NBA Draft: Reverse Standings in Practice

With the first pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Sacramento Kings select…

Wait, Sacramento won the draft lottery? With a one in sixteen chance for victory? I guess Commissioner Adam Silver wants to make amends with the Kings over their shady playoff exit in 2002 so he rigged the draft lottery to get them the number one pick right? Or maybe its just good luck. Cavs had a 1.7% chance of winning the draft lottery last year, so this is far more likely by comparison.

Actually it’s none of these. This is a view of the 2015 NBA Draft if it was conducted via the Reverse Standings method that was proposed by PhD student Adam Gold at the 2012 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT. This proposal would decide draft order by the number of victories by each team once they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs, with the team getting more wins getting the higher picks. This may seem like a regressive way of distributing picks, but in this system, the worse teams that get eliminated early on would have more opportunities to win games than a good team who got eliminated with a week left in the season. Instead of rewarding tanking teams with higher odds of getting the top pick, it would incentivize winning while still affording bad teams with more opportunities to provide the wins needed to get a top pick. As someone who is vehemently opposed to tanking, I immediately ran with this idea, and wanted conduct a test to see what that system would look like in practice. Now that the season is over and the final records are in, we can see how the Reverse Standings method will change the draft order, the plans of the lottery teams choosing players, and any changes in the way lottery teams play the latter parts of the regular season.

Where are the Changes?

New Draft Order

From the above chart, we can see the fourteen lottery teams, their records at elimination, the games left at elimination, games won since, and final record. Currently, we distribute lottery odds via final record, but in this method, we count wins at elimination.

The team that gets the top pick in this year’s draft under the Reverse Standings method will be Sacramento, who won seven games total since elimination. They have played decent basketball after elimination, winning just under half of their last fifteen games. Under them is the biggest benefactor of this draft system, the red hot Utah Jazz. They have been one of the best teams in the NBA ever since the trade deadline, shipping off Enes Kanter and allowing rookie Rudy Gobert, the Stifle Tower, to develop into a young star. Despite having only eight games to play after playoff elimination, the Jazz won five of them, and secured the second overall pick in this Reverse Standings draft.

There is no real change for the teams that were eliminated from the playoffs more recently, since they didn’t have too many post elimination games to accumulate wins. The New York Knicks also stayed roughly where they were, dropping from second pick to third pick. They were initially in danger of dropping out of the top five, but a recent run of good play kept them around where they would be originally. Philadelphia is trending in the opposite direction, looking like they would keep a top three pick a week ago but now they dropped to the 6th pick due to a lack of wins last week.

The biggest loser of this method would have to be the Minnesota Timberwolves, who, despite likely Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, have the worst record in the NBA. They were the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention, but even with 21 opportunities to get a post elimination win, the Wolves only won two games. Because of that, the Wolves dropped from the first pick, to the eighth pick, which is a very significant gap in the NBA Draft world. The Wolves suffered many injuries down the stretch and may have chosen to rest hobbled players for the rest of the year in the interests of health and draft positioning. They likely would have played more of their players if this was the system, but in this case, the Wolves’ inability to gather wins down the stretch cost them dearly.

There are also some teams on the list who have a tie in the number of wins. In order to give a boost to worse teams and keep some continuity of the traditional system, we will break ties in the favor of the worse team. There will also be no lottery obviously, since the focus on post elimination wins makes the lottery obsolete as a way to deter tanking.

So without further ado, lets see how the 2015 NBA Draft will look with this system and what each team does after it has been moved up or down the draft board.

Video TrailerUtah Jazzminnesota timberwolves

The New Top 14

1. Sacramento Kings: Karl-Anthony Towns PF/C. The Kings have jumped from the latter half of the top ten to the first overall pick, and that means they can grab a franchise cornerstone that may finally bring them out of their decade long rebuild. They are set at center with DeMarcus Cousins, but the top two prospects available are centers, so the Kings have to consider which draftee is the best fit to play beside Cousins. I will go with Towns here, because he is better equipped to play at the 4, whereas Okafor is more of a true center. Towns also has a higher ceiling and more room for development and he will not be pressured to win now in Sacramento. With Cousins taking up a lot of double teams, Towns could get a lot of open looks, whether it is near the rim or at mid range.

