Wiggins Watch: Losing time is here; Celtics 4th in tank rank as we enter stretch run
There are four weeks to go in the NBA season, and the stakes have never been higher in the race for lottery position. We have a "fantastic" race for the #1 tank spot between Philly and Milwaukee, and then a battle royale for spots four through seven, with Boston, LA, Utah and Sacramento within one game of one another.
It could not be closer, and with Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins seemingly one-uping one another every other night, the 2014 draft class has never looked brighter. Speaking of the draft class, let's catch up with the best players and see how they've looked over the last week before we break down the teams chasing them.
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 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 BPG, 0.5 SPG, 50% FG, 71% FT
Marcus Smart, OK State: 17.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.8 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 43% FG, 30% 3 PT
Don't look now, but the Andrew Wiggins that was hyped in the pre-season is here. However, some folks just can't seem to give the 19-year-old the credit he deserves, which perplexes me greatly. Despite Wiggins' performance recently (20.1 PPG in his last 15 games, 31 PPG over his last three games), a lot of fans are still calling him a disappointment and saying that he lacks a killer instinct. You even hear the dreaded Jeff Green comparison, which should send shivers down just about any Celtics fan's spine. But I'm here to tell you that that comparison, as well as any "Wiggins is overrated" talk is completely bogus. The kid definitely started slower than expected, and the hype may have been a little too much, but he's the real deal. A defensive stud already going for 17/6 as a Freshmen, better Frosh numbers than guys like Paul Pierce, Paul George and Dwyane Wade. Oh, and he's already gone for 25+ points six times this season, five more times than Green went for 25+ in his entire three-year career at Georgetown. Kid is already really good, and his ceiling is terrifyingly high.
As for Parker, the scoring machine just keeps churning on. He struggled against Virginia in the ACC title game, but has proven himself to be the best scoring Freshman in the country, and will probably be the runner-up in the player of the year voting to Doug McDermott. Parker has scored at least 15 points in 29 of his 34 games, displaying a consistency and maturity that very few Freshman have displayed over the last half decade or so. He'll never be the defensive player that Wiggins will be, but if you want the guy with the best chance of making an All-Star game, it's Parker.
Unfortunately, Embiid remains out with a back injury, and may not return this season. He will not play in Kansas' first two tournament games, and is questionable for the second weekend as well. At the moment he's still a lock to go in the top-three, but unless he can prove himself 100% healthy it's going to be tough for a team to take him ahead of either Wiggins or Parker.
Once we venture outside of the top three, things get trickier, but the talent remains elite. Despite Randle's absolute egg against Florida in the SEC title game (1-7 FG, 4 points), he, Smart and Aussie point guard Dante Exum remain likely to come off the board between the fourth and sixth picks. But if there's anything this draft has, it's depth. Along with the guys we've mentioned, Indiana big man Noah Vonleh, Arizona swingman Aaron Gordon, Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis and McDermott are all lottery locks, and all of them may have gone #1 in last year's draft. It's an insane group, and well worth losing a few more games for.
Speaking of losing, lets get to the top ten in the tank rank. Not much time left for these teams to do their best worst. 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, 13-54 (Hollinger lottery odds: 22.9% - 1st)
It's tough to be the Bucks. Milwaukee is just 5-15 in their last 20 games, yet they've lost five games in the standings to the free-falling Sixers, setting up what could be an unforgettable race to the bottom. The Bucks lead is down to just two games (in the win column, which is all that matters) with 15 games left on the schedule, meaning Milwaukee could finish 3-12, yet still find themselves in the #2 lottery position if Philly loses out (which is totally happening by the way).
In some ways that would sum up the state of the Bucks franchise over the last twenty years or so: terrible, but not quite good enough at losing to turn things around.
2. 76ers, 15-51 (HLO: 22.5% - 2nd)
Here is the full list of teams that have managed to lose 20 straight games by at least five points in NBA history:
2013-14 76ers (over their last 20 games)
That's it. Philadelphia is the first team ever to lose 20 in a row by at least five, showcasing their historic ineptitude when it comes to keeping basketball games close. During the Sixers current losing streak, they've only lost by single-digits four times, and for the season they've lost a staggering 15 games by 20+.
The roster they're running out there is one of the worst we've ever seen, and at this point the only question is whether or not they'll finish the season on a 36-game losing streak. At the moment Vegas says there's about a 40% chance that will happen (meaning 16 more losses to finish things off), a ridiculous (yet completely fair) number that shows just how terrible the Sixers are.
3. Magic, 19-48 (HLO: 13.2% - 3rd)
An impressive under the radar performance by the Magic over their last five games to basically put the #3 lottery spot on ice. Despite not playing all that bad, Orlando has managed five straight losses (by 12, 9, 7, 8 and 4 points), expanding their lead over Utah and Boston to an even three games with 15 games left.
Making things even better for the Magic's prospects of landing that coveted third spot -- their upcoming schedule. Orlando is about to start a four game West Coast road trip before returning home to play three consecutive playoff teams at their place. By the time the Magic finish off this stretch they could have a top-three lottery spot all but locked up. And the Magic have a ton of good young talent, so adding a true young star to the mix would make them a very interesting team going forward.
