The conspiracy behind the NBA draft lottery

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I dislike conspiracy theories.

I’m not some tinfoil-hat wearing lunatic raving about the Kennedy assassination, moon landing and Elvis’ true whereabouts. These are delusions, poor excuses for paranoid people to attack the establishment.

That’s not me.

But as much as I dislike conspiracy theories, I absolutely detest those in power preying on the powerless.

And, I’m sad to say, that’s what David Stern did for years and Adam Silver continues to do with the NBA draft lottery.

The lottery is fixed. I’m 100% certain. No doubt. Absolutely positive.

I won’t attempt to prove this with anonymous sources or innuendo. I’m a stick-to-the-facts kind of guy.

  • Fact: The actual lottery occurs in secret for no good reason. The NBA could end all the fixing accusations by simply showing the actual drawing in front of the cameras.
  • Fact: In the last three years, the New Orleans Hornets Hornets (14.8%), Cavaliers (1.7%),Cavaliers (15.6%) andhave gotten the No. 1 pick. The odds of that happening? Just 0 .4%. Are you really falling for something that has just a 0.4% chance of happening?
  • Fact: I have predicted the winner before each of those lotteries. The NBA always fixes it for the most obvious team.

Three years ago – before the lottery – I wrote:

The NBA no longer owns the Hornets, but is still committed to keeping them in New Orleans. With their arena improvements needing approval of the state legislature in July, the Hornets could ride the Anthony Davis buzz and ensure there are no hitches. The league spent a year-and-a-half trying to sell the team without finding a buyer, so maybe Tom Benson needed a No. 1 pick thrown in the deal. David Stern has also meddled in the Hornets’ business before, in the Chris Paul trade. Davis would help Eric Gordon, and therefore Stern’s reputation, because Stern was the one who handpicked Gordon for the Hornets rather than taking the Lakers’ offer.

Of course, New Orleans got the No. 1 pick and Davis.

Last year, again before the lottery:

Stern desperately wants to create a Cavaliers-Heat rivalry to boost rankings, and to do so, he must make the Cavaliers better. Dan Gilbert remained loyal during the lockout, and especially after LeBron became the worst example of players seizing control from teams, Stern will reward Gilbert with a second No. 1 pick.

Yup, Cleveland got the No. 1 pick and Anthony Bennett. (The NBA can lead a team to a the top pick but can’t make the team pick someone worthwhile.)

Last year, I wrote before the lottery:

I don’t know what Dan Gilbert is blackmailing the NBA with, but it sure works. Two No. 1 picks in three years is unprecedented in the current weight setup. Gilbert tried showing restraint on his golden goose, exercising his ability to get a top pick only every other year. But now, the Cavaliers owner is getting desperate. He traded for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes and still couldn’t make the playoffs, and Anthony Bennett sure deserves a mulligan. Gilbert will cash in again.

Obviously, Cleveland got the No. 1 pick and Andrew Wiggins.

I’m no Ivy League genius. I can’t just magically predict something that has a 0.4% percent of happening. The only reason I knew how the lottery would unfold is because the NBA always gives the top pick to the most obvious team.

Every. Single. Year.

The lottery winner is always the team that the NBA has incentive to give the No. 1 pick.

So, who will get it this year? It’s painfully clear.

Here – regardless of the what the NBA will tell you – are the true lottery odds:

Minnesota Timberwolves

Odds of winning the lottery: 25.0% 100%

The NBA wants to tap deeper into the Canadian market. See the league’s flirtation with Montreal. Marketing the Raptors would have been the easy route, but they’re fizzling. The next-best option: Selling Andrew Wiggins, a native Canadian and budding superstar. That gets easier when the Timberwolves get better. (That they also have Canadian Anthony Bennett and Vince Carter’s closest dunking heir apparent, Zach LaVine, only helps.) The NBA will give Minnesota the No. 1 pick and gain a huge following across an entire country.

New York Knicks

Odds of winning the lottery: 19.9% 100%

The NBA literally invented the lottery to give the Knicks the No. 1 pick, Patrick Ewing in 1985. The league likes to claim it’s financially viable without a strong team in New York – which is true. But methinks the NBA protests a bit too much. This isn’t complicated. Better team plus larger market = more profits. The NBA isn’t interested in merely being viable. The league wants to maximize profits, and that’s why the Knicks will get the No. 1 pick.

