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NBA Teams Can No Longer Tank Their Way to the Top

You can’t just “Trust the Process” anymore. With new draft lottery odds, rebuilding NBA teams are finding out they have to do a lot more than just lose to ultimately win.

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Tanking isn’t what it used to be. This season would be a race to the bottom under the old lottery system. The top of the 2021 NBA draft is loaded with potential franchise players, including Oklahoma State point forward Cade Cunningham, USC big man Evan Mobley, and G League Ignite guard Jalen Green. But the worst teams in the NBA can’t bank on landing any of them, no matter how much they lose. The league changed the lottery odds before the 2019 draft to make it more likely for those teams to slip to the middle of the draft order, effectively devaluing a full-out tank.

The team with the worst record used to have a 25 percent chance of getting the no. 1 pick, and couldn’t fall below no. 4. Now, the teams with the bottom three records have the same 14 percent chance at no. 1, while the worst team can slip all the way to no. 5. Winning the lottery always came down to the bounces of ping-pong balls. But now the benefits to losing are lesser than before. The days of the quick fix in the draft are over.

It’s not that teams shouldn’t rebuild through the draft anymore. It’s the best way to acquire elite young talent, especially for small-market franchises. But now those teams have to be more careful about how they identify and develop that talent. They can’t just throw a random collection of players against the wall and hope some stick. Fit becomes even more important when building around mid-to-late lottery prospects. Taking the “best player available” in three consecutive drafts will not work if you’re not drafting at the top. Rebuilding teams now need to have a plan and draft with a purpose. That means understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each prospect and putting them in roles where they can succeed.

The Knicks, as always, are a good example of what not to do. Their new front office, led by former agent Leon Rose, was far more patient in free agency than past regimes. But there are still underlying issues in the way the team is put together that could derail their rebuild. Their best young players don’t complement each other. It’s also unclear how any of them will develop given the veterans around them. New head coach Tom Thibodeau, who has never been known for his patience, has already said the team needs to be “aggressive” in chasing stars.

But the first order of business is turning some of their young players into stars, which is where the problems begin. Start with RJ Barrett, the highest draft pick on their roster (no. 3 in 2019). He’s a 6-foot-6 slasher who is at his best when he can get into the lane and kick the ball out to shooters. His difficult rookie season, in which he averaged 14.3 points on 40.2 percent shooting and 2.6 assists per game, exposed some holes in his game. He’s not a great 3-point shooter (32.0 percent on 3.5 attempts per game), and doesn’t have the touch or athleticism to finish through crowds. Barrett needs more space to operate than the Knicks gave him last season. They were 27th in 3-point percentage and 29th in attempts.

That is unlikely to change much this season. Barrett is slated to start next to three non-shooters in Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson. There will not be much room for him to run pick-and-rolls and maximize his skill set. Instead, he will have to spend a lot of time spotting up on the perimeter and taking tough shots off the dribble. That’s no way to build his value around the league. Barrett’s stock was higher coming out of Duke than it is after one season in New York. The Knicks essentially drove a brand-new car off the lot and ran it into a ditch.

Something similar could happen with Obi Toppin, the no. 8 pick in this year’s draft. He was arguably the best player in college basketball last season, averaging 20 points on 63.3 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. But NCAA stats alone never tell the whole story of a prospect. At Dayton, Toppin was a small-ball 5 with four shooters and multiple playmakers around him in an NBA-style offense. He wasn’t asked to stretch the floor much (2.6 3-point attempts per game) or create his own offense off the dribble. Per Synergy Sports, most of his offensive possessions came from posting up (24.7 percent), running in transition (18.1 percent), rolling to the basket (15.2 percent), and cutting (13.7 percent).

The best way for Toppin to be as effective in the NBA is to play the same role that he had at Dayton. That won’t happen in New York. He’ll be playing with two rim-running big men in Robinson and Nerlens Noel, and a pair of ball-dominant forwards in Randle and Barrett. There won’t be as much space for him to play in the paint, either. He will have to stretch his game on the perimeter. That will mean taking more 3s and creating shots for himself and others off the dribble. Toppin might be able to do that in time, but it’s hard for a player to drastically change their game while adjusting to a higher level of competition. Asking players to be something they are not is a quick way to create busts.

