NBA Draft Lottery

Tank at your own risk: Why the NBA scored a big win with revised Lottery odds

Tank at your own risk: Why the NBA scored a big win with revised Lottery odds

The NBA is on a quest to end tanking – or at least stifle its benefits – and Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery results were a massive step forward toward accomplishing just that.

The league was met with some resistance in 2017 when it approved the decision to even out Lottery odds among the worst teams in the league. Opponents of tanking were happy with the decision, but some felt the league was going too far. After all, the teams with the worst records – regardless of how they got to that win-loss total – needed the greatest opportunities to draft the league’s best prospects, and that meant the best Lottery odds and, subsequently, the top picks.

But Tuesday night proved to be a monumental outcome for the league. The New Orleans Pelicans entered the Lottery with a 6% chance at earning the top pick and yet were victorious, earning the right to draft Duke freshman Zion Williamson. The Memphis Grizzlies had a 12.3% chance to move into the top-2 and hit on those odds, sliding in to the No. 2 spot that should net them Murray State point guard Ja Morant. The Lakers made the biggest jump of all, moving from No. 11 to No. 4 despite having less than 4% odds of moving into the top-4.

The Nos. 7, 8 and 11 teams all moved up, past the 19-win Cavaliers and Suns, past the 22-win Bulls and the 29-win Hawks. The NBA couldn’t have asked for a better inaugural drawing with the revised Lottery odds.

The message? Tank if you want, but this system isn’t necessarily going to reward you like it used to.

A year ago, the Phoenix Suns had a 25% chance of earning the top pick. They won the 2018 NBA Draft Lottery with those odds, and the drawing for the second pick took three additional tries because the Suns’ four-digit combinations also popped up on the second the third tries. This time around there were five drawings for the four picks; incredibly, Memphis’ combination was chosen for the fourth pick. The balls were re-drawn and Los Angeles’ combination came up.

"Look at what happened tonight. It was, from a league perspective, they have to be thrilled with how it played out just in terms of the excitement of it, and they did it for a lot of different reasons," Bulls VP John Paxson said after the drawing. "They don’t want teams to throw in the towel 20 games into a season, so tonight showed what they envision probably held true. I had a funny feeling something odds was going to happen and it did."

It would have been difficult for the league to slow down tanking had there only been one team that made a jump. A top-4 that included any three- or four-team combination of the Suns, Cavs, Knicks and Bulls would have been more of the same like it had been in previous years. Of course teams knew about the new odds and how it could potentially affect the Lottery. But to see it play out in-person, to see three teams with minuscule odds jump up, could make teams think twice about sacrificing young player progression and chemistry late in the season for a couple losses here and there.

There will always be some incentive to tank. The Knicks went 17-65 and their NBA-best odds kept them in the top-4. As for a team like the Bulls, the case for them losing games in the short-term this season was not just to add 15 more combinations on Lottery night – moving from 12.5% to 14% - but rather to be ahead of other teams in case they weren’t chosen in the top-4.

Case in point: The Bulls finished three games ahead of the Cavaliers and Suns, two teams that also missed on moving up in the Lottery. When the remaining 10 teams were slotted in reverse standings order, Cleveland wound up with the fifth pick, Phoenix got the sixth pick and the Bulls were slotted at No. 7. Considering that Phoenix needs a point guard – same as the Bulls – they could grab the player the Bulls are after because of those three additional losses.

Until the league goes to a scenario in which every Lottery team has the same odds of landing the top pick – it’s difficult to envision them going to such drastic measures – there will be incentive to lose games in March and April to better position themselves for slotting in the case of not being one of the four teams chosen.

But Tuesday night went a long way toward slowing down tanking. It’s not as if the Warriors, Bucks and Nuggets jumped into the top-3. The Pelicans, Grizzlies and Lakers averaged 34.3 wins this season and all need help to make it back to the postseason. The new Lottery odds are still helping teams in desperate need of top young talent.

The chaos was fun and exciting. Teams in that 7 to 11 range don’t need to worry as much about squeaking out some late losses and then scoreboard-watching in hopes of the teams in front of them winning games. It’ll never be a perfect system, but what the league was hoping to accomplish played out in front of our eyes. It was a big win for the Pelicans, but the NBA took home a W as well.