Philadelphia 76ers

Odds of winning the lottery: 15.6% 100%

The 76ers have won. They’re a black eye on the league, their tanking an annual embarrassment. The NBA tried to alter the lottery format, but Philadelphia successfully scared off enough teams from changing the rules. So, the league has no choice but to give the 76ers the No. 1 pick and end their “rebuilding” process as quickly as possible. Plus – and it’s easy to forget now that the team has put itself in the pits – Philadelphia is a major market.

Los Angeles Lakers

Odds of winning the lottery: 11.9% 100%

The Lakers are the NBA’s best brand, and the league must protect it. Even in these last two dismal years, the Lakers have gotten many nationally televised games. The NBA needs that to continue, but for it to be viable, the Lakers must be better. A good Lakers team essentially has license to print money. That’s why the NBA is sending the No. 1 pick to Los Angeles.

Orlando Magic

Odds of winning the lottery: 8.8% 100%

LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are the only players in the last decade to make the All-NBA first team and then leave their team that offseason. The Cavaliers got three No. 1 picks after LeBron left, and New Orleans got one after Paul. Now, the NBA  will get around to compensating the Magic for losing Dwight Howard. This is the NBA’s most important – and most secret – strategy for achieving competitive balance.

Sacramento Kings

Odds of winning the lottery: 6.3% 100%

Nearly a year ago, Sacramento approved funding for a new arena – for a Kings team that has now missed the playoffs nine straight seasons. Why? Because city officials knew the Kings would be rewarded with the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft.

Denver Nuggets

Odds of winning the lottery: 4.3% 100%

The Nuggets’ attendance dropped from last season to this season by 2,199 fans per game – a bigger fall than every other declining team combined. Denver needs the jolt of a No. 1 pick, and increased revenues will follow. The NBA is well aware how this works. The biggest attendance jump from last season to this season? The Cavs, who won the last two and three of the last four lotteries.

Detroit Pistons

Odds of winning the lottery: 2.8% 100%

Not long ago, the Pistons led the NBA in attendance. Now, they rank near the bottom of the league. A suburban arena makes it easy for Detroit fans to ignore the Pistons when the team is struggling. The Knicks and Lakers play in bigger markets, but they’re cash cows regardless. Giving the Pistons the No. 1 pick will maximize the NBA’s overall revenue.

Charlotte Hornets

Odds of winning the lottery: 1.7% 100%

The NBA desperately wants to market Michael Jordan as an owner, but lowly Charlotte had to take steps before that was viable. The team rebranded to the Hornets and secured funding for arena upgrades. Now, the league will uphold its end of the bargain – the No. 1 pick. As long as Jordan doesn’t mess this up like Kwame Brown, Charlotte will become one of the league’s trendiest teams. That’ll move shoes.

Miami Heat

Odds of winning the lottery: 1.1% 100%

The Big Three era is over in Miami, but the Heat’s success the previous four years drew incredible attention. Some of Miami’s new fans followed LeBron to Cleveland, but many still cheer for the Heat – for now. These are not people with deep-rooted ties to basketball. If the Heat continue to struggle, these fans will move onto other forms of entertainment. So, the NBA will give the Heat the No. 1 pick and retain a huge number of fans who might be lost otherwise.

Indiana Pacers

Odds of winning the lottery: 0.8% 100%

Paul George’s comeback is such a feel-good story. A star player seriously injured himself while selflessly representing the Red, White and Blue. Then, he worked his way back quicker than anyone expected. The perfect next chapter would be a playoff berth – which gets easier if the Pacers get the No. 1 pick. The NBA knows people would rally around that narrative. Patriotism and perseverance sell. Wrap both into one narrative, and this has amazing potential.

