If you think we've seen tanking during the first 75% of the NBA season -- man, you're in for a rude awakening these last 20 games. You can sense the tide turning, with certain teams (cough*Knicks*cough) completely giving up on their coach and themselves as we enter the dog days of March for NBA also-rans. Blowouts are more prevalent across the league, and after the buyout deadline, the difference between the haves and the have-nots is about as big as it has ever been.
Combine that with this year's loaded draft, and we have ourselves the perfect storm for tanking. We've now reached the point in the season where teams basically know if they're heading to the playoffs or not, and for those not destined to make it, this is the time of the year where things get ugly. Players get "hurt" and miss games, stars begin to coast in an effort to avoid injury during a lost season, and younger (worse) players enter team's rotations that have no business being there.
All of that means more focus than ever will be on the tank race as we begin to wind down the NBA season. Six weeks left for teams to make their move. Six weeks left for teams to position themselves for one of the following players.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: 16.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 44% FG, 34% 3 PT
Jabari Parker, Duke: 18.8 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 48% FG, 37% 3 PT
Joel Embiid, Kansas: 11.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 SPG, 63% FG, 69% FT
Julius Randle, Kentucky: 15.5 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 BPG, 0.4 SPG, 52% FG, 73% FT
Marcus Smart, OK State: 17.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 42% FG, 29% 3 PT
Not the best week we've seen from these guys. To recap:
Wiggins played in two games, went 10-30 from the field, and turned the ball over six times in a loss to Oklahoma State. On the plus side: he's now scored 14+ points in eight straight games. A nice little run despite his struggles shooting the past two games.
Embiid played well in both of Kansas' games, but tweaked his back late in the OK State loss, adding to the concerns about his durability (A 7-footer with back and knee pain at age 19? Not so good). One thing Embiid continues to display at a ridiculous rate? Efficiency. In his two games this week he scored a combined 25 points on 11 shots, and for the season is averaging 11.2 points on only 6.1 shot attempts per game. If you can average nearly two points-per-attempt at any level, you're doing something right.
Parker played in only one game, a rout of Virginia Tech, and struggled with his shot, going 3-11 from the field. However, he did chip in 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks and 3 steals in only 27 minutes. Nice to see him filling up the stat sheet during a game where he didn't have it going offensively.
Disastrous week for Randle and Kentucky, as the Wildcats lost two games they should not have (home vs Arkansas, at South Carolina), and Randle shot just 7-22 from the field in those games. Of course, he did manage 25 rebounds over that stretch, something that he has been rock solid with all season.
The big winner of the week? That would be Smart, who lifted OK State to two crucial wins, including Saturday night's thriller over Kansas. Smart is a stat sheet monster, and averaged 19 PPG, 7 RPG, 6 APG and 4.5 SPG in the two games. Of course, even in his good games, Smart struggles shooting. He went just 11-31 during the two games, but made up for it by getting to the line 14 times against the Jayhawks. Eric touched on Smart here, but he's a really intriguing player. His combination of size, attitude (both good and bad), athletic prowess, explosivity, rebounding ability and shooting woes somewhat remind me of Russell Westbrook. Of course, that's more of his best case scenario than a legitimate projection. But I love a point guard with some attitude -- and Smart has it (although he should most likely not push fans anymore. Probably a 20 game suspension in the NBA).
So, not an awesome week from the college guys, but with Conference tournaments getting started this week for some, and next week for most, there are plenty of chances left for them to impress the following teams.
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, 11-47 (Hollinger lottery odds: 22.7% - 2nd)
That sound you're hearing is the audible gasp of the two or three Bucks fans reading this article. The Bucks, despite not deviating one bit from their 15-16 win pace, are no longer the favorites to grab the #1 lottery spot according to Hollinger's rankings. It's downright incredible that Milwaukee has gone 4-23 in 2014, yet have watched the Sixers slowly but surely cut down their lead. What was once six games, is now three, and while Philly stripped their entire roster of talent, Milwaukee still has enough talent to actually compete with other NBA teams every once and awhile.
Now, the Bucks still have control over their own destiny, and if they can finish the season 3-21 (or worse), there's nothing the Sixers can do (unless Sixers' GM Sam Hinkie finds a way to remove wins from his team's records..don't count this out as a possibility). But at this point it's hard not to consider Philly the favorite, and for good reason..
