Five more games. Five more times rooting against the Celtics before not doing it again for (hopefully) a really long time.
It has been a long, difficult season, but the light at the end of the tunnel is appearing. Five games left, and then we get to enjoy the playoffs as bystanders (not the way we want to enjoy them, but it's fun not to have every game be life or death) before our own "playoffs" -- the May 20th draft lottery.
And thankfully for us, the Celtics are "peaking" at the perfect time. Eight straight losses, 13 losses in their last 14, 4-20 since February 12th, 11-40 after starting 12-14.
It's brutal that those above numbers are a good thing, but when the only other possibility is a team that wins a few more games and has a bleaker future outlook, it's a necessary evil.
No one said this would be fun, but in terms of playing the odds, it's the right move.
And if you don't believe me -- I'm not sure you've been paying attention to the way the NBA works.
The NBA is a superstar's league, and the easiest way to get that superstar for any team not located in California or Florida is to draft that star. And while it's certainly possible to get that player outside of the top five picks, your odds go dramatically down.
One stat that I've heard constantly to try and de-value a top pick is this:
"Since the draft lottery started in 1985, only David Robinson and Tim Duncan have led the team that drafted them to a title after being drafted #1".
I hate this fact for a few reasons.
If you don't believe in tanking, your whole argument should be based on this: top picks don't help you win more than lower picks. The above statement is an attempt at making that point, but it ignores a bunch of other facts.
One is that two other number one picks since the inception of the lottery, LeBron James and Shaq, have combined to win six titles. Just because they won them elsewhere doesn't mean that they were not franchise changing stars. If the Celtics got the #1 overall pick, would they mis-manage them so badly that they left within a few years? I strongly doubt that. Throw in the four that Duncan/Robinson won, and that's 10 titles from #1 picks since 1985.
And what about guys picked #1 before 1985? Do people really think that Hakeem, Magic, Walton, Kareem and Oscar would have somehow failed in the lottery era? Because those guys combined for 16 more titles (11 if you combine the five Magic and Kareem won together), again showing that getting a top pick is pretty nice for your franchise.
And lets not forget guys picked second or third like Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Pau Gasol and Chauncey Billups, all of whom were central figures on a title winner or six.
Again, this is simple math. Great players = higher odds at a championship, higher draft pick = higher odds at a great player. Nothing is guaranteed, but show me one NBA champ built without a top-five draft pick on their roster and I'll relent.
The last NBA champ built without a top-five pick on their roster (and playing a major role, not counting guys like Darko who don't play to make my point): the 1956 Philadelphia Warriors, and they were able to select Paul Arizin and Tom Gola (two Hall of Famers) with territorial picks (because they were from Philly). In other words, no NBA champ has ever truly been built without a top-five pick on their roster.
So the next time someone preaches that winning the lottery (or even getting a top-three or top-five selection) doesn't mean much, tell them they're wrong. It doesn't guarantee you a damn thing (note: nothing is guaranteed in sports), but there is absolutely no rational way to say that it doesn't increase your chances. And really -- that's the most important aspect of team building. Making moves that maximize your chances at winning a ring.
But enough of my rant. I know most people already understand the above, but I only have a few weeks left to savor these Wiggins Watches and figured a long spiel about the merits of a high draft pick were necessary.
We're skipping over the college guys update for an important reason: not much happened. Julius Randle's exploits were already covered here by Julian, and some other UK/UConn guys saw their stocks rise, but most of the top players stayed silent. Still no final decisions from Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid about the draft, while almost everyone else has declared. The deadline to declare is April 27th.
Now on to the top ten teams in the tank rank as the below teams complete their final jockeying for position.
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, 14-63 (Hollinger lottery odds: 25.3% - 1st)
I feel like with the Sixers record tying losing streak the Bucks awfulness has flown under the radar, and that's a shame. Milwaukee has been one of the more impressive losing machines in recent NBA history, failing to win consecutive games all season. It's rare that a team can suck so consistently, but check out the Bucks month-by-month record:
Barring a five game winning streak to close out the season, the Bucks will fail to win five games in any calendar month. Depressing yet admirable tank work.
