So now that we’ve made our way through the Playoff Bandwagon Rankings, and we know who to root for down the stretch of the regular season and into the postseason, a question just as urgent lingers — who do we want to take it all on May 30? That’s the day of the draft lottery, somewhere in New York City, where one team will win the NBA’s equivalent of the Mega Millions, earning the right to take that player — in this case, most likely unibrowed Kentucky defensive stalwart Anthony Davis — who can turn their dismal, disappointing mess of a franchise around. Thus, the call for the Lottery Bandwagon Rankings (LBRs).
Winning the draft lottery can be infinitely more consequential to a fanbase than winning a mere playoff series or two. And while we as NBA fans probably care a little more about who wins big in the post-season, we all have a team or two we’re pulling for to win the game of ping-pong balls as well. How rewarding was it last year when Cleveland won the top pick in the draft last year, a season after being ditched by LeBron James in the most franchise-devastating free agent bolt ever — doubly so because they won with a pick swiped from the pathetic Clippers? Or the Wizards the year before, winning after Gilbert Arenas’ bad joke and Javaris Crittenton’s lack of a sense of humor made them the laughing stock of the league? Call it a conspiracy if you want, I prefer to think of it as good and just NBA karma.
So who should win it this year, then? Well, when deciding this there’s your typical variety of factors. How desperately does the team need the franchise savior? How recently has the team won? If the answer is fairly recently, how dramatic and upsetting has their fall from grace been? How much of the team’s misfortune was due to bad personnel decisions, and how much of it can be chalked up to pure bad luck? How many high picks has the team received lately, and how wisely did they deploy them?
Here’s my ranking of the 17 teams with a chance to be in the lottery, and how much I’d like to see them win a top-three pick without really factoring in how likely they are to actually win, though I’m generally more likely to root for big-loss teams than small ones. It’s as inexact a science as determining the Playoff Bandwagon Rankings, but as with many things in this world, at the end of the day, you just gotta feel it, man.
17. Utah Jazz
As funny as it would be to see Anthony Davis added to that lineup — how many high-upside bigs can you compile on one team before they unify and start a rebellion — the Jazz are pretty well off as is with recent lottery selections/trade returns Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. If they miss the playoffs and Golden State can avoid a bottom-seven record (neither a sure thing by any means), they’ll have two low lottery picks in this loaded draft to play with anyway. The Jazz are a trade and a signing away from being contenders again in the West and other teams just need and deserve the high pick more.
16. Denver Nuggets
Same as the Jazz, pretty much. They’re in a good situation as is, and while the Melo trade was tough stuff for the franchise to have to go through, even if they miss the playoffs this year it’ll be more due to injuries than franchise incompetence or cursedness or what have you. They’ve got a good young core, an exciting brand of basketball, and decent financial flexibility. They’d be even more fun to watch with some more lottery talent, sure, but again, spread the wealth.
15. Detroit Pistons
I don’t enjoy watching this team be such a mess, but they’ve just got way too much shit to get sorted out before they deserve to have a blessing like this dropped in their laps. I mean, aside from Greg Monroe and maybe Tayshaun Prince, does ANYONE on this team have an ensured, defined role? It gives me a headache watching this team try to assemble a backcourt or a rotation of bigs from their many ill-fitting parts, and it seems like the last thing they need — well, maybe not the last thing — is another inexperienced young guy thrown into the mix. Even if it would help, Joe Dumars doesn’t deserve the bailout right now.
14. Sacramento Kings
Sort of the same thing with the Pistons. Secure a coach, sign some veterans that don’t suck, figure out a starting lineup, and then get back to us when you’re ready to handle a top pick. The only advantage they have over Detroit is that their ill-fitting mix of talented young guys and subpar vets has some way more compelling personalities — DeMarcus Cousins vs. Greg Monroe, enough said — but I don’t have any more faith in Sactown’s ability to integrate another high pick than the Motor City’s. Youth is wasted on the already-too-young.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
We’d all love to see this young, fun, high-ceiling Timberwolves team get younger, funner and higher-ceilinged, but eventually you have to say enough is enough. You have to go back to 2007 for the last time the Wolves picked outside of the top five, and 2005 for the last time they picked outside of the top seven. Even after blowing half those picks on such mulligan-worthy high selections as Corey Brewer, Jonny Flynn and Wesley Johnson, Minny still has a dynamite lottery core for the next half-decade with Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams. You don’t get to hang “15 CONSECUTIVE YEARS WITH A TOP FIVE PICK!” banners in the Target Center, fellas.
