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Lowe: One strange NBA lottery, and what we learned and laughed about

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SECAUCUS, N.J. — The lottery has become a party for the damned. It is usually held in a fancy hotel, with pre-show mingling over cocktails and appetizers for VIPs. Once a team contingent showed up, let’s say, a little rowdier than usual after a private flight to New York. Representatives from each lottery team sit at tables adorned with team logos in the secret drawing room where the actual lottery happens about an hour before the TV show. A dozen media “observers” watch. It is a production.

The drawing room of the pandemic lottery was a curtained-off rectangle in the atrium of the NBA’s nondescript office building — it could pass as Initech’s headquarters — in Secaucus, New Jersey. There were nine people in the room — including me. There were more pingpong balls (14) than people. Other than the requisite accountant from Ernst & Young, there were no other visitors — just 40 NBA staff. The TV show, headlined by Mark Tatum, the NBA’s deputy commissioner, was filmed in the cafeteria down the hall.

I was the only media member in the drawing room. If this turns out to be one the NBA finally rigged, I will go down in infamy as having failed to detect the conspiracy.

o The NBA kicked around constructing some video wall in which representatives from each team could view (via Zoom) the drawing, but decided it was both unnecessary and cumbersome. A few team executives agitated for an in-person spot in the room, sources told ESPN. No dice.

o Each attendee stopped at a security desk at the front entrance to hand over various waivers and medical declarations. Then we proceeded into a testing room for the coronavirus nasal swab. My results came back — negative — in 23 minutes. This was apparently an antigen test — slightly less accurate than the more common PCR molecular test, prone to a few false negative results, but obviously much faster. We all wore masks for the remainder of our time in the drawing room.

o The lucky nine handed over our phones and sequestered in the drawing room at about 7:30. The drawing takes about five minutes. An NBA employee vacuums up four numbered pingpong balls, one-by-one at precise 10-second intervals, from an old-school lottery machine. (Yes, there is a timekeeper who stands with his back to the machine and holds a stopwatch.)

There are 1,001 possible four-digit combinations. Each lottery team is assigned a certain number of them. The three worst teams get the most: 140 apiece for Golden State, Cleveland, and Minnesota.

And let me tell you: Once a grown man in a suit holds up a pingpong ball and recites aloud the number you can already see on that pingpong ball, the lottery feels like its old goofy self again — even amid a pandemic.

o After the drawing, we made small talk in the atrium as we waited for the ESPN broadcast. Suddenly, Tatum burst through double doors and into the atrium on his way to the cafeteria set. This would never happen in a regular lottery: Tatum did not know the results, and now he was chatting with a half-dozen of us who did. For about five minutes, we were at risk of spoiling it for him! As the conversation flowed, I came very close to making a generic “Woe are the Knicks” joke before realizing even that would tip him to the Knicks falling (again).

o Speaking of the Knicks: Tatum recalled Patrick Ewing, New York’s rep on the dais last season, standing right behind him — at an angle from which he could spot the contents of the No. 3 envelope before Tatum. As Tatum ripped open the envelope, he heard Ewing groan — knowing the Knicks had barely missed out on Ja Morant and Zion Williamson. Tatum can still hear that groan in his head.

o Two days before the lottery, I asked Gersson Rosas, Minnesota’s president of basketball operations, if he had any lottery superstitions. He did not. “We’re due for something good to happen to us,” Rosas said, “after everything we’ve been through.” The lottery gods (a subset of the basketball gods) agreed.

What a moment for Minnesota. As rosters stand now (subject to the usual offseason makeovers), the Wolves would probably be projected as one of the two or three worst teams in the loaded Western Conference. They owe their 2021 first-rounder, with teensy top-3 protection, to Golden State. Their team is (basically) for sale. There is no consensus No. 1 pick. If the Wolves feel pressure to chase a playoff spot, would they be open to sniffing around what they might get packaging that pick and trading down?

MORE: Who should — and will — the Timberwolves draft at No. 1?

o Also, Timberwolves: I have acquired the envelope and Wolves team placard from Thursday’s show. An NBA staffer gave them to me! Here’s proof:

(It might be one of several copies. I’m choosing to believe it’s the one Tatum held up.)

