For the second straight week, the Celtics failed to win a game. And with that, for the second straight week the Celtics draft prospects got much rosier.
Boston has won just one basketball game since December 16th (in 12 tries), and despite playing pretty well over the last few games, just wrapped up their brutal Western Conference road trip at 0-5. Overall, the Cs have lost eight games in a row, causing them to fall from the 8-seed in the East (and only 1 game back of division leading Toronto), to 12th place in the Conference, six and a half games behind the red-hot Raptors. For those lusting after ping pong balls - it's been a good run. Unfortunately for the Celtics, the field remains incredibly competitive when it comes to landing a top five pick, with 17 teams sitting below .500, and ten teams winning less than 40% of their games.
But we'll get to the top contenders for the top picks in a minute. First let's check in on the cream of the 2014 draft crop.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: 15.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 45% FG, 34% 3 PT
Jabari Parker, Duke: 19.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.2 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 50% FG, 40% 3 PT
Julius Randle, Kentucky: 16.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.6 BPG, 54% FG, 71% FT
Joel Embiid, Kansas: 10.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 1.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 66% FG, 67% FT
Wiggins continues to be statistically underwhelming, but it's hard not to get excited about some of the stuff you see out of him. His first step is incredibly quick, and he's the most explosive wing player we've seen in awhile. Here's one example from this weekend's game against Kansas State, with Wiggins grabbing a loose ball at the wing, taking three quick strides, and then throwing down. (apologies for the music).
Is it a red flag that he's averaging only 16/5 this season? Somewhat. I think just about everyone, myself included, would rather see him putting up Parker's 19.5/7.5, but there's some things you just can't teach. And Wiggins' first step is one of them.
As for the rest of the field, Parker's slump has continued now for four games, with the Freshman sensation finally hitting a bump in the road, shooting 16-48 (33%) and averaging only 11.5 PPG over that stretch. However, it's nothing to worry all that much about, as Parker was simply shooting the ball too well over the first 12 games of his college career (55% FG, 47% 3 PT), for that to realistically continue. He's still neck and neck with Wiggins as the first wing player off the board.
As for the two big men, Embiid has seemingly surpassed Randle in just about everyone's mind, as he continues to impress scouts and fans alike with his game. Randle is also in the midst of a slump, having reached the 20 point mark just once in his last ten games, after reaching it in four of the first five games he played at Kentucky. One red flag for Randle is his lack of steals. It seems a bit silly, but steals at the collegiate level have been known to have a direct correlation to NBA success, as they show a combination of instincts, athleticism and quickness (other stats that have shown correlation to NBA success: 2-point field goal percentage and rebound rate). And for some reason - Randle never gets steals. Like ever. He has only 3 steals this season in 431 minutes played, or 0.25 per-36 minutes. Not that this means Randle is going to suck in the NBA or anything, just that his defensive acumen and athleticism were both question marks before the season, and his lack of steals helps drive those points home.
We'll also have to keep an eye on OK State's Marcus Smart, and Australia's Dante Exum, both of whom hop over Randle in some of the ESPN draft lottery mocks.
On to the teams contending for these guys' services.
Note: The rankings are in terms of record, but I also will list the Hollinger lottery odds, former ESPN columnist (and current Grizzlies front office executive) John Hollinger's simulation system which predicts teams records based on their season thus far and upcoming schedule. The number you see after the Hollinger lottery odds is what place they rank in his system.
1. Bucks, 7-29 (Hollinger lottery odds: 19.6% - 1st)
The gold standard for losing basketball games continues to be the Bucks. Milwaukee has lost five in a row, eight out of nine, 13 out of 15, and 27 out of 32 following a 2-2 start. All of the losing has given them an impressive two and a half game lead over the second-from-the-bottom Magic as we near the half-way point of the season, and things don't appear likely to turn around. Larry Sanders has been injured and awful this season, and was ejected from Milwaukee's loss to the Thunder after elbowing Steven Adams. The team is looking to deal veterans Gary Neal and Zaza Pachulia, and John Henson (one of the teams only bright spots) remains out with an ankle injury. Milwaukee is bad defensively (21st in defensive rating), but flat out horrific offensively (they score only 98.4 points per 100 possessions, 30th in basketball), and seem committed to the losing cause at this point. There's no doubt they're salivating at the possibility of adding Wiggins, Parker or Embiid to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Henson (and maybe Sanders depending on whether or not they trade him), and setting up a solid foundation for the franchise going forward.