T-4. Celtics, 22-45 (HLO: 8% - 5th)
For Celtics fans, this is where it gets interesting. Boston has a minuscule chance of finishing better than fourth in the lottery standings, and really no shot of falling below seventh. Every game is huge in deciding their position, setting Cs fans up for a stressful couple of weeks. Unlike earlier in the season where a playoff run was in play, we're now in the dog days of tanking, where every win merely hurts their lottery chances. It stinks, and it actually makes watching the games pretty stressful.
But thankfully the schedule is pretty kind to the Celts down the stretch. Boston has nine games left on the road (where they are 8-24 this season) compared to only six at home, and they play each of their next eight games against current playoff teams. It's also important to keep in mind that the Celtics are now 10-31 since their 12-14 start. So as much as we may fear that they have too much talent to compete with the Sacramento's and Utah's of the world, this team has been playing like a 20-win club for half of a season. That doesn't happen by mistake, and there's reason for optimism that the Celts can finish as high as fourth in this race. And we need that to happen. One season of rooting against them per decade is about all I can stomach, and getting one of the top-three picks this year would go a long way to helping that become a reality.
T-4. Jazz, 22-45 (HLO: 7.9% - 6th)
C'mon Utah, I went to bat for your young core a few weeks ago, talking about the impressive record they had when playing together this season. But the Jazz have completely run out of steam, going only 1-9 over their last 10 games (and the one win was against the Sixers in a game that was tied with less than three minutes to go).
And the schedule doesn't get easier, at least not right away, as the Jazz head to Houston and Memphis this week to take on playoff teams, a situation that Utah has been horrible in this season (7-31).
6. Lakers, 22-44 (HLO: 10.2% - 4th)
Two games last week, two losses by a combined 63 points. The Lakers may be a half-game back of Boston and Utah, but they remain a slight favorite to grab the #4 spot, solely because of their lack of talent around Pau Gasol. LA has become a halfway house for NBA players, taking on all kinds of failed first round picks in an attempt to salvage them. Wesley Johnson, MarShon Brooks and Kendall Marshall are all trying to keep their NBA dream alive in LA, which is nice and all, but let's keep in mind, there's a reason these guys have been dumped time and time again.
If there is one saving grace for the Lakers, it's their schedule over the next five games. After what should be another ass-kicking at the hands of the Spurs on Wednesday, the Lakers take on the Wizards, Magic, Knicks, and Bucks consecutively, giving them chance to rack up a few wins before the schedule gets brutal towards the end of the season.
7. Kings, 23-44 (HLO: 5.3% - 7th)
The last team before a significant drop-off, Sacramento certainly appears to have the most talent of any team in the bottom-seven. The Kings also have the benefit of a home-heavy schedule to finish off the season, playing nine of their remaining 15 games at home, including each of their next four.
But if DeMarcus Cousins can't shake off the knee soreness that cost him Sunday's game, the schedule won't matter much. Cousins has been a revelation this season, and the Kings are a pitiful 0-10 when he has not suited up. That means SacTown is 23-34 when he does play, showing that while Cousins may be insane, he is clearly the best player on that roster.
8. Pistons, 25-41 (HLO: 2.9% - 8th)
Detroit needs losses, perhaps more than any other team needs them. The Pistons have slid into the #8 tank spot, opening the door for them to grab a top-eight pick and therefore keep their first rounder this season (they owe a top-eight protected pick to Charlotte). But their lead is tiny over a host of teams, and a fall even to ninth would really hurt their chances.
Thankfully for Pistons fans the team has one of the hardest remaining schedules in the NBA, with only five home games left on the docket, and nine games left against playoff teams.
And if the Pistons could grab a top-eight pick to pair with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, things would suddenly look pretty bright in Detroit. But for that to happen, the Pistons need losses and they need them right now.
9. Cavs, 26-41 (HLO: 1.5% - 11th)
Such a Cavs move to lose Kyrie Irving for the season after building a pretty insurmountable three-and-half game cushion between them and a top-seven spot. Barring something crazy, Cleveland will be hard pressed to pass anyone besides the Pistons, limiting them to the #8 lottery spot.
Now, it's true that they've had phenomenal luck in the lottery since LeBron left town, winning in both 2011 and 2013, but at the moment the Cavs have only a 1.7% chance at landing the #1 pick, making another lottery win pretty damn unlikely.
10. Nuggets, 29-37 (also own the 27-40 Knicks' pick) (HLO: 2.5% - 9th)
And it's such a Knicks move to win six games in a row when it's too late to actually make the playoffs. Of course, New York doesn't own their own first rounder, so they have no incentive to lose, but it's still a bit funny to see them finally hitting their stride after playing like garbage for 75% of the year.
Tough situation for the Nuggets though, as they've had quite a terrible year themselves, losing both George Karl and Masai Ujiri last summer (this was their fault), having Danilo Gallinari miss the entire season, and now they'll likely miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
Other teams to watch: Pelicans, 27-39 (HLO: 2% - 10th)