Tank Watch 2014: Handicapping Likely Lottery Team Odds of Landing the No. 1 Pick
While the NBA’s upper crust busies itself in preparation for the playoffs, the 14 teams that fell short—or, in the case of the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, never got the memo on the season starting—will be setting their sights on what promises to be one of the deeper draft classes in recent memory.
The NBA’s draft lottery has seen a number of models over the years (Remember when we could all see the ping pong balls? That was fun), with the hope being that today’s version is truest to the delicate balance of need and luck.
There has, of course, been a growing chorus of voices bent on abolishing the current draft model, arguing it rewards losing and thus compromises the game’s very integrity.
Take this recent piece by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, who makes the case—first put forth by Boston Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren—for a new “draft wheel” designed to encourage both fairness and certainty:
But the best odds of snagging such a player lie in being very bad, getting some lottery luck, and drafting in one of the first two or three slots. That path is NOT a fail-safe, of course. The Bobcats tanked the 2011-12 lockout season and ended up with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead of Anthony Davis.
Until such measures are adopted, however, we’re forced to deal with what we have: A flawed system which, for all its faults and foibles, can still be a heck of a lot of fun.
With that, and with the help of our friends at Tankathon.com, let’s take a run through this year’s crop of lottery-bound teams to examine not only their current odds of landing the No. 1 pick, but how the NBA’s last week of games might hinder or help them.
Helpful hint: A quick click on any team listed at Tankathon will bring you to a page detailing the team's prospects, pick origination (if applicable) and remaining schedule.
Please note: These numbers are current as of early Sunday, April 6. Therefore, depending on what happened during the night games, the odds may have changed.
The Atlanta Hawks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns all own first-round picks—and in some cases, that of other teams—so missing the playoffs wouldn't be a total disaster for these conference pretenders.
As of Sunday, the odds of the Grizzlies—on the outside looking in after getting throttled by the San Antonio Spurs—are at or around 0.5 percent. While the percentages of playoff teams aren't explicitly stated, we can assume the Suns (currently in after beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 122-115) are around that same number, considering the two teams' near identical record. The Mavericks, meanwhile, do not own their first-rounder.
Following all that?
Obviously, by virtue of their inferior record, the Hawks would stand a slightly better chance should they fall out of the conference picture. However, that seems close to impossible, at this point: Coupled with the New York Knicks’ 102-91 loss to the Miami Heat, the magic number for Atlanta—which stunned the Indiana Pacers, 107-88—stands at just three.
Given those odds, you can see why all these teams actually want to make the playoffs.
Why aren’t the Knicks included here, you ask? Because they’re dumb and traded away their pick to the Denver Nuggets in the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade.
"So You're Telling Me There's a Chance?"
Considering how strongly they’ve registered on the disappoint meter this year, it's only appropriate that the Cleveland Cavaliers (1.7 percent), Detroit Pistons (2.8 percent) and Sacramento Kings (4.3 percent) would all be lumped together.
Of the three, the Kings boast by far the toughest remaining schedule, although even dropping all of them probably won’t get them above 10 percent.
Cleveland’s relatively easy schedule, meanwhile, coupled with its three-game-odds cushion on Detroit, means it’s likely they’ll be staying at or around the two percent neighborhood. Ditto, Detroit, who has a quartet of tough tilts ahead of it.
How the West Was Lost
OK, get all your yucks about the Los Angeles Lakers mysteriously winning the No. 1 overall pick out of the way now. This is no place for conspiracy theories, unless it’s about our alien lizard overlords.
The Lake Show currently stands a 6.3 percent chance of landing the top pick—paltry, if not impossibly so. The Utah Jazz (8.8 percent), meanwhile, boast arguably the tougher final slate, which ends with their season finale against—you guessed it—the Lakers.
Might this be the first time we see two teams start five ball boys, even if it’s for a three percent better chance of reeling in the ultimate prize? Sign us up.
Plans in Place
Remember when Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told the Boston Globe's Gary Washburn, "We're not tanking. That's Ridiculous. This is the Boston Celtics"?
If you had to give an award for the best end-of-season slide, the Celtics (11.9 percent) would be right up there. Losers of eight straight, the Celtics could end up leapfrogging the Orlando Magic (15.6 percent), although the resulting boost in percentage would be miniscule.
Helping sweeten the deal for both teams is the fact that they each have a pair of picks coming their way (Orlando getting the worse of New York and Denver’s, and Boston slated to nab one belonging to the Philadelphia 76ers).
With so much distance between them and the “top” two teams, the Magic and Celtics don’t have much of an added incentive to lose out, unless it means staving off one of the teams mentioned in our previous slide. Still, with a quartet of picks between them, Orlando and Boston are sitting prettier than just about any other team in the lottery standings.
Haven't You Had Enough?
No team has taken better advantage of the NBA’s antiquated lottery system in recent years than the Philadelphia 76ers (19.9 percent chance), who enter this year’s lottery foray with a pair of picks (theirs, as well as that of the New Orleans Pelicans) to their credit.
With three games to make up on the final team on our list, Philly’s odds of landing the No. 1 pick aren’t liable to get much better or worse than they are right now. But considering the stunning upsets we’ve seen in the past (last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers, for instance), the 76ers have to like their chances of reeling in their first No. 1 overall pick since Allen Iverson in 1996.
The Luck Stops Here
Congratulations, Milwaukee Bucks! You’re currently in the driver’s seat of the saddest jalopy this side of El Paso.
With four of their remaining five games coming against Eastern Conference playoff teams, the Bucks (25 percent) look likely to finish the season with the worst record in the NBA.
That kind of schedule could cut both ways, of course: Depending on how set the playoff seeding is, some of these times might be looking to rest their starters, thereby giving Milwaukee increased chances of an “upset.” If that’s what we’re calling it.
No matter, though: With the future of their franchise being cast into darker and darker doubt, the good people of Milwaukee need something—anything—on which to hang their 12-point hats.
Assuming they reach for one of much-ballyhooed freshman phenoms, however, the Bucks could be looking at a few more years—at least—before actual relevance becomes a reality.
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