2. Magic, 10-27 (HLO: 12.0% - 2nd)
If you thought Boston's 0-5 Western Conference trip was bad, check out what the Magic have done on their five game excursion out west: 20-point loss at the Clippers, 16-point loss at the Blazers, 20-point loss at the Kings, 26-point loss at the Nuggets. Four games in, and Orlando has been outscored by 82 points. Tonight the Magic finish things off against the Mavs, and something tells me they're in line for another ass kicking. Orlando has some nice pieces for the future (Victor Oladipo, Nicola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Andrew Nicholson, Maurice Harkless), and a few veterans performing well (Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis), but to this point it just has not clicked. With a ton of young, cost-controlled talent in house, and two more first round picks in this year's draft (they own whatever's worse between the Knicks/Nuggets pick), look for the Magic to aggressively shop Afflalo, Davis and Nelson before the deadline.
3. Jazz, 12-26 (HLO: 11% - 5th)
At this point, the Jazz' plan has worked to nearly perfection. Develop the four man core of Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, and still lose enough games to get an elite wing player to add to the group. Utah has been playing decent basketball for awhile (11-12 since a 1-14 start), so they are beginning to slip in the tank standings, but if they can luck into either Wiggins or Parker, look out for this team over the next decade. While the have not won anything yet, Utah is a good example of what building through the draft can do, as all four of their young building blocks were taken in the top ten.
4. 76ers, 12-25 (HLO: 11.4% - 4th)
Have yourself a week Sixers! Four games, four losses by a combined 69 points to four teams currently below .500. Yikes. The Sixers remain a dark horse to make a run at Milwaukee, as they have the worst point differential in the league (-8.4), and rank 25th in offensive efficiency, and 27th in defensive efficiency. If Philly really wants to catch the Bucks, it seems pretty straight forward how to do it: bench Michael Carter-Williams for awhile. While the Sixers are not great with him in the line-up (11-15, outscored by 3.5 PPG), they're downright abysmal when he's out (1-10, outscored by 15.1(!!) PPG). Philly's going to be interesting to watch next season if they do land one of the draft studs, as they'll also be adding Nerlens Noel (out with an ACL tear) to their young core.
5. Celtics, 13-25 (HLO: 5.3% - 8th)
The Hollinger odds were extremely impressed with the Celtics' recent close losses at the Clippers, Warriors and Blazers, as Boston slid from an 8% shot at landing the #1 pick (and being projected to finish 28-54), all the way down to a 5.3% chance to pick first (and being projected for 31 wins). The Celtics five game trip helped lift their strength of schedule from 30th all the way up to 20th, and apparently impressed the computer simulations with their ability to hang in games.
Scarier than that for tank fans, Rajon Rondo is about to return after missing nearly a year recovering from a torn ACL. While everyone is excited to see him play (I'm extremely pro-losing, but can't wait to see him on the court), it will be interesting to see how much better he makes the Celtics. He'll likely be rusty at first, and needs to build chemistry with a very different team than the one he last played with, but in time there is very little doubt that he improves Boston's chances at winning games. I'm interested to see if Danny Ainge tries to compensate for Rondo's return by making another trade, namely one of Brandon Bass and/or Kris Humphries. As the drop off from those guys to Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani has been stark this season (of course, both guys are also young and possible pieces for the future, so giving them playing time makes sense for several reasons).
