the 11 non-playoff teams (the NBA had grown to 27 teams), were placed in hopper (lottery machine). The worst team got 11 balls, the next got 10, and so on. The first three colours that popped out, barring duplication, were declared given the first three picks.
This too, wasn’t the optimal solution, since the ’93 Orlando Magic, who had just picked Shaquille O’Neal in the previous (’92) draft, was the best non-playoff team (41-41 record) with just one ball in the hopper, and still managed to win the first pick in the ’93 draft. As the saying goes, nothing is perfect, and the NBA set out to tweak the lottery system one last time in 1994.
The final tweak was to put balls numbered 1-14 in a hopper to draw 1,001 possible four-number combinations. The combination 11-12-13-14 was removed to make it an even 1,000 possible combinations. The team with the worst record was assigned 250 combinations, the second 199 combinations and so on until the non-playoff team with the best record gets just five combinations. The odds are as below:
If it isn’t broken, should we (try to) fix it?
There is a ton still wrong with this system.
One, it does nothing to help the mid-level teams. As I mentioned in my earlier piece, mid-level teams are left with the short-end of the stick: they aren’t stacked enough to compete for a championship, and are not bad enough to land a franchise altering draft pick.
Two, it unfairly sidelines good organisations like the Spurs and the Jazz, who over the years built their teams with smart decisions later in the draft, and could compete for a championship with one or two good picks.
Most importantly, though, it does not to rid the league of the disease of tanking: Teams are still incentivised “...win by losing” (Donald Sterling at the 1984 Draft), and tank their way to the No 1 pick.
So what happened in 2017?
Before we get to the 2017 draft lottery last week, here are two important definitions in order to better understand what happened.
Unprotected Pick: As the name states, the team trading away this pick, gives up its right to pick a player in the respective draft. For eg, Team A sent a unprotected 2017 pick to Team B in a trade. This means that no matter where Team A’s pick lands, Team B will own the right to make that pick for themselves.
Protected Pick: A protected pick is one where the team trading away the pick can protect it if it falls within a range that is mutually agreed upon. For eg, Team A sent a top-10 protected pick to Team B in a trade. This means that in order for Team A’s to keep their pick, it has to land within the top-10. If it does not, they would have to give that pick to Team B.
Protected picks also often come with a timeline. Eg, Team A trades away a 2016 top-five protected pick to Team B with a three year timeline. What this means is, if Team A wins a top-five pick in 2016, the pick (for Team B) shifts to 2017, and so on, until the timeline, which mutually agreed upon, comes to an end.
Pick Swap: A swap occurs when two teams, as part of a trade, agree to swap picks during a future draft. For eg, Team A trades away Player X the rights to swap picks in the 2017 draft to Team B. This means that if Team A lands up with the third pick and Team B with the fifth, Team B has the right to swap places with Team A, thus landing up with the third pick for themselves.
The 2017 Game Of Picks
Out of 14 picks in the lottery, nine teams landed picks they were expected to: Miami (14), Denver (13), Detroit (12), Charlotte (11), Dallas (9), New York (8), Minnesota (7), Orlando (6).
Pick 10, Sacramento Kings: In the DeMarcus Cousins trade, New Orleans sent a top-three protected pick to Sacramento. NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announcing Sacramento at No 10, means that New Orleans would have originally had pick No 10, but had to give it up due to the Cousins trade.
Pick No 5, Sacramento Kings : Back in 2015, the Kings wanted to sign any two of the Rajon Rondo, Wes Matthews or Monta Ellis free agent trio. In order to do that, Kings traded away Nik Stauskas and two other players to clear cap space to the tune of $16 million. Philadelphia, however, sensing that the Kings were desperate, also asked for the rights to swap picks in both 2016 and 2017. The Sixers stayed put in 2016, but could not resist the temptation to move up to No. 3 in this years draft.
Pick No 4, Phoenix Suns: Technically this pick was logical since the Phoenix Suns had the worst record of the lottery teams. However, considering the Suns had the second worst record in the league behind the Nets, you’d have expected them to end up with a top-three pick if not the No 1 pick.
Pick No 3, Philadelphia 76ers: The explanation for Pick No 5 above still stands, with a point to note: this is the fourth year in a row that the 76ers are picking in the top-three. Trust the process!
Pick 2, Los Angeles Lakers: Courtesy the Steve Nash trade,the Lakers shipped out a pick to the Suns which was top-five protected in 2015, top-three protected in 2016 and 2017, and unprotected in 2018. The Suns shipped the pick out to the Sixers who hoped the Lakers would get better and eventually fall out of the top-three. That has not happened yet. Had the Lakers fallen to fourth Philadelphia would have owned that pick, thus twice in the top-10, in what is considered an incredibly loaded draft.
Pick 1: How did the Boston Celtics, who finished with the best record in the east (53-29), end up with the No. 1 pick?! That would be thanks to the now infamous Celtics-Nets trade. In 2013, the Nets backed by owner Russian billionaire Mikhail Pokhorov’s desire to win immediately, traded for Jason Terry, DJ Augustin, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, giving away first round picks in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018 away. That trade freed up a ton of money allowing the Celtics to accumulate assets and take a decent team all the way to the NBA Conference Finals this season. Having picked Jaylen Brown last year, will (most likely) pick Markelle Fultz this year, and considering the Nets will still struggle, the Celtics will still have another lottery pick waiting on them next year.
So there you have it: a primer on the NBA draft, it’s history, the birth of the lottery, it’s current form and why, in a system that panders to weaker teams, did the best team in the East end up with the No 1 pick.