There are a many great races that happen in the final weeks of the NBA season. While seeding battles and the skirmishes for the final berths to the NBA Playoffs in each conference are certainly important and (usually) exhilarating, don't sleep on the sprint to the bottom as teams jockey for favorable position ahead of the NBA Draft Lottery.
The lottery ensures that teams can't tank outright and pick up the top pick in the NBA draft. But there's still a real incentive to lose at the end of the season; the worse your team's record, the better shot your team has at a top-3 pick. All non-playoff teams are in the lottery (unless they've traded their pick), but there's a steep downgrade in odds after the worst few teams.
As you can see, there's little hope for the No. 1 pick beyond the worst seven or eight teams in the league. (There's some hope, of course; when the Chicago Bulls earn the right to choose Derrick Rose No. 1 overall in 2008, they had the ninth-worst record.) Rights to a top-3 pick are similarly steep after a certain point. The worst team has a 64 percent shot at a top-3 pick; the fifth-worst team has just a 29 percent probability of grabbing a top-3 pick.
With that in mind, let's look at the race to the bottom.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (15-61): The Cavs had a bead on the NBA's worst record all season, but now it's a close race. Cleveland has six games remaining; only losing five would guarantee the best shot at the top pick in the June draft.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves (17-60): Minnesota has improved on its 2009-10 record by a couple games, but remains the league's clear-cut second-worst team. Unless Cleveland goes on a tear (that'd be 2-4 to end the season), Minnesota is locked into the No. 2 position for the lottery. If Cleveland and Minnesota have equal records, they'll combine their opportunities for a top-3 pick and split them down the middle.
3. Washington Wizards (20-56): The Wizards could finish anywhere from No. 3 to No. 5 in the Bizarro NBA Standings, depending on how things shake out. Washington hit 20 wins with a victory over the Bobcats Sunday.
5. Sacramento Kings (22-54): The Kings were at No. 2 just a couple weeks ago; if they keep up this winning, they could "fall" as far as No. 6, behind the ...
6. Utah Jazz (via the 23-53 New Jersey Nets): Oh, that's right. The Nets traded their first-round pick for Deron Williams. The Jazz's rebuild could get a huge boost from a fortuitous bounce or four in the lottery.
7. Detroit Pistons (26-50): The Pistons ended up with the No. 7 pick last year, and got a solid big man in Greg Monroe. But they'd like to reach higher and get either a star guard or Tayshaun Prince's replacement.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (via the 30-47 L.A. Clippers): The Baron Davis-Mo Williams swap sent the Clips' top pick to Cleveland. If this pick ends up in the top three after the lottery, and assuming Minnesota doesn't "catch" Cleveland, the Cavs would have two top-4 picks. That'll help take the sting out of the loss of LeBron James. (But not really.)
9. Milwaukee Bucks (31-45): The Bucks won't be making the playoffs, but a top-10 pick would be a nice consolation.
10. Charlotte Bobcats (32-44): The Bobcats lost to the Wizards at home on Sunday, damaging their playoff hopes but boosting their odds in this race. Few teams need talent at multiple positions as much as Charlotte.
11. Golden State Warriors (33-44): The Warriors are tied with the Bobcats in the loss column, and one "behind" the Bucks. Golden State lost out on DeMarcus Cousins on the final day of the regular season last year. Will they rue a late-season win again?
12. Utah Jazz (36-41): With the way Utah's playing, they could "leap" the Warriors by the end of the season. This pick is highly unlikely to leap into the top-3, but two lottery picks to resuscitate the backcourt will be greeted with roses.
13. Phoenix Suns (37-39): The Suns' last top-10 pick was Amar'e Stoudemire in 2002. They won't get one this year, either.
14. Houston Rockets (41-36): Being the last team knocked out of the playoff race has almost no silver lining in terms of the draft lottery. The odds are stacked high.