We knocked out the Playoff Bandwagon Rankings earlier this week, but any true NBA fan knows that come March there’s two races of near-equal importance going on at both poles of the standings — while the Haves are busy trying to make it in to the playoffs and/or secure various degrees of home-court advantage, the Have Nots are busy figuring out how much their fans really value meaningless wins, and if maybe they wouldn’t rather just see the team go in the tank for the next few months in the name of ping-pong balls. No season is ever truly lost if it ends with your team being one of the final three placards pulled out by David Stern in mid-June, and it’s something worth rooting for. Hence, the Lottery Bandwagon Rankings (LBRs).
How are these decided? Well, to quote lazily from my 2012 column, the factors are as follows: 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?
Of course, things are complicated a little this season by the fact that there’s no consensus number one pick, and there are probably some GMs out there secretly hoping to be drafting in the less-murky 6-10 range than in the top three, where the chance for disappointment is much greater. Still, we’re working under the assumption that all the teams below would, in fact, like a shot at the first overall pick this year, even if said pick ends up being pretty far from a Blake Griffin-type sure thing.
So, here’s my ranking of the lottery-worthiness of the 15 teams currently at risk of falling in the lottery — not counting the Bucks in the East, because they don’t really have any chance of dropping below eight, and not counting the Lakers out West, because I never include them in the PBRs and it seems unfair to only include them here. Good luck to all you degenerate lottery-ticket purchasers out there.
15. Sacramento Kings (Last Year: 14)
How many lottery picks does one team get before you have to just say “enough?” True, the Kings haven’t actually picked in the top three since 1990 (BILLY OWENS STAND UP) and thus have arguably missed out on a lot of legitimate franchise-changing talent over their many lottery-bound years, but that guy’s probably not to be found in this draft anyway. And in the meantime, what’s another high-upside player on this team of ill-fitting promise that might be completely upending seemingly any month? The Kings had a top five pick last year, and you saw what happened to that guy. In the words of Joey Knish, if I’m giving a pick to the Sacramento Kings, I’m wasting it. No thanks.
14. Detroit Pistons (Last Year: 15)
Joe Dumars maybe gets some credit for finding both Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond in the mid-lottery moray (though he also maybe loses some of it back for selecting Brandon Knight there too), so this might not really be a fair ranking for this team. But I want to see the Pistons go another offseason without handing out a silly, short-sighted contract — to a free agent, or to extend one of their own guys — before I’m willing to acknowledge this franchise as being worthy of lucking into another major asset. Ben McLemore shouldn’t have to suffer through playing on a team paying Jose Calderon $10 million a year for four years if he doesn’t have to.
13. Utah Jazz (Last Year: 17)
Again, let’s see this team do something with the top-three picks they already have — Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, who almost definitely should have been starting somewhere for someone by now — before we give them any others. Throw in Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, and this team could conceivably have an entire second unit of overqualified lottery picks just riding the pine. Seems arrogant, somehow.
12. Houston Rockets (Last Year: 3)
Only this low because it doesn’t seem to me like they need it. They already have a franchise player in the backcourt, young long-term starters at the point and pivot, cap space galore, and even after pulling off two huge multi-player deals in the last six months, enough remaining trade assets to potentially go for the hat trick. Not to mention that they already shoplifted a top-five pick from the Kings earlier this season. It would be fun if this team landed another potential core guy in the draft, basically for free, but c’mon. Share the wealth, guys. At this point, if you’re even in the lottery this year, you probably screwed up somewhere.
11. Toronto Raptors (Last Year: 11)
Another team that seems like it should be good by now even without the help here, as long as they can manage to stop tripping over their own feet. Bryan Colangelo certainly doesn’t deserve a bailout, and where could a new guy even fit on this team where he wouldn’t be blocked by some other young, high-upside (and/or formerly high-upside, currently overpaid) guy? It’d be more interesting to have a new lottery player on the Thunder next year, anyway, which will happen if the Raps finish 4-14 in the lottery (but not if they land in the top three).
10. Dallas Mavericks (Last Year: N/A)
Mostly because Dirk deserves one more chance to play alongside a legitimate All-Star, and he’s running out of time and possible free agents to do it with. Plus, Dallas already being out of the playoff picture this early just doesn’t feel right, does it? If winning the lottery could make them relevant again, there are certainly teams more long-suffering and deserving, but it’d be hard for me to be mad about it.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers (Last Year: 10)
Even three offseasons after The Decision, we still all love the Cavs and want good things for them. But three top-five picks in two years (including one no-doubt franchise guy) should be a pretty good start towards turning your franchise around — it was for the Thunder, certainly, though I guess those guys also picked up James Harden one draft later to be on the safe side. In any event, Dan Gilbert shouldn’t waste the last remainder of his karmic balance on a high pick in this weak draft, and we as sports fans don’t need any more reason for lazy national media members to speculate about the Cavs becoming an even-more attractive team for the eventual return of LeBron James. We’ll be hearing it plenty as is, no doubt.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves (Last Year: 13)
Tough one here, since Minnesota definitely falls into the Sacramento camp of “nuh-uh, you guys are cut off from high lottery picks until you prove you can actually do something with them.” But then again, they had such crappy, crappy luck with injuries this year that they’re probably more karmically due for this reason than any other team on here (with one possible exception we’ll get to a little higher). Ultimately, I guess the two factors cancel each other out and the Timberwolves end up in about the middle of the rankings.
