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Lotto Watch Part II: Counting Ping Pong Balls

Most sane Kings fans surely believe the playoffs are out of the question this season, and anything better than the eighth seed and a quick and painful death to Phoenix/Dallas/San Antonio is less likely than "Sacramento Mayor Kenny Thomas."

With those revelations fully permeated then, there's nowhere else to look but the NBA Draft Lottery. It's a foreign place for Sacramento, which hasn't played pong since the summer of 1998. (Geoff Petrie passed up Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, and Tremendous Tremaine Fowlkes for Jason Williams. In fairness, Petrie also passed up Michael Doleac, Michael Dickerson, and Bryce Drew. Cheers to that.)

Here's a refresher on the draft lottery process:

  • Every non-playoff team has a chance to get the first, second, or third pick of the draft.
  • The worse your record, the better your chance at a top 3 pick.
  • Only the top 3 picks are "up for grabs." The 9th-worst team has no chance to get the 4th pick, for example.
Here is each lottery contestant's chance at the first pick, ranked in order of worst record:
 1st - 25.0%
 2nd - 19.9%
 3rd - 15.6%
 4th - 11.9%
 5th -  8.8%
 6th -  6.3%
 7th -  4.3%
 8th -  2.8%
 9th -  1.7%
10th -  1.1%
11th -  0.8%
12th -  0.7%
13th -  0.6%
14th -  0.5%

Obviously, the four worst teams have a clear advantage in nabbing the top pick. In this draft in particular - should underclassmen expected to enter the draft actually enter the draft - the top 4 picks will be extremely coveted. I'll note that the fourth-worst team in the league has a 70% chance to get a top 5 pick. If the cut-off in talent behind Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Brandan Wright, and Joakim Noah is as dramatic as it currently appears to be - look for a lot of tanking. Even if you consider both Spencer Hawes and Julian Wright to be legitimate "franchise player" prospects (I would say the consensus is 'no' at this point), no one would pass up a significantly bigger chance at Oden/Durant and a surer shot at Wright/Noah to win a few extra games. If you think sitting Kevin Garnett and Ricky Davis with faux injuries in the waning month was obvious last season, prepare to be amazed at the starting lineups that get run out in late March this season.

Let's look at the bottom of the basement so far this season. The fourth column, "games back," denotes how many games "behind" the team with the worst record the particular team is. (Worst sentence constructon ever.) The home/road numbers are how many games the team has left remaining. (For example, Memphis has 19 home games left and 18 more on the road.)

Now, the "craptenders":

  1. Memphis    11-34     --    (19 home, 18 road)
  2. Boston     12-31    2.0    (20 home, 19 road)
  3. Philly     14-31    3.0    (23 home, 14 road)
  4. Charlotte  15-28    5.0    (19 home, 20 road)
  5. Atlanta    15-27    5.5    (22 home, 18 road)
  6. Seattle    17-27    6.5    (17 home, 21 road)
  7. Sacto      17-25    7.5    (18 home, 22 road)
  8. Milwaukee  18-26    7.5    (23 home, 15 road)
  9. New York   19-27    7.5    (17 home, 19 road)
  10. NOOCH      18-25    8.0    (19 home, 20 road)
  11. Portland   19-26    8.0    (18 home, 19 road)
  12. Miami      19-25    8.5    (21 home, 17 road)
  13. GSW        21-23   10.5    (16 home, 22 road)
  14. Minnesota  21-22   11.0    (21 home, 18 road)

If Memphis trades Pau Gasol at some point in the next month, they have a lock on the worst record in the league. Even the Tony Barone Show can't save a team whose marquee stars would be Mike Miller and some version of Ben Gordon/Mickael Pietrus/Al Jefferson. If Boston doesn't get their superstar, they could certainly make a run at a with-Pau Memphis for the dregs. Paul Pierce remains one of those lottery-shifting question marks: will he come back if Boston doesn't land a Pau/Garnett/Bibby? Will he actually sit out the year with "foot stress?" If he does, Boston is not going to get much better than third-worst in the league.

Philadelphia is another huge question mark. Will they keep Andre Miller? They're 8-12 with him, which is way too good to stay at the bottom. Any number of teams could desparately use Miller (Cleveland, Miami, Sacramento if Bibby's traded), and Philly can assure themselves a bottom four finish by trading him for a pick/youngster and an expiring contract. Iguodala + Dalembert + Willie Green = losses. However, of all the craptenders, Philly has the biggest home/road disparity, with a whopping 23 home games and 14 roadies to go.

The whole clusterf*ck between Sacramento and Miami will change daily with six teams within a game of each other. One would assume Miami will pull away and join the playoff party at some point, pushing the worse of New Jersey and Toronto out. Unless Jason Kidd gets shipped out (which is doubtful), I can't see either Atlantic juggernaut falling to high lottery depths.

As for the other teams in the mediocre clusterf*ck:

  • We all know to expect the unexpected with our Sacramento Kings. They could stay the course and win the next 10, stay the course and lose the next 10, have a firesale and win the next 10, have a firesale and lose the next 10, or realistically combine all of the above scenarios into a violent mishmash of WHATTHEF*CK. No one knows, and anyone who says they do know is selling wolf tickets.
  • Milwaukee got Maurice Williams back, and will soon get back Michael Redd. Also, they play in the East and don't have a preponderance of roadies, so they should be expected not to get worse. (Your 2007 Milwaukee Bucks: Not expected to get worse! Hell of a marketing slogan, no?)
  • New York is almost as unpredictable as Sacramento. They could be down with Memphis or up with Minnesota. No one knows, and anyone who says they do know is selling wolf tickets.
  • New Orleans shouldn't rise or fall too far from their current location in the middle of the lottery pack. Yes, Peja Stojakovic is likely out for the year. But Chris Paul is back next week. He's pretty good. He'll help them win enough games to stay away from Memphis and Boston, but not too many to actually scare the Clippers.
  • Ah, Portland. If they continue on this path the rest of the spring, they kind-of become a model for speedy complete rebuildings, no? I mean, this was no remodel they did over the last year. They burned the sh*t down and started from scratch, more or less. If Kevin Pritchard and Steve Patterson can do it, you have to appreciate Geoff Petrie's chances, right?
And now some other general lottery notes:
  • If Atlanta is anywhere near the very bottom - as they currently are - expect them to tank hard. Their pick goes to Phoenix unless it's top 3. Oh, the horror if they end up with the fourth pick in the draft. I shudder.
  • Toronto's pick goes to Charlotte, so don't expect the Raptors to care about lottery positioning at all. That team will fully be concentrated on getting game experience for their youngsters and making a run at New Jersey for the coveted crown of the Atlantic. This pick is top-15 protected this season, so if Toronto slides back into the lottery or ends up as the worst playoff team, Charlotte waits another year. (That makes trading for this pick in order to take advantage of this draft class a bit risky.)
  • Likewise for Minnesota and New York.  The Timberwolves' pick goes to the Clippers, and Chicago has an option to swap New York's pick with its own this year or next. New York has incentive to win (unless all the top picks decide to stay in school) and Minnesota couldn't care less where their pick falls. Minnesota's pick is protected in the top-10.
The cloud of mystery around Sacramento's intentions - as well as the curiosities of Gasol, Garnett, and Pierce - precludes serious analysis of how bad the team needs to be in its final 40 games to make a serious run at a top 4 pick. We'll know a lot more once the rest of the trade dominoes fall, which will happen no later than February 22 at noon Pacific. Until then, we shouldn't put too much emphasis in the day-to-day wins and losses by the other craptenders. Things will shake out soon enough.