Currently, there are 30 teams in the NBA, 16 of which make the playoffs. The question of what to do with the 14 remaining teams is interesting. I propose the following “Draft Battles.” The basic idea is this:
1. Non-playoff teams are broken into three groups. The teams with the four worst records compete for positioning among the draft spots 1-4 (call this Tournament A); the team with the next four worst records battle for positioning among draft spots 5-8 (Tournament B); the teams with the next four worst records, for 9-12 (Tournament C). For now, I assume that the top 2 non-playoff teams play a single game to determine whether they pick 13th and 14th in the draft.
a. If two teams have identical records but only one can go to a given tournament, then they play one game. The winner goes to the Tournament that has the better draft positioning. For example, if there is a tie for the fourth-worst record, then the teams would play one game, with the winner going to Tournament A, and the loser going to Tournament B.
2. Each Tournament matchup is a single game; not a multi-game series.
3. Let’s use Tournament A to work out some details. The points readily extrapolate to Tournaments B and C.
a. Let’s call the with the worst record Team 1, and extrapolate this nomenclature accordingly. Then Team 4 would be the team with the best record in Tournament A.
b. The first-round seeding would thus be Teams 1 and 4 play each other; as do Teams 2 and 3. The winners of the first round are guaranteed a draft position of now lower than 2nd. The losers of the first round are guaranteed a draft position of no lower than 4th and no higher than 3rd.
c. For illustration’s purposes, let’s assume that things go as expected, Teams 3 and 4 win the first round. Then in the second round, they would play each other to determine the first two draft positions. There would be a consolation game between Teams 1 and 2 to determine who drafts third and fourth. Imagine that this also goes as expected, and Team 4 beats Team 3 in Tournament A’s “final”, and Team 2 beats Team 1 in Tournament A’s consolation match. Then the draft order would be the exact opposite of the records: Team 4 would draft 1st, Team 3 would draft 2nd, Team 2 would draft 3rd, and Team 1 would draft 4th. This is no worse than what could happen to the team with the worst record in the current draft lottery.
Advantages of this system.
4. Added postseason intrigue. In addition to the regular playoffs, there would be the Draft Battle. When there are none of the ties (See 1.a), this would add 14 games. Since there has been talk of shortening the regular season, this would be one way to do so without losing revenue. Presumably, Draft Battles would generate significant ratings because the stakes—draft position—are higher than the regular season games that these teams would be playing. This will be especially exciting when there are heavily hyped prospects, such as Zion Williamson.
5. Less tanking. If a team knew that it had to at least get two postseason wins to secure the top draft position, then the team would need to make sure that it is competitive come the Draft Battle. Note that this is a significant incentive to invest in player development. A young team is likely to have a poor regular season, which will be good for draft positioning, but may really start to hit its stride just in time for the Draft Battle.
a. Of course, there are still ways of gaming the system. Teams could bench their quality players for most of the regular season and then reactivate them just in time for the Draft Battle. However, I don’t think this would be any worse than the status quo.