The trade deadline has come and gone, and at this point even the staunchest opponents of tanking have one eye on the standings. Sure, there are other story lines to watch. Can Jared Sullinger improve his offensive efficiency while continuing to be a double-double machine? Will we ever get a chance to see if the Rajon Rondo-Avery Bradley backcourt can coexist? Will young guys like Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey finish their rookie seasons strong? Will Brad Stevens embrace his new bad-boy persona? So it's not as if the last 25 games will be completely excitement free.
But there is no denying the importance of draft position, and the Celtics have put themselves in pretty good shape. Only the Bucks, Sixers and Magic are worse than Boston, and the Celtics have answered the bell in consecutive tank match-ups against the Lakers and Kings to sneak into poll position for the fourth spot.
However, the real tanking is just starting. The Sixers traded two of their three players with a pulse (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), the Magic cut one of their better low-post guys (Big Baby) and the Lakers and Kings just dealt solid role guys as well (Steve Blake and Marcus Thornton). That doesn't even count these teams holding out guys with minor injuries and playing younger, worse players instead of veterans so that they can "get a look at them for the future" (of course this is true, but losing games in the interim is also a priority).
We're heading down the home stretch and these teams that know they are going to miss the playoffs now know that every loss increases their odds at landing an All-Star type talent in June. Guys like these.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: 16.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 45% FG, 36% 3 PT
Jabari Parker, Duke: 19.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.3 BPG, 1 SPG, 49% FG, 38% 3 PT
Julius Randle, Kentucky: 15.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.9 BPG, 0.5 SPG 53% FG, 73% FT
Joel Embiid, Kansas: 11.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 1.3 APG, 0.7 SPG, 63% FG, 67% FT
Marcus Smart, OK State: 17.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.5 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 43% FG, 27% 3 PT
Parker just keeps getting better and better, and has solidified his place as the best Freshman in the country. He went for 19 points on just eight shots and grabbed 10 rebounds as Duke beat #1 Syracuse, his tenth straight game with at least 14 points and 8 rebounds. I know that Parker has hinted at staying a second year at Duke, but he is NBA ready and a lock to go in the top-three in the draft. As much as he may love school, he's ready to take the next step and it's going to be nearly impossible to pass on the $20+ million in guaranteed money that is coming his way.
Nice week for the Kansas' duo as well, with Wiggins continuing to become more consistent (six straight games with 14+ points, three straight shooting 50+% from the field), and Embiid coming back from a sore knee to average 15.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG and 3.5 BPG in wins vs Texas Tech and Texas. But these two guys remain consensus top-three guys not based on their stat lines (which are solid but unspectacular), but instead based on their potential, with Wiggins drawing comparisons to T-Mac, and Embiid to Hakeem (I know, both are best case scenarios (and even that is probably being generous) but scouts love comparisons, and teams love players with comparisons like these)).
Smart returned from his three game suspension for shoving a fan to help Oklahoma State snap their seven game losing skid with a win vs Texas Tech, putting up 16 points, 10 assists, 6 steals and 3 rebounds in the W. Smart has four regular season games, the Big 12 tournament and whatever post-season tourney the Cowboys play in to reestablish his value as a potential top five pick. At the moment both Chad Ford and Draft Express have him at #6, but with more games like the one against Texas Tech he still has a good chance to be the first point guard off the board (it's going to be either him or Australia's Dante Exum).
And then there's Randle, who keeps putting up double-doubles..and doing stuff like this.
Randle has been a monster on the glass during SEC play, grabbing at least 12 boards in four straight, and helping the Wildcats win nine of their last 11 games. Along with Parker, Randle is considered the lowest risk of any of the top six guys, a near lock to average a 15/10 at the next level.
As for who the Celtics pick if each of these guys are available, I've used the ESPN mock lottery game about 3,500 times, and have figured out that the Celtics preference, according to Ford, is:
6. Aaron Gordon
Interesting to see them going with a PG in Exum over a PF in Randle at #4, but if they consider Exum the better player, it makes sense even with Rondo in the fold.
But that's enough about the players, let's get to teams chasing them.
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, 10-45 (Hollinger lottery odds: 24.2% - 1st)
Welcome to the 10 win club, Bucks! Look at Milwaukee making moves, going a whopping 1-2 last week to finally break double-digits in the win column. But fret not Bucks fans, despite the Sixers throwing down the tank gauntlet, you're in fantastic shape. Milwaukee remains 4.5 games "up" on Philly with only 27 games remaining, meaning the Sixers could lose the rest of their games and the Bucks could hold on to the #1 spot.
Milwaukee still hasn't won a road game in 2014, and their 3-21 record in the new year is the worst in basketball. Lesson being: The Sixers may be the tank princes, but the Bucks remain the king.
2. 76ers, 15-41 (HLO: - 19.9% - 2nd)
I mean, can you make it any more obvious Philly? The Sixers have the second worst point differential in the past 15 years (-10.5), are 3-20 in their last 23 games, 0-10 in their last ten and yet — that wasn't bad enough for their liking. Nope, the Sixers had to get even worse, dealing Turner and Lavoy Allen for Danny Granger's expiring
The result? Easily the worst active roster in the NBA, with guys like Elliot Williams, Chase Applewood, James Anderson, Arnett Moultrie, Thomas Henderson, Lorenzo Brown and Hollis Thompson all in their rotation (note: I made up two of these guys -- and 90% of people won't know which two).
It's going to be really interesting to see how many games the Sixers win down the stretch, with 26 games remaining and precisely one player who would be of interest to other NBA teams (Thaddeus Young). One thing I know? They'll be underdogs in all 26, starting with tonight's tankapalooza against the Bucks at home (where they're 2.5 point dogs).
