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Occam’s Razor and the NBA Draft Lottery

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NBA: NBA Draft Lottery Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After years of rumors and debates, the NBA finally re-tooled the draft lottery process.

As you probably know, the goal is to curb the tanking trend, which teams have started to embrace rather brazenly. Unfortunately, the new format isn’t that different from the old format. Instead of a team’s odds at landing the first pick increasing with every loss, now the bottom three teams will have the same odds at getting #1. Other odds were adjusted throughout the lottery, but this was the main tweak.

Not only will this new system fail to decrease tanking, I believe it will have the opposite effect. Now teams in the 4-8 range will start tanking mid-season, knowing they only have to make it to #3 to have the best odds at winning the lottery. I realize two other teams will share those odds, but no team will have better odds. This doesn’t solve the problem; there is still an advantage to being bad.

Many writers will throw Occam’s Razor into articles to sound smart, and so will I. For those unfamiliar with the principal, Occam’s Razor basically says that the simplest answer is the best answer. With that in mind, I suggest this principle for the NBA lottery: make it a pure lottery. 14 teams equals 14 balls.

It is a super easy solution that would end tanking immediately. There is absolutely zero incentive to lose games. As a bonus, it would make the draft lottery insanely exciting. Any team’s ball could pop up at any time.

Opponents of this system would argue it’s not fair, and that it wouldn’t allow bad teams to get better. I would argue that bad teams are bad because of management. There’s a reason why the same handful of teams have been in the top half of the lottery the past decade. It doesn’t have anything to do with lottery luck or market size. It has everything to do with poor management. Why keep “rewarding” these bad teams, and why punish young talent by directing them to these losers? It’s not fair to the young talent, and it’s not fair to the fans. And as a Wolves fan, Minnesota has never moved up in a lottery. NEVER. That’s almost statistically impossible based on the number of lotteries we’ve experienced. Is that fair?

The truth is, a straight lottery would be better for the league. It would create more parity. There would be a much bigger and stronger NBA “middle class.” If teams knew there was no reward for being bad, they would try to compete every year. They would try to build a solid program, knowing that if they miss the playoffs, they still have the chance to land a superstar.

You might say, “it’s not fair that a team that just missed the playoffs ends up with the #1 seed.” Poppycock. It might not be “fair,” but it would be much better for the league. Look at the 2007-2008 Chicago Bulls. They made the playoffs the three previous seasons, but had a down year at 33-49. They struck lotto gold and landed Derrick Rose (funny how that happened!). A few years later they are in the Eastern Conference Finals battling LeBron and the Heat. If Rose had gone to a shitty team, you would have had one less championship level team in the NBA that season. Think if Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball had been drafted by Miami and Denver respectively. Both teams just missed the playoffs last season. Adding those two young players to already established teams creates a higher number of competitive teams.

In theory, it would also help keep superstars with their original teams. In 2015, Paul George missed the season with a broken leg. The Pacers still won 38 games that season. What if they would have gotten the #1 pick and added Karl Anthony Towns? (Sacrilegious to say as a Wolves Fan.) Is it possible PG13 sticks around for a future with Big KAT? What if the Bulls would have landed Ben Simmons or Fultz in their two recent lottery appearances? Chances are Butler is still in Chicago with a potentially bright future. (I don’t know why I throw out hypotheticals that take KAT and Butler off the team I love most, but there you go.) The point is, adding young, potential superstar talent to already good teams would create a more competitive league.

Now, I know what you’re thinking ... What’s stopping an 8th seed from tanking in order to miss the playoffs to try to land a top pick? First, I can’t see a team doing this. It’s one thing for a non-playoff team to tank towards the end of the year. Players and fans can understand that philosophy. But I don’t think any players or fans would support missing the playoffs for a 7 percent chance of getting the first pick. That’s bad for business. Second, if it did become a problem, simply tweak the lottery where only the bottom 12 enter the lottery. #13 and #14 are locked. In most cases, I believe those teams would push to win a few more games to try to make the playoffs over losing a half dozen games to enter the lottery.

As an added bonus, it’s better for the rookies. Unless the age limit changes again, almost every top 3 pick in the foreseeable future will be a 19-year-old kid. It’s better for their development if they go to stable, successful franchises with solid veteran leadership. I know it’s impossible to prove, but isn’t it possible that Jahlil Okafor would be on a better career path if he was in a better situation? He was picked by a team that made it clear winning wasn’t the focus. Trust the process! How can that be good for a young player like Okafor? Where would DeMarcus Cousins be if he went to Houston or Utah instead of Sacramento? Would Kawhi Leonard be the same player if he was drafted by the Kings?

Finally, if you’re looking at the lottery to turn your franchise around, you’ve already lost. The Warriors won 73 games with Curry, Barnes, Iguodala, Thompson, and Green as their top 5 players on a minutes per game basis. They were drafted #7, #7, #9, #11, and #35, respectively. (Iggy was acquired in a trade.) Yes, they had #1 Bogut and #4 Livingston, but they played less than 20 minutes per game and came via trade or free agency. You don’t need a top 3 pick to build a championship team, much less a competitive team.

I don’t know the origin of Occam’s Razor. I don’t know who Occam was. And I don’t know what was so special about his razor. But I do know, when it comes to the NBA lottery, we should listen to him and choose the easiest route.