2. Utah Jazz: D’Angelo Russell SG. It probably isn’t even fair to give the Jazz the second overall pick after seeing them ravage the league in the last two months. But the Jazz are exactly the type of team this system rewards, and those wins should count for something. Clearly Jahlil Okafor is the best player available, but the Jazz are probably the last team that needs to draft a big man with Favors and Gobert already in tow. They could draft Okafor and then trade him away to a team who wants to jump ahead of New York for him, but for the purposes of this draft, they will take someone they will keep. The Jazz should grab D’Angelo Russell, a gifted scorer with a Russell Westbrook-esque way of taking over games. He could slot in at the 2 and give the Jazz a deadly lineup, especially if Dante Exum makes a second year leap next season.

3. New York Knicks: Jahlil Okafor C. Despite falling to the three spot, the New York Knicks get the man they’ve been tanking for in Jahlil Okafor. Clearly the best player available, Okafor is also a match made in heaven for the Knicks. He is a pro ready prospect who should be an immediate help to a team that wants to win now. He is also one of the best passing big men in the NCAA, and that will be a boon to coach Derek Fisher, who will have a big man who can fit the triangle. Okafor can be a potential franchise cornerstone for New York.

4, Los Angeles Lakers: Emmanuel Mudiay PG. The Lakers, like the Knicks, get the guy they’ve been associated with in mock drafts and grab point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay is a raw player, but has tons of upside and can be the lead scorer for the Lakers when Kobe retires. Mudiay had a successful, albeit short tenure in China, and ideally, he would have a healthy Kobe to mentor him in 2016. The Lakers won four games after being eliminated from the playoffs, which was enough for them to stay in the top five and keep their draft pick.

5. Denver Nuggets: Justise Winslow SF.  There is a talent drop off after the top four, but the Nuggets still get good value here in the fifth spot. Denver is a team to watch this summer, as they could potentially blow up the core of the team and trade away Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried. Whether or not they do so, Denver should pick up the best player available, Justise Winslow, a high motor swingman with a high ceiling and a high floor.

6. Philadelphia 76ers: Mario Hezonja SG/SF.  Since Philadelphia did not get a high pick in this draft, it looks their rebuild will have to continue for another year, though in this system, they won’t have tanking to fall back on. Philly could use help in any position other than center and ideally, they want a superstar. Philly is likely looking for upside here as opposed to finished pro ready products, so they could likely take a flier on the Croatian swingman Mario Hezonja. Hezonja had a small sample size in his time at FC Barcelona Basquet, but he played very well, and if the Sixers see star potential, they will be very patient. The Sixers may be scared off by the general tendency of European players to bust in the NBA, but the recent success of Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic may be motivation enough for the Sixers to kick the tires of Hezonja.

7. Orlando Magic: Stanley Johnson F. The Magic are nearly at the end of their rebuild and have a solid core of Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Elfrid Payton to build around. Tobias Harris is a great player too, but he is headed towards restricted free agency and may not remain with Orlando if another team with deeper financial coffers outbids them. Whether Harris is brought back or not, the Magic could use an upgrade at the forward position, and Stanley Johnson is a guy who can play both the 3 and the 4. His defense is already superb and he won’t have much pressure on offense due to the presence of Oladipo.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves: Willie Cauley-Stein PF. The Timberwolves would really have loved to be in the top two and picking Karl-Anthony Towns. However, the lack of post-elimination wins has dropped Minnesota down to the 8 spot in the draft. The reason why, apart from the injuries, is the very atrocious defense of the Wolves, who lead the league in points allowed per game. Minnesota needs to grab the best defensive player available, and at this point, that means settling for Towns’ frontcourt partner in Kentucky, Willie Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein is not much for scoring, but he is a great defender who could develop into someone like Andrew Bogut of the Warriors (I hear that’s working great). It will also help having future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett as his mentor.

9. Detroit Pistons: Trey Lyles F. The Pistons are set at center with Andre Drummond, and are set at point guard with either Brandon Jennings or restricted free agent Reggie Jackson. But they are all but set to lose big man Greg Monroe to free agency, so a power forward that can stretch the floor and take advantage of the double teams on Drummond is a necessity. Forward Trey Lyles is a good fit to take advantage of that space, and is excellent both inside and outside in mid range. If he can further polish his three point shooting, Lyles can lock down the Rashard Lewis role for this team, which Stan van Gundy wants to model after the Dwight-era Magic.