3. Magic, 17-41 (HLO: 12.4% - 3rd)
While the top two teams have their positions on lockdown, the Magic are at least worth watching in the #3 spot. Orlando is a not-so-completely-horrible 7-11 since hitting a season worst 10-30 mark in January, lifting them within 2.5 games of the Celtics (which could fall to just 2 games if the Celts lose against the Jazz tonight).
Orlando is playing a lot of young talent at the moment, meaning it won't be quite as easy to tank as they really want to get an extended look at guys like Andrew Nicholson, Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless before the end of the season. But still, unless a team like the Celtics, Jazz or Lakers completely collapse (something like five wins the rest of the way) it's going to be tough for anyone to knock the Magic off their perch.
4. Celtics, 19-38 (HLO: 7.7% - 6th)
What must the Celtics do to get higher than sixth in the Hollinger rankings! Losses to the Kings and Lakers haven't done the trick, nor has their 7-24 stretch since mid-December. Instead, Hollinger still has the Celtics finishing "strong", going 10-15 down the stretch and finishing 29-53.
While that's possible, the Cs play 17 of their last 25 games against playoff quality teams (note: the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams and the top nine teams out West), a situation they have shown no ability to win in this season (5-25 against playoff teams so far). Throw in the lack of depth and some nagging injuries and the Celtics are as good a bet as any to claim the fourth lottery spot. Hopefully.
5. Lakers, 19-37 (HLO: 9.8% - 4th)
I have a dream. A dream that in ten years we'll look back at the Celtics two losses to the Lakers this season as the reason they landed a star, and the Lakers landed a bust. A dream that those two crappy losses in early 2014 made the difference between the Lakers quickly rebuilding around Kobe and a max star, and LA limping through Kobe's final years.
Unfortunately, I'm not so convinced my dream will ever be more than just that. The Lakers are basically down to Pau Gasol and a pu-pu platter of cast-offs, coached by a lame duck, playing out the string in a brutal Conference. I feel very good about the Celtics remaining ahead of the Cavs (trying), Kings (nice young core) and Jazz (ditto). But the Lakers? I just don't know how many games Kent Bazemore, MarShon Brooks, Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman can win against Western Conference contenders.
6. Jazz, 19-36 (HLO: 8.5% - 5th)
If the Jazz can just get Derrick Favors back I'd feel really good about the Celtics chances of finishing behind them in the standings. After all, Utah is 0-9 without their big man in the middle, and a respectable 19-27 when he plays. Utah has a nice young core that was playing really well before Favors' hip injury, but they've stumbled out of the All-Star break without him, losing three in a row by an average of 10.3 points per game.
Favors is a game time decision for tonight against the Celtics, a big swing game as the Celtics would tie the Jazz with a win, but fall two games behind with a loss. But win or lose, Utah can take solace in the fact that their draft based rebuild is showing signs of clearing. If they can land a small forward to pair with Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Favors, Enes Kanter, Rudy Gobert and Alec Burks this could be a really fun team to watch by next season.
7. Kings, 20-36 (HLO: 3.2% - 9th)
Little off topic, but the Kings remain my number one "if Rondo gets traded possibility". Potential package: their lottery pick, the rights to Isaiah Thomas (who's a restricted free agent) and either Ben McLemore OR expiring contracts with Gerald Wallace being included.
Sacramento has been bad forever and they did not trade for Rudy Gay and give DeMarcus Cousins a max contract to continue to swing-and-miss at lottery picks. While I don't particularly love Gay/Cousins/Rondo as a trio, Rondo would be pretty fantastic at getting the ball to those guys and the Kings would be one of the better offensive teams in the league.
Boston could get a second top eight pick in this year's draft, Thomas (who will likely require $6-8 million per season to retain) and either a lottery ticket in McLemore (who has been terrible this season) or extra cap space if SacTown would rather take Wallace for expirings.
Obviously this wouldn't happen until right before the draft, but it's something to keep in mind as a summer possibility.
8. Nuggets, 25-30 (own the 21-35 Knicks' pick) (HLO: 4.3% - 8th)
All and all, the 2013-14 Knicks need to be remembered as one of the most disappointing teams of all time. Nearly $88 million in salary, basically their entire roster returning after a 54-win season, a superstar in his prime..and they're going to win 30 games. On top of all that, Melo can walk after the season and the Knicks are sending their lottery pick to Denver to complete the trade for him that took place three years ago. Brutal stuff.
9. Cavs, 22-35 (HLO: 4.6% - 7th)
How about that Cavs ill-timed six game winning streak directly before the trade deadline? Not only did it lull ownership into thinking the team had a realistic shot at the eighth-seed (they're five games out) and convince them not to trade impending free agent Luol Deng, but it also convinced them to give up two second round picks for Hawes. Sure, second round picks aren't mega-trade chips, but Hawes is a not-so-special big man who has been terrible over the past few months and who hits free agency this summer. Now Cleveland seems destined to not only miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season, but to pick closer to the bottom of the lottery than the top. Not quite Knicks level, but a disastrous season nonetheless.
10. Pistons, 23-33 (HLO: 2.3% - 10th)
And closing out our run of "Disappointing Eastern Conference teams not good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to get a top pick" -- the Detroit Pistons. No, the Pistons aren't quite dead in the race for eighth, but they're 3.5 games back with only 26 games left, meaning they'll likely need to finish 15-11 to have any shot. Possible? Sure. Likely? Nope.
And remember, this team was picked sixth in the East in the pre-season, having just spent $75 million on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. Instead the Pistons will scratch and claw for the right to get their teeth kicked in by either the Heat or Pacers. Depressing stuff.
Other teams to watch: Hornets, 23-32 (HLO: 1.7% - 11th)
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For more of my articles, click here Michael Dyer 2/24/2014 06:56:00 PM Tweet