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The NBA Draft Lottery and the Houston Rockets

This picture is too awesome to not use.
This picture is too awesome to not use.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of commentary on the Houston Chronicle and some posts here on The Dream Shake relating to the NBA’s draft lottery system. The common theme I have noticed is the sentiment that the Rockets are being punished by such a system. "The general lottery system punishes teams that are well managed and rewards teams that are awful!" is the rallying cry of this debate. I have spent a lot of time turning this issue over in my mind. Does the NBA Draft Lottery system actually reward poor teams? Does the draft lottery team punish well-managed teams? What is the purpose of the NBA Lottery generally? There are arguments to be made for a change in the format of the lottery. Some advocate a single lot system where every team gets just one chance at the top pick. Some advocate a playoff series for teams that failed to make the NBA title hunt to determine seeding. Some have wondered why we can’t just go in reverse order seeding. All of these arguments have their pros and cons of varying weight. After the jump join me as I look at the NBA Draft Lottery system, its purpose, and I deliver on a promise I made to a commenter here on TDS.

In any discussion of a draft system we have to look at the sport it regulates. The NFL has parity across the board and a limited season at 16 games. The NFL’s schedule and quality of competition warrants a reverse order draft because every team has a chance to win a title (even if the same teams find themselves at the Super Bowl, teams like the Lions and 49ers can break through and actually challenge). The NHL has a great amount of turnover with several teams able to challenge for the Stanley Cup in any given season. The NHL, interestingly, employs a weighted draft system like the NBA. The difference between the NHL and the NBA is that in the NHL every team can only move up 4 spots at best and can only move back one spot based on their system. The NBA employs an 82 game season (Same as the NHL) without a great deal of parity. Over the course of 82 games any number of injuries, coach decisions, and trades can swing the fortune of the entire season. The same can be said for most any sport. In the NBA, however, eyebrows are raised over tanking given the NBA’s history (Calling in to question the Olajuwon draft and this year’s Golden State Warriors shutting down players) there has to be some safeguard against teams that deliberately lose for a chance to draft a difference maker. This brings us to our next major issue. What is the lottery system in place to protect against?

The system protects against tanking, plain and simple. The draft lottery is in place to discourage teams from intentionally losing games because there is no guarantee of the first pick in the NBA draft. Tanking is a hot topic on this blog and the constant reminder thrown out there is that, even with the worst record in the NBA, the number one pick is not guaranteed. Thankfully, we’re not discussing tank versus trading here today, we’re talking lottery. In the history of the NBA lottery, the number one pick has only ever been awarded to the NBA’s worst team three times (1988 Los Angeles Clippers, 1990 New Jersey Nets, and the 2004 Orlando Magic). It would seem that the draft lottery is a wonderful deterrent against tanking. Any team that could be seen as deliberately throwing games "the best" has only been rewarded three times. There is a great deal of diversity in who has won the lottery as far as "worst team" fluctuating between the 5th and the 3rd worst most commonly with variety sprinkled in as low as the 11th worst (1993 Orlando Magic) and the 9th worst record (2008 Chicago Bulls) winning the lottery. From the looks of the lottery system the NBA really only consistently "rewards" the worst team in the NBA if that team can be wildly erratic in how poor they really are. Yes, poorer teams tend to draft higher, but isn’t that the point of the draft? The draft is intended to inject young players with promise into the worst teams in order to increase the level of competition. It’s the Robin Hood method. Teams that are more stable don’t need as much help as teams that are extremely bad and as a team’s quality improves they will be further removed from franchise players to complimentary players, theoretically at least. Under this theory we have to address the next argument made by angry Rockets fans. "Why does the NBA consistently reward bad teams and punish teams like the Rockets?"

The short answer, it actually doesn’t. The longer answer requires we build on the understanding we came to above (Remember, we’re talking theoretical and intention, not actual yield through mismanagement). The theoretical premise of the draft in the NBA that states the worst teams need the most help, or access to the most help, then if you run your team properly, you will move higher in the draft. The NBA Draft lottery is intended to reward teams for building through the draft. When the NBA concocted the system they had to purge the reward to tank from the system, which they effectively did looking at empirical results of the lottery. Next, the NBA had to address the issue of parity and talent to keep the league competitive and entertaining. In order to do this the NBA had to confront the fact that quality NBA teams are built around stars. Once stars are established a supporting crew tends to perform better. If you look at the draft, stars tend to be obtained higher in the draft and role players acquired later. Team building is theoretically echoed in the draft lottery system and it makes sense. The Spurs need a lot less help than the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats lack a star and they are in position in this NBA Draft lottery to find one. The Spurs just need to bring in young players in support roles and they’re in position to find one. On paper, the system works to reward the NBA’s preferred model of building a franchise, not to reward bad teams for being bad. We now have to determine whether or not the system punishes the Houston Rockets or teams in similar situations?

