Stop Incentivizing Decent Teams To Be Bad

The idea of a draft lottery makes sense. Disincentivizing teams from losing as many games as the possibly can because their pick might suffer is generally a good idea.

However, the way that lottery has played out and continues to play out makes this idea ridiculous. In the NHL and NBA, the draft lottery was instituted years ago as a way to decide some of the top picks in the leagues' respective drafts. Teams with the worst record in the leagues had the best odds at the first overall pick was by no means guarnateed to them.

Let's take a look back at the last two draft lotteries in the NHL. The 2020 draft lottery, after the dust had settled, gave a team with 2.5% odds to receive the first overall pick, ended up being able to pick first. The New York Rangers — who had made the playoffs in 2020 — selected one of the best players in years in Alexis Lafreniere. Neither of the two worst teams in the NHL picked in the top 3. In the 2019 draft lottery, the New Jersey Devils — who were the third-worst team in the NHL by points — won the draft lottery with 11.5% odds to do so. The New York Rangers, who finished with the sixth-fewest amount of points in the NHL standings, won the second overall pick with just 7.8% odds to do so. And, the Chicago Blackhawks, who finished with the twelfth-fewest amount of points in the NHL (not really a bad season by any means), picked third, winning that spot with a 3% chance to do so. Neither of the two worst teams in the NHL picked in the top 3 again.

How is any of that fair to the worst teams? Regardless of your feelings about the draft process and the existence of a draft, is the point of the draft not to give the worst teams a chance to improve? Granted, they are still picking fairly high up in the draft order, but that is besides the point. The draft lottery as currently constructed doesn’t incentivize teams to play better or build better rosters overall. In fact, I would argue that the draft lottery incentivizes teams who are on the bubble or fairly close to a playoff spot to simply give up and sell their pieces instead of going all in on the playoffs, because they would then have fairly strong odds at the first overall pick in the draft lottery.

This isn’t just a recent problem. A simple scroll through the draft order each year shows that teams who struggled the most during the regular seasonrarelyget the pick that the standings warrant in a normal draft. Only twice in the last 5 draft lotteries has the worst team in the league actually received the first overall pick. And even behind them, the other teams in the top 3 are rarely able to receive the picks that their record warrants. Connor McDavid should have been a Buffalo Sabre or an Arizona Coyote. And what’s even worse about that lottery selection is that the draft lottery was instituted to prevent teams like the Edmonton Oilers from stockpiling first overall draft picks like they had done in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

If the whole point of the draft lottery is to make sure that teams that are repeatedly losing don’t receive the first overall pick year after year, I guess you can consider the NHL to have been successful in that regard. But at the same time, the lottery odds for teams that shouldn’t even be in consideration for the first overall pick are far too high. In any given year, that 9th-best team that ends up with the first overall pick may just be one piece away from contention. That’s not the way the draft is supposed to work, and it isn’t fair to teams that badly need an infusion of young talent.

To fix this, I would suggest that there are no “odds” for the first and second overall picks. The two worst teams in the league should simply receive their deserved picks. A draft lottery, albeit with changed odds, should be responsible for determining the 3rd through 10th picks. Generally, the worst teams in the league are the ones who actually do need the most help and need the highest amount of young talent. Teams that sustain lots of injuries over the course of a season are likely not going to be challenging especially bad teams for that first pick, but they might be deserving a high (but not too high) pick.

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