2. 76ers, 15-45 (HLO: 23.1% - 1st)
I just want to thank the Sixers for becoming the single easiest team to bet on in the history of pro sports. You see, Vegas is pretty fantastic at setting lines, and ideally (for them), every team would go very close to .500 against the spread that they set. But the Sixers are screwing Vegas, and making some bettors (me) very happy.
For the season, Philly is 22-38 against the spread, the worst record in the NBA. But since January 24th, it has gotten even better, with the Sixers going just 4-14. Again, this does not happen to Vegas. They are remarkably good at setting these things, and have responded by putting some of the craziest lines of the season against Philly. Four-point underdogs at home vs the NBA-worst Bucks: they lost by 20. 16 point dogs at the Clippers: they lost by 45. Laying 15 points against the Warriors? How's about a 33-point L. And finally, last night against the lowly Magic they were somehow 10.5 point dogs..and they still managed to lose by 12, despite leading at halftime. It has been amazing, and my wallet thanks them.
For those who don't really follow the gambling stuff, let's just put it this way: Philadelphia has the second worst point differential since 2000 (-10.8) and has lost an NBA high 34 games by double figures. They stink.
3. Magic, 19-43 (HLO: 10.9% - 3rd)
While Milwaukee and Philadelphia race to the bottom, the Magic have slowly risen a full three games ahead of the Sixers. While Orlando is certainly bad, they have too many solid young players fighting for their NBA future to drop to the very bottom of the standings. Instead, they're now within two games of Boston for fourth, and amazingly enough, within three and a half games of Utah for eighth place in these standings. Now, it's unlikely the Magic will fall that low, but with so many other teams in a free-fall, they could end up winning more games than expected with such a young/hungry team.
In fact, we've kind of already seen it happen as the Magic have gone 7-8 over their last 15 games, opening the door for them to fall lower on this list. But their saving grace could be coming soon, as the team finishes the season with a brutal schedule, playing 14 of their remaining 20 games against playoff teams (plus another game vs Minnesota, who's not a playoff team, but considerably better than the bottom two Eastern Conference playoff clubs).
4. Celtics, 20-40 (HLO: 7.3% - 5th)
The next 22 games are going to be nerve-wracking for Celtics fans. Boston is clearly not making the playoffs, and any win this team gets over the next six weeks accomplishes nothing except lowering the team's lottery position (No, I do not believe the Celtics finishing 10-12 will somehow infuse the young Cs with a "winning attitude". They still would have gone 30-52. And no, I don't believe the team finishing 6-16 will ruin their future. Sorry if that deeply offends you.)
The reason it's going to be so nerve-wracking is that on the surface, the Celtics should jump a few of the teams behind them. They have more talent than the Lakers, a better coach than the Knicks, and a better blend of guys/chemistry than the Kings. They also just got Jared Sullinger back, and Avery Bradley (should) return in the next week or two for the stretch run. So there are some troubling signs in terms of holding steady in the standings.
With that said, all is not lost. The Celtics remaining schedule is tough, with 15 of their remaining 22 games coming against playoff teams, a situation the team has failed in consistently this season (Boston is only 6-24 against playoff teams thus far), and the team has lost nearly all of their depth from earlier this year (Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford traded, Gerald Wallace and Kelly Olynyk injured). So as much as the signs may be pointing to a slip in the Celtics position, I wouldn't give up hope so quickly.
T-5. Lakers, 20-39 (HLO: 9.9% - 4th)
Since December 20th, here is the full list of teams the Lakers have beaten:
So over the last 70 or so days, the Lakers have beaten precisely one team not on the Wiggins Watch list. Which is concerning when you consider that only six of their remaining 23 games are against fellow Wiggins Watch teams, and a whopping 15 of those 23 are against Western Conference playoff contenders (eight playoff teams plus Minnesota/Memphis).
In short, the Lakers are #4 in the Hollinger odds for a reason. They're old, injured, can't beat good teams, and happen to play two-thirds of their remaining games against good teams. Look out below.
T-5. Kings, 20-39 (HLO: 5.5% - 7th)
For awhile I said "there's just too much talent on this team for them to finish bottom-five" -- and I truly still believe that. But, as I said above, we're getting to the point of the season where "want" and chemistry is nearly as important as talent. We've seen it with the Knicks, who clearly have more talent than what they've been showing lately, and we've seen it with the Bulls, who have no business being the three-seed in the East.
