Musings On The NBA Draft Lottery

Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca, who has an off-speed pitch on the week's sports news.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")

SISTER WYNONA CARR: (Singing) Life is a ball game, bein' played each day. Life is a ball game...

MARTIN: If life is a ball game, then Mike Pesca has front-row seats, breaking down every play then sharing his notes with WEEKEND EDITION. He is, of course, NPR's sports correspondent and he joins us now. Pesca, hello.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello. You said breaking down every game. Since I'm a Mets, Jets and Knicks fan, I'm usually just breaking down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Don't cry too hard. So, I understand you've been thinking a lot about the NBA draft lottery, which is coming up this Wednesday, right?

PESCA: That's right, yeah.

MARTIN: What big thoughts have you been thinking?

PESCA: Let me start with a riddle. Are you ready?

MARTIN: OK.

PESCA: An aging king takes his sons out to the countryside. He says I will give my kingdom to the winner of an unusual race: whose ever horse crosses the castle gates last is going to get my kingdom. The sons look at each other, immediately jump on their horses and tear off as fast as they can for the castle...

MARTIN: But, wait, the loser is supposed to win.

PESCA: What the king says is whose ever horse crosses the castle gates last. So why would they go as fast as they can?

MARTIN: I don't know. They're not smart. They didn't hear him. They're impaired.

PESCA: The answer is they jumped on the other one's horse. And so they would make sure whichever one's horse crosses the gate last - get it?

MARTIN: Oh.

PESCA: This reminds me...

MARTIN: That was tricky.

PESCA: Yes. This reminds me of the goings-on on the April 24 game between the New Orleans Hornets and the Golden State Warriors - the second-to-last game between two teams who are having really terrible years. The Golden State Warriors were hosting the New Orleans Hornets and the Warriors had lost eight of their last nine. They had a chance to win this game, but they did not. They lost at the buzzer. And yet when they lost, their fans cheered and applauded, they threw confetti on the court. The question is why would fans want their own team to lose?

MARTIN: I have no idea. That seems completely illogical to me.

PESCA: Because just as in the riddle, they were backing the other team's horse. See, the NBA - all leagues really - have an incentive, or a disincentive program, depending on how you look at it. The worst teams get the top picks. This year, the Charlotte Bobcats had the worst record in NBA history, even though their owner, a guy named Michael Jordan, says, you know, I've been a winner all my life. I'd never try not to win. It is quite clear they're doing everything they can not to win. And it's a logical move. Economists would call it a moral hazard. When you reward a team with the number one pick for having the worst record, it's a moral hazard. And teams that aren't doing very well are just going to say, well, it's better if we do terribly than merely mediocrely(ph).

MARTIN: I mean, this has to be controversial among fans, right? They're watching their favorite team intentionally lose a season just so they can get a better pick for next year.

PESCA: Yeah. And while it's controversial for fans of the league and non-fans of the Warriors who like basketball, like myself, the actual fans in those situations want to lose. You know, they say, well, we're not going to make the playoffs. Let's have the worst record. Let's get the most hyped prospect out of college. And so in order to rectify the situation, you have to sometimes go against the behavior of individual fans for individual seasons. But you also have to acknowledge the problem, and none of the leagues really do. They say, well, that questions the integrity of the game. Of course, our teams are trying to hardest. There's no logical reason to try the hardest, but of course they are.

MARTIN: So, everyone kind of wink-wink, nod-nod, everyone does this.

PESCA: Yeah. I mean, here's my assessment. It makes sense, or if you were just devising a sports league from scratch, you might say, well, how do teams get better? Let's give the number one pick to the worst team. That has some logic to it. But if you look at all the teams and all the leagues over all the years, it has become quite clear that you've created a moral hazard. It's become quite clear that you're pushing your not-so-good teams into becoming terrible. You can't ignore this forever. But they do seem really reluctant to do anything to fix it.

MARTIN: OK. So, as a basketball fan, I'm upset by this. Can this be fixed?

PESCA: Yeah, it can be fixed. First, you got to try to fix it. You could have a draft that has nothing to do with how you did last year. You could have random distribution. That wouldn't be so bad. But one of the more clever solutions comes from a researcher named Adam Gold. And what he said is as soon as a team is eliminated from the playoffs, so you know you're not playing for anything that year, then what you should do is award the number one pick to the team with the best record after becoming eliminated. It sort of creates two seasons: first, you play to get into the playoffs; once it's clear you're not getting into the playoffs, then you play hard to try to get a pick. I think that would make it much more enjoyable, and you'd have top division teams playing hard for this year and bottom division teams playing hard for the next year. It's a really smart solution, I think.

MARTIN: OK. NBA commissioner, listen to Mike Pesca. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")

CARR: (Singing) ...He is waiting for you there. Well, you know life is a ball game, but you got to play it fast.

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