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A Solution To The NBA Draft Lottery

Conspiracy theories were once the issue with the NBA Draft Lottery, but the issue in recent seasons has become teams tanking in order to position themselves with the best odds to secure a high pick.

Put delicately, several teams have traded key players, kept healthy players on the injured list, given key minutes to end-of-the-bench guys, etc. in order to lose more games and earn additional ping pong balls, with the goal of obtaining a better draft pick. You can certainly make a strong case that it’s in the best interests of certain rebuilding teams to do exactly that. While undoubtedly some merit exists for these types of decisions, several teams have crossed the “tanking” line over the past few years.

The current Philadelphia 76ers provide the most blatant example of tanking in recent memory. The team ensured itself a horrible win-loss record last season, and has made no apparent attempt whatsoever to improve the roster this season. As a result, the NBA proposed changes to the existing draft lottery, whereby the teams with the four worst records would each have equal odds at the top draft pick, and the team with the fifth worst record would have a slight drop in odds, and as follows. The result would lead to teams having less incentive to tank at the worst-record end, but could incentivize those teams with borderline playoff hopes to play the lottery instead and hope to hit the jackpot. In a surprise result, the proposal did not receive enough votes to pass, so the league keeps its current lottery structure intact – for now.

So the question facing the league remains how best to alter the lottery to reduce the incentive for teams to tank, while also helping teams improve through the draft in a fair manner. The answer is to keep the current system in place, while implementing rules along the following lines:

1)   No team can have a top three pick in back to back seasons.

2)   No team can have a top three pick more than twice in a five year rolling period.

3)   No team can have a top five pick in three straight seasons.

I mention implementing rules “along the following lines” to indicate that the three proposed rules above are to serve as a starting point for discussion. There may be tweaks that improve the rules further, so the point here is to provide the framework as to how to go about reforming the lottery. Under this new proposal, there is still some incentive to tank (there always will be unless you go with the wheel idea), but the rewards are greatly reduced if you plan to tank over the long haul. Further, and what may be most exciting about the idea, is the possibility of watching teams reverse tank in certain years. For example, the 2013 NBA draft was widely viewed as a down year, and that view has proven to be correct. Imagine teams with the worst records, with these rules in effect, feverishly trying to improve their rosters in order to not finish at the bottom of the standings! Or in other words, imagine all teams trying to win as many games as possible – oh what a thought! That’s because whichever teams won the top three lottery spots in 2013 under this proposal would be ineligible for a top-3 pick the following season, and could only end up in the top-5 two more times in the following four years. Want to avoid such a fate? Simple, win more games. 

Let’s take a look at the proposal from the Philadelphia 76ers’ lens now. The 76ers made the decision to tank for the 2013-2014 season, which they most likely still would have done if these proposed rules were in place, due to the strength of the 2014 draft. OK, so looking at how the 76ers fared, they did a magnificent job of tanking during the season, but they came up a bit short of the grand prize when they ended up with the number three pick. So now where they would sit for the 2015 season, they could draft no higher than fourth this season, and could get no more than two top five picks over the next four years. Yeah, they could still tank if they want and shoot for the highest pick possible over the following four years (so the goal would be another top three pick for the 2016, 2017 or 2018 season, the fourth or fifth pick somewhere among the 2015-2018 seasons, plus the sixth overall pick during the other two years). But, not being able to pick in the top three for back to back years would lessen the incentive to tank for more than one season, as would knowing that they would not be able to pick in the top five each season. So instead, the 76ers would more likely try to tank for one or two years max, and then try to improve as much as possible immediately afterwards. This should be the intent of NBA teams. But with the current system in place, teams have less incentive to get better quickly. 

Now let’s take more of a macro look at how the process would work for the league. For purposes of this example, we will use the 2014 draft lottery as the initial year of the proposal. So we had the Cavs win the first pick, the Bucks take pick number two and the 76ers had pick number 3. And just for the purposes of the example, assume that the same fourteen teams were in the lottery the following season, and that each team had the exact same record as the previous season. The example is set up in this manner to demonstrate how we would implement teams’ draft pick assignments in subsequent years of the lottery. We would have the following lottery percentages going in (without implementing the new rules): 

