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Monson: To heck with the NBA lottery — there's a better way

Published April 9, 2014 9:19 am

NBA • A postseason tournament of have-nots could make winning top draft pick the goal
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The 2013-14 NBA season has been defined as much by losing as winning.

Hope and progress are centered on the outcome of the draft, not the games. It's far from a tomahawk-dunk scenario, and it feels down and it feels dirty, but defeat today is the open gate to a happier tomorrow. Drop 55 or 65 and walk on through.

There is a more transparent way, at least in theory, than to skid into favorable position and then count on Lady Luck and her twin sister to work their wonders. But given the limitations and realities of the modern NBA, especially for small-market teams, it's up to the league to come up with it. So far, it hasn't.

As it is right now, the low road is the preferred path. Maybe, for the Jazz, the only path. Lady Lottery is not just beckoning by waving her arms and blowing kisses, she's straight up seducing at least seven franchises, half of them traditional winning, self-respecting outfits. An infusion of talent is their way back, and they and their fans are all thinking about exactly that.

It's certainly the case around here, where the notion of tanking has been spoken of a lot more often than the notion of a title. We can quibble from dawn to dusk about the proper definition and application of that t-word, cloaking it behind or accompanying it with the dual concept of player development, but a universal baseline exists, no matter how accurate it really is: Losing will lead to help through the draft.

That's a good thing — at least for a team that 1) is fortunate enough to slide into the top of a talent-rich draft, and 2) is smart enough to pick the right guy(s).

The Jazz this season are taking a crack at it.

The Bucks and the Sixers and the Magic and the Celtics and the Lakers and the Kings are packed in there, too. Some of those teams have mastered the suckfest better than others, but they pretty much are bunched in a herd of haplessness, hoping for relief.

The draft isn't the only part of the Jazz's plan — they have purposely preserved their financial flexibility to help bolster their ranks with the kind of free agent(s) interested in coming here in the immediate offseason or in the following one, and stacking up assets for use either on the court or in the trade market — but it is a big part.

After seasons of hanging around the nether regions of playoff qualification, with little hope of authentic contention, the Jazz have settled in on a course that really is their only choice. It's risky, but it's worth it. It might take them a few years, and they'll have to make sound decisions regarding who and when and how much, but positioning themselves in the draft, hoping the Lady embraces them is where they're headed — because that's the formula the NBA has given them.

There's no other tangible way for them to get the kind of player they — or any other teams— must have to contend. They have to compromise themselves, they have to tank, they have to play the lottery game.

Nobody actually likes the lottery, a deal that goes on incentivizing losing.

There have been various suggestions about supplanting the lottery with a different idea, everything from adopting a wheel system all the way to completely abolishing the draft. The wheel, as described by Grantland's Zach Lowe, is a proposal that "would eliminate the draft lottery and replace it with a system in which each of the 30 teams would pick in a specific first-round draft slot once — and exactly once — every 30 years. Each team would simply cycle through the 30 draft slots, year by year, in a predetermined order designed so that teams pick in different areas of the draft each year. Teams would know with 100 percent certainty in which draft slots they would pick every year, up to 30 years out from the start of every 30-year cycle."

There's a better-yet-still-imperfect solution: Get rid of the lottery and replace it with an annual tournament among the non-playoff qualifiers. Enter those 14 teams in a mini-playoff in which the winner gets the top pick, the runner-up gets the second pick, and on down the line. That would keep players, teams and fans interested, even in and with clubs that had underperformed because of injury or inexperience or lack of motivation. In that case, being purposely bad, extraordinarily bad, would hold some reward, but less reward. And teams that were ready to step up, could and would ascend the next season to the playoffs proper. The downside: Truly awful teams might never extricate themselves from their hole.

It won't happen anytime soon.

Instead, what happened this year will happen next year, too. Which means the Jazz are likely to struggle — until they get their draft picks right, until Lady Luck and Lady Lottery team up with Derrick Favors and Trey Burke to make hope — and winning — real again.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.