Lottery isn't perfect, but it works for NBA

A basketball is approximately six times larger in circumference than a ping pong ball. Yet once a year, basketball fans around the country allow a few ping pong balls to stir up six times as much excitement as any basketball game had the previous season.

For 14 teams, Tuesday is a day of reckoning. Most of these teams suffered seasons of recurring disappointment. At a certain point -- perhaps the 20th loss, maybe the 40th -- fans of these teams stopped caring about the orange sphere with the rubber seams and turned their focus to the smooth, ivory white ones that take center stage before Game 2 in the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night.

Win the NBA draft Lottery, and next season suddenly seems ripe with potential. Ideally, those ping pong balls won't mean a thing in 2011.

This season marks the 21st year of the NBA draft Lottery as we know it today. In the past, there were coin flips, envelopes and a whole lot of questions about fairness used to decide who wound up with the first overall pick.

Now, there are ping pong balls. Fourteen of them, chosen in a way that allows for a whopping 1,001 outcomes.

The idea, on its surface, was a major improvement from the envelope system that faced questions in 1985, when the New York Knicks earned the right to take Patrick Ewing with the top pick in the draft. That system allowed all 13 non-playoff teams an equal shot at the first pick, and many speculated the NBA simply wanted rising stars to land in top markets.

The current system, which remains largely unchanged since 1990 (though the addition of the Charlotte Bobcats has increased the number of lottery teams to 14), provides the worst teams with the best chance at the top picks, but no guarantees so as to avoid the alleged intentional losing by teams hoping for a good pick. It also provides insurance that horrible teams won't get low picks, as only the top three picks are drawn for in the process.

It's a fair system. At the very least, it's a fairer system than envelopes and coin flips.

Still, every season, as the playoff situation begins to clear up and fans lose hope in the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers and whatever other teams are destined in a given year to join them in the lottery proceedings, many hope their team tanks. And many protest the method, claiming that it encourages teams to intentionally blow games late in the season, when hope has run dry.

Is there a better answer?

Some have suggested the league go back to making each non-playoff team's chances at the top pick equal again. This idea would leave teams with no reason to tank after the playoffs become out of reach. It would also destroy any hope of restoring parity to a league in desperate need of balance.

Teams miss the playoffs for many reasons, and one would be hard pressed to believe the New Orleans Hornets, who played at a playoff caliber while star point guard Chris Paul was healthy, are in similarly dire straights to the New Jersey Nets, the team that won 12 games only thanks to strong play in the season's final month.

A top-three pick -- and a healthy Paul -- would likely push the Hornets into the playoffs. It would also leave teams with real needs, and their increasingly disillusioned fan bases, stuck at the bottom of the barrel. Basketball is not like baseball. You can't spend years developing players in the minor leagues, and unheralded prospects rarely blossom into stars. A team can't sit around waiting for the day it catches its big steal, and few fan bases have the patience to twiddle their thumbs waiting for an invisible savior.

Others -- Washington Wizards fans, to name a group -- would love to see the NBA move to an NFL draft style, with selection order based entirely on record. The league used this format for years, in combination with the zaniness of territorial picks, but it didn't work.

In the NFL draft, it is rare for the top pick to end up the best player in his class. In recent years, only Peyton Manning comes to mind as such an example. The NBA is different. Most top players are taken in the first 10 picks, and the first overall pick has an incredible success rate, even if the failures such as Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown are most remembered.

If you think teams tank now, removing the lottery element would cause a mass fail attempt in the final month(s) of the regular season, particularly when a highly regarded prospect such as John Wall has distanced himself from other eligible draftees. Consider Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Tim Duncan and LeBron James -- all players from the lottery era whom every fan dreamed of adding to his or her favorite team.

The truth is, the lottery system works. Sure, an argument could be made that the system would be better if it were five picks instead of three selected by chance. Such a move would entirely eliminate the value of throwing games, though it's never been proven any NBA team has actually relied on such tactics.

But the system works for what it is: a fair and balanced way to give each non-playoff team (or in the case of the Utah Jazz this season, whichever team stole a bad team's pick) a chance to grab a high pick. At the same time, it keeps parity as a priority, allowing teams with the worst records in the league guaranteed top-five selections.

And more than anything, it's fun. It's exciting. It's the reason we'll all be tuning into the pregame show, watching commissioner David Stern pluck a few ping pong balls determining the future of basketball in the process.

It's absurd. But maybe it has to be in order to work.

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