Hypothetical Lottery Odds for 2015

Milwaukee Bucks 25%

Philadelphia 76ers 19.9%

Orlando Magic 15.6%

Utah Jazz 10.4%

Boston Celtics 10.3%

Los Angeles Lakers 6.3%

Sacramento Kings 4.3%

Detroit Pistons 2.8%

Cleveland Cavaliers 1.7%

New Orleans Pelicans 1.1%

Denver Nuggets 0.8%

New York Knicks 0.7%

Minnesota Timberwolves 0.6%

Phoenix Suns 0.5%

So we know as well that the Bucks, 76ers and Cavaliers cannot have picks in the top-3 since they had such picks the previous season. As such, the Bucks would get the 4th overall pick, the Philadelphia 76ers would get the 5th pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers would get anywhere from the 9th pick to the 12th pick, depending on how the teams ahead of them fare in the lottery. This would also remove the ping pong ball combinations for the Bucks, 76ers and Cavs from the hopper, which would increase the percentages for each of the remaining eleven teams in a proportional manner. In other words, 46.6% of the combinations would be removed, which would adjust the Orlando Magic’s percentage to 29.2% for this year’s lottery, the Utah Jazz to 19.5%, etc. Now one more important note here is that the 76ers and Bucks would not be eligible for a top-5 pick for the 2016 draft under these rules, since they would have been in the top-5 for two years in a row. However, if they were to win a few more games and avoid the top-5 for the 2014-2015 season, then they could make themselves eligible for a top-3 pick again for the 2015-2016 season. Or they can just forego tanking and try to win games. And let’s just assume for ease of example that the Magic, Jazz and Celtics took the top-3 spots in the 2015 lottery. Then, the Magic and Jazz would not be eligible for a top five pick the following season, since they would have been in the top-5 for two years in a row, and the Celtics would not be top-3 eligible, but would be top-5 eligible.

If you work through the examples, you will see that the opportunity to obtain high draft picks would be spread among various teams, and not just randomly as the wheel idea would assign. Instead, the high picks would go to the teams that need the picks, but would also incentivize teams obtaining the top picks to improve quickly rather than tank on a long basis. And if a team doesn’t draft well or gets the bad luck of getting high picks in years where the draft is not as strong, that team is not doomed. They will be set back a bit, but not on a crisis basis - or at least not because of the draft.

As mentioned, the proposed framework here is just that – a framework from which to start. More would need to be sorted out, such as how such a proposal would deal impact trades, etc. All such issues can be worked out. This proposal provides the best balance of curbing tanking while also making sure that high draft picks go to teams that need them. And once again, we will see seasons of anti-tanking (or as otherwise described, attempts to win) taking place by lower rung teams in years with draft classes which front offices deem to be poor. Just imagine Basketball Twitter handicapping the anti-tanking races.

- Neema Hodjat is the fantasy sports expert for RealGM, and a regular contributor to the football, basketball and baseball content.  He can be reached via email at nhodjat@gmail.com and followed on twitter at @NeemaHodjat.

The Torture Chamber

Last season, the Golden State Warriors boasted one of the most dominant starting lineups in the entire league. Their #FullSquad of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut walloped opponents by a startling 16.3 points per 100 possessions. They outperformed the strong unit of the Portland Trail Blazers and arguably outplayed the Indiana Pacers' heavily-used starting five as well. The #FullSquad’s Points Per Possession of 1.149 (via NBAwowy.com) was better than any team’s season total (which includes subs, of course) and their 98.6 PPP allowed would have been third in the NBA behind the Chicago Bulls and Pacers.

Despite all that dominance, Golden State’s starting five was not even the best five-man unit the team put on the court last season. Replacing David Lee with Draymond Green actually produced even better results albeit in far more limited minutes. In an admittedly small sample size of just 71 minutes (thanks, Mark Jackson!), this group I call “The Torture Chamber” outscored opponents by an insane 17.2 points per 100 possessions, nearly a full point better than the #FullSquad.

The statistics are fine to provide some framework but the true power of this lineup comes out when imagining them functioning as a regular unit. With Bogut, Iguodala and Green on the floor, Klay Thompson becomes the fourth-best defender on the floor which should be downright scary for opponents. That combination of perimeter defenders also allows Stephen Curry to get non-taxing assignments on that end so he can preserve energy for carrying the offense and ideally avoid foul trouble which has periodically caused problems. While I feel Mark Jackson focused too much energy on hiding Curry throughout games, some chances at cover are necessary to keep him on the floor and at his best.

This lineup also makes substantially more sense on offense as the young players on the team progress. While David Lee has plenty of offensive strengths, he can be a self-starter and has not shown faith in his jumper in recent years (especially last season). Draymond has no issues in terms of confidence in his shot as both playoff runs illustrated. In fact, after the All-Star Break the Dancing Bear shot 38.1% from three, a better percentage than stretch fours Channing Frye and Patrick Patterson made over the course of their full seasons. Lee and Bogut have played well together but their natural positions on the floor gum up the works for drives since neither big can draw their opponent out of the paint to open up driving lanes. The combination of Bogut and Green gives the Warriors two dangerous screeners that Coach Kerr can use in concert with one another to break open multiple players at the same time, especially since Andre Iguodala can handle the ball enough to let both Splash Brothers wreak havoc when necessary.

