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How The Draft Lottery Reshaped The NBA Landscape

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): So we just witnessed what our friend Zach Lowe called the “wildest lottery ever.” The Zion-Williamson-to-the-Knicks (or its less-heralded cousin, Zion-to-the-Lakers) hype train gained a ton of steam when both teams were revealed to be in the Top 4 … and then it crashed and burned on live TV as the Lakers ended up at No. 4 and the Knicks at No. 3.

Guys, take me through each of your experiences and emotions as you saw what unfolded.

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I think we saw right away how crazy this new lottery system has the potential to be. By flattening out the worst teams’ odds of winning, you get a higher probability of something like last night playing out. It was insane at the actual lottery here in Chicago. There were these enormous gasps when they announced that the Bulls were going to pick seventh, the Suns were going to pick sixth, and the Cavs were going to choose fifth.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I was at a fairly nice Italian restaurant with a friend who doesn’t really like basketball, and I made him pull out his phone along with my phone just so we could see who had the faster livestream. Unfortunately, this restaurant had a lot of wood paneling or something that was causing the signal to be pretty weak. Anyway, the livestream cut out right when it looked like the Knicks might be shut out of the Top 4 entirely, then it came back on and they were in the Top 4, and then right after that they got the No. 3 pick. As dumb as it sounds, the experience of having my expectations lowered made the No. 3 pick seem a lot better as a quasi-Knicks fan.

Also, we ordered pasta for dessert, which people should try.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): My fingers and toes were crossed from the time Boston’s 14th pick was announced. I started jumping up and down on my couch and screaming sometime between Phoenix’s sixth pick reveal and Cleveland’s fifth. There was a moment during that window that I thought 14 percent really meant something like 98 percent, and I was ready to buy my Zion Knicks jersey.

chris.herring: Hahahahaha. Brutal.

neil: Our colleague Chad Matlin had a great experience as well that he granted me permission to share:

“a small anecdote from brooklyn last night: I’m walking home from dinner down Flatbush Ave and a man appears half a block behind me and starts violently screaming something, but I can’t quite make out what. he keeps screaming. I only catch snippets. “FUCKING!!!” “ALL!!!” “LOSING!“”” this goes on for 90 seconds as he crosses street aimlessly, screaming the same thing over and over. I finally piece it together: “ALL THAT FUCKING LOSING FOR NOTHING!!”

And that’s when I found out the Knicks didn’t win the lottery.”

Suffice to say, emotions were running high here in New York.

chris.herring: LMAO

natesilver: I had run the numbers beforehand, and the No. 3 pick — in a draft where there’s a clear drop-off between Nos. 3 and 4 — is slightly above the expected value for the Knicks pick. Even if you think Zion is going to be reaaaaaaaaaaaly good, a 14 percent chance just isn’t that high.

chris.herring: On some level, the lottery process and unveiling is really, really challenging for the average person — even for me — to follow along with if you aren’t focused on a single team and where they’re ending up.

tchow: Yeah, Chris, in the hysteria last night, the graphics on TV really played a trick on me: They had the Top 4 picks in individual blocks on top, while 5 through 14 were listed below as they were revealing the picks. As the blocks were getting filled in, you saw the Lakers, then the Grizzlies and then the Pelicans, and I went, “Holy shit, we got No. 1!”

chris.herring: One team being slotted lower than you expect is useful information, but it’s hard to know exactly who it benefits until there are only two or three teams left.

Rachel Nichols was explaining it in real time, but it still takes a hot second or two to register what it all means, because of the pick swaps and protections, etc.

neil: It’s kind of incredible that so many of us devote time to watching the unveiling of the results of pingpong balls based on probabilities, which each have obscure caveats (protections, etc), and it actually makes for compelling TV. The NBA is amazing.

natesilver: Maybe they should reveal it one pick per day at a time over the course of the playoffs, sort of like an advent calendar.

