The NBA’s new reformed draft lottery process worked as designed.
At least for the 2019 draft.
With just a 6% chance of winning the lottery, the New Orleans Pelicans hit the jackpot and won the No. 1 pick, giving new executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin the opportunity to select Duke’s Zion Williamson.
No need for Griffin and the front office to overthink this one.
That wasn’t the only stunner. Memphis, which with the eighth-best lottery odds had a 19% chance of moving into the top three and a 6.3% chance to moving to No. 2, got the second pick, and the Los Angeles Lakers, who had just a 9% chance of a top-four pick, ended up fourth.
The three teams with the best odds – 14% each for the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers – didn’t get the No. 1 or No. 2 picks. The Knicks got the third pick, and the Cavaliers and Suns fell to No. 5 and No. 6, respectively.
There are probably some smiles in the NBA’s basketball operations office. The league set out to reform the draft lottery in an attempt to reduce tanking, or the race to the bottom, to get the best odds of getting the No. 1 pick. The league's new draft lottery system flattened the odds and gave teams a better chance to move up in the lottery.
The NBA doesn’t want to blame it on what the Philadelphia 76ers did several years ago. The league had been exploring lottery reform for years, and the Sixers weren’t the only team trying to manipulate the lottery odds in their favor. But consecutive seasons of 19, 19 and 10 victories for the Sixers combined with public condemnation and discussions by the league’s competition committee led to the reform.
Here’s how they altered the lottery odds: previously, the team with the worst record had a 25% chance at the No. 1 pick, the team with the second-worst record a 19.9% chance at the top pick and the team with third-worst record a 15.6% chance at No. 1. The NBA flattened it so the teams with the three worst records each had the same, lower odds.
This gives other teams a better chance to move up. Take the Grizzlies. Under previous odds, they would have had just a 9.9% chance of moving into the top three. Under the new odds: 19%.
This is what the NBA wanted. It proved a team doesn’t need to tank to get the No. 1 pick.
Unofficially, New Orleans is on the clock. The No. 1 pick may give All-Star center Anthony Davis reason to rethink his trade demand. Griffin wants to try and convince Davis to stay before moving him.
How about this scenario: the Pelicans pursue LeBron James in a trade with the Lakers. Griffin used to be James’ general manager in Cleveland, and James has expressed his interest in playing alongside Davis. The Pelicans retain Davis, get James, and the Lakers get Williamson? It’s the NBA. Not impossible.
Zion Williamson is interviewed by ESPN during the draft lottery. (Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo, AP)
If he can’t convince Davis to stay, Griffin can extract draft picks from another team in a trade that includes Davis. The Pelicans are in a good spot.
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The Grizzlies will take a strong look at Murray State point Ja Morant. The Mike Conley days are about over as Memphis embarks on a rebuild. Conley still has value, so the Grizzlies’ new executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman can get more assets by trading Conley.
The Knicks wanted the No. 1 pick so they could feature Williamson in Madison Square Garden and accelerate their rebuild. But they will have a shot at Duke’s R.J. Barrett, giving them a chance to develop a star on the perimeter.
After the top three picks, there’s a bit of a drop-off, making it trickier for teams to decide what they want to do. Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland, Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, Duke’s Cam Reddish and North Carolina’s Coby White will be in the mix.
While so much of the draft centers around Williamson and the Pelicans, the draft lottery itself was a victory for the NBA and a loss for tanking.
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