The battle in the middle of the NBA lottery

By this point of the season, teams that started (and remain) with depleted rosters have come down to earth, making their way to the bottom of the league’s standings. Sometimes they become so bad they separate themselves from the rest of the pack, like the 2010 New Jersey Nets who were 4-48 at about this time four years ago, the 2012 and ’13 Charlotte Bobcats, and this season’s poor, poor Milwaukee Bucks.

A couple other teams are bound to be just as hopeless. Together they’ll combine for half, sometimes even two-thirds of the chances of lottery teams scoring a top-3 pick. Below is a slot-by-slot breakdown of the odds of reaching the final three:

  1. 64.3%
  2. 55.8%
  3. 46.9%
  4. 37.8%
  5. 29.2%
  6. 21.5%
  7. 15.0%
  8. 10.0%
  9. 6.1%
  10. 4.0%
  11. 2.9%
  12. 2.5%
  13. 2.2%
  14. 1.8%

The odds of landing a top-3 pick are still decent in places four through six, spots often up for grabs between several teams, some legitimate enough to be a force the following season with their current roster and a draft pick high enough to land a future star.

Take this season’s ongoing battle, for example. Six teams currently have between 18 and 20 wins, the difference between fourth and ninth place in the lottery and over a 30 percent chance of sitting in the top three on draft night. After those teams is a group of 22 and 23-win squads well within reach such as New Orleans, who already has a gem in Anthony Davis. Score a top-3 pick and the West has another team to worry about in 2015 and on.

Here’s a look at this season so far, not taking into account draft picks owed:

Tier 1 and 2 are pretty similar in terms of skill level and the stages of their franchises, though making up ground on Orlando and Philadelphia seem like quite a task. Each team can become that much worse with a trade before the deadline, but there’s still room for others to move up and grab anywhere from a fifth to a third of the lottery pie.

But is it really worth it for teams to tank for a serious chance at a high draft pick? It depends. Teams outside the top three or four in the lottery are vastly different from each other. Below are some examples of teams less likely to tank:

  • Teams that don’t own their own draft pick, like the current 20-32 Knicks. There’s no incentive for them to lose more games.
  • Others, like the 2010 Pacers and usually the Bucks don’t believe tanking helps as much as staying competitive while rebuilding.
  • Teams with rising stars such as the early days of LeBron James and currently the Brow, though I wish Cleveland hung on for one more top pick. Same with New Orleans with Nerlens Noel, or even a top-5 pick this summer.
  • Teams with good pieces looking to rise through a blockbuster trade, like the 2010-13 Rockets.
  • Teams that just acquired a star, like the 2005 Golden State Warriors with Baron Davis. I would include the 2013 Raptors or the current Kings except Rudy Gay has never even been an all-star. This can also apply to teams that splurged in the summer but struggled out of the gate, like this season’s Pistons after grabbing Josh Smith.
  • Teams stuck in no man’s land with established stars, like the 2006 and 2007 Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett and the 2013 Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki. The 2009 Suns can also fall in here, but the standings at the end of the season showed a 17-game difference between ninth and 10th place in the West and 10 games between 13th and 14th in the lottery.
  • Playoff hopefuls going through injuries, like a ton of teams out East earlier this season, the 2013 Blazers, and the 2013 Timberwolves.
  • Talented pieces that don’t fit, like the 2013 Raptors and 2010 Grizzlies. Seriously, the 2010 Grizz featured Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Hasheem Thabeet, Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Allen Iverson, Ronnie Brewer, Mike Conley, Jamaal Tinsley, and Marcus Williams. They might also fit under the teams that…
  • …want to see what they have versus resting them for a higher draft pick, but I honestly don’t remember a ton about that squad other than the names they had at one point or another. The 2013 Wizards and Timberwolves are probably better examples with them looking at the John Wall-Bradley Beal combo and the Ricky Rubio-Kevin Love-Nikola Pekovic trio, respectively.

Basically, every situation is different.

Over the next two months, we’ll see which teams battle for a better slot in the lottery and which would rather chase for a playoff spot. At the moment, it seems like places eight to 14 will see a lot of action between East teams moving in and out of the playoff race. Places four to seven should also be active, and Sacramento is just too talented to be in fifth place.

Historically, teams have moved up and scored a top-3 pick (2005 Blazers), but others have lost major ground yet still hung on (2013 Wizards). Below is a history of lottery movement since 2003. Standings are as of February 11 of every season but 2012, which I moved up to March 11. That’s a week off compared to this year, sure, but standings are just about the same with teams already having played a similar percentage of games.

Anyway, take a look if you’d like (here’s a link too):

I didn’t adjust for playoff slots in the tables as of either February and March 11, as well as draft picks owed to other teams for any of the tables. Percentages were based off sites such as NBA.com, its team pages, and draft-based sites like DraftExpress. Percentages may still be off by a hundredth of a percentage point, but whatever.

Feel free to chime in with any other comments.

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2 thoughts on “The battle in the middle of the NBA lottery

  1. […] related posts, check out drastic movements in the lottery over the last two months of the season and what 20 wins before Christmas means in the […]

  2. […] a month ago I wrote about the ongoing battle in the middle of the NBA lottery and how that’s often a spot where a team can increase their odds at a top-3 pick by as much as 33 […]

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