Think of all the opportunities for #content.

chris.herring: I’m still kind of shocked that New Orleans ended up getting it. Makes a huge difference for them going forward. All this time, analysts were suggesting that they make a deal with the team that wins the lottery for Anthony Davis. Now they have the No. 1 pick AND Anthony Davis.

neil: And David Griffin said their big priority is convincing AD to stay now. Is that feasible?

chris.herring: It doesn’t seem the most feasible to me. You’d love for him to change his tune on that, but reports suggest that he won’t. It’s incredibly risky to gamble on the hunch that he will.

natesilver: I think Zion might make it more likely that AD is traded, if anything

Because now the franchise has something to play for and sell hope/tickets for, even without AD. So any scenario where they’re just being super stubborn and desperate is probably off the table.

chris.herring: You don’t know whether Zion alone would be enough for them to make a huge jump in the next year, which is what you’d need to feel better about letting Davis test free agency.

natesilver: New Orleans was one of just three teams to win the lottery that was neither undeserving, nor boring, nor annoying. So that was a win in my book.

tchow: Nate, I disagree with so much of that Venn diagram.

natesilver: Haha

neil: As an Atlantan who also once worked for the Hawks, I guess I’ll take “basically OK.”

chris.herring: Neil, I’m sure die-hard Hawks fans were disappointed last night. Basketball people seem to universally feel that would’ve been his best fit.

Did you all see the video of Williamson hitting the Hawks logo twice before the lottery began?

neil: SO many people were looking at that!

tchow: It must have meant something!

neil: NBA conspiracies are the best.

chris.herring: It seemed that might have been his preference.

tchow: Can you imagine all the “it’s rigged” people if the Hawks did end up getting No. 1 after the logo double tap?

chris.herring: Can’t remember too many people WANTING to go to Atlanta, but I actually hoped he’d end up there after that.

neil: 😢

tchow: Zion with Trae Young is really intriguing.

But if we’re playing alternate universes and what-ifs, can we play “what if Zion did go to the Knicks?” Neil thinks owner James Dolan would have somehow messed it up anyway. I disagree.

neil: Right, my take was always that he should be happy he didn’t go to the Knicks. Everything that franchise touches goes to ruin.

tchow: But he could have changed that, Neil!

chris.herring: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was reporting pretty adamantly that the Knicks wouldn’t have traded him. So it seems like they would have moved forward with him, and then gone into free agency shooting for the stars.

natesilver: I think it would have been dumb to trade him. Like, more dumb than people realize. When you consider the contracts, and that the Pelicans don’t rally have much leverage, I think you can even argue that Zion straight up is TOO MUCH for AD, without all the other assets that the Knicks were likely to have to throw into the deal. But, anyway, I guess we don’t have to worry about that now.

chris.herring: I agree. You’re going to want and need cost-controlled contracts for when you get other stars, anyway. Having Zion would allow you to do that.

tchow: Is it wrong of me to think that this is even more proof that the lottery was rigged? Like, the results were so much the complete opposite of what you thought a “rigged” one would look like that it’s almost too opposite. Am I making sense? Like, the results seemed to be what someone would produce to prove that something wasn’t rigged when it actually was.

natesilver: Tony I think you’re overthinking this just a liiiiiiiiiiiiittle bit.

chris.herring: LOL

neil: Of course, they did invite some of this rigging speculation by having Patrick “Frozen Envelope” Ewing there to represent the Knicks.

chris.herring: As someone who’s been in the room, it’s not rigged. They go to great lengths to let people watch it. And make the actual process available on YouTube shortly after.

I think the variance is going to be really wild going forward because of how they’ve flattened out the odds for the worst few teams, though. And honestly, it will make it more fun and heartbreaking.

tchow: I know it’s not rigged. But……

Just kidding

neil: But yeah Chris, I wanted to ask about that. Did we see the death of tanking last night?

Look at how much the results at the top differed from the ranking in order of worst records:

natesilver: I mean, that’s how the system is supposed to work, right?

neil: Well, I’ve always thought these tanking teams underestimated the luck involved in the lottery. Even under the old system.

chris.herring: Last night’s outcome was probably about as solid as you could hope for from the league’s perspective if that’s the message you wanted to send. That being awful gives you a better chance but by no means guarantees you the very best — or even second-best — pick.

tchow: Big win for Mr. Silver. (Adam, not Nate.)

natesilver: And it’s not like the Knicks were categorically different than the Cavs, Suns or Bulls. They were just better at tanking. No. 3 is a comparatively good result vs. the rest of that group.

