The stretch run is here. 

After weeks and months of analyzing the top college basketball players, there are only four teams remaining, and only one elite NBA prospect is still playing (Julius Randle). Every other top ten pick is now done, with several declaring/on the verge of declaring for the NBA draft. Including: 

Plus we have Randle, who was considered a lock to declare before his phenomenal tournament run, a run which has basically locked him into top-five status on draft night, and Marcus Smart, who nearly left school last season, and has very little to gain by returning again next year. 

It appears the only real question mark amongst lottery picks is Jabari Parker, who legitimately appears to be on the fence about whether to make the jump to the NBA, or return for his Sophomore season at Duke and team with incoming Freshman Jahlil Okafor. Parker's status is huge for this draft, as he's the best pure scorer and helps fortify a really strong top-three group with Wiggins and Embiid. If he does decide to stay in school, everyone else moves up a spot, and the draft absolutely gets weaker. 

But it's really hard to turn down $20-25 million in (basically) guaranteed money (plus endorsements), which is why projected top-three picks almost always declare. Sure, there are exceptions, but it's still a smart bet that Parker will make the leap (**crosses fingers, toes, arms, legs**). 

Despite the Parker question, it's clear that the very strong 2014 draft class is slowly taking the shape we all expected it to. Which means that the battle for lottery position gains that much more importance as we close down the NBA season. Here's the top ten as we stand today. 

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, 14-59 (Hollinger lottery odds: 23.7% - 1st)

Huge win by the Sixers over Detroit to vault the Bucks back into being the favorites for the #1 spot. Milwaukee now has a two game lead with nine games to play, meaning they can clinch with a 1-8 finish or worse. Something that is made easier by their remaining schedule, as they play seven of their remaining nine against Eastern Conference playoff teams, all of which are fighting for a higher seed. While it's true that some of the East's playoff clubs are beatable, you need to account for Milwaukee's historic awfulness against good teams. The Bucks are an incredible 2-38 against playoff teams this season, and have lost 28 in a row in that situation. So if the Bucks can just keep up the suck, they already have seven of the eight necessary losses in the bag.

2. 76ers, 16-57 (HLO: 21.7% - 2nd)

PHILLY COMING IN HOTTTTTTT. Last week I mentioned that the Sixers were at least showing some signs of life of late, keeping games close as they looked to end their seemingly season long losing streak. But I also went on the record saying that their sheer lack of talent would prevent them from beating anyone the rest of the way. And boy was I wrong.

Not only did Philly beat the Pistons, they annihilated them, leading by as many as 30 on their way to a 123-98 win. The win also halted their losing streak at a mere 26, tying them with the 2010-11 Cavs for the longest streak in NBA history.

I also love the fact that it may (if the Bucks can keep doing their thing) prevent them from grabbing the #1 tank spot. While Milwaukee is horrible, at least they have a roster full of mostly NBA players. I'd hate to see the Sixers complete disregard for fielding a legitimate team be rewarded with the top pick, and while that's still entirely possible, that one win vs Detroit may make a big difference.

3. Magic, 21-53 (HLO: 14.8% - 3rd)

Orlando's back-to-back wins vs playoff bound Portland and Charlotte slightly cracked the door open for them to fall from the three-spot, but it's still really unlikely. The Magic are two-and-a-half games ahead (or behind..all depends on what you're trying to say) of the Jazz, and six of their last eight games are against playoff teams. But weirder things have happened, and if Utah's horrid play continues (likely considering their schedule), Orlando may find themselves in a few "must lose" games down the stretch to hold on to the three-spot, and thus the inside track at one of the top-three guys.

4. Jazz,  23-51 (HLO: 10.3% - 4th)

It's almost like the Jazz read some of my Wiggins Watch pieces from February, when I said that their young core may be coming together a little bit too quickly for their lottery chances. Because after hitting a high-water mark of 21-36 (20-22 after a 1-14 start) Utah has been awful over the last five weeks. They are 2-15 in their last 17 games, with only wins over the Magic and Sixers in that time. And most of the games haven't been close, with nine of the losses coming by double figures, and six by at least 20 points.

The losing streak has helped Utah move from eighth in the tank standings up to fourth, which may not seem like much, but it has improved their chances in a huge way. Some numbers to back that up:

The eighth place lottery team has a 2.8% chance at the 1st pick, a 10% chance at a top-three pick and a 10% chance at a top-five pick.

The fourth place lottery team has an 11.9% chance at the 1st pick, a 37.8% chance at a top-three pick, and an 82.8% chance at a top-five pick.

So if Utah's slide continues, it will have improved their chances at the top pick by about 4x, a top-three pick by 3.5x and a top-five pick by over 8x. Monster swing in the odds, once again showing that losing does pay at this time of year.

