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The NBA’s new lottery system may actually prevent tanking — for now

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The NBA for the past few years has been considering ways to change the draft lottery, and this past week the league announced a revamped system that may prevent teams from tanking.

The league was bothered by the perception that teams benefited from tanking, or even held out players for entire seasons who may have been healthy enough to play in a season’s final few weeks.

The 76ers did that with Ben Simmons and Nerlens Noel, and also signed substandard players with the express purpose of finishing with the worst record and increasing their odds at a better draft pick.

The hope is the new system will prevent teams from completely giving up on seasons because the odds of being awarded the No. 1 overall pick will be the same (14 percent) for the team with the worst record as for those with the second- and third-worst records.


Last season, the Celtics, who owned the Nets’ first-round pick, won the lottery with 25 percent odds because Brooklyn finished with the league’s worst record. Under the same circumstances in 2019, the Celtics would have only a 14 percent chance at the No. 1 pick.

The lowest the team with the worst record can drop in the lottery will be fifth, where it is fourth under the current rules. While this is not a drastic change, it will add more meaning to games in the final month.

“I felt lottery reform was important because there was a perception in many of our communities that the best path to rebuilding their teams was to race to the bottom,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said this past week. “I don’t necessarily agree that that’s the optimal strategy to create a great team, but it became currency in this league. So much so that there were situations in many of our team communities where the team felt under pressure to engage in that strategy, even when they didn’t think that was the best strategy to build their team.


Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck represented the team at this year’s draft lottery.Frank Franklin II/AP

“In addition, there is no question that the analytics were suggesting that a plausible strategy was to be bad. Not to suggest they were intentionally losing games, but to be bad. To trade away otherwise very serviceable players and embark on a strategy that requires them to, in essence, field poor teams, which they believed would give them the best chance to improve over the long term. I felt it was corrosive to this league.”

Thank former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie for this change, but his methods did eventually work. The 76ers are loaded with top-five picks and now have a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time in six years with a young, talented roster that many teams envy.

There has been some outside-the-box thinking with regard to lottery reform, such as Celtics assistant general manager Michael Zarren’s suggestion that the 30 teams each get the No. 1 overall pick once every 30 years. But this new system seems to be the most feasible way to prevent tanking — for now.

“What we did was a compromise, in effect. I think what we’ve put in place is far from perfect,” Silver said. “I think what it does is it flattens the odds among the worst-performing teams going into the lottery. So there is no longer an incentive to try to calibrate between the worst record and the second-worst record, and the second-worst record and the third-worst record. But at the same time it recognizes that poor-performing teams do need to get high draft picks as a legitimate way to rebuild their team.


“So I think it’s a combination of perception but substance, too. That there was too great an incentive for teams to embark on that strategy under the current odds.”

Said Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck: “I voted for the revision last time but we didn’t get the required number of votes. I think that incentive to lose games is poisonous for our league.”


Guidelines in place for anthem

‘My expectation is that our players will continue to stand for the anthem,’ Adam Silver said at a news conference on Thursday in New York.Julie Jacobson/AP

A few weeks ago, commissioner Adam Silver and Players Association executive director Michele Roberts sent out a joint letter to players, encouraging them to peacefully protest and participate in healthy discussions regarding the current social climate.

The collective bargaining agreement has guidelines for player conduct during the national anthem, which include standing. The guidelines were prompted by then-Heat guard Dwyane Wade shooting layups during the playing of “O Canada” prior to a game in May 2016.

No NBA players knelt during the national anthem last season. Many teams, including the Celtics for a brief period, interlocked arms in solidarity. So, what happens if a player or players decide to ignore those guidelines and kneel during the anthem, as many NFL players have done recently?

There likely is an increased chance of that happening given President Trump rescinding an invitation to the champion Warriors because of star guard Stephen Curry’s hesitation to visit the White House.


Spurs coach Gregg Popovich then used the team’s media day to call the United States an “embarrassment” because of the Trump’s actions.

“It’s disheartening to me to see so much disunity in our society. I think that sports historically, and in the NBA in particular, has been a unifying force,” Silver said. “While there’s always been disagreements in society, sports arenas have been places where people from all walks of life have come together and for a common experience.

“When it comes to political disagreements, I would hope that we, the league, together with our players, can play a constructive role in bringing people together. As Coach Popovich said the other day, people need to engage and have these discussions, and they’re not always easy discussions to have. Sometimes they are painful discussions, but they need to be had. I’m hoping once again that this league can play a constructive role there.

“On the anthem specifically, we have a rule that requires our players to stand for the anthem. It’s been a rule as long as I’ve been involved with the league, and my expectation is that our players will continue to stand for the anthem.”

The NBA and WNBA have been at the forefront of athletes’ social expression and protest. And Silver brought up an interesting point: if American players decide to protest, what should the non-American players do?

While Lynx players have been on court for the national anthem during the WNBA finals, Sparks players have remained in the locker room.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“To me it’s a unique issue in this league because 25 percent of our players are not American,” Silver said. “But it’s always been an opportunity in our arenas for both teams to come together and have a moment of reflection. Clearly for the non-American players, it’s not necessarily a moment of patriotism for the United States, but it’s about respect. It’s about respect for the country they play in. It’s about respect for the principles that underlie this country. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone agrees at any given point with what’s happening in their country.”


Silver said the league will deal with players who kneel for the anthem “when it happens.” In other words, the commissioner has faith that his players will protest respectfully. But we’ll see perhaps when the exhibition season kicks off this weekend.

“It’s my hope that our players will continue to use that as a moment of unity,” said Silver. “For example, last year many of our teams locked arms during the anthem, which I felt was a respectful show of unity. Many of our players have spoken out already about their plan to stand for the anthem. And I think they understand how divisive an issue it is in our society right now.

