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What If Prospects Drafted Their Teams?

I don’t know how to solve tanking, how to create a better lottery system, how to balance the biggest and smallest markets, etc. But I surely know what would make the draft much more intriguing and fun. Let kids pick the franchise they want to play for!

DAVID SHERMAN/GETTY IMAGES

We’re a day away from the 2019 NBA Draft. We have been waiting for this with much anticipation because of what is coming to the Association. Yes, this has been labeled a “soft” class in terms of the level of the prospects to enter the league out of the top three. But, it also has a certain Zion Williamson leading the pack, which kind of compensates.

Not every year there is such a clear-cut, can’t-miss pick such as Zion available. The bad news for 29 of the 30 teams that are part of the NBA right now is that only that other one, the lottery winner, has a chance at getting Williamson.

This year, destiny wanted it, the No. 1 pick belongs to the New Orleans Pelicans. It is not that Zion doesn’t want to play for them, but he made it clear that he would have preferred to put on Knicks threads at the MSG.

So, what if Zion had the chance of picking New York as his basement while New Orleans still retained (at least to some extent) its luck in getting a top-tier prospect? What if a system that combined the current lottery odds and a player-focused approach was in place? Let’s explore this crazy and fun idea.


How would a system in which players drafted teams work?

I have thought about this for quite some time. Now, I’ve finally put on some light work to make it a little more precise, establishing a system based on a series of points to make it as comprehensive and fair as I could.

These are some points the system would be based on:

  • Each franchise would submit a “Prospect Big Board” once every player (both seniors, underclassmen and international prospects) that declares for the draft is known.
  • The NBA, as an organization, would create a combined Big Board that would rank the prospects from best to worst to the eyes of each franchise averaging their lists.
  • The NBA, as an organization, would hold a draft lottery in similar fashion to what is done nowadays, thus generating a team order based on luck and win-loss records.
  • On Draft night, the order to be followed would be that of the “Prospect Big Board”, instead of the team lottery. This is due to players picking teams, giving the best prospect the chance of picking teams first.

Those would be the rules of how the draft would work on a team/prospect basis. The table is flipped in that there would be the prospects who would be picking their franchise instead of the other way around.

For example, in this year’s draft, Zion would be given the chance of selecting New York as his preferred team to get his career started. New Orleans would lose its chance of getting a generational talent, yes, but as I will explain next, they will remain candidates to still get a very good player.


If the Big Board sets the drafting order, why is there a team lottery on top of it?

That is what would make the draft a little bit more fair to the worst teams in the league, and those getting the highest positions after the lottery results are known.

Back to Zion’s case, it wouldn’t be fair if he had the chance of say, picking Golden State or Toronto or any other winning team. That would make big markets and already-established franchises even stronger, which is not a good thing if we want new teams to get into the mix every year.

In order to solve this problem, prospects would be free to pick their team of choice (on most cases) but they will have limited options. Those options would come down to the team lottery order.

These would be the things to keep in mind, then:

  • Depending on the situation, each prospect would have between one and three options/teams to pick from. Some prospects would have bad luck and be “forced” to a team (which is not worst than what they experience now), while others would have more options open, adding an unknown random element and fun twist to the draft each few picks.
  • No team would drop more than three positions in the order set by the lottery, giving some leverage to the league’s worst teams. That would prevent super-prospects to add to already built super-teams.

Now that may sound a little weird, so let me get to the nitty-gritty details of how the whole system would work on a deeper level and present you a simulation of what could we see in the 2019 Draft if the system was in place.


I’m totally lost. How would this thing ultimately work? Can you tell me where Ja Morant or R.J. Barrett would be playing in this scenario? And who would the Lakers even get?

Okay, okay. Let’s get to some real-life example so you get the idea. But first, a little bit more on the system so I put you on the right direction and you don’t feel completely lost.

  • Consider each player/pick as a drawer with five slots of storage.
  • When a team “enters” into a player’s drawer, it fills one slot.
  • If a team is not selected by a player, if fills two slots in the next pick’s drawer, then three in the next’s, and finally five slots if it drops three picks.
  • Once a team gets to fill five spots, thus having dropped the max three positions in the order, it automatically fits a player’s full drawer and then that player is “forced” to pick that team, or in other words, that team gets the next-best prospect available in the Big Board.
  • There is a case in which two three-slot teams may be available to pick for. In that case, the player must pick one of those teams.
  • Prospects would therefore only be forced to a team when it drops three positions. It can happen but not too often.

With all of that in place, here is what the 2019 NBA Draft could look like from picks 1 to 16:

On the top of the image, horizontally, I have positioned the teams as drawn in the lottery (same as real life). New Orleans would have drafted with the first pick, Memphis with the second, etc. Vertically, the 16 picks are numbered. Each team’s column has one or two cells highlighted: one with a number and color (it shows when a prospect selected the team, and with which pick) and another shadowed (shows the earliest pick the team could have been selected by a prospect).

As you can see, no team can fall more than three spots (Memphis, Chicago, Charlotte, and Miami did in this simulation) and only two teams (New Orleans and Atlanta) dropped two spots.

On the bottom of the image, the Big Board of prospects show the picking order, and how the draft would develop. Remember: each player has five slots, and Zions opens fire with NO, MEM and NYK occupying one each. He selects New York. This leaves Ja Morant with NO and MEM (now occupying two slots each), and LAL (which enters the ecuation filling one spot). He opts for Los Angeles, so there are no newcomers for RJ Barrett as NO and MEM now occupy three slots each and therefore fill his drawer full. Once RJ picks New Orleans, MEM remains as the only option for Jarrett Culver as the team fills five slots on its own and there is no remaining space for new teams to be added to his drawer.

You get the idea. I have added the slots each franchise occupies on each pick to the right of the row, in gray, so it is easier to follow the flow.

And as for the actual results, they don’t look that bad, right? Let’s just comment on what happened there:

  • Big prospects can pick big markets, but it all gets balanced over time. Zion goes to New York. Morant opts for the bright lights of Hollywood, but options start to shrink from that point down to the 5th spot, where they’re opened again.
  • There is an element of randomness in terms of who gets forced where (there is also the case it never happens).
  • Prospects can employ different strategies and reasoning when picking teams. Some would opt for the bigger market, others for the best fit, others could try to remain close to home, etc.
  • Draft pick trades would become a completely new beast to deal with. Teams wouldn’t be exchanging drafting rights, but rather chances of being selected, which adds even more volatility to the current lottery system.

Those are just some simple takeaways from this new system. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments or Twitter, pinpoint the idea’s shortcomings and flaws, and tell us what you like or not about it and how it could be improved!