And we may be seeing it with the Kings. DeMarcus Cousins has been particularly crazy lately, barely escaping ejection agains the Celtics, and then failing to do the same agains the Rockets. The latter resulted in a one game suspension, which cost the Kings in a close loss against the Lakers (or cost the Lakers if you're looking at it that way).
Sacramento has a plethora of offensive talent, but their roster appears toxic. No one can reign in Cousins, and the team is as undisciplined as any in the league. They badly need a new coach, and probably a roster enema, neither of which are likely before season's end. Therefore, the Kings have emerged as a legit threat to chase down anyone not named the Bucks or Sixers.
7. Nuggets, 25-33 (also own the 21-39 Knicks' pick) (HLO: 7.3% - 6th)
God damn it, Knicks. You couldn't have (somewhat) held it together for a few more weeks?
The Knicks are a burning dumpster fire of awfulness, fresh off of three national TV ass-whoopings in the past four days, falling to within one game of the Celtics for the #4 spot. It's rather amazing when you consider the team has returned nearly all of last season's 54-win club this year, but their roster of malcontents and selfish iso players has imploded over the past couple of weeks.
As bad as things were early on this year, New York was still a legitimate threat to make the playoffs as of the end of January, when they were 19-27, and only one game back of the eight-seed. But they've collapsed like a dying star since February got started, going just 2-12, and embarrassing themselves in front of the entire country on a regular basis.
Now the franchise is staring down the ever growing possibility of grabbing a top-three pick, sending it to Denver to complete the 2011 Carmelo deal, and then watching Melo exit the scene of the crime this summer in free agency.
All of which would be mighty enjoyable for Celtics fans to watch. UNLESS of course the team boxes out the Cs for a top-three spot down the stretch. So come on Knicks, find a way to win like nine of your remaining 23 games. We're all pulling for you here!
8. Jazz, 21-38 (HLO: 5% - 8th)
The poor Jazz. Not nearly good enough to make the playoffs, and yet, not quite bad/toxic enough to grab a top lottery spot.
Utah is competitive on a nightly basis, losing by three in Indiana last night, and overall having gone 5-5 in their past ten games.
Now the Jazz set their sights on three Wiggins Watch contenders in their next four outings, with trips to Milwaukee, New York and Philly. A few wins could put the final nails in Utah's coffin in terms of landing a top-five spot, which would have been inconceivable back in November.
Remember, the Jazz were the envy of the tanking world at the start of the season. They had a nice young roster bereft of veteran talent, and when they started 1-14 they looked like the best bet to grab the #1 spot. But, tanking is not quite that simple, and Utah's young talent has been pretty solid since Thanksgiving or so.
T-9. Pistons, 23-36 (HLO: 2.4% - 9th)
Wait, did I say poor Jazz? Scratch that, how about poor Pistons? Detroit is in a world of hurt, currently sitting three and a half games out of the final playoff spot in the East, but also sitting two games ahead of their closest lottery contender. Barring a complete collapse or a red hot finish, the Pistons will miss the playoffs yet not get into the top-eight of the lottery. Which is a big deal considering they owe Charlotte a top-eight protected lottery pick.
Not the best time to be a Pistons fan.
T-9. Pelicans, 23-36 (HLO: 2.2% - 11th)
Much like the Knicks and Kings, we're seeing the Pelicans begin to hit the wall in a big way. Unlike New York (effort) and Sacramento (lack of discipline), the Pelicans have seemingly just been rundown by injuries and a brutal Western Conference schedule. For much of the season, they overcame these things to at least put up a respectable record and challenge the top teams. But lately, they've just been awful. New Orleans has lost seven games in a row by an average of 12 points, tumbling right to the outskirts of our top ten.
And much like Detroit, they have good reason to want to keep losing. The Hornets owe a top-five protected pick to the Sixers to complete the Jrue Holiday deal, meaning Philly is licking their chops at the prospect of adding another pick in the 6-10 range in a loaded draft. But if the Pelicans can completely flatline, they have an outside shot to drop into the top-five (they're three games up on that cut line right now). Unlikely, but not impossible.
Other team(s) to watch: Cavs, 24-37 (HLO: 2.4% - 10th)
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For more of my articles, click here Michael Dyer 3/03/2014 03:46:00 PM Tweet