Boston's recent stretch of play (1-11 since mid-December) has moved their draft pick from 19th overall (they were the East's 4-seed) all the way to the 5-spot in the lottery. An absolutely insane difference in less than a month. At the moment, Chad Ford has them picking Parker if they pick first overall, Embiid if Parker is not there, Wiggins if neither is there, and Exum if the current order sticks and they pick at five. Not a bad place to be.
6. Cavaliers, 13-24 (HLO: 8.0% - 6th)
Not going to spend a ton of time on the Cavs, as I think they will be out of the lottery pretty quickly. They're 2-1 since acquiring Luol Deng (although the loss was a 44-point beat down at the hands of the Kings), and I think it can be argued that they're a top four team in the steaming pile of garbage that is the Eastern Conference. While Cleveland may struggle to find wins on their current west coast swing (1-1 so far), there's no way this is actually the 6th worst team in the NBA. Mostly because they're actually trying to win, which separates them from like eight other teams on this list.
7. Kings, 13-22 (HLO: 3.1% - 10th)
Break up the Kings! Three straight wins over the Blazers, Magic and Cavs, and in their last eight games they've knocked off three of the top eight teams in basketball (Miami, Houston, Portland). There are some definite positives to look at if you're SacTown, from DeMarcus Cousins' fantastic season, to Rudy Gay somehow becoming an efficient scorer since you've acquired him (52.3% shooting - huh?), to Isaiah Thomas' breakout campaign, things are coming together. In fact, the Kings -1.6 point differential is 17th in basketball, ahead of three playoff teams in the East. Not so bad. But — there is one major caveat which keeps the Kings in the running for a top pick. Sacramento has played a ridiculously home-heavy schedule, playing 22 games at Arco compared to just 13 on the road. The young Kings will play 28 of their final 47 games on the road, and while they're talented enough to win quite a few of those, their 4-9 road record thus far does not paint a pretty picture. At the end of the day, I think this team has too much talent to grab a bottom-five record, but let's keep an eye on them.
8. Lakers, 14-23 (HLO: 11.9% - 3rd)
If you're a Celtics fan, I hope you include Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash's current injuries in your prayers. Both Nash and Kobe are expected back by the end of the month, and their returns may be the only thing that can keep this team from dropping like a rock in the standings. LA has lost ten of their last 11 games, seven of which have been by double figures. That includes home losses to the tank monsters from Philly and Milwaukee, a 27-point loss against the Suns, a 22-point beating at the hands of the Nuggets, and a 36-point annihilation courtesy the Chris Paul-less Clippers. Things are really ugly in Lakerland, and if Kobe and Nash (mostly Kobe, let's be honest) don't give this team a push, the Lakers could be in line to land a superstar via the draft right as they free up about $30 million in cap space this summer. Does that sound like something you want to see happen? Didn't think so. Therefore, go Lakers, and go Kobe.
9. Nuggets, 17-15 (own the 14-22 Knicks pick) (HLO: 1.7% -13th)
With the New York teams both showing signs of life in the new year, both the Hawks and Nuggets have taken a hit in the race for a lottery pick. Denver owns the Knicks pick, which was in line to be top-three just two weeks ago. But the Knicks four game winning streak has lifted them to within a 1/2 game of the 8-seed in the East, and accordingly, Hollinger's odds (which rank the Knicks as the 7th best team in their conference) give Denver only a 1.7% shot at landing at the top of the lottery.
10. Bobcats, 15-23 (HLO: 5.8% - 7th)
One of the biggest risers in the tank standings this week was Charlotte, who fell out of the playoff picture in the East (barely), and currently has the 10th worst record in the league. When you take into account their -3.6 point differential and 26th ranked strength of schedule — this is a better bet than you'd imagine to drop off in the season's second half. But much like the Cavs above, this team is trying to win, and while that may still leave them in the lottery, it's hard for me to imagine them falling down towards the bottom-feeders trying so hard to gain pole position for one of the top picks.
Also worth keeping an eye on: The Pistons (9th in HLO at 4.2%), Hawks (via the Nets pick and their own) (11th in HLO at 2.1%), The Pelicans (12th at 1.8%)
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