By TIM REYNOLDS, AP Basketball Writer
Even with the conference finals going on, the NBA’s eyes turn to the future this week.
A future that, perhaps, will have less tanking.
The draft lottery — the last before changes come next year to dissuade tanking — is Tuesday night, and then about 70 players will partake in the draft combine that starts on Wednesday. Those events are both happening in Chicago, as are some various league meetings such as a gathering of NBA general managers and other front-office executives.
But the biggest news will be made by 14 pingpong balls that will decide who drafts No. 1 next month.
“We’ve got to see what happens in the lottery first and see where our position is,” Memphis executive vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger said. “That’s going to dictate a lot of the decisions that come after that and how we use our time after that.”
Phoenix has a 25 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick, followed by Memphis (19.9 percent), Dallas (13.8 percent) and Atlanta (13.7 percent). The rest of the candidates for No. 1 are Orlando (8.8 percent), Chicago (5.3), Sacramento (5.3), Cleveland (2.8), New York (1.7), Philadelphia (1.1), Charlotte (0.8), Detroit (0.7), the Los Angeles Clippers (0.6) and Denver (0.5).
Many of those teams were at the center of tanking questions this season. Now they’ll see if it pays off.
“We did this year what we felt was in the long-term best interest of the Bulls,” Chicago vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again. And it goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in. But it’s the way the system’s set up.”
For now. The NBA is changing the system.
Starting in 2019, with the NBA hoping that teams have less incentive to strive for the worst record and therefore the best chance of winning the lottery, the odds will be changing. The three teams with the worst regular-season record will each have a 14 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick, the fourth-worst team will have a 12.5 percent chance and the fifth-worst 10.5 percent.
“My sense is we’re still going to have some work to do,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.
Tanking got plenty of attention this season, and a few minutes on Jan. 29 might have decided the race.
Phoenix and Memphis played that night. The Grizzlies scored 42 points in the second quarter — their only 40-point period all season — and forced the Suns into 10 consecutive misses in one stretch, on the way to a 120-109 win.
The Suns finished one game worse than the Grizzlies. Flip that Jan. 29 outcome, and it would been the Grizzlies with the best chance at the No. 1 pick.
“The league has been beating us up right now,” said Phoenix guard Devin Booker, who hasn’t come even close to making the playoffs and is already on the fourth head coach of his three-year career now that the Suns have hired Igor Kokoskov. “But I think it’s going to be motivational for us. I know for myself, working out, I think about that all the time. I never want to be in these situations again.”
The new lottery format isn’t the only looming change related to drafts. It seems likely that by 2020, the one-and-done rule — in place since 2006 — will be gone and players will be allowed to jump from high school directly to the NBA again.
If that was the case this season, the rights to draft phenoms like R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cameron Reddish would probably be decided by those pingpong balls in Chicago on Tuesday. Instead, they’re all going to Duke this fall.
So they won’t be at the combine, nor will the likely top two picks in the June 21 draft — Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, and Slovenia’s Luka Doncic. Ayton declined the invitation to participate in Chicago, and Doncic’s season in Europe isn’t over yet.
“We sort of expected this, that we might not see the top couple guys there,” Hollinger said. “So we just have to adjust from that and get our information in other ways.”
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