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New lottery rules change tanking incentives, starting this season

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today we focus on the impact of the new lottery odds.

To paraphrase Jerry Tarkanian, the NBA is so mad at the 76ers, it’ll keep the Hawks losing another couple years.

The NBA finally enacted lottery reform that will take effect this season. The measures appeared designed to curb Sam Hinkie’s ambitious multi-year tank, but Philadelphia has already reaped the rewards of The Process. The 76ers, led by former high draft picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are one of the league’s top teams and extremely unlikely to land in the lottery. It’s the next generation of losing teams, like Atlanta, that will feel the brunt of these changes.

Generally, the new rules reduce incentives to chase the league’s worst record. The very-bottom teams face greater variance and worse expected outcomes than previously. The top six seeds in the lottery became less valuable than before, the 7-14 seeds more valuable than before.

In the previous system, the three worst teams had 250, 199 and 156 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top three picks were drawn then the next 11 picks were slotted in reverse order of record.

Now, the three worst teams each have 140 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top-four picks are drawn then the next 10 picks are slotted in reverse order of record.

There are several ways to measure the changes, but here a few based on lottery seed in the old system (orange) and new system (blue):

Odds of No. 1 pick:

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Odds of top-four pick:

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Expected pick:

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The “big” change is the bottom three teams all have the same odds of getting drawn, creating an illusion there’s no difference between finishing last or third-to-last. But the last-place team still gets slotted ahead of the second-worst and third-worst (and second-worst ahead of third-worst) if none get drawn in the lottery.

Simply, teams are still incentivized to chase the league’s very worst record. The incentives aren’t as strong as they once were, but they still exist.

And the upside remains just as high. Top draft picks are so valuable – a chance to add elite young talent on a relatively cheap contract that comes with five years of team control that, practically, extends much longer.

So, how will teams handle this changing structure?

Decisions will be fascinating among more than just the lowest of cellar-dwellers. Several teams have traded first-round picks this season that contain protections within the lottery. The Mavericks owe the Hawks a top-five protected first-rounder. The Cavaliers owe the Hawks a top-10-protected first-rounder. The Grizzlies owe the Celtics a top-eight-protected first-rounder. The Nuggets owe the Nets a top-12-protected first-rounder. Those owing teams all face a new batch of decisions of when to give up on trying to make the playoffs and aim to keep that pick.

I mostly share the view that lottery reform won’t change much, particularly on a year-to-year basis. But the cumulative effect could be larger on some teams.

Hinkie’s 76ers were an anomaly. Few teams set out to tank for that long. Many more tanked for a season, knowing that would result in a high draft pick. With a new touted prospect in hand, those teams usually attempted to ascend.

But now, far less is guaranteed. Before, the second-worst team was likely to land a top-three pick and was guaranteed a top-five pick. Now, the second-worst team is likely to pick between No. 4 and No. 6. In that lower range, the team might get stuck with a lesser prospect who leaves it stuck losing again the following year.

At minimum, lottery reform adds uncertainty to a league that had grown familiar with the previous system and how teams proceeded within it. We can all guess how teams will act in the new system, but this season will provide much more tangible clarity.

Devin Booker to play in Suns’ opener Wednesday

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Devin Booker — the Suns’ newly minted max contract player — had been working hard to recover from off-season hand surgery in time for the opening of the season (the original timeline after surgery had him missing the first week or two of the season).

Looks like he made it, according to coach Igor Kokoskov, via Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic.

Booker is young, 21, and hopefully he just healed quickly. There is no reason to rush Booker back here, the Suns need to approach this season with a long-term view, not thinking win now.

This is going to be an interesting young Suns team with Booker, rookie Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, Mikal Bridges, and now with some veteran voices in Trevor Ariza and the newly added Jamal Crawford in the locker room. This team is not playoff bound in the West, but nightly they will be improved and not a pushover.

Portland, NBA community react to passing of Paul Allen

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For 30 years, Paul Allen has owned the Portland Trail Blazers. In that time the team made the NBA Finals a couple of times, was a model of consistency making the playoffs 23 times, and providing a city unforgettable memories filled with some of the biggest personalities and best players in the game.

Allen passed away Monday, losing his battle to cancer. He was just 65 years old.

It has led to an outpouring from the entire NBA community, especially around Portland.

“Paul Allen was the ultimate trail blazer – in business, philanthropy and in sports,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “As one of the longest-tenured owners in the NBA, Paul brought a sense of discovery and vision to every league matter large and small.  He was generous with his time on committee work, and his expertise helped lay the foundation for the league’s growth internationally and our embrace of new technologies.  He was a valued voice who challenged assumptions and conventional wisdom and one we will deeply miss as we start a new season without him.  Our condolences go to his family, friends and the entire Trail Blazers organization.”

Russell Westbrook listed as out for season opener vs. Warriors

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No Russell Westbrook. No Andre Roberson. Maybe no Steven Adams.

This is not what the NBA had in mind when they sent Oklahoma City to Golden State for the second game of the NBA’s opening night doubleheader on national television. But, that’s the reality due to injury.

Westbrook had arthroscopic surgery on right knee back on Sept. 12 and it was expected to be re-evaluated around the start of the season. However, with the marathon of the NBA season about to start no way the Thunder were never going to rush him back, national television and the Warriors or not. While it’s less than ideal, getting it dealt with and missing training camp and a few games is better than to risk something worse during the season (or miss a month of the season in a Western Conference where there is little margin for error because of the depth of quality teams).

The Thunder called it “maintenance,” but this is Westbrook’s fourth surgery on that knee, although it’s the first in more than four years. His issues with this knee date back to the 2013 playoffs when Patrick Beverley crashed into it and tore the meniscus.

Westbrook is about to turn 30, has some heavy-usage miles on that body, and just signed a five-year, $205 million contract extension.

Alvin Gentry: Pelicans wouldn’t trade Anthony Davis for anyone – ‘not even Beyonce’

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Pelicans star Anthony Davis said he’s the best player in the NBA.

His coach, Alvin Gentry, agreed then expanded.

Gentry:

If you don’t want to call him the best player, I call him the most valuable. Because if you can trade him for anybody, then he is the most valuable guy. Not that we would ever consider that. Don’t you guys take some kind of spin and put it on top. There is no one in the league that we would trade him for. There is no one out of the league. Not even Beyonce. If we wouldn’t trade him for her, then he’s probably untouchable.

I’d trade Davis for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s also in the MVP race, even younger and locked up an extra season.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden are better, older and locked up for longer than Davis. I’d probably trade Davis for LeBron or Curry, though not Harden.

Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum are worse, younger but also locked up for longer than Davis. I probably wouldn’t trade Davis for any of them, though the additional team control makes it worth considering.

Really, Davis is already at the point – as few as two years from unrestricted free agency – trade speculation hits high gear. The possibility of him leaving New Orleans high and dry in 2020 is too great to ignore.

As far as Davis for Beyonce… I guess it depends on your priorities.