Ladies and gentlemen, the tank standings are heating up. The best example of this is that the Celtics went just 1-2 last week, and yet fell a spot in the Wiggins Watch rankings.
We have new reports that both the Lakers (Pau Gasol) and Cavs (possibly a lot of guys) are willing to move pieces before the deadline, which would only help them in the race to the bottom. We also have the Kings (7 losses in a row) barreling into the top five, and the Sixers and Magic refusing to give up their positions.
And oh yea, we have the relentless losing machine that is the Milwaukee Bucks, who continue to laugh at the other contenders in the race for the number one spot.
With the trade deadline less than three weeks away, we're just now getting into tank season. Only the weak survive.
But we'll get to all of that in a bit, let's first start off by breaking down how the crowned jewels of the 2014 draft class fared this week. You may notice that we added Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State to the list. A lot of mocks have him going top three or four (Chad Ford seems to think the Magic love him), so he made the cut.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: 16 PPG, 6 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 45% FG, 37% 3 PT
Jabari Parker, Duke: 18.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1 SPG, 46% FG, 38% 3 PT
Julius Randle, Kentucky: 16.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.8 BPG, 0.5 SPG 53% FG, 73% FT
Joel Embiid, Kansas: 11.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 SPG, 64% FG, 67% FT
Marcus Smart, OK State: 17.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.5 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 42% FG, 29% 3 PT
This class has seen better weeks, as all four of these guys struggled in a loss for their team over the last seven days. Wiggins laid a complete egg against Texas (7 points, fouled out), Embiid was a little better vs the Longhorns but still not very good (8 points, 10 boards, 3-9 FG, 3 turnovers), Randle was terrible against LSU (6 points, 3-11 FG), Smart went 3-14 against Baylor, and Parker fouled out in Duke's loss against Syracuse (he did score 15 points, but needed 16 shots to get them).
But despite the not-so-great week, this five-some along with Dante Exum of Australia still profile to be the top six picks come June.
As for who'd be number one, that continues to evolve, but as of right not Embiid is the clear leader in the clubhouse. Ford now has Boston taking him first overall if they get the pick, a change from before when it was always Parker. However, if teams like Utah, Orlando or New Orleans (who have their centers) get the first pick — Wiggins or Parker seem to be the choice.
While a lot can change over the next two months of college basketball, it seems like this will be a season with a non-consensus #1 overall pick. Which isn't the worst thing in the world, as you have a better shot at getting a potential star quality guy third or fourth in the draft than you would most seasons. So while there's no Shaq/LeBron/Durant type guy, this draft still has immense potential.
But that's enough about the class itself, let's get back to the teams competing for these guys. Here are the top ten contenders at the moment.
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, 8-39 (Hollinger lottery odds: 24.5% - 1st)
In an effort to not let the Wiggins Watch commentary get stale (long way to go after all), I'm basically at the point where I'm going to skip over the Bucks. They are by far the worst team in the league (four games clear of Orlando), having lost six in a row and 15 of their last 16. They also have not won two games in a row all season, and are currently on track to finish 14-68. Milwaukee is horrible and barring something unforeseen will finish with the NBA's worst record. In other words, exactly what we've written for the past six weeks or so. Next.
2. Magic, 13-36 (HLO: 15.2% - 2nd)
Orlando has some of the pieces, but man, they're not there yet. Like a bunch of teams on this list, the Magic have been ice cold lately, going 3-16 since December 29th, and helping them gain pole position for the #2 lottery spot. Orlando has actually been borderline competent at home (10-14) but have somehow found a way to be worse than the Bucks away from home (3-22, worst in the NBA). The Magic are loaded with potential, as Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson are all 24 or under and already solid rotation guys or better. But none of these guys projects to be a star, leaving the Magic desperate for a big time talent to help bring it all together. That could be a guy like Smart, who could step in for the 32-year-old Jameer Nelson next season and help tie all of the young, talented loose ends together.
That's why I'd be surprised to see Orlando stay quiet through the February 20th deadline. Nelson, Arron Afflalo and Glen Davis could all help playoff teams, and their departure could help the Magic strengthen their run at the #2 lottery position.