If you want it, I’m sure we can agree on some sort of transaction! I actually think you should not claim it, though. It gets depressing when teams collect too many souvenirs from lottery wins.

o Devonte’ Graham, the Hornets’ representative on the virtual dais, had not thought about his outfit, his TV backdrop, or the possibility of bringing any lucky trinket by 5 p.m. — three-ish hours before the show. “I’m trying to let it come to me,” he told ESPN. “I don’t want to plan too hard and have it backfire.” The lottery gods admired his restraint.

o Graham is still smarting about being left off the list of finalists for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. “I was definitely upset,” he said. “And surprised.”

o We know the Warriors, with reasonable aspirations of contending for the title next season, will sniff around what they might get packaging the No. 2 pick for a quality veteran or two (plus other stuff).

The NBA has not seen a dilemma like this in a long time. Maybe you don’t think it’s a dilemma — that the Warriors need to do everything in their power to keep their title window open. That’s probably so. A title window is precious. If Draymond Green‘s decline this season was real — and not the product of malaise — Golden State cannot act as if the Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson/Green trio alone puts them ahead of the Los Angeles teams (or perhaps even on par with them). Thompson has not appeared in a game in 14 months.

But if Green revs back up, that trio — plus a few intriguing young players, including the No. 2 pick — is pretty damned good. As a rule, rookies do not help you win, but No. 2 picks can be exceptions.

Nailing that pick could give Golden State a bridge beyond the Curry/Thompson/Green era. They have talked about wanting to be the Spurs — about being a top team for a quarter century. Drafting a star at No. 2 would unlock that path. As Kevin Pelton noted Thursday, they might also have a hard time finding a veteran who is both available for what Golden State can offer and worth what they can offer — and really moves the needle on their title odds for next season.

Of course, the Warriors could trade this pick and still draft a bridge star with Minnesota’s 2021 pick — or with a stroke-of-genius trade down the line, as the Spurs did in swapping George Hill for Kawhi Leonard.

But what if Minnesota’s pick somehow ends up toward the bottom of next year’s lottery — or worse? The draft is unpredictable. That doesn’t mean it’s completely random. Your chances of finding a franchise star are still higher at the top. That might be less true this season, but it’s still generally true.

If the Warriors think they can get the guy they want elsewhere in the lottery, they could thread the needle in some sort of Jayson Tatum/Markelle Fultz-style deal in which they trade down and pick up some fringe veteran help. But some other team has to love someone else enough to pay to move up.

o Golden State brass initially asked Joe Lacob, the team’s governor, if he wanted to helm the virtual dais for the team’s first lottery appearance since their legendary 2012 tank job for Harrison Barnes.

They consider Lacob unusually lucky, for various reasons. He told them, semi-facetiously, something to the effect of: “I don’t do lotteries. I do championships.” When ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne asked Lacob about that cheeky line, he chuckled. “This is gonna be like the ‘light years’ thing,” Lacob said. “I did say that. But when you’re in last place, you shouldn’t really have much to say.”

Stephen Curry was the next and obvious choice. He had one request, Golden State higher-ups said: Ask Klay first. Thompson apparently passed.

o Yes, the name of Golden State’s lucky dog — Joe Lacob’s dog — that Curry referenced on the broadcast with Rachel Nichols is Larry O’Brien Lacob. Larry was one of more than 100 pets the Miami Heat and Warriors helped relocate to the Bay Area when Hurricane Irma hit South Florida in 2017.

o There is skepticism among team executives that this draft will take place as scheduled on Oct. 16 — in part because there is even more skepticism across every sector of the league that free agency will begin as scheduled two days later. (See more in this report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.) Obviously, everything about this situation is fluid.

There is doubt the league and National Basketball Players Association can agree to a firm salary cap for the 2020-21 season by either date. Free agency cannot commence without that number. The cap is determined by the league’s overall revenue projection — which is based on revenue from the prior season. The league and union need to compile that for the current season. That is complicated.

Projecting forward, next season will bring a massive revenue downturn. No party wants the cap to fall in sync with that. It is bad for players and teams. It has been widely reported, including at ESPN, that the most convenient solution would be carrying over this season’s cap figure — $109 million — into 2020-21, and placing a much larger percentage of each player’s salary into escrow so that players do not end up with more than their guaranteed share of actual revenue.

That sounds simple, but it’s not. It requires thorny negotiation between the league and union, and among the players. (A one-year salary reduction, via escrow, could penalize some players more than others.) It could end up requiring a wholesale rewriting of major parts of the CBA, though nobody wants that, either.

Point is, there are lots of people around the NBA ecosystem who don’t expect free agency to start until sometime in November, or perhaps even early December. (Again: Everything is fluid; no one knows anything.)

The final cap number usually comes in just before free agency — and after the draft — but the league provides teams a solid estimate ahead of the draft. This year, there are only 48 hours between those events. Can you have a draft without an accurate cap estimate?