And thanks to the Sixers absolutely catching fire (2-3 in their last five), Milwaukee can clinch the top spot by merely going 2-3 down the stretch. Considering four of their last five games are against playoff teams (a situation they are 2-41 in this year) -- I like their chances.
2. 76ers, 17-60 (HLO: 19% - 2nd)
So at this point we basically know that Philly's aggressive tank-job will result in the Sixers holding down the #2 lottery spot. That means that Philly enters the draft with a 19.9% chance at the top pick, and a 55.8% chance at a top-three pick. Now I've long said that the Sixers may have gone too far in their tanking (and that says a lot coming from me), but those are some solid odds to land one of the top-three guys in this year's draft.
Throw in the fact that the Sixers have New Orleans' pick (unless the Pelicans land in the top-three, which they have a 4% chance of doing at the moment), and Philadelphia should add two really good young players to their core. Of course their current core is a rookie point guard who has been thrown to the wolves this season (Michael Carter-Williams) and a big man who has yet to play in the NBA (Nerlens Noel), but the Sixers have successfully pulled off the "tear down everything" rebuild. Now it's a question of whether they can build it back up. Stay tuned, but if they can pull it off I'd appreciate they do it quickly. Remember: Boston gets Philly's 1st round pick next season if they make the playoffs. Adding a third first rounder in another deep draft would be a really nice gift from the Sixers, but at this point I'm not holding my breath.
3. Magic, 22-55 (HLO: 14.1% - 3rd)
In the latest installment of Mike Dyer knows nothing: my proclamation that you could write Orlando into the #3 lottery spot with pen.
While that is still the most likely scenario, a few Magic wins coupled with the Celtics' eight game skid have caused the gap to shrink to just one game between the teams. The odds are still stacked against the Celtics, as their five remaining games are against teams a combined 67 games below .500 while Orlando's five are against teams a combined 60 over the .500 mark. But the Celtics enter the final five games with a shot at the third spot, something that looked impossible for much of the season.
But even if the Celtics fall short of Orlando, that's not the worst thing in the world. When you consider their reported infatuation with Aussie point guard Dante Exum, the Magic are one team you wouldn't mind landing above the Cs come lottery night. Chad Ford has them taking Exum over both Parker and Embiid, opening the door for one of those guys to fall to number four. If the lottery goes in the "most likely" order, Ford has Boston snagging Embiid at #4, an amazing haul despite some of Embiid's injury issues.
4. Celtics, 23-54 (HLO: 11.3% - 4th)
If you didn't believe in the Celtics' tank before Friday night, I'm guessing you believe now.
Losing to the Sixers at home was definitely surprising, but when you consider the Celts play of late, maybe it wasn't quite as shocking as we all think.
As we mentioned towards the top of the article, Boston has been just horrendous since December, losing an amazing 40 times in their last 51 games. That means that the Cs have played like a 17-18 win club for the vast majority of the season, proving many of the pundits that thought this was one of the worst teams in the NBA right. Now their 12-14 start can't be thrown away completely, and that right now is the difference between Boston being fourth and competing with Philly for second in these rankings, but for a long time now this has been a bad basketball team.
As for the last five games, the goal has to be 1-4. If Boston can pull that off they will guarantee themselves, at worst, a tie for the fourth worst record. And if Utah can beat the Lakers at home, they will lock themselves into fourth (with a chance to jump into third if the Magic win two of their last five).
The path to those four losses seems simple: Lose at Atlanta and vs Charlotte this week, two teams scratching and clawing for a playoff spot and seeding respectively. Then lose at Cleveland Saturday night, a game in which the Cs will be without Rajon Rondo (second of a back-to-back). And finally, lose one of the final two (@ Philly, home vs Washington). The Washington game is actually a concern to me because it's possible the Wiz are locked into their seed by the final game, but hopefully the Bobcats keep the pressure on and that game means something for John Wall and company.
Remember: only five games of this "worrying about winning" stuff left. Thank god.