"I think this is good for the league and our fans and how we should look at the game, because there are no guarantees," Paxson said. "You had much greater odds in the past and a lot of those teams benefitted from it, but I think in the long run this is going to be a really good thing for the league."

Could the Bulls trade the No. 7 pick? John Paxson makes it seem like it's an option

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USA TODAY

Could the Bulls trade the No. 7 pick? John Paxson makes it seem like it's an option

John Paxson had the post-NBA Draft Lottery playbook open, reeling off textbook line after line about how the Bulls will find someone useful with the 7th overall pick in June. Paxson said the Bulls have already gone to their big board and that there are more than seven players they like, meaning the Bulls will have their choice of talent when they go on the clock at No. 7.

Unless they aren’t on the clock at No. 7.

When asked if picking midway through the Lottery will have the Bulls bypass the traditional best player available strategy and target a need such as point guard, Paxson seemed open to the idea.

“I think if you’re looking at comparable guys in a tier, sometimes need takes precedent over (best player available),” Paxson said. “And I’ve talked to our entire group about keeping an open mind on things like that this year.

“There’s other things you can do with picks to get better. You can trade them, you can do a lot of different things. So again, now that we know where we’re at, thankful to know and we’ll get to work trying to find a way to make best use of it.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like someone intent on keeping the pick if the right deal comes along. Then again, it takes two to tango and trades are difficult to come by for myriad reasons. For now, it’s feasible that the Bulls could use the No. 7 pick to go a different route than simply selecting from their big board after the Phoenix Suns pick at No. 6.

The Bulls, of course, have three options with the seventh pick. They can use it, along with other assets, to move up in the draft, they can ask for a package in return for the pick and move down, or they can remain at No. 7 and take the player who falls to them.

There was never much discussion the first two go-rounds of the Bulls dealing the 7th overall pick. In 2017, the draft day trade for Jimmy Butler came about just before the pick happened, so the Bulls weren’t going to flip the trade again. And in 2018, there were rumors about trying to move up to No. 4, but in what many considered a six-player draft, moving back to No. 7 was difficult enough – and the Bulls didn’t have many assets to deal at the time and Chandler Parsons’ contract was really difficult to move.

But perhaps this time around the discussions start up again. The Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley reported Tuesday before the NBA Draft Lottery that the Bulls and Lakers could have discussions regarding a deal for point guard Lonzo Ball in exchange for wherever the Bulls wound up. The Bulls held the fourth best odds in the Lottery, seven spots better than the No. 11 Lakers.

As fate would have it, the Lakers actually jumped into the fourth position in the Lottery, while the Bulls were bumped back four spots to No. 7. That’s not to say a potential trade between the two parties couldn’t still happen. While the Lakers were looking to rack up additional assets as they make a push for contention around LeBron James, the 7th pick could still hold value to give them a pair of picks in the first half of the 2019 NBA Draft.

It’s unlikely that the Lakers would part with Ball for simply the No. 7 pick. Though he’s been the butt of many jokes because of his outspoken father, Ball is still highly valued around the league as one of the best passing and defending point guards in the NBA. He’s not going to come cheap, and it’s unlikely they’d have any interest in Kris Dunn to sweeten the pot.

It’s also unlikely the Bulls move up in the draft. Williamson and the No. 1 pick are off-limits, while Memphis will have no problem building around Ja Morant as they enter their rebuild in the wake of the Marc Gasol deal from February and a potential Mike Conley trade. As we’ve documented before, it’s really expensive to move up into the top five of the draft, and given that the talent pool is so evenly balanced after Williamson, Morant and R.J. Barrett, the Bulls would really need to be in love with a player to give up assets.

They could also move back, but going from No. 7 into the double-digits is a pretty significant step backward. And the price isn’t expensive to move to No. 7 like it would be to move to No. 3 or 4. The Bulls wouldn’t get a king’s ransom back at No. 7, and after a 27- and 22-win season they need to stay aggressive and move toward winning.

The good news is Paxson seems open to all options at No. 7.

John Paxson disappointed in Bulls' Lottery results: 'It didn't work out, but I'm very confident'

John Paxson disappointed in Bulls' Lottery results: 'It didn't work out, but I'm very confident'

Another year, another loss and another seventh overall pick.