Utah Jazz

Odds of winning the lottery: 0.7% 100%

There is no reason for the NBA to fix the lottery for the Jazz… which is exactly why they’ll win. The league wants to fool those who are catching onto the the lottery being a charade. What better way to do that than give a team like Utah the No. 1 pick? This is year the to do it, because there’s no historically elite prospect (not even Karl-Anthony Towns), and the next tier of players (Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay) is relatively close. The NBA will give the Jazz the No. 1 pick, allowing its premier franchises to still draft good players and throwing gullible fans off the scent.

Phoenix Suns

Odds of winning the lottery: 0.6% 100%

The Suns repeatedly playing well and missing the playoffs is a bad look for the NBA. Goran Dragic’s unhappiness and forced trade could bring this issue to the forefront, and the league hopes to avoid that. The NBA wants to keep its current postseason format, which creates an easier road to the playoffs for larger East Coast markets, without disruption. So, a small token to Phoenix – the No. 1 pick – is worth it. That will keep people from asking too many questions about why the Suns keep outplaying Eastern Conference teams and missing the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Odds of winning the lottery: 0.5% 100%

The Thunder are the NBA’s model small-market franchise. Whenever someone brings up the advantages held the biggest markets, the league can point to Oklahoma City. The team is excellent, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are marketing giants. That all unravels if Durant leaves in free agency in 2016. So, the NBA will give Thunder the No. 1 pick in an attempt to convince Durant to stay with them.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Odds of winning the lottery: 0.0% 100%

These guys always win.

So, there you have it. In case you can’t remember after the lottery winner is revealed, check back here to see why it was fixed for that team. Then, tell everyone you know why the NBA just had to have that team win the No. 1 pick.

NBA lowers 2020-21 salary-cap projection to $116M

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The Knicks, Raptors, Hawks and Grizzlies project to have major cap room next summer.

Just a little less now.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The salary cap won’t be set until the summer it takes effect. So, there’s plenty of time for the exact number to fluctuate. But this projection was updated after evaluating how teams spent this summer – a key factor.

For perspective, the salary cap is currently $109,140,000. So, going to $116 million next offseason would still be a significant increase – just not as large as previously expected.

Next year’s free agent class is weak. It’s Anthony Davis then… maybe not a single other star. So, small shifts in the cap projection will create only minor ripples.

Everyone has their eyes on the 2021-22 cap. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan could all be unrestricted free agents that summer. That amount of talent availability requires careful planning.

Magic exercise Markelle Fultz’s $12M team option

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Magic general manager John Hammond said he had “no idea” when Markelle Fultz will play.

A couple encouraging assessments and an uneventful video later, and Orlando is guaranteeing Fultz $12,288,697 in 2020-21.

Magic:

That’s the power Fultz still holds as a former No. 1 pick. Even Anthony Bennett had his third-year option exercised. (He just never made it to the third season of his rookie-scale contract, taking a buyout instead.) It’s tough to cut bait on premier young talent.

But Fultz’s NBA career has been so miserable so far. With the rookie scale increasing under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, he’s due a significant salary.

Because the 76ers drafted Fultz, Orlando had more leeway to decline the option without embarrassment. But the Magic are clearly committed to Fultz.

They had until Oct. 31 to decide on these options, which are for the 2020-21 season. These were easy calls on Jonathan Isaac ($7,362,566) and Mohamed Bamba ($5,969,040). But it’s nearly unfathomable Orlando didn’t evaluate the mysterious Fultz in training camp, preseason and even into the regular season before deciding on his future.

Perhaps, the Magic believe the early show of faith will give Fultz much-needed confidence. If so, this is an expensive bet on a player totally unproven at this level.

At least there’s major upside to it.

Rockets owner: Harden and Westbrook talk like brothers ‘instead of one thinking that he’s the mentor’

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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta hasn’t hidden his discontent with Chris Paul‘s shortcomings.

Sure, Fertitta says plenty of niceties about Paul, whom Houston traded to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. But even Fertitta’s optimism about James Harden and Westbrook – who were friends as kids and played together in Oklahoma City – includes what sounds like criticism of Paul.

Fertitta, via Sam Amick of The Athletic:

James and Russ go back a long ways in California, so they can talk to each other like brothers, you know, instead of one (player) thinking that he’s the mentor. I just think it’s going to go well.