The draft is one of the league’s three busiest trade periods. How can you trade veteran players — on contracts of different amounts and lengths — without knowing what the cap is? Do you really want to draft without knowing rookie scale salaries with at least 90% certainty?

A few executives have spitballed about tweaking this one draft so that teams could trade only picks — and not current players. The appeal would be getting rookies in the door, such as they are allowed in any door, as early as possible. But the draft and free agency are connected; teams navigate the draft with an eye on what comes next.

The league may prefer to keep the current draft date to capitalize on momentum coming out of the bubble. They could complete some frantic negotiation that would at least lead to a preliminary cap estimate. They could also just say, “Tough.” Teams have drafted under great uncertainty before — including with lockouts looming.

o Let’s be polite and say the Delete 8 (hat tip: John Hollinger) are relieved none of the bubble teams moved up. Non-bubble executives were already upset about missing out on the microwaved chemistry process the Phoenix Suns appear to have enjoyed in Orlando, though one wonders how upset they would be if Phoenix went a quiet 4-4. One GM described a bubble team jumping the non-bubblers as “our worst nightmare” in the lead-up to the lottery.

o If you want to know why the Cavs dropped three spots Thursday and the Pelicans failed to move up, you’ll find the answer in the home of Jeff Cohen — former vice chair of the Cleveland Cavaliers and confidante of Cavs’ governor Dan Gilbert. Cohen represented the Cavaliers in the drawing room in each of their three lottery wins from 2011 through 2014 — the greatest stretch of lottery luck in NBA history. He wore the same black tie with silver-gray striping to each lottery. I began referring to him as a warlock.

Then LeBron came back, the Cavs left the lottery, and Cohen vanished. In the lead-up to last year’s lottery, David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations and a Cavs executive during those halcyon lottery years, called Cohen requesting a good-luck charm. Cohen sent the tie. Griffin asked Alvin Gentry, New Orleans’ drawing room rep last year, to wear it. New Orleans leapt to No. 1.

Griffin had the tie framed, and attached a plaque commemorating its illustrious accomplishments. The frame is now in Cohen’s home, Griffin said.

o R.C. Buford, the San Antonio Spurs longtime GM and now their CEO, had no superstitions planned — no trinkets, or lucky shirts — for the team’s first trip to the lottery since landing Tim Duncan in 1997. Buford vividly remembers watching that lottery from his office in San Antonio. “I think I leaped a foot off my chair when we won,” he said.

He recalled Sam Schuler, the Spurs’ rep in the drawing room that night, relaying to Buford and Gregg Popovich that the Spurs had actually won twice — the pingpong ball machine had spit out another four-ball combination belonging to San Antonio after the winning draw. (The league discards such repeats and moves on.)

“Sam told us the rest of the room was pissed,” Buford recalled, laughing. “And then they were really pissed.”

o The combinations are organized so that the worst teams have all combos featuring 1, 2, and 3. It is legitimately exciting when the first two or three numbers are high. For 20 stomach-churning seconds, everything is in play. Case in point: The first two numbers drawn for the No. 1 pick were 5 and 13. Eight teams still had a shot. Then came a 2, and the suspense dwindled.

Likewise: The drawing for the No. 3 pick went 7, 11, 12. For 10 seconds, everyone but Sacramento, New Orleans, and Memphis was alive. The final number — 5 — earmarked the pick to the Hornets. Charlotte fans needed this.

o Jami Gertz, the famed actor and wife of Atlanta Hawks governor Tony Ressler, made her third appearance on the dais — “and hopefully my last,” she told ESPN this week. Over the previous two lotteries in Chicago, Gertz had developed one lottery day tradition: eating one slice of chocolate cake from RL Restaurant in Chicago.

That was not possible in the pandemic lottery. Gertz baked her own chocolate cake, with chocolate frosting. She has explored baking again during the pandemic, and recently baked cheesecake for the first time in 30-plus years of marriage to Ressler, she said. “I knew he loved me,” Gertz said, “but the cheesecake definitely took me up a few notches.”

o There are few lottery things funnier than seeing someone on the dais when their team does not end up with a pick. It was somehow funnier this season, when Tatum announced the Boston Celtics in the No. 14 spot — only for the camera to cut (with basically no explanation) to a stone-faced Elliot Perry, who was representing the Memphis Grizzlies. (The Grizzlies owed their pick to Boston with top-six protection.) That probably represented a best-case scenario for Memphis, but the visual still drew chuckles in the atrium.

o Here’s hoping the lottery is restored to its normal glory next year.

MORE: NBA mock draft — all 60 picks

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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