The Bulls were smack dab in the middle of Tuesday night’s NBA Draft mayhem that saw teams with the 7th, 8th and 11th best odds jump into the top-3 with the New York Knicks. The New Orleans Pelicans earned the first overall pick and the rights to Zion Williamson with just a 6 percent chance. The Memphis Grizzlies had the same odds and moved into the second slot, while the Knicks earned the third pick and the Lakers moved up from No. 11 to 4.

That meant the Bulls, who were slotted with the fourth best odds entering the night, were bumped three spots and will draft in the No. 7 spot a third consecutive year.

It was the same result as a year ago but in a different, more crushing capacity. Last season the Bulls entered Lottery night with the sixth best odds and only moved back one spot. But the Sacramento Kings, who shared the same odds with the Bulls, moved up four spots to No. 2 after initially losing a tiebreaker with Chicago. Had the Bulls lost the tiebreaker, ironically, they would have earned the second pick.

So the Bulls will pick at No. 7 once again after selecting Lauri Markkanen in 2017 as part of the draft-day trade involving Jimmy Butler, and Wendell Carter Jr. in 2018. While the Bulls have had success picking that far down in the draft each of the last two seasons, VP John Paxson admitted his disappointment at striking out once again.

“You always come into a situation like this hoping, and we got lucky years ago. It didn’t work out. But I’m very confident. I say this all the time. We got the seventh pick this year. We’re confident we will get a player we can add,” Paxson said. “Now obviously in this draft there’s a generational type of guy and New Orleans is better off for it, but this is about building a team and I’m always confident we’re going to find value where we draft.”

They’re not the ones they wanted, but at No. 7 the Bulls will have options. Williamson, Murray State point guard Ja Morant and Duke’s R.J. Barrett will certainly be off the board – likely in the top 3 picks – but picks 4 through 14 are cluttered and could mean someone the Bulls value higher than No. 7 falls to them at that spot.

Names include, but this early in the process are certainly not limited to, Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver, Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter and North Carolina point guard Coby White. It’s considered a weak draft class after Williamson, which is why falling to No. 7 stung more than it did perhaps a year ago.

But Paxson and his staff will now begin the process of identifying targets that they both like as fits in Chicago and believe will be there when they go on the clock.

“I’m not going to give away where we’ve slotted guys but we’ve gone on our board already and there’s more than seven (players) there that we like. I know that we’ll, again, we now get to go through the process of bringing guys in for workouts, getting to know them a little bit better, and that’s what this is all about. That’s the fun part for us and we’ll get at that right away.

“We do tier guys but now we have to get in to the process of getting to see them and know them and really dissect them. Our scouting department does a terrific job. It’s how we get to the point where we think we know who is in that next group. So we’ll just get to work now and we’ll get to have a lot of these young men into our building, get to know them. We’ll study them deeply and we’ll go from there.”

Whereas the pick would have been made for the Bulls had they received one of the top three picks – Williamson, Morant and Barrett are the consensus top-3 picks – the Bulls now may be able to steer away from simply taking the best player available. With so much parity in the range where the Bulls will be drafting, it’s possible they choose to address the point guard need that Paxson has publicly discussed.

It could open the door to the Bulls going after one of Garland or White, though Phoenix looming at No. 6 and also being in need of a point guard could muddy that situation. Still, Paxson didn’t denounce the possibility of going after a certain target if he addressed a need.

“I think if you’re looking at comparable guys in a tier, sometimes need takes precedent over (best player available),” Paxson said. “And I’ve talked to our entire group about keeping an open mind on things like that this year. There’s other things you can do with picks to get better. You can trade them, you can do a lot of different things. So again, now that we know where we’re at, thankful to know and we’ll get to work trying to find a way to make best use of it.”

Paxson put on a brave face when discussing the state of the rebuild, which just became a lot more difficult without the help of Williamson or Morant. The Bulls clearly still feel confident in the core group they have with Zach LaVine, Otto Porter, Markkanen and Carter.

“Who knows?” Paxson responded when asked if this pushes back the team’s rebuild timeline. “I do know that we made a trade at the trade deadline last year for Otto Porter. We feel that at the 2, 3, 4, 5 spot we’re really solid, and again, I’m confident we’ll find a player in this draft that fits us and suits us.

“We’re pretty disappointed, too, but there’s luck involved. We didn’t have the luck tonight. I stay committed, along with my staff, to get this right. Again, we’re going to add another good player in this draft, we’re gonna go out and try to spend some money in free agency, we’re gonna add some vets that can help our team."