There are just more than four weeks left in the 2015-16 NBA regular season. Eighteen teams are grinding out their final dozen games with playoff seedings at stake. The 12 other squads have lesser but still important goals in mind: the NBA draft lottery.
Actually, that's not true: a few short-sighted teams who are in the lottery range won't have a lottery pick, usually due to a bad trade. (Hello, Andrea Bargnani!) In addition, some teams in the lottery will have an extra pick or two due to the foibles of other teams. To set the table, we'll go through each of the 12 teams for whom the playoffs are a longshots and explain what's at stake in the standings.
As it turns out, there is likely to be limited tanking the rest of the way.
Philadelphia is extremely likely to retain the worst record in the NBA. (They'd need to win at least five and probably 6-7 games in the final 12 games to lose it. They've won nine out of 70 games so far.) That gives them high odds to land a top-3 pick and means they can fall no longer than No. 4. In addition, if the Kings win the lottery and finish higher than the Sixers in the draft order, Philadelphia can swap picks with Sacramento. That boosts Philly's odds for No. 1 slightly.
In addition to all of that, the Sixers pick up the Lakers' pick if it falls outside the top three. There's currently a 44 percent probability of that happening. The Sixers will also grab the Heat's pick since Miami will be in the playoffs and will take the Thunder's pick since it won't be in the top 15 of the draft. The best case scenario for Philly: Nos. 1, 4, 20 and 24, or thereabouts.
The other best thing about it? The Sixers don't have to do a thing more to get those picks.
Things are simple for L.A., given the Lakers are basically assured of finishing with the second-worst record in the NBA. They've done all they can do and now it's up to the lottery balls to decide their fate. The Lakers will have a 55 percent probability of winning a top-3 pick in the lottery, and a 45 percent probability of falling to Nos. 4 or 5. If they fall to Nos. 4 or 5, the Sixers get the pick, straight up. If that happens, L.A. won't have a first-round pick in June, barring another trade.
The Nets owe their pick to the Celtics without any protection. That's why Boston fans are rooting for Brooklyn to lose every game. Meanwhile, there's no incentive for Brooklyn to lose, and in fact a great incentive to win considering that Boston is a division rival. Seeing the Celtics pick up Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram would be devastating.
Right now, the Nets and Suns are tied at 19-50. The next-worst team has 22 wins, so Brooklyn is likely to finish with the third or fourth worst record. That'd give Boston (via Brooklyn) a 12-15 percent shot at No. 1, and a 24-31 percent shot at a top-2 pick. The Celtics want the Nets to lose and the Suns to win every game.
As noted in the Nets section, the Suns are locked in a battle for the third-worst record. Phoenix should be able to win that dubious battle since there's no incentive for Brooklyn to lose, and the Suns are awful. If the end of the season and the lottery balls break absolutely wrong, Phoenix could end up with the No. 7 pick, but it's far more likely they will choose in the 4-5 range.
The Suns are highly likely to land the Wizards' pick (it's top-9 protected so it'd take a miracle for Washington to get into the top-3 and keep it). That Washington pick could be anywhere from No. 13 to No. 17. Phoenix also gets the Cavaliers' pick, which will be in the No. 26-28 range. Best case scenario? Nos. 1, 13 and 26.
Minnesota is securely in place to finish with the fifth-worst record. They'll have an 18 percent shot at a top-2 pick. The most likely result is that they'll pick fifth or sixth.
This is where it gets tricky. Six teams have 40-43 losses. New Orleans is currently the worst of the bunch at 26-43, and just lost Anthony Davis for the final 13 games. So the Pelicans should finish with the sixth worst record and a likely No. 6 or 7 pick. But then again, they beat the Clippers on Sunday, so who knows?
Losses help the Pelicans' lottery situation. Keep that in mind as other decent Pels see their minutes dwindle.
The Kings' draft situation is exceedingly messy. Here are the key points:
* The Kings get the lesser of their own pick and that of the Sixers after the lottery. In other words, Sacramento can't win the No. 1 pick. Best case scenario: the Sixers win No. 1 and the Kings win No. 2.
* The Kings lose their pick to the Bulls if it falls outside the top 10. This is unlikely but possible. The Kings would essentially have to finish with a better record than all five of the other teams bunched up with 40-43 losses. As we've learned this season, the Kings just aren't that good.
Sacramento has a real incentive to lose as much as possible and they went out and beat the Knicks on Sunday. Someone should probably give DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo the flu.
New York owes its pick to Toronto thanks to the Andrea Bargnani trade. Before that happens, the Nuggets have a swap option with the Knicks -- essentially, the Nuggets don't need to worry about finishing with a better record than New York. Denver will grab the better of their own pick and that of New York, and the Raptors will take the other one.
The Knicks have no incentive to lose. They sat Carmelo Anthony with a migraine on Sunday and lost. Come on, Knicks!
See above regarding the Nuggets' pick swap with New York. As such, Denver gains nothing by finishing with a worse record than New York. But given how tightly the teams here are bunched, the Nuggets do gain from finishing as poorly as possible. The unprotected swap option also means Denver essentially has double the odds of getting into the top three (16 percent vs. 6-10 percent). The swap also deflates the likelihood of Toronto getting into the top three.
Denver has more picks potentially coming, too. The Nuggets nab Portland's pick if the Blazers make the playoffs. Portland has a 1.5-game cushion right now. The same applies to Houston: the pick goes to Denver if the Rockets make the playoffs. Houston has a 1-game cushion right now. At least one of those two teams, if not both, will make the playoffs.
There's a vanishingly small chance the Nuggets also pick up the Grizzlies' pick ... if Memphis careens out of the playoff bracket. Memphis has a 6-game lead on No. 9, though, so this is very, very unlikely. If it did happen, Denver's best-case scenario would Nos. 1, 14, 15 and 16. Far more likely is No. 8, No. 16 and No. 18.
No funny business here. Orlando owns its own pick straight up and no other 2016 firsts. The Magic's pick improves the worse the team's record. Fortunately for Orlando fans, the Magic don't need to try to lose at this point in order to lose. Still, this pick is most likely to land at Nos. 9, 10 or 11 unless a couple of the worse teams go on winning streaks.
Milwaukee is the final team in the mid-lottery cluster. Like Orlando, there's no funny business here either. They will likely play wherever they finish in the reverse standings. Teams at this end of the lottery just about never win it -- the odds are real low (2.9 percent to get in the top three for the 11th worst team). But a well-placed losing streak to finish the season plus some wins for the other teams in the cluster could land Milwaukee high enough to have a shot at Simmons or Ingram.
These teams are currently in the lottery but are trying to actually make the playoffs. Utah and Detroit will keep their own picks no matter what; Washington will send its pick to Phoenix barring an incredibly unlikely lottery miracle.
The Mavericks' pick is going to Boston barring a playoff race collapse and an incredibly unlikely lottery miracle. The Blazers send their pick to Denver if they make the playoffs and keep it otherwise. The same exact conditions apply to the Rockets. The Pacers keep their pick no matter what. The Bulls do the same, and have a low chance of taking the Kings' pick if it falls outside the top 10.
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