BTW, someone should check the lottery ball codes to see what the results would have been under last year’s system.

neil: Yeah, it’s weird to think of the Knicks as “winners” last night. But things could have been worse.

chris.herring: The Knicks were the only team with the best lottery odds that didn’t fall out of the top four!

natesilver: I really don’t get the losers talk, and I think it goes to show how people’s intuitions about probability aren’t very good.

tchow: 14 percent means 100 percent, Nate!

natesilver: People were treating it like 60 percent or something, I swear.

neil: Knick fans’ expectations are always out of whack with reality, though… (This is a franchise that wins like the Mets but acts like it has the pedigree of the Yankees.)

tchow: Neil, this is an NBA chat.

chris.herring: I’m on record saying that I feel like the average Knick fan expects bad things to happen.

neil: Maybe it’s more the New York media than rank-and-file fans, Chris.

natesilver: This does leave open at least the tantalizing possibility of trading for Anthony Davis. If the Knicks do want to make a play for AD, this is one of the better scenarios for them. There’s no one who can trade Zion to the Pels since they already have him! The No. 3 pick is probably comparable to the best single asset that the Celtics and Lakers can offer. And if the Knicks get Kyrie Irving, maybe the Celtics don’t even try to get AD anyway.

The Lakers do have the No. 4 pick, but at least based on the scouting consensus, there’s a big drop-off between 3 and 4. We’ll see if the Pelicans agree with that or not.

chris.herring: I honestly don’t have a sense of what the Pelicans would prefer at this point.

The Celtics would obviously be in play, based on their young talent and the draft picks they have. The Knicks just got the No. 3 pick and have two picks they got from Dallas in the Porzingis trade. Though those picks could end up being lower-end ones, depending on how the Mavericks are in the future. And then there are the Lakers, who just landed the No. 4 pick, plus all the guys they reportedly offered in February for Davis already.

So it’s a combination of which players the Pelicans like, plus how they value the notion of future picks that would likely be lower in the draft, as opposed to higher ones they could make use of right now.

natesilver: 🔥 Fun hot take: RJ Barrett could be the new Carmelo Anthony. High-volume, medium efficiency, good rebounder, mediocre effort on defense despite good athleticism. 🔥

tchow: Looking at the different mock drafts, it does seem like there is a consensus on Top 3 (Zion, Ja, RJ in that order) and the fourth pick is immediately where you start seeing disagreements.

neil: Which I think speaks to how few truly elite picks are in this draft class, Tony.

chris.herring: Totally agreed.

neil: But the Lakers can’t complain too much. They only had the 11th-best odds going on, so even moving up to fourth in a three-star draft is something.

chris.herring: On Tuesday I walked past Gar Forman, from the Bulls’ front office, and he had a pretty grim look on his face after the team finished No. 7. Thought it was noteworthy that the Bulls’ John Paxson all but acknowledged that with a pick that low, the team was more likely to trade for a veteran as opposed to making it work with a rookie.

It’s far more of a crapshoot outside of the Top 3.

natesilver: We do know that the Pelicans didn’t like the Lakers’ pu pu platter back in February. And that was before Brandon Ingram’s DVT diagnosis. Although also before David Griffin took over, so maybe not as relevant now.

chris.herring: There are a lot of options now for New Orleans. A lot of people were wondering out loud, too, whether getting Williamson might make the Pelicans more likely to find a deal for point guard Jrue Holiday, who could help a ton of teams as well.

tchow: Chris, Paxson also had another pretty optimistic outlook on the results that I hadn’t thought of last night:

chris.herring: Yeah, that quote infuriated Bulls fans here. It read like something out of The Onion.

tchow: LOL

neil: Do the Pels have more or less leverage in an AD trade now than they did at the deadline?

natesilver: Weirdly, they have less, because there’s no one who can trade them Zion!

chris.herring: Exactly. Likely less leverage but more flexibility in terms of the path they take, since they can feel pretty comfortable about building their future around him.

natesilver: Are people too confident that Memphis will take Ja Morant and not RJ Barrett? They both have one glaring flaw (Morant: defense, Barrett: shooting), and historically, you’d rather go with the guy who can fix his shooting than a guy who is probably too undersized to ever be a great defender. Barrett’s also almost a year younger.

