Monday, May 23, 2011

Draft Lotteries

The major professional sports leagues in North America all hold annual drafts in which teams take turns selecting young players. The key element of all the drafts is that the worst teams get to choose first. The worse your record, the earlier you get to make your selection. In theory, this is supposed to make the bad teams better over time and increase competitive balance.

Of course, a draft also provides a perverse incentive to lose games. If your team is having a bad year anyway, why not lose a bunch of games so as to move up in the draft? Maybe even aim to have the worst record in the league to get the coveted No. 1 spot and a potential superstar player.

The National Basketball Association was the first league to deal with this, in 1966, by holding a coin toss to determine if the top pick would go to the worst Eastern or worst Western team. This way, blowing the season and finishing last only guaranteed a 50% chance at the top pick, rather than a 100% chance.

The modern draft lottery came into being after suspicions that the Houston Rockets -- and perhaps other teams -- intentionally lost games in 1984 in order to get into the coin toss. The Rockets won the toss, and drafted the star center Akeem Olajuwon. (The Blazers lost the toss, got the No. 2 pick and chose Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, but that's another story.)

In 1985, the N.B.A. replaced the coin toss with a lottery to determine where the worst seven teams would pick. Each team had an equal chance to get the first pick. But the system also allowed the worst team to get a pick as low as seven, so in 1987, it was changed so that only the top three picks were determined by lottery. That way, the worst team would get a pick no lower than fourth.
In 1990, they switched to a weighted system, in which the weakest team had the best chance of landing the top pick, about 16%, and the other lottery teams had reduced chances on a sliding scale down to about 1½% for the 11th worst team. In 1993, they tweaked that system to give an even greater chance to the worst teams. Today, the chances of landing the top pick range from 25% for the worst team down to half a percent for the 14th worst.

While the Rockets were (allegedly) losing games to get Olajuwon, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League were (allegedly) doing the same to get Mario Lemieux. As a result, the N.H.L. put in a draft lottery of its own, although it's something of a half-hearted affair. Every team gets a weighted chance to win the lottery, and the single winner moves up four places. And that's it.
This year the Devils won the draw and moved up from eight to fourth. Not too exciting.
So far, football and baseball have not introduced lotteries for their drafts. Perhaps they haven't (yet) seen evidence of teams losing on purpose. Indeed, the football team FRB supports, the Philadelphia Eagles blew a chance for the No. 1 pick in 1968, by playing to win and beating the Saints in a  meaningless late-season game. As a result, the Eagles missed out on O.J. Simpson.
The next  week, angry  Eagles fans infamously pelted Santa Claus with snowballs.

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