Breaking Down the NBA's Battle for the Bottom of the Standings
But as is usual in the league, another compelling battle is going on at the other end of the standings: the battle for draft position and extra ping pong balls in the upcoming draft lottery.
The Reason for Tanking
Tanking has become an issue in the league the last several years, but with potentially the best incoming group of prospects in years, the battle for the bottom is even more important.
One long-time NBA GM to me just now: "There are 3, maybe 4, No. 1 picks in this draft -- Markelle Fultz, Lonzo... https://t.co/TZQO3WFTWY
— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) March 20, 2017
The likes of Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, and Dennis Smith Jr. have all flashed number-one overall talent this year. Teams obviously want the best odds to land their player of choice on draft night.
But picks changing hands is yet another reason that winning habits matter over the next few weeks, and one team more than any other is impacted by that this year.
As most know by now, the Brooklyn Nets' ill-fated Kevin Garrett and Paul Pierce trade with the Boston Celtics means that they will be swapping picks with the Celtics this year. At this point of the season, that means very little to the Nets, as the picks will be swapped no matter how the team finishes.
The Nets may actually have more Boston fans watching their games to end the year than Brooklyn fans. The Nets' current record of 14-56 has them sitting in the driver’s seat with a 25.0% chance to get the number-one overall pick.
With no hope of changing their fate, Brooklyn has little reason to push a player such as Brook Lopez for big minutes. With just 12 games left, it seems a near lock that Boston will enter the draft lottery with the best odds at the top pick this summer.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are perhaps the most interesting team to watch down the stretch. They currently sit at 20-51 and are in line for the second-best odds at number one with a 19.9% chance.
However, the far bigger number that Lakers (and Philadelphia 76ers) fans need to watch is the percent chance they stay in the top three, which currently sits at 55.8%.
The reason this matters for Lakers and Sixers fans is that if the Lakers' pick stays inside the top three, the team will keep the pick. If it falls to fourth or worse, that will be conveyed to the Sixers.
The Lakers recently shut down veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov for the season. This has led the Lakers to a meager 1-9 record over their past 10 games and is a clear sign the organization knows its situation.
With just a two-game lead on the Phoenix Suns for the second-worst record, do not expect much of an effort to push players such as D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle to big minutes for the remaining 11 games. If Phoenix does end up passing the Lakers, it would drop the odds for Los Angeles keeping their pick from 55.8% to 46.9%.
The Suns are a fairly innocent bystander in all of the draft movement. They not only have no first-round picks coming in but also none going out in this draft.
Resting star point guard Eric Bledsoe the remainder of the season and not playing veteran Tyson Chandler for a single minute since the All-Star break is all you need to know about how they perceive their situation.
This has seemed to work out for the team, though, as young players such as Tyler Ulis, T.J. Warren and Alan Williams have been allowed to get more playing time while also seeing the team limp to a 3-7 record over the last 10 games and inch closer to locking in a top-six overall pick regardless of how the ping pong balls bounce.
Currently sitting with a 46.9% chance to stick in the top three, Phoenix should be able to grab a top prospect this summer.
The Orlando Magic are in the same boat as the Suns: no first-round picks will be on the move this year. The only real drama for the Magic is where they will fall in the pecking order.
Currently sitting with the fourth-worst record, the Magic have a 11.9% chance to get the top pick and a 37.8% chance to end up in the top three. However, the 76ers, New York Knicks, and Sacramento Kings all are within 1.5 games of that spot, and none of the four teams have won more than 3 of their past 10 outings.
Everyone’s favorite cellar dwellers will play a huge role in how this draft plays out. Former general manager Sam Hinkie did a tremendous job of acquiring picks which could culminate in Philadelphia having three picks in the top 20 overall in this stellar class.
The team controls their own pick this summer. As of today, they sit with the fifth-worst record in the NBA, which brings with it an 8.8% shot at number-one and 29.1% chance at the top-three.
That could be drastically altered because they sit in the middle of a group that could see them high as third and as low at ninth overall. A 3-7 record over the last 10 sounds poor, but consider only one team in the top eight, the Nets, has a better record than them over that stretch and you can imagine how each game could swing standings.
The next item -- that we noted previously -- is that the team could acquire the Lakers' pick if it falls out of the top three. In a dream scenario, Philadelphia could end up with the number-one and number-four overall picks, which would net them two potential stars to go with Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons.
Next in their line of assets, Brooklyn could pick up the Dallas Mavericks' pick in the first round, but it would require Dallas to get the 18th pick or lower, which currently does not look likely as they are sitting with the 10th-worst record.
One final note on Philadelphia: they could swap picks with the Sacramento Kings if they fall out of the top 10, which at this point seems unlikely.
New York, Sacramento, and Minnesota
The New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves all entered this season with hopes of big improvements. Young big men DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl-Anthony Towns were thought to take their teams to potential playoff berths. That has failed to happen, and all three sit in the top eight of the draft order.
The Knicks and Timberwolves do not have much to think about, as they have no picks going in or coming out. It will simply matter whether or not they can improve their odds. New York sits with a 5.3% chance at number-one with an 18.3% chance at the top three. The Kings also have an 18.3% chance at the top three.
The Wolves, meanwhile, sit with 2.8% odds for number one and 9.9% for the top three. After a hot streak, the team has hit the skids with a four-game losing streak. It seems unlikely they move from their current position.
Of the teams in this group, only the Kings have the most possible movement. If they remain in the top 10, they are assured to keep their pick. The other team they will be watching are the New Orleans Pelicans, who will owe them their first-round pick if it falls outside of the top three.
With a 6.1% chance of that happening at this point, it seems almost a near certainty that the Kings will pick up a second first-round pick.
The Rest of the Lottery and What It Means
Outside of the worst eight teams, the Pelicans, Mavs, Charlotte Hornets, Portland Trail Blazers, Detroit Pistons, and Chicago Bulls all enter the day with under a 2% chance to get the number-one overall pick.
Along with that, these teams all are viable candidates to get hot over the final stretch of games and make the playoffs.
As strange as it sounds, the battle for the bottom may actually be a more compelling storyline for the remainder of the season than the actual playoff seeding.
With the top seeds in each conference nearly locked in, the last 10 to 12 games of this year could drastically affect how a team like the 76ers or Lakers look going forward.