Monday, April 3, 2017

Setting the Stage for the 2017 NBA Lottery

I have to admit: I have an irrational fascination with the NBA Lottery. It's amazing to me that the team with the worst record did not win the #1 pick in the first 10 years of the current format that has 14 teams in the lottery, but it has now happened in back to back years, with last year being the first time in history that no teams moved up at all. In fact, according to Zach Lowe's amazing recaps from inside the drawing room last year and in 2015, the first ping-pong ball drawn was #1 both times, basically signalling right away that the Sixers and Timberwolves had won since the worst record has 250 of the 286 four number combinations that include #1. I've even used the magical Wayback Machine to pull up his now defunct Point Forward blog that described the scene in the 2012 drawing room because I remember how incredible the emotions were in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes and how it got me hooked on the lottery process.

Thus, I wanted to set the stage for a highly anticipated game of chance and take a look at where things stand for the teams that have been eliminated from the playoffs for these final few games. For starters, here are the past results of the 12 lotteries under the current format with where the teams ranked in terms of how many ball combinations they had and their odds of landing in that spot:
The parenthetical notes indicate that's where the team ranked after a tiebreaker.
There has been some funny history with the teams that have won the lottery based on their odds of landing in their respective spots, including three teams that won the #1 pick after losing the coin flip that settles ties. You see, in the event of equal records, the two teams split up the number of lottery combinations evenly, and if it's an odd number, a coin flip determines which one gets the extra combination and who will pick first in case neither wins a top-3 pick. For example, the Warriors and Wizards tied for the 4th worst record in 2010, and since the 4th slot has 119 chances of winning and the 5th slot has 88, the Warriors got 104 combinations after winning the coin toss while the Wizards got 103, including what turned out to be the winner. Now, compare the list above with the chart below that shows the actual expected odds for any given lottery.
The typically informative Wikipedia page can provide more detail on how the process works.
What stands out at first glance is that unbelievable run of luck that the Cavs had to win the top pick 3 out of 4 years given their expected picks, but it should be noted that they did have the 2nd worst record in 2011 after LeBron James left for Miami. Thus, even though they won it with the Clippers pick that had just the 8th best odds, they basically had a 22.7% chance overall for #1, but that being the pick that won rather than their own actually worked in their favor since it still left them with the 4th pick after the lottery results. The other thing that stands out is what I mentioned in my opener: before the past two years, the teams with the worst record had some tough luck and even had a streak of four straight years of dropping down to the 2nd pick before that to make it six times overall of ending up in that spot despite it being just the third most likely outcome for them. Fortunately for the Celtics, who own the Nets' current league-worst pick again this year in addition to next, teams have only fallen from the #1 slot all the way down to the worst-possible #4 pick three times despite it actually being their most likely spot. 

One of those times was 2007, and I hope that lottery gets a 30 for 30 someday. To start, it was the first year of the one-and-done era after the 2005 CBA ended draft entry straight out of high school. Furthermore, it allowed the Hawks to keep their top-3 protected pick despite only having a 37.8% chance of doing so from the 4 slot, which prevented the Suns from having a top-7 pick to add someone like Joakim Noah or Brandan Wright to their 61 win team. Perhaps that would have prevented them from trading Shawn Marion for Shaquille O'Neal, but instead the pick eventually became Robin Lopez at #15 the following year as the Hawks began their current streak of playoff appearances after using the #3 pick they won on Al Horford. Most importantly, that lottery dropped a team that had tanked for a chance at taking Kevin Durant #1 in the Celtics from their 2 slot down to the #5 pick, which prompted them to change strategies and trade it for Ray Allen in order to convince Kevin Garnett to waive his no-trade clause, resulting in their championship that ensuing season. See all of the ripple effects the lottery can have?

But enough about the fascinating history: let's take a look at what's at stake this year. This is widely considered an impressive draft class, and in my mind, there are three clear-cut prospects that this process will be deciding the fates of at the top of the draft. Washington's Markelle Fultz has sat atop the DraftExpress rankings all year thanks to having the pick and roll feel of a lead guard, a solid shooting stroke (41.3% on 3's), and a projectable frame that could even compete with wings at 6'4", 185 lbs with a 6'9" wingspan. Similarly, UCLA's Lonzo Ball might be Steve Nash in a lankier (6'5", 162 lbs with a 6'7" wingspan [June 8th update: DX now has him at 6'6", 190 lbs, 6'8.5"]), more athletic frame thanks to an incredibly innate passing ability and his effective 41.2% shooting from deep, although his funky delivery may make him less effective off the dribble against NBA defenders. Josh Jackson from Kansas also has unorthodox shooting mechanics with a bit of a hitch before his release, but his hot shooting to end the year landed him at 37.8% on 3's to go along with his already impressive defense that can be applied to multiple positions with his strong 6'8", 203 lb build and nearly 6'10" wingspan. He's been my favorite in this class ever since seeing him play for Team USA at the U-19's in 2015, and I've compared him to being a more aggressive Andre Iguodala with the hope of becoming Jimmy Butler thanks to being such a willing passer in addition to the above traits. However, it should be noted that he's a year old for his class and thus further along in his development than his fellow freshman Fultz and Ball, and his oddly poor free throw shooting (56.6%) is even more of a concern for his long-term shooting prospects than their surprising 64.9% and 67.3%. I don't think you can go wrong in any of the three, though, with their current order for me based on risk and how easy it will be to adapt their games to any team.

