And the winners are …
… the No. 9 seed in each NBA conference, who earn lottery picks instead of likely first-round beatdowns!
If my team messed up and missed the lottery, they still could net a Giannis Adetokunbo, Kwahi Leonard or Robin Lopez at No. 15 or 16 provided the scouts are sharp. But I’d rather take my chances, slim as they might be, at gaining a Top 3 draft pick.
Top-seeded Golden State and Atlanta could lose in the opening round but you wouldn’t bet on it. There have been only five such 1-vs.-8 upsets, most recently in 2012 when Philadelphia took advantage of Derrick Rose’s absence and beat Chicago in six games.
The Miami Heat, coming off four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, tried to scratch and claw into the postseason but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. That “failure” could result in a Top 10 pick, moving the franchise ahead much further than a best-of-seven series against the Hawks.
At the other end of the spectrum are teams like the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, which engaged in a season-long version of “Race to the Top” for the No. 1 pick. But the Knicks faltered and failed to keep the big picture, winning back-to-back contests recently – their first two-game win streak since Feb. 27-28 – and thereby jeopardizing their odds of having the most ping-pong balls in the draft lottery.
“I’m sure people are upset with us,’ coach Derek Fisher told reporters Monday after the Knicks beat Atlanta. “But I don’t think you can ever go out there and basically try and not play your best. Those two things don’t go together.”
In this case, winning games and improving the outlook don’t go hand-in-hand, either.
On Saturday, the Knicks owned the league’s worst record and best odds of getting the No. 1 pick; they would pick no lower than fourth. Entering Wednesday, they had an outside shot of dropping all the way to No. 6, a doomsday scenario that would mirror their season but be less rewarding.
“That has no bearing on these guys’ lives and their careers and their livelihoods – who we pick next year,” Fisher said. “This is about them, and they went out and played that way.”
I would argue that landing Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns would have a significant bearing on, say, Dwayne Wade’s or Carmelo Anthony’s career and livelihood. A single, impact player can change the fortune of NBA teams much more than teams in other major pro sports.
In the Western Conference, only the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks have captured titles since Michael Jordan retired. Without Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, San Antonio and Los Angeles wouldn’t have split 10 of the last 16 championships.
Fans in any NBA city are crazy to root for a few extra wins instead of a better shot at the next 10-time All-Star or future Hall of Famer. The story line plays out annually in the league’s lower-echelon outposts, where hardcore followers compute the changing odds with each meaningless victory.
The implications were heightened and more complex in instances this season. Miami needs to finish with a Top 10 pick or else ship it to Philly, which made Wednesday’s Heat-Sixers finale a lose-win proposition for both teams.
The Lakers potentially benefited from each loss down stretch because they keep their pick if it’s in the Top 5. Otherwise, the selection goes to … surprise, Philadelphia, which proudly brought up the rear for much of the season. That gave the Sixers twice as many reasons to fall down in their season finale – a better chance at the No. 1 pick and Miami’s first-rounder as well.
Philly’s early-season putridness led to much hand-wringing about NBA teams tanking to improve their odds in the lottery. But that’s no surefire way to success.
Minnesota is en route to its 10th consecutive drawing. Considering the rugged West, the Timberwolves can easily make it 11 straight next year, possibly entering the season with the league’s back-to-back-to-back No. 1 picks, yet being no closer to the playoffs than the Knicks or Sixers.
But it’s a lot easier to sell hope and progress with Okafor or Towns uniforms in the team store.
So while some fans in Miami and other “we-just-missed” cities are bummed about sitting home, those with long-term views consider it a blessing. Though their squads are highly unlikely of moving into the Top 3 – the best non-playoff team has a 1.8 percent chance of making the leap – being in the lottery beats near-certain futility in the postseason.
You know the chant among smart fans in those instances or more dire circumstances?
“Just lose, baby.”