I don’t think it does. The Houston Rockets are uniquely situated, so when you say, "teams like the Houston Rockets" it only applies to the Houston Rockets. What does that mean for the NBA Lottery? It means it’s not broken at all. It means that the Houston Rockets are building contrary to how the system is set up. There is much to be said for "thinking outside of the box" but unfortunately superstars tend to hang out inside that box. The Rockets are really the only team that’s stuck drafting where they are that doesn’t want to rebuild through the draft. The Wolves drafted 2nd last year and early in the season everyone was expecting to see them challenge for the playoffs (And they got their top 5 lotto point guard to come over as well). The Rockets are not willing to jettison their roster for picks or start the overhaul the way the Jazz did (Last year’s 3rd from New Jersey and their own 12th overall). The Phoenix Suns are the only team remotely near the Houston Rockets in their team makes up and situation (Last year’s 13th pick) but they’re looking more and more likely to lose their franchise point guard after having lost their franchise power forward. The Suns also had a notorious run of selling off first round picks that turned in to Luol Deng and Rajon Rondo that separates them from the Rockets. The draft can be a crapshoot but the Rockets have selected safely the last few years with their picks. Tom has pointed out that this tactic needs to change if the Rockets want to see any form of dividend. Ultimately, I don’t believe the draft punishes the well managed teams. I think the draft punishes indecisive teams. I want you to ask yourself one question, very sincerely in this debate; Would you be complaining about the draft lottery if you were a Bobcats or Warriors fan? I sincerely think that the issue is jealousy. The Rockets are mired in mediocrity because they are unwilling to cooperate with the system they are a part of.

Rockets fans are clamoring for a systemic change because their team refuses to cooperate or believes it can succeed contrary to common practice. This is where I owe thanks to ncissin for getting me to think about this. If you’re unfamiliar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs it’s a schematic for human psychology and sociology. The Hierarchy explains what needs humans seek out and helps explain how we prioritize something. Our needs are organized in a pyramid and at the bottom are the foundations, sleep, food, shelter, etc… Next up we seek safety, next we seek relationships, then esteem and respect from others, then we seek to perfect ourselves (morality).



What’s this mean for basketball, I didn’t come to TDS to read sociology, BD34. No you didn’t, but the hierarchy, I feel, can be adapted for the NBA to explain the Rockets quagmire. NBA teams have their own hierarchy to fulfill. At the base of this pyramid, they need a franchise player or picks 1-10. Without that, the NBA team cannot move forward, its most basic needs are unfulfilled. The Rockets have managed to cob-job together this bottom layer with role players but the foundation is weak and crumbling, as evidenced by the team’s ability to come just close enough to the post season to get its fans riled up but ultimately crashing into the 14th pick. The next tier on the hierarchy speaks to our safety. This tier is where role players come in when building a team. Role players should build on top of what that franchise player can do and they’re nearly as critical as the right foundation. In this tier I would include picks 11-20 in the NBA draft. The Rockets have this tier on lock down. The next tier we have is that of relationships. For an NBA team we’re looking at defensive and offensive scheme. This is also your coach’s tier. If the talent is in place the coach will orchestrate everything properly. With a fantastic coach but no talent foundation beneath him he will underperform or see diminishing returns. The Rockets have landed some high quality coaches (Regardless of what you think of McHale he’s a great big man coach and needs more than one season before he has to answer to impatient fans). If we move higher to esteem the NBA equivalent we find are specialists. Bringing in a player solely for his three point shot (Steve Novak), his post defense (Chuck Hayes), or his passing (Ish Smith) is a luxury for teams and not something you should be considering only when you have a quality talent base and a coaching scheme beneath you. You tend to find specialists in the 2nd round of the NBA draft (The late first can still find some role players or some specialists, it’s a grab bag!). The last tier, self-actualization, is overseas commodities and cap space. You may be wondering why cap space isn’t lower and more important but I propose to you, if you fulfill all the needs below this tier how necessary is cap space? If you have a franchise player, role players, a proper coach and scheme, and the right role players in place, how necessary is cap space? Your team is set, you don’t need to tweak it that much, and your team is ready to go. Further, overseas players are here because they are luxuries to hold draft rights in. You don’t need them, you could call for them, or you could just ship their rights out. Ultimately, it’s a throwaway, not something you need. What does this all mean for Houston?

I think through this schematic we can see why no major trade has materialized outside of involvement in a three-way trade. Houston has been peddling cap space and role players for a franchise player. We’re trying to supply the most unnecessary of luxuries and only the secondary need for a foundational piece. Teams don’t tend to be swayed by these proposals. The trades that we have seen materialize have been foundation players for foundation players (Chris Paul trade), foundation picks (Deron Williams trade), or an overabundance of players that straddle that line between the first and second tier (Carmelo Anthony trade). The NBA placed the brakes on the original three team trade because of a recognition that their team was going to get back nothing it could build on or with out of the proposed deal. Demps took the deal because he thought it was the best available. What I find interesting is that NBA fans railed against Chris Wallace for his Pau Gasol deal because he said it was the best offer but only because the Rockets benefitted from this particular Pau Gasol deal do they have a hard time swallowing the bitter pill that the league didn’t approve (and the league ran the Hornets). Unfortunately for the Rockets, until they can offer a legitimate foundation player or pick, we’re going to be missing out on trades if all we can offer is some role players and cap space.

Is cap space becoming more important these days? You could argue yes but you could also argue no. Harsher luxury tax penalties are on the way but teams that are paying the luxury tax make more than enough money to compensate for it. The challenge for NBA teams is to maximize cap space utility, not just to have it. The Rockets will have an abundance of cap space with players who don’t fully justify the utilization of it. Offering a team expiring deals when there are less players to warrant the money is a futile endeavor. If you have ever tried to assemble IKEA furniture you know why deals centered on freeing up cap space aren’t desirable. You are given an abundance of stuff with no direction and the entity that gave you that stuff has spit gibberish at you and told you to "figure it out." If you’re lucky they gave you an Allen Wrench and you’re just going to swear at how bad your palms hurt later.

Ultimately, the Rockets need to either blow it up, trade or overspend themselves into a position where they have to cooperate with the draft structure, or continue lateral moves trading role players or luxury pieces for more role players or luxury items.