10. Miami Heat: Kristaps Porzingis PF/C. The number one priority for the Miami Heat is retaining Goran Dragic, for whom they spent two first rounders, so I don’t see them grabbing a point guard here. Instead, they should go with the highest upside available, Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is a seven footer with range who may be a liability on defense but has major potential on offense. With Chris Bosh suffering blood clots in his lungs that could threaten his career, the Heat should pick up Porzingis, someone with a similar style of play, as insurance.

11. Charlotte Hornets: Myles Turner PF/C. The Hornets have Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson as cornerstones, but Lance Stephenson was an unmitigated disaster, and the rest of the roster, with the exception of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, was a disappointment. Hornets should go with the best player available here, and take Myles Turner. Turner fits well with the defensive identity of Charlotte and could fit either next to Al Jefferson, or off the bench. He is a project though, so Turner will probably take the route Noah Vonleh took last year, seldom playing until late season,

12. Indiana Pacers: Sam Dekker F. Considering all the injuries the Pacers went through this year, it was a miracle that they lasted until the final day of the season in the playoff hunt. With a healthy Paul George, they could be a top four team in the East, provided they retain free agent David West and restricted free agent Roy Hibbert. I was thinking of having the Pacers draft a center, like Frank Kaminski, in this slot, but I decided that the Pacers have a decent chance of retaining their big men without having to break the bank. Instead, the Pacers should take Kaminski’s teammate Sam Dekker. Dekker was one of the best players of March Madness and his high basketball IQ and defensive skills would make him a good role player for Indiana.

13. Phoenix Suns: Kris Dunn PG. The Suns received Brandon Knight from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for the Lakers’ top five protected pick, and while he is a good player, the Suns haven’t had much time to evaluate him due to injury, and its unlikely they are willing to overpay to retain him. That means that the Suns could start looking for a new guard to pair with Eric Bledsoe. They probably need the interior help more, but I feel Alex Len has shown enough promise that they could focus more on rebuilding the guard position. Dunn was an assist machine in college, but he also led the NCAA in turnovers, so it’s likely that he gets eased into the job this year.

14. Oklahoma City Thunder: Devin Booker G. The Thunder had a very disappointing and injury filled year, and they look to contend immediately next year in order to keep Kevin Durant happy. Therefore, I think they take someone who can lock down a role and potentially start for the Thunder. Devin Booker, a three point shooter with a rapidly improving defense, could be that guy. I was thinking of putting Frank Kaminski here in case Enes Kanter leaves, but he has played too well for the Thunder to let him go ahead of a very crucial year for the franchise. Therefore, they should pick up Booker, who can bring some offense to a position that has largely been an offensive throwaway in the Thunder system.

Conclusions

 With this system, teams still have a reason to try and win games once playoffs are no longer an option, and is an excellent way to deter tanking. It makes the bottom of the league standings in a way that is similar to the exciting relegation battles present in European soccer. Obviously, relegation isn’t an option stateside, where big markets are critical and lower leagues are almost nonexistent. However, this changes the system in which draft picks are distributed to one that incentivizes effort instead of discouraging it. Unlike another system of draft reform, the wheel, this system still gives more opportunity to worse teams, as opposed to setting a new draft order every year without records being considered. Also, it will do away with the lottery, which means teams will know where they are drafting as soon as the season ends, instead of waiting for another month. Having one month from the lottery to the draft to decide on who to pick is too short, and while two months may also be short, it still is a better allotment of time for a team to evaluate potential draftees and avoid making a big mistake. There is the drawback of a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves slipping  through the cracks and losing 19 of the last 21 games. The injuries suffered by their veterans late in the season was a big part of their slide. However, I feel a lot of it had to do with the Wolves planning to tank this year. They weren’t as overt in their tanking as the Sixers, but the Wolves shut down a lot of their players this year as opposed to bringing them in when they were close to healthy. I feel in this type of system, the Wolves would play their “A” team more often, even if some of them were recovering from injury. This would likely lead to more wins, putting the Wolves in a more amenable position in the draft board.

The best reason to implement the Reverse Standings draft strategy is the same reason that any rule change should ideally be implemented, to enhance the product on the court. As of right now, the last month of the season is a throwaway for a large part of the league, and that doesn’t give much reason for excitement for players and fans. If Adam Gold’s Reverse Standings method is implemented, all teams will have something to fight for come April, either playoffs, or a top draft pick. This will inspire more competition during games, more reasons for fans to come watch, and a strong disincentive for teams who wish to tank. Teams tank for a chance at a superstar, and this way, they’ll have to fight for one instead.

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