Why The NBA Draft Lottery is NOT Rigged

Conspiracy theories are all the rage these days. More and more people than ever buy into the wacky conspiracies that are incessantly spewed from Alex Jones, Donald Trump and Glenn Beck’s mouths. As a scientist, I’m well versed in what the scientific method is and understand the best method of inquiry is to seek empirical and measurable evidence to explore a hypothesis. Questioning things is not wrong. Questioning things and then proceeding to seek  ridiculous bits of quasi-evidence to confirm the crazy thoughts in your heads, and favoring poor evidence over strong evidence (or no evidence at all) is wrong. These guys will tell you that NASA is a program that is set up to kill thousands of astronauts, that President Obama is a Muslim from Kenya and that the Boston Marathon Bombings were carried out by Saudi Nationalists and/or covered up by the US government without a strand of concrete evidence all to further push their oft-hilarious agendas. They’re master manipulators; they can construe flimsy arguments with passionate tirades, wild stretches of the imagination all the while knowing their audiences are full of gullibility.

Those people are wackos who most are willing to just right off as such. Disclaimer: I apologize to anyone reading this that is a fan of either of those three and feels I am being harsh towards them; I did not mean to insult them, rather I intended to insult you.

Glenn Beck viewing party

But when it comes to the world of sports, these conspiracies are much more widely accepted and far less taboo. Perhaps it’s simply because the stakes are minuscule in scale to those and the idea that people would conspire to achieve something in the sports world feels much more innocent. The complications that arise if sports-related conspiracy theories are true are far less terrifying — in fact, they’d really only merely be disappointing and upsetting. The consequences of “Michael Jordan was secretly suspended by the NBA for gambling problems, and this is why he went and played baseball” are far less harmless than what the 9/11 truthers believe. Sports conspiracy theories are fun. Debating whether or not Curt Schilling had blood or ketchup on his sock is innocuous, as is debating whether or not Delonte West porked LeBron’s mom and thus ran him out of town.

But there are more serious allegations out there and it feels like most of them gravitate towards the NBA. The NBA is full of fans who feel that David Stern is some sort of puppet-master-god-voodoo-shaman-thing who can literally influence every aspect of the NBA. People debate, before games even start, who “Stern will let win”. Arguments about “who Stern will let reach the Finals” are in season and super-trendy right now (I kind of hope we get Memphis vs. Indy so they can shut up, at least for a few months). There are a substantial amount of fans that I interact with every day that feel Stern has his hands on everything. Unfortunately, this leads most fans to become unable to objectively watch a game and assess officials, and the rigging conspiracy theorists fall into a downward viscous cycle. They let confirmation bias run rampant.

Whether or not games are rigged is a topic for another day. I think most people have their minds made up and believe what they want to believe.

But when it comes to the draft there is some more concrete evidence out there that can be a bit persuading.

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Let’s start with the basics.

First, don’t bring up the 1985 draft. That system of drawing envelopes is so outrageously archaic and outdated that it really has nothing to do with this discussion. Maybe it WAS rigged but that’s irrelevant to a conversation discussing whether or not the lottery that takes place this week will be too. I’m less interested in arguing that there is no incentive or desire to rig the thing, I’m going to argue that it’s just highly improbable that it’s even possible.

Here’s how the current NBA Draft Lottery works.

The NBA Draft Lottery is a process that determines the first 14 picks of the NBA Draft. The 14 picks come from the 14 teams that missed out on the playoffs (or, obviously, whoever they’ve traded their pick to). The lottery only directly decides who picks in positions 1 through 3. The subsequent picks, 4-14, are assigned based to the remaining teams in inverse order based on their record for the prior season.

The lottery is far more complicated than it was almost 3 decades ago when people allege Stern rigged the draft to get Patrick Ewing to the Knicks. Instead of one envelope for each team, each team is assigned a various amount of four digit combinations using 14 numbers that are represented by 14 ping-pong balls. This is known as a weighted system; each team has different odds to win the lottery.