7. New Orleans Hornets (Last Year: 4)
Seems to me like Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon is a more-than-fair long-term return for the forced extrication of Chris Paul, and this team will probably be good-to-go for a while, regardless. Still, one more piece certainly couldn’t hurt for this team, and they’re about that one player away from being not only relevant in the Western-Conference, but a League Pass must-watch. (Too much Al-Farouq Aminu is still bad for the digestive system.) It’s not like they’ve exactly been overflowing with lottery return recently, and any team deserves one mulligan for an Austin Rivers-like whiff.
6. Portland Trailblazers (Last Year: 1)
In general, the Blazers still deserve good things to happen to them for no reason as much as any team in this league, having endured about two decades’ worth of basketball tragedy in the four-year timespan between 2008 and 2012. But at least some of that debt was paid with their selection of likely Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard in last year’s draft, and they don’t really desperately need more start-type talent on this team so much as they desperately need a half-competent bench. If they get a solid rotation guy in this year’s draft, the Blazers should probably be content with that. But still, if they wanted to cash in their credit on this lousy draft, they’d be well within their rights to do so.
5. Phoenix Suns (Last Year: 5)
You could argue that the Suns should be higher on this list, having been ditched by Amar’e and Nash (not unfairly, but painfully just the same) and having less of a direction as a team than anyone else in the Association. But that’s the problem — throwing a No. 1 pick at these guys at this point, in a draft with no clear difference makers … what does it get you, really? Just further confusion. But as with the Blazers, if the team thought Nerlens Noel or whomever would be a legitimate first step towards returning to relevance, you can’t argue they don’t deserve it.
4. Washington Wizards (Last Year: 11)
Yeah, they probably don’t deserve it — not after picking in the top six the last four years, and burning one of those picks to acquire Mike Miller and Randy Foye (and another on Jan Vesely). But this team is just starting to be fun again, for the first time in a while, and the temptation of getting to watch this team with another young core guy is tough for me to pass on. Throw Noel on this team and they become next year’s most entertaining lottery-bound team, for sure — and hell, maybe they actually escape the lottery the year after. It’s been almost a half-decade since the Gilbert Arenas extension (and almost almost a half-decade since the Arenas locker room debacle), it’s time to move on already.
3. Philadelphia 76ers (Last Year: N/A)
Pretty incredible that the Sixers didn’t even merit discussion in this column last year, huh? Since then, the wheels have come off in a big way, and if there’s another franchise that can claim to being as stuck between a rock and a hard place regarding their future as this one, I’d be curious to hear the case. The Sixers are almost guaranteed to be screwed if they re-sign Andrew Bynum, but not nearly as screwed as they’ll definitely be if they spend the money on Al Jefferson or Josh Smith instead, all but ensuring years of scrapping to get in the playoffs and then getting blown out in the first round. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, dammit.
As a Sixers fan, it seems like a waste of whatever luck we’re allotted long-term as a franchise for us to use it to win in the lottery again in this underwhelming draft — the last time, it only netted us Evan Turner anyway, and he hasn’t helped particularly much in allowing us to avoid falling in a second time. But like Minnesota, we’re owed something for this absolute gut-punch of a season. Even if Ben McLemore won’t save the franchise, it’s a f—ing start, at least.
2. Charlotte Bobcats (Last Year: 2)
You can’t say they’re not trying, but oh man, is this team still lacking for good players in the biggest way. Even with another top three pick they’re probably still miles away, but at least they will definitively be building towards something, and in the meantime, this team just needs to stop losing so very many games. The team won’t be good for a while, but being watchable is a fairly attainable goal for next season, and another top three pick would certainly help with that. This team can’t be a League Pass black hole for much longer before I forget that there’s even still a team that plays in North Carolina.
1. Orlando Magic (Last Year: N/A)
Was there any doubt? No other team appears to be making the conscious effort to tank this season quite like the Magic, and the force of their commitment to being bad is really quite breathtaking. Hard to argue their strategy as unsound — all the NBA GM maxims of late about avoiding the middle at all costs would support them — and you gotta feel at least a little bad that their textbook tank of a season didn’t even come in anticipation of a Blake or Kyrie or even a John Wall. But clearly nobody wants this one worse than the Magic. And after the mercilessness of the season-long Dwightmare, there aren’t a whole lot of teams that deserve it more, either.
They’ll probably be back near the top of this column again next year, and possibly the year after that, until the years of damage done in the seasons leading up to Howard’s trade to Los Angeles is finally undone. But this is the way they wanted to do it, so fair enough. I’ll oblige them for this year at least.