WE are nearing the pointy end of the NBA season with one team securing a playoff spot last week and one team officially eliminated from the postseason race. Ironically, after a line was drawn through their postseason hopes the Phoenix Suns have gone on to win two of their last three games, but that hasn’t moved them far from the bottom of the NBA standings. Phoenix is one of a handful of teams with their eyes on June’s NBA Draft rather than a potential playoff spot and the final six weeks of the season will go a long way to determining who gets the best chance at landing the No. 1 pick and in turn Zion Williamson.
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WHILE bottom 10 teams like the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Wizards and Pelicans would love to increase their chances of a higher draft pick this offseason, the NBA tanking race can be broken into two tiers with five teams. In one group from the bottom upwards are the aforementioned Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, while the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks make up the second batch. Here are how all five teams are sitting in the standings with 17-19 games left in the season.
BOTH tiers aren’t separated by a lot of games, but the Suns and Knicks are storming towards the No. 1 pick. Each team have had a losing stretch of 17 games or more this season and appear set to be the real ‘contenders’ for the best lottery odds for the top overall selection. Both teams are crying out a franchise-altering star like Zion Williamson, who, let’s be honest, is about a 99% chance to be taken first overall in June.
WITH such a lofty prize up for grabs you have to wonder what some of the teams are thinking posting winning records since the All-Star break. The bottom five have combined to go 15-13 in the past two weeks, although it’s worth mentioning that two of them have played each other in five of those contests. A team imploring a proper tanking approach over the final month and a half of the season could determine a hell of a lot, with changes to the lottery structure only further illustrating the importance of your place in the standings.
Image from nba.com
THIS season marks the first time the NBA will enforce changes to the Draft lottery that will see all three of the bottom squads in the league have the same odds of collecting the top overall selection. Previously the team with the worst record in the league held a 25% chance of getting pick No. 1, but now the odds have dropped to just 14% with the second and third worst records sharing the same odds. Previously, the NBA has only drawn the top three selections via the lottery, but now they will be determining the top four selections with the aid of the ping pong balls. That basically means that the team with the worst record in the league could now pick as low as fifth as opposed to fourth in years past.
IN summary, the new lottery rules make a place in the bottom three all the more important, with the current sides sitting in that group (Phoenix, New York, Cleveland) all keen to hold their place. Atlanta has looked impressive with their young core at times this season playing above their age. Their winning ways in the last three months have led them to a 16-23 record after a 5-18 start. Chicago is in a similar boat with a winning record (5-4) ever since acquiring Otto Porter at the deadline. While the Hawks and Bulls still stand a chance of cracking the top three, they’ll have their work cut out for them, especially given the distance between them and the others right now.
ATLANTA does have the hardest strength of schedule (SOS) remaining out of the group, based on opponents winning percentage and boasts the second hardest run home in the entire league. Cleveland isn’t far off the pace with the fifth hardest SOS in the NBA with Chicago (13th), New York (14th) and Phoenix (18th) hovering around the middle of the pack. Of their remaining games here’s how many times the bottom five have to play each other.
Phoenix Suns: 3 times (vs. NY, vs. CHI, vs. CLE)
Atlanta Hawks: 0 times
Chicago Bulls: 3 times (@PHX, @NY, vs. NY)
Cleveland Cavaliers: 1 time (@PHX)
New York Knicks: 3 times (@PHX, vs. CHI, @CHI)
The Hawks seem like the team most likely to crack into the coveted top three group, with the Cavaliers their likely target. However, the Cavs have the most road games (11 out of 18) in their remaining schedule and they’re tied for the. In a top-heavy upcoming draft positioning ahead of the NBA Draft lottery will be crucial and the improved odds of not only landing Zion but potentially a future star like R.J. Barrett or Ja Morant makes every loss important.