Whoever runs Tankathon is a gentleman and a scholar.
Who might they end up with, you ask? Well, I go to just about every day to take a look at each team's current odds of landing in either the top-3 or the #1 spot, but I'm here to break down the implications of everyone's remaining games that are otherwise "meaningless." Remember, my first chart above shows that 3/4ths of the time the #1 pick has gone to a team that has the 6th or better odds of landing it, but I'm going to look at the top-10 overall due to the Pelicans' pick obligation to the Kings. Just like looking at the loss column to see how far back teams are in the playoff race, I'm focusing on how many wins separate these teams in the tanking race.

1. Celtics (via a pick swap with the Nets). 18 wins with 5 remaining games for Brooklyn:
@ 76ers on 4/4, @ Magic on 4/6, vs Bulls on 4/8, @ Celtics on 4/10, @ Bulls on 4/12

Brooklyn followed up their 7-10 March with back to back wins to start April, so it's not out of the question that they cost Boston some lottery combinations by winning 4 or even all 5 of these. The Celtics should take care of business at home to help their own cause and guarantee that the Nets finish at least tied with the fewest wins, though, and the Bulls are likely to win at least one of these after winning 6 of 8. The current leaders in the East can likely pencil in their 25%, 21.5%, 17.8%, and 35% odds for spots 1-4.

T-2. Suns. 22 wins with 4 games remaining:
vs Warriors on 4/5, vs Thunder on 4/7, vs Mavericks on 4/9, @ Kings on 4/11

Technically, Phoenix is in sole possession of 2nd slot thanks to one more win than LA, but if both teams lose out the rest of the way, they'll split the odds and have a coin flip tiebreaker. Going winless is a real possibility based on their current 12 game losing streak, and they've lost 14 of 15 overall after that amazing three game winning streak over the Hornets, Thunder, and Celtics. With the blatant shutdown of their veterans that I mentioned last week, it's quite the impressive tank job that could result in a 16 game winless drought and possibly give them a 19.9% chance of the #1 pick.

T-2. Lakers (top-3 protected, otherwise going to 76ers). 22 wins with 5 games remaining:
@ Spurs on 4/5, vs Kings on 4/7, vs Timberwolves on 4/9, vs Pelicans on 4/11, @ Warriors on 4/12

Not only was yesterday's win over the Grizzlies their first against a team with a winning record since January 20th, but it was just their third win in their past 21 games. Now, they have a real chance at dropping to the 3rd slot with those three home games against fellow bottom-dwellers, and if they do, they'll have just a 46.9% chance of staying in the top-3 compared to ~51.35% if tied, meaning they'll lose both this year's and 2019's first round pick. To recap: LA traded 2013 and 2015 1st round picks along with a couple 2nds in a sign-and-trade for Steve Nash in July, 2012, and a month later, they traded a future 1st as part of the Dwight Howard trade. Since the Stepien Rule prevents future 1st rounders in consecutive years from being traded, the Magic are owed a 1st "two years removed" from whenever the Lakers convey the last Nash pick, but because it was top-5 protected in 2015 and top-3 protected last year, that hasn't happened yet. The catch is that if it isn't to be conveyed by 2019 due to LA keeping their pick this year, the protections deem that they'll just send their 2nd round picks this year and next to Orlando instead, so they would only lose next year's unprotected 1st to Philadelphia (after Phoenix traded the pick for Brandon Knight in the Michael Carter-Williams deal). Thus, the 76ers obviously want an extra top-6 pick now but are going to get a 1st either this year or next no matter what while the Magic and Lakers have the difference between a 2019 1st and 2017 and 2018 2nds hanging in the balance.

4. Magic. 27 wins with 5 games remaining:
@ Cavaliers on 4/4, vs Nets on 4/6, vs Pacers on 4/8, @ Bulls on 4/10, vs Pistons on 4/12

Besides the stakes above with LA, Orlando has their own chance at finally landing a franchise player right now with 37.8% odds of a top-3 pick and a 98.8% chance of a top-6 pick in this strong class. They've been dangerously close to a 28th win over their last three and had won 3 out of 4 just before that, though. Thursday's rematch with Brooklyn could be the difference between 4th and dropping. Sidenote: you'll also notice that Chicago will factor in heavily with all of their remaining games against these bottom 6 teams, which gives them a good chance of sneaking into the playoffs.