12. New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets
The Nets need this pick as badly as anybody — to have something to bill to first-year season ticket buyers in Brooklyn, to help convince Deron Williams to stick around with the Nets, to have a pick at all in this year’s lottery after trading their top three protected pick to Portland in an inconceivably dumb deadline deal for Gerald Wallace — but I’m not sure they deserve it. Since Mikhail Prokhorov’s much-ballyhooed takeover of the team in 2009, nearly every move they’ve made has been the wrong one, from clearing the books in the hopes that LeBron James was coming in 2010 (he wasn’t), to signing a bunch of poorly devised cap-clogging deals later that off-season to compensate, to moving all their chips to Dwight Howard coming in 2012 (he isn’t), to the aforementioned makeup deal for Crash.
It’s been an absolute atrocity exhibition the last two years in NJ, some of which can be attributed to bad luck, but much more of which can be attributed to arrogance and poor planning. And if Deron Williams does bolt in the offseason, you can add “traded three first round picks (past and future) to Utah for 15 months of D-Will on a well-below-.500 team.” So as bad as they need the pick, I don’t think the basketball gods (and/or David Stern, which might be the same thing anyway) should reward them for their crappy decision-making.
11. Washington Wizards
You realize this team made the playoffs, like, four years ago? And several years in a row before that? I know, it feels like the Wizards have been bad forever, but really it wasn’t that long ago that the bottom dropped out on them. It’s just that when it did, there were basically no survivors. Anyway, the Wizards lose some ground here for having such recent No. 1 pick in 2010′s John Wall (and for making the in-retrospect-inexcusable decision to trade the No. 5 pick in 2009 for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, neither of whom were even on the team the next season), but if they did win again, would anyone really hate on ‘em for it? They still have so much ground to make up, and so much tragicomedy to recover from…
10. Cleveland Cavaliers
You could make a very convincing case that getting two top four picks in a weak draft is still not nearly enough karmic retribution for the Cavs, considering what they went through the off-season prior, but … well, it’s more of a start than a lot of these teams have been granted. Kyrie is a legit top pick, Tristan Thompson is clearly a cut below but still a likely contributor for years to come, there’s financial flexibility coming. Again, if they get it, use it in good health, but I think they’re fine here with a 7-10 pick, some good offseason signings and a couple years of growing together. Maybe next year if things don’t break quite as such.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
You realize it’s been 38 seasons since the Bucks made the Finals? You realize it’s been 11 since they won a playoff series? You don’t hear much about the Bucks as a suffering fanbase, possibly because there have been pockets of tempered winning here and there, but boy could this franchise use a shot in the arm beyond dealing for Monta Ellis’ shitty PER. (And don’t get me wrong, I love Monta Ellis’ shitty PER, but the team still deserves more.) They did have a No. 1 pick just seven years ago, true, but Andrew Bogut’s rough injury history and subsequent trade gives them reason to feel they’re still owed a little from the draft powers that be. I’d be fine giving it to ‘em.
8. Toronto Raptors
Another team with a not-too-long-ago No. 1 pick that I’d be OK with winning here. It’s just time for the Raptors to be good again (for the first time ever?), y’know? Too much bad with this franchise. And with a full year of Andrea Bargnani, the arrival of Jonas Valanciunas, and a top-three pick, the Raptors could be one of the more exciting teams in the league next year. You couldn’t begrudge them a little luck this June.
7. New York Knicks
Yes, this is inexcusably high. Yes, just about everything I said about both the Pistons/Kings (too many ill-fitting parts as is, too much other shit to worry about to possibly optimize the potential of a top draft pick) and the Jazz/Nuggets (still a pretty good core, doing all right as is) also apply here. And yes, they basically won the lottery already once this year with Jeremy Lin’s two weeks of MVP-caliber play out of absolutely nowhere. So why are the Knicks all the way up there? Because they’re the Knicks. They’ve been such a relentlessly entertaining team — off the court, certainly, and usually on as well — these past two seasons, that the idea of adding another big-name guy for the fans and media to obsess over … sure, why not?
The Knicks don’t deserve it, certainly, but more and more these past few years, I’m starting to feel like the Knicks shouldn’t be thought of or measured like a traditional basketball team. They basically exist solely for our entertainment and our over-analyzing, a team to dominate headlines and always subside at the center of the basketball universe, even as they do nothing of real NBA consequence. Whether or not a top pick would make them better basically doesn’t even matter, as long as it makes them more compelling and more controversial. You gotta love it, really.