This is why long-term planning is important. The Knicks need to clear out space in their frontcourt for Toppin to be successful. Randle is the obvious player to move. He’s never been a good outside shooter, needs the ball in his hands to be effective, and can’t protect Toppin on defense. It never made sense for a rebuilding team to sign him in the first place because he’s such a difficult player to build around. He can succeed only in very specific lineups, and that limits the types of players his team can put around him. The good news is that this could be his last season in New York. Only $4 million of his salary is guaranteed for the 2021-22 season.

The bigger issue is whether Toppin fits next to Robinson and Barrett. All three are most effective in the paint. The problem is they can’t spread the floor to give each other enough room to operate. They all lack shooting touch, too. Robinson is a career 58.3 percent free throw shooter in the NBA, Barrett shot 61.4 percent from the line as a rookie, and Toppin shot 70.6 percent in two seasons in college. The Knicks might not be able to develop them at the same time. Lack of synergy defeats the point of building a young core through the draft.

On the other side of the rebuilding spectrum are the Thunder. Like the Knicks, they aren’t likely to win much this season. But it won’t be a wasted campaign for them because their best prospects are in roles that fit their games and will allow them to develop. While everyone talks about the war chest of future draft picks accumulated by Thunder GM Sam Presti, having all the picks in the world doesn’t mean much if you can’t develop the players you select. Oklahoma City has shown they can. It’s been more than a decade since Presti has had to rebuild, but the moves he made this offseason show that he still has the touch.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the centerpiece of the Paul George trade haul, will move into a featured role after excelling in a complementary one (19.0 points on 47.1 percent shooting and 3.3 assists per game) alongside Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder last season. SGA is a better shooter than Barrett, but like the Knicks forward, he’s more effective when he can slash to the rim. The Thunder traded for shooters like Al Horford, George Hill, and Ty Jerome to space the floor for him. Their primary goal in moving Paul, Schröder, and Steven Adams was to acquire future draft picks, but they also wound up with players who complement their best prospect.

Their other youngster who could take a step forward this season is Darius Bazley, the no. 23 overall pick in the 2019 draft. Bazley was a pleasant surprise after skipping college to work out on his own and take an internship with New Balance, carving out a small but productive role (5.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks in 18.5 minutes per game) as a 20-year-old on a playoff team. He’s a 6-foot-8 forward with the length and athleticism to defend multiple positions, as well as a surprisingly refined offensive game for a player with his limited experience. He can get to the rim and make plays off the move. The biggest thing he needs to work on is his jumper. Bazley shot 34.8 percent from 3 on 2.3 attempts per game and 69.4 percent from the free throw line as a rookie.

The difference between Bazley and Toppin is that the former won’t have to rely on his jumper to succeed this season. That’s why adding Horford is huge. He’s a stretch 5 who can operate on the perimeter and open up the paint for Bazley to attack off the dribble. Horford is exactly the kind of player that Toppin needs around him. Veteran leadership is important for a rebuilding team, but it has to be the right kind of veteran. Not only does Horford provide a respected locker-room presence, but he’s a 34-year-old on a massive contract who knows that he will not get another one. There’s no incentive for him to rack up big individual stats. He needs to be his usual reliable self both on and off the court if he wants a contender to pick him up again. It was the same situation that Paul was in last season. That dynamic works the other way for Randle. He’s a 26-year-old who is still trying to prove himself. He hasn’t even entered his prime. It’s not in his best interest to take a step back and let younger players shine.

There’s only so much the Knicks and the Thunder can control in the lottery. Maybe one will get lucky. Maybe neither will. But one team is learning about its young core while the other is stuck in place without giving its prospects a chance to improve. If they luck into a top-four pick, Oklahoma City would be adding to a group of youngsters who fit well together. New York might be better off starting over completely if that happens. The latter situation is more difficult for even the most talented rookies to succeed in. A less talented one is drawing dead on arrival.

No one knows where Cunningham, Mobley, or Green will wind up. With the new odds, it wouldn’t be surprising if teams in the middle of the lottery jump over the bottom-feeders. The difference between the chances of the worst team to win the lottery (14 percent) and the seventh worst (6 percent) isn’t that wide. That was the Pelicans’ position when they jumped up to no. 1 in the 2019 draft and landed Zion Williamson. No one can count on a franchise-changing talent falling into their laps anymore. The only thing left to do for rebuilding teams is to win on the margins, and turn players other teams passed on into the best versions of themselves. Some teams are more equipped to do that than others. Those are the ones who have always succeeded, regardless of what the lottery rules are.