I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on underdogs the other day. It’s one of the many subjects that he and Bill Simmons tackle in a three-part email conversation they had recently: part one, part two, part three. Simmons says of LeBron James:
Let’s wrap things up by tackling LeBron James. As the 2009 postseason rolls on, the King has become its most compelling story, not just because of his insane numbers, that Jordan-like hunger in his eyes, even the fact that he’s still on cruise control to some degree. (Note: I would compare him to Nigel Tufnel’s amp. He alternated between “9” and “10” in the regular season, and he’s been at 10 in the playoffs, but I can’t shake the feeling that he has an “11” in store for Kobe and the Finals. An extra decibel level, if you will. In my lifetime, Jordan could go to 11. So could Bird. Shaq and Kobe could get there together, but not apart. And really, that’s it. Even Magic could get to 10 3/4 but never quite 11. It’s a whole other ball game: You aren’t just beating teams, you’re destroying their will. You never know when you’ll see another 11. I’m just glad we’re here. End of tangent.)
I have a hunch that Kobe may not even make it to the finals. They’ve got to beat the pesky and superstarless Rockets first and those Nuggets are looking good, although the long layoff could affect their momentum. Gladwell shared one of his ideas for changing the NBA draft: let the best teams pick first.
I think the only way around the problem is to put every team in the lottery. Every team’s name gets put in a hat, and you get assigned your draft position by chance. Does that, theoretically, make it harder for weaker teams to improve their chances against stronger teams? I don’t think so. First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that’s simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization.
Another more radical idea is that you do a full lottery only every second year, or three out of four years, and in the off year make draft position in order of finish. Best teams pick first. How fun would that be? Every meaningless end-of-season game now becomes instantly meaningful. If you were the Minnesota Timberwolves, you would realize that unless you did something really drastic — like hire some random sports writer as your GM, or bring in Pitino to design a special-press squad — you would never climb out of the cellar again. And in a year with a can’t-miss No. 1 pick, having the best record in the regular season becomes hugely important.