3. 76ers, 15-33 (HLO: 14.5% - 3rd)
The Celtics hold on the #3 spot was glorious, yet brief. Evan Turner's buzzer beater on Wednesday night helped lift the Sixers above the Celtics in the standings for the first time in a month, but Philadelphia made it clear that the win was merely a brief bump in the road with their next two performances (losses to the Hawks and Pistons by a combined 43 points).
Nothing says "we suck" like consistent blowout losses — and the Sixers have cornered the market on getting their doors blown off. 25 of Philly's 33 losses have been by 10+ points, with eight 20+ point losses mixed in. The result is a -8.9 point differential that trails only the Bucks for worst in the NBA.
And if the Sixers get their way, they'll get even worse by dealing Turner by the deadline (he's a restricted free agent in the summer). The Sixers have the early makings of an exciting young team with rookie of the year favorite Michael Carter-Williams and a young big man in Nerlens Noel ready to make his debut. With any luck they'll add a top five pick in this year's draft, plus another top ten pick (they own the Hornets pick, top five protected) to the mix next year. And if you're a Celtics fan, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Not that you should root for Philly to become a super power, but remember, the Celtics get the Sixers 1st rounder next season if they make the playoffs. So the rebuild in Philadelphia moving quicker than anticipated would help out Boston in a big way.
4. Kings, 15-32 (HLO: 6.1% - 8th)
The Hollinger odds predict the Kings will rise out of the top five in the tank standings — and damn it so do I!
Sacramento had an unlucky string of minor injuries over the past few weeks, losing both DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay simultaneously for a handful of games, helping them lose seven in a row and 10 of their last 12. However, Gay is back, and Cousins may return as soon as tonight, hopefully helping the Kings bounce back to how they were playing in early January.
They've also been playing a road heavy schedule in recent weeks after an extremely home heavy first half of the year. That has nearly evened out (19 road games remaining, 16 home) which should help them as well. I know the Kings have a worse record than the Celtics at the moment, but if Cousins comes back soon, look for that to change. Sacramento's -2.9 point differential is actually better than the Bobcats and Nets, who are both currently playoff teams in the East. Not that that means they're particularly good, but they're not nearly as bad as the other teams in the top five of these rankings.
5. Celtics, 16-33 (HLO: 7.3% - 6th)
I've got to admit it — I'm a little bit worried. Rajon Rondo looked great on Sunday vs the Magic, turning in by far his best performance since his return, while Avery Bradley scored 17 in his return from an ankle injury, and Jared Sullinger went for 21 & 12 against Orlando.
Those are all good things, so why am I concerned? Well, let me start off by saying, Rondo getting healthy and Bradley and Sullinger playing like young building blocks are all fantastic developments. Even as a pro-tank guy — those are awesome things. But all three of those things happening — plus the continued solid play of role guys like Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries — could cause the Celtics to heat up down the stretch. Boston has only won one game in a row, so I don't want to get too carried away, but Rondo/Bradley/Sullinger against the incredibly weak upcoming schedule could cause Boston to fall in these standings. And considering the team is five games out of a playoff spot, what good would that do besides hurt their draft pick?
That's why I think Danny Ainge needs to pull the trigger soon on a deal involving either Bass, Humphries or Jeff Green (although D-Leaguer Chris Johnson has been outplaying Green of late, so maybe hold on to Uncle Jeff?), or possibly more than one of them. Rondo, Bradley and Sullinger playing well and working on their chemistry has definite long-term benefits to the Celtics, so I would never recommend sitting one of them down for the sake of losing. That's when we start getting into the seedy parts of tanking that I've always been against. With that said, the Celts need to keep their eye on the prize, and if Ainge could continue his strip down of the supporting cast it would allow the trio of Rondo, AB and Sully to play their asses off yet still be in position to lose games down the stretch. Another added benefit of a deal would be opening up playing time for Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani, two guys who are signed for multiple seasons after this one and appear to be in the team's long term plans. More playing time for them in the place of Bass and Hump = more losses and an extended look at guys who will be here next year. Who could possibly be against that?