“But let me say these are highly complex and nuanced issues. One of the core principles of this country is freedom of expression, as well. It is my hope, though, that with NBA players, that given the platform that they have, whether it’s the regular engagement they have with the media, whether it’s social media, whether it’s other opportunities they have to work in the communities, that they have those opportunities for their voices to be heard. Then to act on those voices, meaning to engage in constructive activity in their communities, as they always have.”


Thomas feeling better about deal

Ron Schwane/AP

For those fans who regretted the Celtics trading Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland in a package for Kyrie Irving, they should know that Thomas seems to be adjusting well. More than a month has passed since the trade, and Thomas appears giddy regarding his new opportunity with a team that has reached the NBA Finals each of the past three years.

The Cavaliers announced Thomas is expected to return in January from a torn labrum in his right hip, an injury he insists only became an issue after he collided with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns in March. Despite the fact he will be sidelined for the first two months of the season, Thomas is bonding quickly with his new teammates and has offered nothing but praise for the Cavaliers organization.

“Last week was great. I know most of these guys just from a competitive standpoint and playing against them, but I never really built a relationship [with guys] other than Kevin Love,” Thomas said at the Cavaliers’ media day. “Being around these guys you see why they win and why they’re in the Finals each and every year. The camaraderie of this team is just amazing. I’ve been around them just a week and it’s all jokes and it’s all fun, but they know once they get on the court how serious it is. We have a lot of talent on this team.”

Thomas registered an all-time great season for the Celtics in 2016-17, averaging 28.9 points (second in franchise history), while making his second All-Star Game and being named second-team All NBA. There were concerns prior to the trade as to whether Thomas could share the ball with new Celtic Gordon Hayward because of the point guard’s reputation for carrying the offense. But Thomas said playing with so many offensive standouts in Cleveland, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Love, and J.R. Smith, will ease some of the burden.

“In my previous years I’ve been the guy that’s kind of had to do most of the work, and it will be great to be around the top players in the league on the same team,” Thomas said. “I’m excited to be able to be part of something I’ve never been a part of, and that’s a championship-caliber team.

“Last night I was at the gym and looked up and was like, ‘Damn, I’m really on the Cavs.’ I was trying to build some stuff to beat these guys. It’s been amazing the last three or four weeks. I can’t wait to get back on the floor because I know what I bring to the table will help this team.”

If he doesn’t return until January, Thomas will have a smaller window to show he’s deserving capable of a maximum contract next summer. He said he used his 2½ years with the Celtics to show he is an elite player, so he feels no pressure to put up similar numbers. He just must prove he’s healthy.

“It’s no more proving what I can and cannot do,” Thomas said. “I just want to play, and when I get traded to the Cavs, they were like, slow down. That’s a good thing about these guys is there’s no rush. My mind-set is just to get healthy. When it comes to basketball, I’ve taken care of that.”

Thomas maintains there is nothing chronic regarding his hip injury, and it’s not career-threatening.

“Most athletes have different types of hips. I don’t have no special hips that nobody’s ever seen before,” Thomas said. “I’ve had no problems before March 13, when Karl-Anthony Towns fell on me. I’ve never had one problem with my hip.

“From a mental standpoint it’s been tough. I’ve always been able to get in the gym and get better. I’ve had to sit down and reevaluate everything and make sure my hip is 100 percent correct. Putting myself around the right people and being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers has helped me realize what’s more important, and that’s get 100 percent healthy.”

The Celtics overhauled their training staff in the offseason, and that may have been related to the rehabilitation or even detection of Thomas’s injury. Thomas believes the Cavaliers’ connection with the renowned Cleveland Clinic puts him in a better situation with regard to his rehabilitation.

“They got more resources. Not to put anything on Boston, those guys were amazing to me, the training staff, the organization, I can’t say enough great things about Boston,” Thomas said. “But it is a little different here.”

Thomas acknowledges that the trade remains painful, although a few weeks later he is more encouraged by his current situation.

“I gave my heart to that city and to be traded like that, it hurt,” he said. “It hurt and I’m not going to lie about it. Going forward, you can’t just give your heart to anybody, because at the end of the day if they make a business move like they did, it’s going to hurt. I couldn’t be put in a better situation, a better platform to prove I’m one of the best players in the world with one of the best teams in the world.”


Isaiah Canaan is with the Thunder on a training camp contract.Sue Ogrocki/AP

The Pacers have a rebuilding roster that features 37-year-old Damien Wilkins, a nine-year veteran trying to make a comeback after playing in the D-League last season. The Pacers also have Ike Anigbogu, who will be the league’s youngest player. The center does not turn 19 until Oct. 22 . . . It seemed that back in April Isaiah Canaan had earned a potential free agent contract with his performance in the playoffs against the Celtics. With Rajon Rondo hurt, Canaan provided a spark for the Bulls. But Canaan had to settle for a training camp contract with the Thunder . . . After being out of the NBA for two years, ex-lottery pick Martell Webster agreed to a camp contract with the Pelicans. Webster last played with the Wizards in 2015 but missed most of the 2014-15 season after hip surgery and was waived. Webster has been working on a comeback for months and could be a veteran 3-point shooter off the bench if he is physically ready. That Pelicans roster also includes former Celtics Rondo and Tony Allen. Also, former first-round pick Perry Jones, who was waived by the Celtics two years ago and headed overseas, is giving it another go with the Pelicans . . . Marcus Smart picked the perfect summer to get into premium shape. The Celtics have the opportunity to lock up Smart long term by Oct. 13 as he enters his fourth season. If they pass on that opportunity, Smart will be a restricted free agent next summer, and other teams could submit offer sheets. The Celtics could offer Smart in the neighborhood of $10 million per season over four seasons to keep him, or his price may rise with a strong season.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.