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Tanking in the 2019 NBA Draft is worth it for these 2 reasons

The NBA flattened the draft lottery odds this year, but it still pays to get the math in your favor.

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA’s revamped draft lottery system goes into effect this year, flattening the odds at the top of the draft order and effectively lessening the incentive to be the very worst team in the league.

Here’s how the new lottery system compares to the old one:

Lottery odds: new vs. old

Team record (worst to best) Old system chance at No. 1 New system chance at No. 1
Team record (worst to best) Old system chance at No. 1 New system chance at No. 1
1 25 14
2 19.9 14
3 15.6 14
4 11.9 12.5
5 8.8 10.5
6 6.3 9
7 4.3 7.5
8 2.8 6
9 1.7 4.5
10 1.1 3
11 0.8 2
12 0.7 1.5
13 0.6 1
14 0.5 0.5

Under the new system, the team that finishes with the worst record still has a 48.9 percent chance to fall to the fifth pick, which would have been impossible under old system (when it had a 35.7 percent chance to fall to fourth in a worst case scenario.) This is the NBA’s attempt to stop shameless tanking, a refusal to reward teams who are built to lose on purpose and an olive branch to teams who win around 30 games and will now see greater odds at landing the No. 1 pick.

As Kevin Pelton wrote at ESPN:

This year’s changes to the lottery mean celebrating every loss for teams going nowhere no longer makes sense. Entering the lottery a spot or two higher won’t make much difference when it comes to the chances of landing (Zion) Williamson, (R.J.) Barrett or the rest of this year’s top prospects.

Yet the NBA inadvertently picked a fascinating year to change the math to prevent tanking. While the odds may not be as great as before, it still benefits bad teams to maximize their odds at getting a top pick this season for two big reasons.

This is an ultra top-heavy draft

The last two drafts were strong throughout the lottery. The Bulls found Lauri Markkanen at No. 7, and the Jazz found Donovan Mitchell at No. 13 in 2017. June’s draft had Wendell Carter Jr. lasting until No. 7, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander going No. 11 and Miles Bridges going No. 12.

The 2019 NBA Draft appears unlikely to be that deep. While it’s exceedingly early to make this claim with most college basketball teams having only played one or two games so far, most people paying attention see a top-heavy class that could only have four blue chip prospects.

But really, one player appears to stand above the rest.

Right now, Zion Williamson is in a tier by himself. Williamson didn’t enter the season as the consensus No. 1 pick, but he should be by June. He has already proven himself to be so much more than a dunker, possessing guard skills with an advanced feel for the game within an impossibly athletic 280-pound frame:

If Williamson is the front-runner to go No. 1 right now, his Duke teammates R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish are No. 2 and No. 3. Barrett was widely projected as the top pick heading into the season as a 6’7 wing, and has lived up the hype, establishing himself as an elite slasher with crafty finishing ability and an improving jumper. Reddish is also intriguing as a 6’9 wing with great length who can handle the ball and shoot it.

If there’s a player who can break up Duke’s trio going 1-2-3, it’s North Carolina’s Nassir Little. Little is a strong and long freshman wing who plays with a non-stop motor and has been skyrocketing up his class rankings since the end of his high school career. He still has a ways to go skill-wise, but has a great frame, plus athleticism and a reputation for playing hard every time he takes the court.

Things are up in the air after that. NBA fans will want to keep an eye on French forward Sekou Doumbouya, Indiana guard Romeo Langford, Kansas guard Quentin Grimes, Oregon center Bol Bol, Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, Kentucky wing Keldon Johnson, and USC wing Kevin Porter Jr. Any of those players could break out, but it feels unlikely one of them will break into the top four.

In a top-heavy draft, there’s still a major incentive to lock down the best odds to get Williamson, one of his Duke teammates, or Little.

There’s also another incentive few people are talking about right now ...

The 2020 draft looks particularly weak

You start to get a sense of the strength of a draft class well before the players in it graduate high school. For as long as the age limit is in existence, every draft will largely be defined by the quality of the incoming freshmen class.

This is an early projection, and ultimately just one man’s opinion, but the 2020 draft currently doesn’t appear to have the type of star power we’ve seen the last few years. When I wrote about the top nine NBA prospects playing high school basketball right now, there was only one current senior.

Don’t get me wrong: this group has some real talent. Players will emerge on the All-Star game circuit — Little wasn’t considered a future top-five draft pick at this point a year ago — and during their college season. Maybe Cole Anthony, ESPN’s No. 2 prospect, will prove he’s a long-term stud. He’s going to be a killer college player and could have upside as a Damian Lillard style point guard. Maybe James Wiseman, a center out of Memphis, will thrive in college, improve his skill set, and establish himself as the class’ No. 1 player. Jaden McDaniels, Kahlil Whitney, Scottie Lewis ... there’s plenty of guys who can potentially break out.

But for now, there is no one on the level of Deandre Ayton, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Williamson, or some of the other standout one-and-dones who have entered the league in recent years.

Obviously, this draft could be salvaged by international players, with Israel’s Deni Avdija and France’s Killian Hayes standing out early. A returning college player could also break out the way Mitchell once did. There’s a long way to go and it’s true that every draft class has great players hidden within it.

But if you’re looking for a franchise cornerstone through the draft, getting a top pick in the 2019 draft seems like the best way to do it. Even at reduced odds, it’s wise to get the math in your favor before it’s too late.