This week's mailbag features your questions on West/East imbalance, whether offense or defense is more valuable, and the evolving overseas game of Anthony Randolph.
"Is the lottery reform the NBA approved earlier this week harmful to small-market teams?
-- Kevin Pelton
Didn't get a question specifically about this topic, but I've seen plenty of discussion of it online so I wanted to weigh in. First, let's start with an assessment of what the changes actually mean. Ryan Bernardoni, who has been providing insight on this proposal since it was first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, teased out the actual probabilities of a team that enters the lottery in a given spot finishing with each pick.
Using those probabilities plus the net value I estimate picks in the 2019 lottery will provide above and beyond their salary, we can take a look at how valuable it is to enter the lottery in each spot. Here's how that looks in graphical form (in terms of millions of dollars of net value) compared to the old lottery odds.
We probably haven't spent enough time discussing how the NBA had already unintentionally made having a high lottery pick less valuable by increasing the salaries for rookie contracts as part of the new collective bargaining agreement. In particular, because the salary curve doesn't quite match the value curve I calculate for draft picks, there's an interesting effect where in 2019 I estimate little difference in net value between the No. 5 pick ($14.3 million) and the No. 7 pick ($13.7 million).
Since picking fifth instead of later is the only advantage the team with the worst record now has over the one with the third-worst record, there's now almost no benefit to being first entering the lottery. My estimate shows less than $150,000 change in expected net value between having the league's worst record and the league's third-worst record.
That noted, let's talk a little bit about the market-size question. I certainly understand the argument that drafting in the top two or three is the best path to getting a superstar for a smaller market, but what I don't buy is that small-market teams are more likely than big-market ones to have the picks that are less likely to yield those players.
I went back over the past five lotteries and looked at which teams would benefit the most from these changes in terms of the expected value of their spot entering the lottery:
And here are the five teams that would have lost the most expected value:
While there's a mix of small and big markets, and defining the difference can be tricky, it seems to me that using these lottery probabilities would have actually helped small markets more than hurt them in the recent past. The Lakers and the Celtics (largely via trade) were two of the biggest beneficiaries of the old model, while teams like the Kings and Pelicans who might not have felt they could bottom out in their small markets would have better chances of getting a top-three pick.
So I don't really buy that these changes will actually hurt small-market teams.
"Will the East win a game against the West this year? Seriously, what do you think the odds are that the East's win percentage against the West drops below the all-time low?"
-- Ian Stratton
Long odds to get to that extreme level of imbalance. Part of the reason the talent exodus from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference feels so dramatic this offseason is because the East actually had accumulated some talent in the first place. In 2015-16, the East won 48.3 percent of interconference matchups, the second highest win percentage for the East in the 2000s. (2008-09 remains the only season this millennium when the East won more interconference matchups than the West.) That dropped slightly last season to 45.0 percent, which was still far better than the average in the 2000s of 42.5 percent.
Using projections based on ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM), I estimate the East winning 41.3 percent of matchups with the West this season. That's bad, but would be nowhere near the worst interconference performance on record. In 2013-14, the East won just 36.0 percent of games against the West. Here are the most lopsided conference imbalances since the ABA-NBA merger:
The offensive player. From a theoretical standpoint, this makes sense for a few reasons. First, the offense gets to dictate who controls possessions more than the defense does. So a truly great offensive player can be involved in nearly every trip down the court, and responsible for creating far more than his share of them. Meanwhile, a poor defender can be hidden on a player who isn't capable of creating his own shot to take advantage, and will probably not be heavily involved in more than his share of plays.
This logic is borne out by statistical analysis. If you look at RPM or the adjusted plus-minus on which it is built, the best offensive players typically rate better relative to league average than the best defensive players do. For example, in last year's RPM there were 14 players with an offensive RPM greater than 4.0 as compared to just four players whose defensive RPM surpassed that threshold.
So while ideally you'd like balanced players who contribute at both ends, it's pretty clear that although defense explains about 50 percent of why teams win or lose (a little less than 50 percent recently), it doesn't make up half of individual players' value to their teams.
"For not completely logical reasons, I've long been an Anthony Randolph fan, so I was happy to see him get attention during the EuroBasket tournament. He seems set to stay in Spain this year, but do you think there's a role for him back in the NBA now? Where might he fit in? "
As our Mike Schmitz wrote in advance of the EuroBasket final, Randolph has remade himself as a stretch-5 since washing out of the NBA in 2014. He made nearly a 3-pointer per game at a 35.2 percent clip between Euroleague and ACB play last season for Real Madrid.
Because Randolph did not previously shoot as well on 3s when he played in the Euroleague with Russian squad Lokomotiv Kuban, his projected NBA 3-point percentage is still weak (26.9 percent) and he projects more as an eighth or ninth man.
Matt mentioned the Utah Jazz as a possible fit in his full question because Jazz assistant coach Igor Kokoskov coached Randolph as part of the Slovenian team that won this year's EuroBasket, and they could use a stretchier true big man. I also like Randolph as a fit for star-studded teams that can use spacing from their 5s. For example, Randolph could be a lower-cost Channing Frye replacement if the Cleveland Cavaliers re-sign LeBron James, or would fit well with the L.A. Lakers if they sign two max free agents and have only their room exception to offer a complementary big man.