I usually refrain from looking at standings (in any sport) until at least the quarter-point of a season, and don’t really take them seriously until at least halfway through. But in a lockout-shortened season that will resemble a sprint more than a marathon, I find myself taking a peak at the NBA standings more frequently than I have in any other year.

While the NBA season still seems kind of new, it’s actually about 30 per cent (31.8% in the Raptors’ case) complete in this truncated 66-game season. Given that we’re about one-third of the way through, we can begin to look at the standings a little bit more seriously.

And here’s what I see, from the Raptors’ perspective. They’re not in a good place right now.

The Raps enter their home game against the Hawks tonight 2.5 games behind the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed, and with Andrea Bargnani seemingly shelved for the forseeable future, I don’t think the word playoffs will enter many Raptors fans’ vernaculars any time soon. That’s fine, and is obviously what most Raps supporters expected if there was going to be a 2011-2012 season.

The problem though, is that the Raptors are no closer to the bottom of the league standings, and the real meat of the Draft Lottery positions, than they are to the eighth seed. In fact, they’re actually further, currently sitting three or four games ahead of cellar-dwelling Washington, New Orleans, Detroit and Charlotte. If you’ve watched any of those four teams play this season, you know that all four are very capable of losing 50 out of 66 games, if not more. Realistically, the Bobcats will probably finish with the league’s worst record, and I see them doing so with between 10-15 wins.

While I only predicted the Raptors to win 20 games, and will stick with that prediction, they already have seven wins after 21 games. So if you’re a “Tank-Nation” subscriber, you’d have to hope the Raptors don’t win many more than five to 10 more games from here on out if you want them to be one of the favourites heading into the lottery.

Teams like the Bobcats, Wizards and Pistons could and probably should finish below Toronto in the Eastern Conference standings based on how the season is shaping up, with teams like the Nets and eventually the Cavaliers probably “fighting” the Raptors for seeds 10-to-12 in the East. When you factor in the depth of the Western Conference, you also realize that teams who are actually better than the Raptors, like the Kings and Warriors, could finish with worse records just because of their strength of schedules, and that’s not mentioning the Hornets.

This creates a scary situation for Raptors fans, and one that I brought up last week. What if the Raptors lose enough games to be out of any meaningful race by February, as we all expected and secretly hoped, but still finish with enough wins to screw themselves out of great draft positioning?

I came into the season thinking the Raptors would finish with one of the worst three or four records in the NBA. Now I’m worried that despite losing as many games as I predicted, they still won’t be one of the five worst teams in the Association (they’re currently sixth from the bottom) and might end up with a pick anywhere from six-to-10.

If you’re a believer in ESPN stats guru John Hollinger’s projections, then the bottom five is a pipe-dream. According to Hollinger’s updated playoff odds, he projects the Raptors to finish tied for ninth in the East with the NBA’s 10/11th worst record. Now that would make a truly depressing season. (Though according to Hollinger’s win projections for each team, if my prediction of 20 wins holds true, the Raps would finish in the bottom five)

I’ll reiterate again that I can never go into a game cheering for the Raptors to lose, but in a season like this, I fall back on the fact that the losses are merely short-term pain in order to achieve long-term gain. Will we still be able to think that way though, if a month or two from now, the Raptors are sitting in the sporting world’s cruel “in-between stage?” Nowhere near good enough to compete, not quite terrible enough to turn the franchise around in the Draft.

***

On a sidenote, have you ever actually looked at the probabilities chart for the NBA Draft Lottery?

Seed Chances 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th 13th 14th
1 250 .250 .215 .178 .357
2 199 .199 .188 .171 .319 .123
3 156 .156 .157 .156 .226 .265 .040
4 119 .119 .126 .133 .099 .351 .160 .012
5 88 .088 .097 .107 .261 .360 .084 .004
6 63 .063 .071 .081 .439 .305 .040 .001
7 43 .043 .049 .058 .599 .232 .018 .000
8 28 .028 .033 .039 .724 .168 .008 .000
9 17 .017 .020 .024 .813 .122 .004 .000
10 11 .011 .013 .016 .870 .089 .002 .000
11 8 .008 .009 .012 .907 .063 .001 .000
12 7 .007 .008 .010 .935 .039 .000
13 6 .006 .007 .009 .960 .018
14 5 .005 .006 .007 .982

Check out these odd facts:

-If you finish with the league’s worst record, you are actually more likely to land the fourth overall pick than anything else.

-If you finish with the league’s second-worst record, you are actually more likely to land the fourth overall pick than anything else.

-If you finish with the league’s third-worst record, you are actually more likely to land the fifth overall pick than anything else.

-If you finish with the league’s fourth-worst record, you are actually more likely to land the fifth overall pick than anything else.

-If you finish with the league’s fifth-worst record, you are actually more likely to land the sixth overall pick than anything else.

-Out of the 14 lottery teams, only teams ranked sixth through 14th from the bottom have the greatest chance of holding their expected position.