5. 76ers. 28 wins with 5 games remaining:
vs Nets on 4/4, vs Bulls on 4/6, vs Bucks on 4/8, vs Pacers on 4/10, @ Knicks on 4/12

After winning 3 of 4 with the one loss being a true battle at Golden State, Philly has lost 6 of 8, including that crucial game at Orlando to close the gap in the standings. There are a couple of potential wins here against the New York teams, but given how close the teams around them are in the standings, it's still likely that they end up with 8.8%, 9.7%, and 10.7% odds for the top picks with the potential to even knock LA out of their protected range. Plus, thanks to that incredible salary dump trade with the Kings salary in 2015, they own a pick swap in case Sacramento's numbers hit, so you can basically add on their 4.3%, 4.9%, and 5.8% chances for picks 1-3 in a similar way to the Cavs with the Clips in 2011.

6. Knicks. 29 wins with 5 games remaining:
vs Bulls on 4/4, vs Wizards on 4/6, @ Grizzlies on 4/7, vs Raptors on 4/9, vs 76ers on 4/12

New York's had two surprising wins since my last post noting their tailspin, but they're still just 4-12 over the past month, with that crucial last game of the season against against Philly likely to be the difference between a 5 or 6 game losing streak here in April. Derrick Rose is already out the rest of the way with a torn meniscus after playing relatively well since the All-Star Break, and Carmelo Anthony has been playing intermittently due to a back issue, helping their chances. They currently have 6.3%, 7.1%, and 8.1% odds at picks 1-3, and they could even tie with the #7 team and still hold an important top-6 rank like the Blazers in '07 since 6th and 7th average out to an even 53 combinations each.

7. Kings. 30 wins with 5 games remaining:
vs Mavericks on 4/4, @ Lakers on 4/7, vs Rockets on 4/9, vs Suns on 4/11, @ Clippers on 4/12

Sacramento's win in Minnesota on Saturday temporarily tied the two in wins, and now they've won 3 out of 5 with their young pieces playing hard under first year coach Dave Joerger. Having three games remaining against others in this top-10 list could mean continued W's and that their current 15% chance of a top-3 pick drops. That might not matter much if they move ahead of Philly given the pick swap mentioned above, but their best case scenario right now is if both them and the 76ers jump up into the top-2 in either order, with New Orleans not getting that last spot, as I'll get to below.

8. Timberwolves. 31 wins with 6 games remaining:
@ Warriors on 4/4, @ Trail Blazers on 4/6, @ Jazz on 4/7, @ Lakers on 4/9, vs Thunder on 4/11, @ Rockets on 4/12

There aren't normally NBA games on the night of the NCAA National Championship (Tar Heels!), but Minnesota hosted the March 6th makeup game after condensation on the floor then, resulting in a win against a now Jusuf Nurkic-less Portland team. Aside from a rubber match against LA in what will be their third meeting in just over two weeks, it's a pretty daunting schedule that will likely ensure that they have at least a 10% chance of hearing their numbers called in the drawing.

9. Mavericks. 32 wins with 6 games remaining:
@ Kings on 4/4, @ Clippers on 4/5, vs Spurs on 4/7, @ Suns on 4/9, vs Nuggets on 4/11, @ Grizzlies on 4/12

Dallas may not be playing well of late with just four wins in their last 12 games, but there's the potential for two more with visits to Sacramento and Phoenix coming up. Those will likely prevent them from moving up from their 1.7% chance of landing the top pick, but that 9th slot could be lucky considering it's where the Bulls and Cavs won in '08 and '14 despite the long odds. Otherwise, they're looking at an 81.3% chance of having the #9 pick.

10. Pelicans (top-3 protected, otherwise going to Kings). 33 wins with 5 games remaining:
vs Nuggets on 4/4, @ Nuggets on 4/7, @ Warriors on 4/8, @ Lakers on 4/11, @ Trail Blazers on 4/12

New Orleans is the only team on this list not technically eliminated from the playoffs, but they might as well be given their 5 game gap to climb. I'm including them even though they have just a 1.1% chance for #1, 1.3% for #2, and 1.6% for #3 because that 4% total is all they can cling to in order to keep their pick. I don't know how they managed to convince Sacramento to allow this top-3 protection when the DeMarcus Cousins trade was already a bargain, but it is worth keeping an eye on come May 16th. For now, though, all we can do is re-watch last year's riveting process!

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