The co-conspirators hard at work

There are 1,001 4-number combinations that can be drawn, but only an even 1,000 are assigned. The number of combinations a team receives, and thus the odds they will have their combination picked, is determined by the previous season’s record. The order in which the balls are drawn does not matter. For example, 4-3-2-1 is the same as 1-2-3-4 and 2-3-1-4 and so on. What matters are the combinations  not the permutationsThe combination not assigned is 11-12-13-14. If drawn, it is ignored.

The worst team in the NBA gets 25% of the combinations, which are assigned by a computer prior to the drawing. The second worst gets 19.9%. The third worst gets 15.6%.And so on. The 14th worst team gets just 0.5 percent of the combinations. This year, the Orlando Magic have a 1-in-4 chance of winning the rights to the #1 overall pick, and Utah, who finished with the 14th worst record, have a 1-in-200 chance. You can see the full odds here.

The system is much more intricate than it was in the mid-80s and before taking the control out of one person’s hands, yet, it is simple enough to be intuitive to most.

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The controversy arises in most’s eyes because of the fact that the lottery takes place in a separate room before the nationally televised event and off the camera. People are suspicious of things they can’t see.

The lottery is conducted with a representative from each team present. They observe the weighing of each ball (note: I have read this in many places, but I can’t quite confirm it absolutely), make sure that all 14 balls are placed in the machine, that they are randomized for at least 20 seconds before the first ball is drawn and for 10 seconds in between each ball is drawn. They observe that the balls are replaced after each drawing, and the process is repeated.

This still might not quell the doubts of some, because again, they can’t see it all. Perhaps the league is so powerful that teams for whatever recent become complicit with the rigging. Perhaps the witnesses are convinced by the league to let something slide.

To quell some of this, the League allowed viewing privileged to the media and independent auditors.

Still not convinced? There is yet another system set up to ensure that the league isn’t pulling any strings.

The lottery is run through an independent third party firm. More importantly, that firm is Ernst & Young, a global company headquartered in London with over 160,000 employees operating in 140 different countries. It is part of the “Big Four” accounting firms and was ranked by Forbes as the 8th largest private companies in the United States in November 2012. They reported, in October 2012, that they had a combined global revenues totaling $24.4 billion during the last financial year.

The long story short: Ernst & Young is a huge firm that towers over the NBA. The NBA is chump change to them.

Imagine all the people the NBA would have to keep hush-hush to convince E&Y to allow them to rig it. Imagine what it would take to rig the machine. It would take a relatively elaborate effort to pull it off. Stern can’t just have one guy bend a corner of an envelope for him so he knows which one to pick; the whole system is far more rig-proof now.

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People who think the lottery is rigged (the ones who want it to be rigged so they continue to pile weak arguments upon weak arguments to reassure them they’re right) will be quick to point to a slew of weak arguments.

“Well, have you ever heard about the 1980 PA Lottery Scandal? Just because there is a ping-pong ball system now doesn’t mean you can’t rig it!”

What happened was that Nick Perry, the man who announced the lottery results, replaced 4 of the balls with weighted balls that he hand-painted himself. He gained access via a lottery official.

That’s great and all, but considering how the PA Lottery in 1980 was set up in an entirely different manner suggests it has no real legs in this argument. There weren’t independent parties present. They had one man, who was affiliated with the lottery, in charge of officiating it. They didn’t have people inspecting the machine and balls before each drawing.

There are two important points that can be drawn from this. First, those guys got busted quickly. Secondly, the success of weighing certain balls is proven, which actually is a chink in the armor for those arguing in favor of NBA conspiracies. Unlike the PA Lottery where only combination was drawn, the NBA Draft Lottery sees multiple drawings. If someone weighed the balls to ensure a certain combination would appear on the first drawing they would run into problems in subsequent drawings. The same weighted balls would be replaced back into the machine after the first drawing so in subsequent drawings you’d see a similar drawing time and time again. Undoubtedly this would tip everyone off in the room. The fact that they need to draw three different combinations is essentially a self-induced mechanism that would expose weighted balls.

