Well, the system kind of worked. In Tuesday night’s Draft Lottery, the hard-tanking Cavs, Suns, and Knicks all moved down and some of the mediocre-by-accident franchises moved up. Now Zion Williamson has to go to New Orleans. That’s not so bad, an enforced vacation in one of America’s greatest cities. Oh, you’re saying he has to play for the Pelicans? That’s less desirable.
It would be brainless in this case to conflate results with process. The NBA hasn’t fixed its tanking problem so much as created a mechanism through which tanking teams are less likely to succeed. Let’s say you’re dead broke and someone offers you a 25 percent shot at five million dollars if you live in your car for six months. You take that deal. Same arrangement, but you’ve got 14 percent odds? You still take the deal. I’m not sure what number fails to persuade hopeless franchises from throwing away a season in exchange for a shot at some Zion Williamson-tier talent, but it’s less than 14. If anything, the NBA has ensured that, for instance, the Cavs’ post-LeBron rebuild is just going to be further protracted and more difficult.
You’ve heard it before, but this whole arrangement stinks. The draft, the lottery, Mark Tatum’s hair, all of it. It’s supposed to make up for inherent inequities between various franchises—so no single team is terrible for too long—but it’s an insufficient solution. Unless the league finds a way to move all 30 organizations to Los Angeles, the Lakers are always going to be operating with an advantage that the Grizzlies and Pistons lack. You could order the draft every year according to market size and you wouldn’t make up for that imbalance.
In the end, when they’re not shackled by a rookie contract or coerced by restricted free agency, players play where they want to. Sometimes that’s Minneapolis. Much more often, it’s a big city on a coast. The Clippers are looking pretty likely to sign Kawhi Leonard this summer. The Pacers have cap space too, but they won’t even get a meeting with Uncle Dennis.
It’s not that the NBA shouldn’t seek competitive balance—without a little help from the league office, the Pacers would never be any good—but its attempts to do so leave everybody looking foolish. In the way buying a puppy is buying your own future grief, the clock is already ticking on the Zion era in New Orleans. That’s not a fun thing to think about, but the anxiety is real. You’re only here because we’ve trapped you; let’s see if we can change your mind in the meantime. It’s an exploitative arrangement. More than that, it’s really silly. Zion had to play for free(-ish) at Duke so he could gain the right to be a cost-controlled asset for one of basketball’s more incompetently run organizations? That’s unfair on a number of levels, and absurd on several others. He’ll do his best to make it work because he has a great attitude, but you couldn’t blame Zion if he’s mildly upset about his fate.
There’s no spectacular alternative the NBA hasn’t considered here. If they completely remove the incentive to tank by, say, giving everyone the same lottery odds or adopting the wheel proposal, then moribund teams—especially capped out ones—will have very little hope of their situation improving. If they were to abolish the draft in favor of a wide open European soccer-style market, the league would quickly become stratified and a large handful of franchises would basically be unable to compete for championships. Players would have the agency they deserve, but the NBA would probably be worse as a whole.
And so in substitute for other approaches that would also be less than satisfactory, we get the lottery—by some measure the strangest thing on the NBA calendar, smiling legends and bored-looking young dudes sitting on a set that resembles a middle school chorus room—and the draft, which we talk about all season and is interesting about once every five years. The NBA does things this way because they’ve become accustomed to it. They probably wouldn’t design the process this way if they were starting from scratch, but oh well.
Is Zion Williamson landing in New Orleans a good thing? He wouldn’t have been any better off in Cleveland or Phoenix. The Knicks might have ended up trading him to New Orleans anyway in exchange for Anthony Davis. Now he gets to either play alongside the Brow, or with a cadre of young talents the Pelicans get in return for their unhappy star. Alvin Gentry is a sharp coach; David Griffin is a sharp executive. It could work out.
With the Warriors’ ironclad hegemony winding down and LeBron aging out of his prime, most fans are ready for a new NBA—fresh talent, unfamiliar title contenders. That wave is coming and no matter where he plays, if he’s as good as advertised, Zion is going to play a big part in the league’s bright future. You can’t really screw this up; just putting him on a court and pointing a camera at it is going to excite people. The mechanism that delivers him to the league isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have, and anyway that part is almost over. Zion will take it from here.