The NBA’s draft lottery won’t take place Tuesday in Chicago as originally planned, but whenever it does happen, it is likely to look the same as it did last year, league sources told ESPN.
Since play was suspended March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic, teams at the top of the standings have been curious about the league restarting because they are in pursuit of a championship. For teams at the bottom of the standings, the focus has been on what the lottery will look like.
Although some will inevitably grumble about the order being determined by an incomplete regular season, the belief among several executives is that the lottery will remain as scheduled before the pandemic.
“I wouldn’t expect changes,” one executive with a lottery-bound team said.
Executives brought up several potential reasons that the lottery wouldn’t be tweaked because of the unusual circumstances in which the league finds itself. One is the fact that every team in the league has played somewhere between 63 and 67 games — or more than 75% of its season, a representative sample. Although things likely would have shifted in the final few weeks of the regular season, there isn’t a credible argument to be made that not enough games have been played to fairly set the order.
Another reason is the changes to the lottery that the league implemented last year. Under the old system, the top three picks in the draft were determined by the lottery, with the team with the worst record having a 25% chance to win the right to the first pick and a sliding scale for each subsequent pick.
Under the new system, the top four spots are selected via the lottery, and the odds are drastically flattened. The teams with the worst three records are given 14% odds of winning the top pick, and the teams fourth through 13th in the lottery have their odds of moving up increased.
The league tried twice to implement these changes — first in 2014, when the vote failed to pass, and again in 2017, when it did. Last year, the NBA saw immediate results when the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, who tied for seventh among lottery odds, and the Los Angeles Lakers, who were 11th, moved up to the first, second and fourth spots in the draft.
That flattening of the odds has given teams that could slide further down the standings more of a chance to move up. It also creates another point in favor of the status quo: a lack of incentive for the necessary number of teams (23 of the league’s 30 teams) to agree to tweak the system again.
“I don’t see anything changing,” one executive said. “Where will the collective come from to do it?”
In addition to the lottery, representatives from all 30 teams were scheduled to be in Chicago this week for the NBA’s annual combine for draft prospects, an event that draws hundreds of people from around the league, as well as prospects and agents, for a week of scrimmages, medical testing and interviews.
Although the league indefinitely postponed the combine, it is still moving forward with hopes of holding it at some point later this year, sources said. Last week, it sent a memo to teams asking them to vote for up to 70 players from a list of potential invites to the combine, just as they have in the past.
In the memo, which was seen by ESPN, the league said that once it decides on a scheduled format, players will be invited to participate.
Just what format those players will be participating in remains to be seen. The most valuable aspect of the combine from a team perspective is getting access to players’ medical information. Fewer and fewer of the top prospects perform in the scrimmages every year, and teams are already doing interviews with players virtually.
Several executives believe a virtual combine — in which coaches, scouts and executives watch players work out from afar, rather than in person — is the most likely way the event could be held this year.
“I think, like everything, they’ll severely restrict who can be there, and they can maybe stream it,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “But I do think it’ll happen.”
The other factor at play is time. Although the NBA draft hasn’t been pushed back yet, the expectation is that regardless of what the league winds up doing, the draft will not be held next month. That will give the NBA more time to figure out the best way to hold the combine — if it is possible — later this year.
“If things move ahead like we think, we may be in a better situation by then,” another executive said.