T-6. Cavs, 16-31 (HLO: 8.7% - 4th)
Damn it, Cavs, you were supposed to be heading out of the lottery after acquiring Luol Deng. Unfortunately for fans of the other tanking teams, the acquisition of Deng has not helped turn around the dumpster fire in Cleveland, where the Cavs are just 4-8 since picking up the former Bulls swingman.
Now, the Cavs are ready to deal off some players (possibly Dion Waiters) as they've shown no inclination that they're ready to make a run at a playoff spot. Mike Brown was clearly a bad choice (shocking!), and now Cleveland appears to be right back in the running for a top five pick.
T-6. Lakers, 16-31 (HLO: 8% - 5th)
I'm scared, you guys. All year I've preached that we should be rooting for the Lakers to win some games to avoid this situation, but it's clear now that LA is all-in on the tank game as well. Kobe's knee is not healing as fast as the team hoped, and now he's not expected back until early March. By then, Pau Gasol (playing out of his mind over the past six weeks) may be traded, and LA could be proud owners of a bottom-three record.
At this point the Lakers path seems clear: deal Gasol for an expiring contract and an asset, hold Kobe out for most of the season, and grab the best pick imaginable. Then add a potential top five pick to Bryant and $30 million in cap space this summer. Worst case scenario for those who do not like the Lakers. Making things even worse, the Lakers have 23 games remaining against teams currently at .500 or better, setting themselves up for a huge run at a great pick. And if Gasol is actually dealt for the artist formerly known as Emeka Okafor — look out.
T-6. Jazz, 16-31 (HLO: 6.4% - 7th)
Who'd of thunk it back in November that the Jazz would have a solid claim of being only the 8th worst team in the NBA? It seems hard to believe, but Utah (despite losing it's last two games) continues to play pretty solid basketball since their horrific 1-14 start, posting a 15-17 record since Thanksgiving.
In fact, when Utah's young quartet of Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors plays together this season, the team is 12-12. This is a pretty good sign for Utah's future, but much like with the Celtics, it could bite them a bit this season as their draft position suffers. But unlike the Celts, who have several valuable veterans they could move, the vast majority of the Jazz' minutes already go to their young guys. So for the Jazz to regain a bottom five record they'll either need their young guys to struggle or for someone to get hurt..neither one of which is something you want to root for.
9. Nuggets, 22-23 (also own the 19-28 Knicks' pick) (HLO: 2.2% - 9th)
After the three-way tie for the sixth worst record, there is quite a bit of a gap, as the 19-28 Knicks are 3 games up on the Jazz/Lakers/Cavs. Denver (via New York, remember the Knicks are sending their pick to the Nuggets) is also 9th in the Hollinger odds, well behind the 8th ranked Kings in that department (6.1% vs 2.2%).
When you throw in New York's clear preference to win, and it's clear that the tank race is an eight-team party at the moment. Of course, the fact that the Knicks want to win does not mean that they will, but they still have enough talent around their roster to hang very close to the playoff line, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the gap between them and the top-eight grow even larger.
10. Pistons, 19-27 (HLO: 2.2% - 10th)
Much like the Knicks, the Pistons find themselves in an interesting position, only 1/2 a game back of the 8th playoff spot, yet only 3.5 games up on the 6th worst record in the league. But unlike New York, Detroit actually has some incentive to try and lose games as they owe a top-eight protected pick to the Bobcats. This means if the Pistons maintain their current pace, they'll be sending the 10th overall pick in a loaded draft to the Bobcats, but if they can hop just two teams they'll likely be able to keep their pick.
Now, with a roster designed to "win now", the Pistons may still have the playoffs in mind as a goal. But considering they are reportedly looking to move Josh Smith for an expiring contract — maybe Joe Dumars is willing to punt on 2013-14 in exchange for a top eight pick.
It should be interesting to see how the Pistons fare on their upcoming five game home-stand. If they can win a few, maybe Dumars keeps the team together. If not, he may try and do what he can to make sure that Detroit's pick doesn't end up in MJ's hands.
Others to keep an eye on: Hornets, 20-26 (HLO: 1.7% - 11th), Bobcats, 21-28 (HLO: 1.2% - 12th)
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Michael Dyer 2/03/2014 06:26:00 PM Tweet Edit