I am not saying The Torture Chamber should log the insane minutes together like the #FullSquad or other top-heavy combinations around the league when healthy. David Lee and Harrison Barnes should both receive plenty of minutes with members of the core (particularly Barnes with Curry to see if his offense can be resuscitated) and the Warriors should have one of their best perimeter defenders on the floor for all significant minutes to keep other teams on their toes. Rather, that insanely potent lineup must be the top choice for closing out games and a possible starting five against opponents who struggle defending drives.

This Warriors' team possesses a compelling combination of pieces that can be mixed and matched to create problems for their opponents and the Curry / Thompson / Iguodala / Green / Bogut five should be the crown jewel sooner rather than later.

Coach's Corner: Celtics' Open Offensive System, LeBron's Lab, Malik Rose

Beware of Boston

The Boston Celtics' roster is a strange collection of flawed vets, solid but unspectacular young players and Rajon Rondo. On paper, it makes the team seem destined for mid-lottery obscurity. But the preseason has offered glimpses that this Boston team has the potential to be more competitive than originally expected.

Brad Stevens has crafted an open offensive system that has maximized the skill sets of this eclectic group of players. The young starting frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger -- two inside-outside threats that can both draw opposing frontcourt players out of the paint and take advantage of weaker defenders on the block -- are vital components. Having two bigs on the floor at the same time with the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc is a rarity in a league where some teams don’t even have a single one in their projected rotation (looking at you, Lakers). It allows Stevens and the Celtics to maximize their spacing; and space is the most valuable commodity in basketball.

Sullinger’s improvement as a shooter -- the young big man has shot 14-of-26 from 3 this preseason after a woeful 26.9 percent last year -- is what should really drive the optimism in Boston. Without an effective 3-point shot, Sullinger seemed like a young player without an impact skill. If this preseason form holds up, the ability to operate from beyond the arc will make Sullinger a valuable commodity when it comes to team offense. No longer will he be just a wide body limited to occasionally bullying smaller defenders in the post.

His improvement mirrors the general emphasis on the shot for the Celtics under Stevens. Boston has been particularly aggressive about hunting shots from deep early in transition. Anyone from Olynyk to rookie Marcus Smart has been given the green light to launch open 3’s if they can find a good look before the defense is set. Given that Sullinger, Olynyk and Avery Bradley, three of Boston’s five projected starters, have combined to shoot 53.2 percent on 77 attempts from behind the arc thus far, this seems like a wise decision.

Now that doesn’t mean the Celtics are blindly rushing up the court shooting 3’s. Thanks in part to Evan Turner’s new role as a playmaking point guard in the absence Rondo, the team’s halfcourt ball movement has been almost Spurs-ian at times -- pinging across the interior and around the perimeter until it finds an open shooter. Turner’s numbers aren’t very impressive, and it’s hard to tell if he’s changed much from the player he was in previous stops, but Boston needs someone willing to take advantage of their newfound space with dribble penetration. Until Smart gets a better feel for the NBA game, Turner is best suited for that role.

An interesting development to keep an eye on, however, will be how Boston handles the acquisition of Will Bynum. As of now, it seems as though Bynum -- acquired this past week from the Pistons in exchange for Joel Anthony despite missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury -- is set to be waived due to roster restrictions. But two seasons ago in Detroit, Bynum played in a lineup that had a similar offensive set up as Boston’s does now and enjoyed a career year, along with posting a very respectable PER of 16.62. If Boston was truly trying to be the best team they can be (and not utilize roster spots in order to develop young, fringe players like Phil Pressey), Danny Ainge should be working hard to find a place for Bynum on this roster. If Ainge does keep the veteran guard around to claim a place in the team’s smart offensive system, it will add even more intrigue to Boston’s season.

LeBron’s Laboratory

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about NBA preseason basketball is that it’s a time for experimentation for several of the league’s stars. They’ll try some crazy shots, a new move or maybe learn to operate from a different spot on the floor. There’s no downside in doing this, because even epic failures don’t matter much given preseason games are pretty much meaningless in the grand scheme of things -- especially when you’re coming off four straight Finals like James.

Because James is very much a bored basketball savant at this time of year (and sometimes during the regular season), he seems to entertain himself by attempting random, high-degree-of-difficulty shots just to see if he can pull them off. Take this one from the Indiana game Wednesday night.

It didn’t make any highlight reels of note, but it was probably one of the most insane shots of a game where he attempted a Dirk fadeaway, a 10-foot running left handed floater, a skyhook and a crazy spin finish layup where he switched the ball from his left to right hand in midair (that last one did make highlight reels). At first glance, it may not seem too much out of the ordinary, but let’s break down what happens in this sequence to get the full effect:

As James drives into the paint, he executes a pullover; ripping the ball way over the head of 6’5” Rodney Stuckey as the Pacer wing swipes at the ball from his help position

- James bounds into the lane while manipulating the ball away from Stuckey, gets a slight bump from a second Indiana defender and still somehow completely stops his momentum by decelerating onto his right leg. This is not an easy thing to do.