6. Golden State Warriors
A much better team going into next year than their record will likely indicate, assuming that Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut can come back healthy from their respective myriad injuries. Still, with the Clippers approaching what appears to be legit competence in a way that might — might — actually be sustainable in a long-term sense, the Warriors now inherit their throne as most pathetic team in the NBA, with nothing but an exciting series upset win in 2007 to praise in their last 20 years of franchise history. They’re going to need all the help they can get in staving off another decade or two of stagnation, and another high lottery talent would probably be just fine alongside Bogut, Curry, Klay Thompson and (maybe) David Lee. Plus, I always appreciate a reason to watch more of the Warriors.
5. Phoenix Suns
A lot of franchise success within the last decade — hey, three conference finals appearances in six years is not something a lot of teams can brag about in the 21st century — should preclude them from being this high. But seriously, what franchise has had more shit luck over the last seven years than the Suns? Well, there’s at least two, and they’re still to come on this list. But beyond that, the combination of weird playoff exits and ownership self-sabotage cost this team what should have been at least a shot or two at a championship, which they never quite had. And with face (and most other body parts as well) of the franchise Steve Nash likely bolting in the offseason, this is gonna be a depressing fucking team to root for next year without a new signature talent to replace Nasty. It seems fair.
All that said, I’m still rooting for Phoenix to make the playoffs this year. One more post-season with No. 13 wearing the Phoenix white and orange is something to look forward to.
4. New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets have been fairly miserable this season, but as the guys pointed out earlier this week on the Fix, they don’t quite seem like losers the way a lot of their fellow 15-win-and-under teams do. There’s something of a winning culture there, instilled through coach Monty Williams and trickled down to the toughness of the core players. It’s not enough to win yet, but get Eric Gordon back from injury — assuming he re-signs, which is going be an underrated subplot of this offseason — pick a couple future franchise fixtures with a top pick or two, and this team will be right back on schedule. After the whole CP3 mess from last summer, we’ll all be rooting for them to get back on their feet ASAP, I feel.
3. Houston Rockets
Speaking of the whole CP3 mess. The Rockets have undergone the unenviable task of transitioning from the post Yao and T-Mac era into another contending team, a task that, ideally speaking, shouldn’t have to be totally impossible. But as hard a task as that already is, their one trade attempt to acquire that elite player they’ve lacked since 2009 was vetoed by the league. Doesn’t seem fair, nor does it that the Rock Boys had Yao and McGrady under contract for a good half-decade without ever really getting to make a run with both of them healthy and the rest of their lineup not totally deplorable. H-Town both needs and deserves a little stroke of luck to rescue them from the NBA’s middle class, and an unlikely lottery victory could be just the ticket.
Assuming the Commish allows it, anyway.
2. Charlotte Bobcats
Like with the Raptors — who at least won a playoff series long ago — good things just need to start happening with this franchise. Eight years isn’t that long, true, but it’s long enough that the franchise should probably have at least one playoff victory, and should definitely have a representative player better than Gerald Wallace. They’ve done a respectable job of completely and thoroughly bottoming out the last year or so, and though you hate to see tanking encouraged and rewarding, you have to at least respect MJ and co’s sheer commitment to being bad over that stretch. Plus, this team’s just too bad right now that they’re at the point where their very existence is kind of a bummer to NBA fans. Time for them to get some good basketball players (like, better than Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera) and shoot for “young and exciting” rather than just “miserable.”
1. Portland Trailblazers
I’ve been fairly harsh on them in my Playoff Bandwagon Rankings the last few years, since the tragedy surrounding this team just got to be too much for me, but in the LBRs, I wish them nothing but the best. Nobody has had it rougher over the last five seasons than these guys — making good franchise moves, fostering a great NBA atmosphere with their city and fanbase, and then getting thoroughly Godsmacked for their efforts — and though they obviously did have a No. 1 pick already over that timespan, the fact that he played barely an entire season combined over his half-decade means I’m certainly not gonna penalize them for that. Now that Oden and his partner-in-misery Brandon Roy are both totally disassociated with the franchise, and they’ve fully removed their chips from the table by trading a bunch of their good-not-great players, it’s time for this team to be able to start over.
If any team has ever deserved to cut in line in the wait to return to NBA relevance, it’s these guys. Give ‘em a top pick this May, Stern, and try not to get a bunch of your bad voodoo all over it this time.