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NBA PM: The Next Steps For Lottery Reform

Buddy Grizzard analyzes the NBA’s recent lottery reform and potential ideas to improve on it.

Buddy Grizzard

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The lottery reform voted in by the NBA’s Board of Governors last week won’t end tanking and could dramatically increase it. The reform targeted one specific form of tanking — the “race to the bottom,” where teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers positioned themselves to lose as many games as possible to maximize draft assets. The league reportedly characterized this round of changes as an “incremental” step in lottery reform. So what’s next? What further changes could or should be contemplated?

To answer this question, it should be noted that Basketball Insiders has previously dissected the motivations behind lottery reform. While the quest to end tanking gets all the headlines, the vastly more important — yet under-reported — issue is which teams have a chance to draft a generational talent capable of winning multiple championships. Since 1980, about 90 percent of NBA champions have had one of 11 superstars that were central contributors on multiple championship teams. Thus, to have a serious chance at contention, a team needs to acquire one of these generational talents that only come around about three times per decade. It’s through this prism of access to talent that we’ll examine other potential steps.

By looking at a comparison of the new lottery odds, which will take effect in the 2019 NBA Draft, it’s easy to understand why many are arguing that the latest lottery reform could increase tanking rather than decrease it.

Looking at the odds for a team to move into the top three in the draft, notice that the previous odds in parenthesis scaled dramatically upward the more a team lost. This created the “race to the bottom” incentive since losses could lead to increased odds of landing a franchise-altering player. The new odds are “flattened,” meaning the four worst teams have nearly identical odds while odds for teams in the middle of the lottery have dramatically increased. Teams eight through 11 had their odds of moving into the top three roughly doubled.

As a consequence, teams no longer need to plan their way into one of the league’s worst records to optimize lottery odds. Previously, the team with the fifth-worst record had less than half the chance of landing a top-three pick compared to the team with the worst record. Under the new system, the teams with the fifth- and sixth-worst records have odds that are about 75 percent as good as the worst team. If you’re the team with the 11th-worst record at the trade deadline, are you a buyer hoping to move up a few places and make the playoffs? Or do you trade away assets and possibly waive valuable players that are not in your team’s long-term plans to chase lottery odds that are more evenly distributed starting in 2019?

By flattening the odds, the NBA has distributed the chances for a team to luck into a top-three pick — and potentially a generational star — to be more favorable for a larger number of teams. And that’s why further steps at lottery reform will be extremely difficult to pass. As we take a look below at potential additional steps, a common theme will emerge. These steps could further dis-incentivize losing, but they’re all unlikely to pass because they would restrict access to high picks that could potentially land a superstar.

The “no repeater” rule

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported after the league’s previous lottery reform proposal was voted down that many teams didn’t like it when the Cavaliers won the top overall pick in three out of four drafts. To avoid a repeat of the “insta-rebuild” the Cavaliers were able to execute, one change contemplated for the latest round of reform — but which did not make it into the proposal that was recently voted on and adopted — was a rule restricting teams from moving up in the draft in consecutive seasons. Such a rule would have prevented the Cavaliers from picking first in the draft more frequently than every other season.

While this rule would further discourage teams from bottoming out — since remaining bad for multiple years wouldn’t be rewarded with consecutive chances at the top pick in the draft — the reason the rule didn’t make it to a vote should be fairly obvious. NBA teams would love to restrict other teams from access to superstars, but they don’t want that access restricted for themselves if misfortune dooms them to multiple trips to the lottery. This could be why the Oklahoma City Thunder were the only organization to vote against the latest reform proposal. Thunder GM Sam Presti had so much success drafting high in the lottery — selecting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in successive years — that the Thunder may have wished to avoid any restrictions on Presti repeating that success the next time it needs to rebuild.

The postseason consolation tournament

The surest way to ensure that draft position is not based solely on losing would be a postseason tournament for teams that miss the playoffs that provides an opportunity to move up by advancing. Basketball Insiders previously proposed a tournament involving a home-and-home series for each round with the winner advancing based on aggregate points. For each round a team won, it would move up one position in the draft. Thus, if a team was in position to select first prior to the tournament, it would have to win at least one round to ensure that another team didn’t move ahead of it.

This idea would drive massive interest and generate massive revenue for the NBA, two factors that would normally spur a profit-driven league to take notice. But a consolation tournament in any form is unlikely for the same reason as the “no repeater” rule. Teams can talk until they’re blue in the face about taking away the incentive to tank, but the moment you propose a rule that would take away some of the control teams have over their own draft position, the interest will wane.

Since the incentive to obtain superstar players is much greater than the incentive to prevent other teams from tanking, teams are likely to remain much more interested in improving their own odds than in making the system “fair.” A consolation tournament would drive new behaviors aimed at improving a team’s competitiveness at the end of the season. Players that are waived or bought out at the trade deadline would suddenly be in line for a financial windfall since teams would be motivated to lose for most of the season but become more competitive right at the end. That could create just as much of a PR nightmare for the league as tanking does currently.

A three-tiered lottery system

The only system that has been proposed that would eliminate any incentive to tank out of a low playoff seed is a three-tiered lottery system. Under this proposal, there would be a lottery tier composed of teams that have a chance to move up in the draft, a playoff tier composed of teams that are excluded from the lottery, and a randomly-sized middle tier that is also excluded. By randomizing the number of teams that are allowed to take part in the lottery, it would make it impossible for teams to plan their way into the lottery. If a team doesn’t know how far it has to drop in the standings to get into the lottery, it would be much less likely to tank out of a low playoff seed.

The flaw with this proposal is the same as the others. To implement a three-tiered system, teams would have to vote in favor of reducing the number of teams that get to participate in the lottery. This rule is the ultimate answer to tanking, but a team is unlikely to vote for any proposal that could hurt its own chances.

The NBA has said that the latest round of reforms is only an incremental step, but it’s hard to imagine further steps that would be attractive enough to lead to implementation. What’s far more likely is that the latest reform is how the lottery system will remain for years to come as teams assess its impact. The impetus for future change will likely result from unintended consequences of the latest lottery reform, which won’t be understood for years. While we wait for that understanding to develop, don’t expect much in the way of additional lottery reform.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Daily: Can the Milwaukee Bucks be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact

Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.

Drew Maresca

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Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts. 

Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason. 

  1. Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard). 
  1. DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place. 
  1. New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
  1. Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
  2. Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.

One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.

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