5. Celtics, 23-50 (HLO: 8.1% - 5th)

Another winless week for the Celtics, another week where the "Celtics didn't do enough to lose" talk is quieted.

Here's what we know: The Celtics are in most games, rarely get blown out, have more talent than a lot of their fellow tank teams, and have a legitimate NBA coach/star combo. All of that points towards them winning more games down the stretch than teams like the Jazz and Lakers.

But we also know this: The Celtics are 0-4 in their last four games, 1-9 in their last ten, 4-16 in their last 20 and 11-36 in their last 47 (since the 12-14 start). They also will be without Rajon Rondo in three of their remaining nine games, a pretty big deal considering two of those games are against highly beatable teams (Detroit and Cleveland).

So while the pessimism isn't unfounded, there is a large sample size of games proving the Celtics aren't very good at all, and they also have a two game lead over the Lakers/Kings as they try and hold on to a top-five spot. Nothing is guaranteed, but this is as good an outlook as the Celtics have had in the tank race in quite some time.

T-6. Lakers, 25-48 (HLO: 7.5% - 6th)

The Lakers weird combination of guys fighting for their NBA careers and guys in a contract year just keeps coming up with occasional wins that they probably should not have gotten. Last night's victim: the Suns, who had everything to play for, while the Lakers had everything to lose for.

But LA is filled with guys with uncertain NBA futures, and they are all playing out the string with a sense of purpose, making them a difficult match-up on certain nights. Throw in Mike D'Antoni's up-and-down style of play, and when the Lakers are shooting well, they aren't half bad. Of course, they also give up a crazy amount of points, and they have no one on their healthy roster resembling a star, so they're still prone to blowout losses. But they've now fallen two games behind the Celtics, and while seven of their nine remaining games are against playoff clubs, they also play the Kings and Jazz, games that someone needs to win.

T-6. Kings, 25-48 (HLO: 5.4% - 7th)

Hey Kings, if you wouldn't mind, do ya think you could win your next two games against the Pelicans and Lakers? Because if you don't..I'm a little nervous you could possibly lose out.

After the next two, SacTown plays: Golden State, Dallas, OKC, Portland, the Clips, Minnesota and Phoenix to close things out. Seven games that they will be underdogs in.

The Kings are also banged up, with PG Isaiah Thomas currently out with a thigh injury.

So yea, I'm a bit nervous about the Kings sliding to the finish line. But here's hoping their 1-2 combo of DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay is enough to squeak a few more wins out before the season ends.

8. Pistons, 26-47 (HLO: 3.7% - 8th)

Wiggins Watch rule: if you lose to the god damn Sixers by 25, you immediately catch our attention. Detroit is a full scale dumpster fire at the moment, having lose 18 of 22 since firing first year head coach Maurice Cheeks. While Detroit was nothing special with Cheeks (22-29), they didn't truly evolve as a tank threat until after his dismissal.

Now, despite a decent roster and good health, the Pistons are within one game of the #6 lottery spot, which is crucial in their quest to grab a top-eight pick (reminder: they owe Charlotte a top-eight protected pick). While I can't see any reason why their players would be tanking for a pick (do you really think Josh Smith cares about an increased chance of the team keeping their pick?), it appears the firing of Cheeks has caused the Pistons' players to simply quit, propelling them from "chance at the 8-seed" to "chance at a top-eight pick". So, maybe Joe Dumars really is a sneaky genius after all?


No just kidding, he's pretty awful at his job.

9. Cavs, 30-45 (HLO: 1% - 10th)

Not much to say about the last two teams on this list, as they're clearly not going to make the jump to top-eight status, but it is worth mentioning that the Cavs have beaten the Knicks, Raptors, Pistons and Pacers recently without Kyrie Irving.

Irving's absence has re-energized Dion Waiters, who's averaging 22.7 PPG over his last seven games, and the rest of the previously dormant Cavs team. Unfortunately that has lifted the Cavs to the #9 spot on this list, with a large gap between them and the Pistons (three games).

Further proof that Cleveland is a cursed sports city.

10. Nuggets, 32-41 (also own the 31-43 Knicks' pick) (HLO: 2% - 9th)

And then we have the Nuggets. The poor, poor Nuggets. The Knicks teased them all season, falling into a top-five lottery spot in early March (when they were 21-40). But the Knicks have finally found their 2012-13 groove, winning 10 of their last 13, lifting them within one game of the collapsing Hawks.

So not only is their pick from New York barely holding on to a top-ten spot, but it could fall out of the lottery all together if the Knicks stay hot.

Total tease by NYK.

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Michael Dyer 3/31/2014 05:32:00 PM Edit
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