5. Jazz, 24-53 (HLO: 9.3% - 5th)
When you stop to consider that Utah is 3-17 since late February, it's actually pretty amazing that the Celtics are sitting one game "ahead" of them at this point. But make no bones about it, the Jazz have packed it in for the season, beating only Orlando (at the buzzer), Philly, and New Orleans (sans Anthony Davis) in their last 20 games.
And the schedule gets no easier, with the Jazz set to play Dallas, Portland, Denver (road), LAL and Minnesota (road) to finish things off. Obviously that makes the Lakers game at home crucial. A win there and Utah likely finishes at 25-57, giving Boston that one win buffer.
6. Lakers, 25-52 (HLO: 7.7% - 6th)
Four games last week for the Lakers, four losses by a combined 52 points. LA is limping to the finish line with (somehow) an even more depleted roster than earlier this season, with Gasol, Chris Kaman, Steve Nash and Kent Bazemore all suffering recent injuries/"injuries" ("injuries" being convenient excuses to shut down veterans down the stretch of a lost season. See: Pierce, Paul in 2006-07). The Lakers had only eight healthy players at the end of their blowout loss to the Clips yesterday, showing just how barren their team is at the moment.
(As an aside, how amazing is it that LA has lost Nash, Kobe, Bazemore and Jordan Farmar, and has a coach that could care less about defense, and yet MarShon Brooks has not broken the rotation (30 combined minutes last 10 games)? If a team with no guards and a coach that fits your game doesn't want you..probably not a great sign).
And much like the other Western Conference teams, it's a brutal world out there for the Lakers in terms of their schedule. They finish with Houston, Golden State, Memphis, Utah (road) and San Antonio (road). Good shot the Spurs bench everyone that last game with the best record sewn up, but I'd take five overweight Spurs' fans vs this current Lakers team as long as San Antonio had Pop on the bench.
7. Kings, 27-50 (HLO: 4.6% - 7th)
Hey, would you believe it if I told you the Kings also have a ridiculous closing schedule? Check it out:
The good news for Celtics fans? SacTown can go 0-5 and unless Boston goes 4-1 or 5-0, it doesn't matter. It was crucial for the Celtics to build up a lead over these Western Conference teams for this exact reason, and now is where it will pay off.
8. Pistons, 28-49 (HLO: 3.2% - 8th)
While the Pistons have successfully tanked their way into the top-eight, their win vs the Celtics on Saturday could end up being costly when it comes to sinking to seventh.
Detroit now has to catch a Kings team with five difficult games on the schedule to give them the best possible chance to keep their draft pick (weekly reminder: Pistons owe a top-eight protected pick to Charlotte).
If the Pistons stay at eighth in the lottery standings, there is an 18% chance they lose their pick (by having one team from behind them jump them on lottery night), but if they can get to seventh, those odds drop to 1.8%.
Either way, lottery night is going to be a stressful one for Detroit.
9. Cavs, 31-47 (HLO: 1.4% - 10th)
Cleveland is likely locked into the ninth lottery spot, giving them the following odds:
1.7% chance at the #1 pick
6.1% chance at a top-three pick
93.9% chance to pick ninth or lower
So if the Cavs snag their third #1 pick in four seasons, we can officially start wondering if Dan Gilbert's kid has special powers or something.
10. Pelicans, 32-45 (HLO: 1.2% - 11th)
New Orleans justttt snuck into the top-ten this week, but unfortunately for them, their chances of keeping their pick are not very good.
As we mentioned above, the Pels owe Philly a top-five protected pick, and their odds of landing in the top-five are only 4%.
Hard to imagine New Orleans wouldn't do a do-over in the Jrue Holiday deal from last summer, and have both Noel and Mystery #10 pick at their disposal (plus cap space). Instead the Pelicans have the most dynamic young big man in years and a whole bunch of high usage rate guards to compliment him. Not the best way to build around a franchise cornerstone.
Other teams to watch: Nuggets, 33-44 (also own 33-45 Knicks' pick) (HLO: 1.6% - 9th)
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