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NBA Draft 2019: Tempering Atlanta’s lottery expectations

A dose of reality.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It happens after every loss for the Atlanta Hawks.

While some of the banter is, admittedly, sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek, interactions center around the prospect of landing Duke star Zion Williamson. If not Williamson, specifically, there are references to his Duke teammates, R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish, but the projected No. 1 overall pick is, by leaps and bounds, the most discussed 2019 NBA Draft prospect among fans of the Hawks and many other NBA teams.

At the moment, it makes perfect sense, especially when viewed through the prism of history. After all, the Hawks currently boast one of the NBA’s worst records and, as a result, project to finish at or near the bottom of the end-of-season standings. Generally, that means Atlanta would have a reasonable chance to select at No. 1 overall when June’s draft rolls around but, in 2019, there is a lot more uncertainty surrounding the draft lottery process.

For reference, the 2017-18 Hawks finished the season with a 24-58 record and two NBA teams — the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies — compiled uglier win-loss marks. As a result of that (and tiebreaker weirdness with the Dallas Mavericks), Atlanta entered the 2018 lottery with a 13.7 percent chance to grab the No. 1 pick and a 50.4 percent chance to make a selection somewhere within the top four picks. In contrast, the Suns (25 percent) and Grizzlies (19.9 percent) arrived with chances significantly more favorable than that of Atlanta when it came to the lead-off spot.

Fast-forward to the end of the ping-pong process and, of course, the Hawks ended up with the No. 3 pick, representing a positive general outcome for a team in their pre-lottery position. In 2019, though, the lottery odds have shifted to the point where no team has as significant of an advantage in gaining the No. 1 pick and, in fact, the top (er, bottom?) three squads in the lottery have the same chance to land the top spot.

Yes, there are draft-based advantages to finishing with the NBA’s worst record, including the highest floor (No. 5 overall) of any team in the lottery process. However, the three teams with the worst win-loss marks will all enter with the same chance to snatch the No. 1 (14.0 percent), No. 2 (13.4 percent), No. 3 (12.7 percent) and No. 4 (12.0 percent) pick in this year’s draft.

While the math can sometimes appear vexing, especially to those with a more casual interest, the simple explanation is as follows. If the NBA world assumes that Williamson will, in fact, be the clear No. 1 player, the Hawks (or any other team with a poor record) would have at best a 14.0 percent chance to select him.

Obviously, there are ways beyond the lottery (re: trades) to jump into the top spot and Hawks fans would be intimately familiar with the shenanigans that can take place on draft night after 2018. With that said, every reference to the Hawks “aiming for Zion” after a loss should come with a qualifier, at least in the back of one’s mind, that the odds simply aren’t in favor of any NBA squad, even the worst of the worst, hitting it big in the ping-pong lottery.

There are other prospects in the 2019 class that merit significant analysis and consideration, as the NBA Draft will, indeed, feature players that are not currently playing for Duke. In fact, there will be plenty of coverage of those in consideration in this space between now and June. Still, the flattening of the NBA’s lottery process may be arriving at an inopportune time for the Hawks, depending on where they ultimately finish in the league’s pecking order after the 82-game marathon comes to an end.