Just to show how much a year can matter, compare Morant’s stats this year vs. last year:

neil: And how does either affect where Mike Conley goes? They were shopping him pretty aggressively at the deadline but didn’t find the right deal.

natesilver: I don’t think Memphis has any business keeping Conley either way.

chris.herring: I’m interested in that question, too.

natesilver: And I’m not sure it affects their pick much. If you want Ja, you can keep him and use Conley as a mentor if you want.

chris.herring: Memphis is one of the smaller markets in the league, and because of that, I think they maybe hold on to players a year or two longer than they should. Perhaps because of the ties those fans feel to certain players.

Morant is seemingly good enough where you draft him and then figure out the answer to that question with Conley later.

natesilver: The Grizzlies have historically been a bit allergic to high-usage-rate guys, and both Barrett and Morant use a lot of possessions, so in some ways neither one feels like a natural Grizzly.

chris.herring: Morant is a great passer, too, though, and averaged a double-double with assists. So I’d hope they make an exception in this case.

tchow: If I were the Grizzlies, I’d take RJ.

chris.herring: Wow. Knick fans would love if you became the Grizzlies’ GM.

natesilver: The thing that’s really hard to project with Barrett is his defense. A lot of the comparables are pretty unflattering because people want to typecast him as Andrew Wiggins 2.0, maybe just because they’re both Canadian. But Wiggins was thought of as a guy who was going to be a plus defender, and he’s been pretty darn terrible instead. If Barrett’s a good defender, though, you start getting into a whole different set of comps, more along the lines of Jimmy Butler (if he tamps down the usage rate a bit) or Victor Oladipo.

neil: Just goes to show how much defense — which I think can go overlooked for prospects at times (and is difficult to predict out of college) — can really alter a player’s pro trajectory. This, from ESPN’s mock draft on Barrett, sounds like it’s ripped out of the Wiggins scouting report: “he wasn’t the defender his physical tools suggest he should have been.”

chris.herring: In fairness, Morant’s defense isn’t all that great, either. That’s part of what makes the No. 1 pick so easy, among other things.

natesilver: Barrett was a much better rebounder, which counts for something. A much better and more active passer. And he was using a ton of possessions, which sometimes yields lower effort on defense. And Duke played a very tough schedule.

I don’t know. If Barrett had shot 38 percent from three instead of 31 percent, I think people would be talking about him and Williamson like it’s … I don’t know, the Kevin Durant/Greg Oden draft or something. And of course, you can’t just disregard the difference between 38 percent and 31 percent. But he’s a pretty spectacular prospect if he learns how to shoot.

chris.herring: It’s so hard to tell in college. The shooting is somewhat predictive. But even if he had shot 38 percent this year, I think there would be room to ask whether it was completely real.

I remember Justise Winslow shooting a pretty healthy percentage from out there during his lone year at Duke, but so many of the makes came with Jahlil Okafor being doubled in the post, which left Winslow wide-open a lot of the time. And then he initially struggled from three once he came into the league, which was what many folks predicted.

natesilver: The low free-throw percentage is troubling for Barrett.

Like, Jayson Tatum — a guy who’s been a much better 3-point shooter as a pro than people thought — shot free throws pretty darned well in college. Barrett didn’t.

chris.herring: Completely agreed. That tends to have solid predictive value.

neil: It’s also worth remembering that Barrett was actually the No. 1 prospect in that star-studded class going into their freshman seasons. But I’ve seen studies that indicate the weight given to even one year of college should far outweigh our priors for prospects coming out of high school.

tchow: This chat is just becoming a conversation about how Duke players perform in the NBA.

chris.herring: Seems fair to me:

tchow: Out of RJ, Zion, Winslow and Tatum, who is the most likely to also believe the Earth is flat?

natesilver: New Orleans is extremely flat, so I’m guessing it will be Zion after a few years.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

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