At the very least, it’ll be impossible to convince anyone that assessment is uninfluenced by seeing Paul throughout the previous two seasons. At most, it’s a deliberate shot at Paul.

Paul has always been the general. As he has gotten older, that has bended into being the mentor.

It’s often very helpful. Paul’s focus, discipline and intensity have generally served his teams well. His teammates have benefited from following his lead.

But Paul can also wear on people. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened with Harden, who’s better than Paul and had established himself as Houston’s franchise player before Paul ever arrived. Paul had never even gotten past the second round before teaming with Harden. If you were Harden, how much would you want to hear Paul telling you the right way to do things? There were clearly issues between the two.

Now, Harden and Westbrook get a fresh start together. They sound quite eager about teaming up.

But don’t assume it will definitely go better. It’s like friends becoming roommates. Sometimes, it strengthens the relationship. Sometimes, it ruins the relationship. It’s often difficult to tell which way it will go until moving in.

Remember, Harden and Paul were initially enthusiastic about their partnership.

Thunder unload stars for all the right reasons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

So many teams spent this summer trying to create star duos. The Lakers (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Nets (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) and Rockets (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) certainly succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Thunder already had a star duo in place… and disassembled it.

Oklahoma City became the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in a single offseason. Why did the Thunder take the unprecedented step to move Paul George and Russell Westbrook?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • 2021: Most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2021: Second-most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2022: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2023: Heat first-round pick (top-14 protected for three years then unprotected in 2026)
  • 2023: Swap rights with Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)
  • 2025: Swap rights with Rockets first-round pick (top-10 protected) or Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)

That’s an incredible collection of resources. Before anyone even knew a rebuild was underway, Oklahoma City got a huge head start toward its next era.

Not at a bad time, either.

The Thunder had stagnated post-Kevin Durant. They won in the high 40s and lost in the first round the last three years. Westbrook was aging. The supporting cast was expensive, especially considering the luxury-tax repeater bill. There was no clear way forward.

The Clippers offered a lifeboat. To entice Kawhi Leonard to sign, they traded five first-round picks and two first-round swaps for George. L.A.’s desperate was Oklahoma City’s gain. Suddenly, the Thunder had assets and a direction.

They traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a top-10-protected first-rounder. Then came the dramatic, era-ending move. Oklahoma City worked with Westbrook to send him to Houston, securing another couple first-rounders and first-round swap rights.

Of course, a large part of the Thunder’s return was taking the burdensome contract of Chris Paul (three years, $124,076,442 remaining). But it’s not as if Westbrook’s contract is desirable, and his runs a year longer with a $47,063,478 salary in 2022-23.

Paul is also still a good player. So is Danilo Gallinari, whom Oklahoma City got from the Clippers to make the salary match in the George deal.

For all their effort to tear build for the future, the Thunder have a team that isn’t much worse presently. Paul, Gallinari and Steven Adams fit well together. More than a few interesting role players could fill the gaps. If everyone stays healthy and if Oklahoma City wants to compete, this group could fight for a playoff spot.

Those are big ifs, though. In their new phase, the Thunder bought out Patrick Patterson and let Alec Burks out of his deal so he could sign with the Warriors. With the same opportunity to back out, Mike Muscala (1+1 minimum) stuck with Oklahoma City. The Thunder also re-signed Nerlens Noel (one year, minimum) before pivoting, but I like that value in any situation.

If Paul and Gallinari avoid injury, Oklahoma City might stay in the race. But it’s easy to see the Thunder wanting to boost the value of their own first-round picks.

Oklahoma City did well to delay the incoming draft picks until years later, when the Clippers and Rockets might not be as good as they are now. That allows a great opportunity to rebuild on someone else’s dime while avoiding dispiriting tanking. Or the Thunder could tank themselves and really stock up on draft capital.

After years of competing, Oklahoma City was short on prime young talent. The Thunder have a few players with potential, including No. 23 pick Darius Bazley, but no real standouts beyond Gilgeous-Alexander, who came from L.A. in the George trade.

The rebuild is just beginning. A step back after a decade of stellar play will be difficult. But considering the chance of maintaining a playoff level next season while securing this influx of assets, Oklahoma City put itself in much stronger position.

Offseason grade: A