I recently was alerted to a situation in 2005 where a witness alleged that the same ball appeared in all 4 combinations drawn. There were 4 drawings because the combination that isn’t assigned popped up. The odds that the same ball makes it way into the 4-ball combination all three times is 2.20%. The odds the same ball makes it in 4 subsequent drawings is less than 1%. Undoubtedly this is suspicious, but you can’t say anything else about it. Statistically it is possible.

Again, I can’t find proof of this allegation. I’m less convinced this story is true than not. But even if it was, it proves nothing.

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Other Arguments

1. Couldn’t the NBA just bribe their way into rigging it? Perhaps, but once again, imagine the sheer number of people that they’d have to make complicit. It is set up with enough checks and balances to ensure that one person couldn’t just secretly pull it off. Considering all the different parties involved it would require an elaborate effort including complacency from the teams involved. I find it hard to imagine that the Miami Heat and Seattle Supersonics would have been OK with the league letting Chicago win the first pick in 2008. At the time, those teams were desperate for help. The financial implications would have appeared too great at the time.

2. Even though the cons might outweigh the pros, history has shown us that people are willing to take those risks. This comment has been thrown at me when I comment on how the pros (getting a player to a certain team) are vastly outweighed by the cons (getting busted, ruining the integrity of the game, losing fan interest, etc.) of rigging the draft. People will be quick to point out the Bernie Medoffs and Enrons of the world, showing that people still do incredibly illegal and stupid things even with the stakes are so high. That’s fair – people are greedy fucks – but I’d argue that the potential rewards aren’t as high here as they are in those situations. Enron’s corporate corruption hid billions and billions of dollars of debt keeping stocks insanely high and thus those people insanely rich. Bernie Madoff ripped people off for almost $65 billion dollars collectively. What those two examples were getting from their fraudulent behavior was so much more than what the NBA gains by rigging a lottery. To use the Derrick Rose example: whether or not he’s in Chicago or Miami, or any other team, he’s still in the NBA and he’s still making  the league and a team a lot of money. Yes, Chicago is a large market and his individual marketability skyrockets by going there as opposed to, let’s say Minnesota, but we’ve seen from the likes of Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, etc., that stars are still stars regardless of what market they’re in. All those guys were extremely popular players with rich endorsement deals even when playing in either small market or bad teams. Chicago being more competitive than Minnesota is a good thing for the league, but it’s not make-or-break good. Chicago’s attendance remained relatively strong post-Jordan; they didn’t need help putting butts in seats in 2008. Minnesota on the other hand had been struggling mightily with attendance. Getting those extra butts in the seats would have mattered a lot more to Minnesota than to Chicago.

The gains of rigging a lottery isn’t billions of dollars good. It’s, most importantly, not sacrifice-the-integrity-of-the-game-and-jeopardize-everything good. The pros truly do not even come close to outweigh cons. I’d argue in those other scandals that the pros actually did. If you’re being honest with yourself, if you had the chance to steal $65 billion dollars and potentially not get caught, a lot of you would go ahead and try. That’s just not what’s at stake for the NBA though.

Do you not see the similarities?

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People already have the explanations made up for reasons why if any team gets the top pick it’s rigged for them. The fact that that’s the case shows how you can’t use it as “evidence”. We can come up with any explanation for any possible result. That’s not proof. That’s not even some semblance of proof.

If Orlando gets it it’s because the league is creating some contrived trend of giving the top pick to teams that lose their superstars (Cleveland & New Orleans the last two years). If Charlotte gets it it’s because the team needs help with attendance. They also have MJ there and the current re-branding going on. If Sacramento gets it it’s because of their relocation efforts and/or some sort of compensation to the fans/new owner. If Philly gets it it’s because Philly is an important NBA market that hasn’t had much in recent years. The NBA needs Philly to do better. And so on…

The explanations are all set up and ready to use. It’s rigged regardless!

I very well could be wrong. Maybe the circumstantial evidence I find to be so weak isn’t. Perhaps I’m naive.

But for me to be naive I’d have to be one who “has or shows a lack of experience, judgment, or information; credulous”. I think the real people who fall into that theory are the ones in their tin foil hats sitting on the coach, wondering why the world didn’t end 5 months ago and waiting for the government to kick in their doors and send their family off to concentration camps.

 

Enjoy the draft!

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