- To top it off, LeBron then holds himself for a beat on his coiled right leg, then without his left foot ever touching the ground, pushes back into a fadeaway and drains the shot

There’s a good chance that referee Kipp Kissinger didn’t give him the continuation for an “And 1” because he simply had no idea what to make of what he was seeing.

More Fallout From the Sixers Shameless Tanking

Scrolling through games on NBA League Pass is a total crapshoot when it comes to announcers. The spread ranges from total homers, former greats that don’t make much of an effort to be prepared and the occasional insightful duo. Unfortunately for basketball fans, one of the best in the business -- Philadelphia’s Malik Rose -- is stuck calling games for a team no one will want to watch.

Rose can relate to both the casual fan and hardcore hoops junkie with his spot-on analysis.  Whether it’s explaining how the bench can help with defensive communication or what should happen when a team rotates out of defending pick-and-rolls near the sideline, Rose is a rare commentator that actually makes the viewer feel like he or she has actually learned something while watching the broadcast. Rose simply has a knack for helping fans understand and appreciate the nuances of the game. It’s unfortunate that no one outside of loyal Sixer fans (or people with a serious case of basketball schadenfreude) will have much incentive to tune in and experience it.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Atlantic Division

The Raptors were the poster boys for the benefits of internal improvement last season. Terrence Ross, Iman Shumpert, Mason Plumlee, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Zeller can offer their teams improvement from within.

Mavericks Regained Contender Status With Nostalgic Summer

The Mavericks enter the new season with a revamped roster and high expectations, thanks to the addition of Chandler Parsons and the trade to bring back Tyson Chandler.

14-15 Euroleague Player Rankings: Power Forwards

Dario Saric, Viktor Khryapa, Georgios Printezis, Linas Kleiza and Jan Vesely headline the top power forwards in Euroleague this season.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

All five teams in the Northwest have committed to building through the draft and Steven Adams, Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Gorgui Dieng and Trey Burke are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.

Coach's Corner: Warriors' Change Of Tempo Style, The Triangle's True Difficulty

The Warriors played fast last season, but any player has the freedom to "rip-and-run" under Steve Kerr, while the Triangle could be a bad fit for Derek Fisher and the Knicks even if they run it right.

College Basketball Preview Summary And Updates

Over the past 12 weeks, we've released a number of conference previews for the upcoming 14-15 college basketball season. Here are a few updates on what's changed since that project began.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Terrence Jones, Jae Crowder and Jon Leuer represent the Pelicans, Spurs, Rockets, Mavs and Grizzlies as young players who are poised to grow and assume bigger roles this season.

Thunder Finally Approaching Prime Contention Seasons

With two of the top-5 players in the NBA and an elite defensive big, the Thunder aren’t just set up to win a championship this season - they are set up to win the next few.

Top-5 Non-National Teams For 14-15

The top teams to watch on League Pass have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

Why The Mavs Have A Shot Again

Even at this stage in their careers, Dirk Nowitzki is the best offensive 7’0 in the NBA and Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive 7’0. Chandler covers up Dirk’s flaws on defense and Dirk makes Chandler a much better offensive player.

How The Morris Twins Will Be Phoenix's Major Contract Showdown

Under Robert Sarver, Phoenix has been notorious for pinching pennies and they might be able to take advantage of Marcus and Markieff’s desire to play together as they negotiate extensions. Given their struggles apart and their success as a unit in the NBA, it’s hard to see the twins wanting to be split up.

NBA Limbo

Limbo is the best way to describe the area where players whose skill and production have them vacillating back and forth between starring on the top teams in Europe or filling out the bottom half of NBA rosters. In this Basketball World Cup, Milos Teodosic, Emir Preldzic, Ante Tomic showed us (or reminded us) that they can contribute to NBA teams.

Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Jonas Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that he’s only scratched the surface of his potential.

Surprises And Disappointments Of The 2014 FIBA World Cup Group Stage

After all of the teams played five games and got ready for the playoffs, RealGM took a look at some of players, who despite their team success struggled to reach expectations, and others, who unexpectedly were very productive.

Cleveland's Blind Spot: Contenders Without A Top-10 Defense

The Cavaliers will have no trouble scoring at an efficient rate with offensive talents like LeBron, Love and Kyrie sharing the floor. The real question is how good will the Cavaliers be on defense, particularly their interior defense?

Dario Saric's Best Case Scenario

Dario Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup.

Charlotte's Chances Of A Deep Playoff Run

Failing to keep Josh McRoberts in the mix with a core of Lance Stephenson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson might ultimately wind up preventing Charlotte from legitimately contending in the Eastern Conference.

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