As NBA teams rush towards the start of training camp in about two weeks, certain teams have already made it obvious that ping pong balls in the Draft Lottery will be more important than wins. Other teams may not be ready to admit it, but it seems fairly obvious they will be joining the battle for the best possible draft pick next June as well. After all, this may be the most impressive draft class since LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade went in the top five back in 2003.
Our top five teams in the East are the Bulls, HEAT, Nets, Pacers and Knicks and our top five in the West are the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors. Our playoff hopefuls of Pistons, Raptors, Hawks, Wizards, Bucks and Cavaliers in the East and Grizzlies, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Pelicans in the West are going to fight it out for the last three playoff spots in their respective conferences and no one in these groups should be expected to obviously tank the season until after their record says this isn’t going to be their year.
Some of the lottery bound teams have just too much talent to reach the bottom while others have been taking steps to ensure they’ll have a chance to compete for dead last. However, it is organizations that decide to tank and even on really bad teams, the players still want to win. There are no guarantees that a team’s best laid plans will work in either direction.
Too Good To Reach The Bottom
8. Boston Celtics – 41-40 last season, projected 33-49
Boston didn’t have to let Head Coach Doc Rivers out of his contract and trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett if they were going to take steps to ensure a return to the playoffs this season. The Nets believe Pierce and Garnett make their team a contender and the Nets are right. However, the Big Three era in Boston was over. Point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the start of the season and probably a lot more before his rehab is done. This team will likely be relying on rookie point guard Phil Pressey and a rookie center Kelly Olynyk. There is little value to the Celtics in watching Boston’s veterans get minutes ahead of Jordan Crawford or MarShon Brooks. It shouldn’t even surprise anyone if rookie Brazilian big man Vitor Faverani gets minutes ahead of Kris Humphries.
Boston is rebuilding and they have done nothing to hide that fact. Their new rookie Head Coach Brad Stevens received a long term deal so he wouldn’t have the pressure of trying to win straight away. The organization has collected six first round draft picks to use or trade over the next three years. No one should expect the Celtics to be rebuilding for long, but they are rebuilding this season.
The Celtics have too much talent to reach for the bottom, but they can ensure themselves of a top 8 draft pick in June without overt tanking and that is a strategy this organization will be comfortable with.
7. Sacramento Kings – 28-54 last season, projected 32-50
The Kings made some nice additions this summer. Rookie shooting guard Ben McLemore is an uber-athlete with amazing hops, long reach and three-point shooting range. Greivis Vasquez is a big point guard with decent scoring ability and a willingness to pass the ball. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a solid defender at either forward spot. However, these positive changes are not going to change anyone’s opinion about the Kings this season.
Center DeMarcus Cousins is the player that could move this team from the lottery to playoff contender and everyone is waiting for him to grow up and do it. While that is probably not a fair expectation this season, if Cousins finds his maturity and McLemore is as good a rookie as his natural gifts suggest, this might be the last season the Kings can be left out of the playoff conversation for a while.
6. Los Angeles Lakers – 45-37 last season, projected 29-53
The Lakers only made the playoffs last season on a herculean effort from Kobe Bryant to drag a talented dysfunctional team kicking and screaming out of the lottery where their play suggested they deserved to be. Videos of Bryant running on an anti-gravity treadmill in August only serve as a stark reminder that last year’s savior is not going to be there on opening night October 29th against the Clippers. Unfortunately, Bryant’s Achilles tendon rehab program isn’t the only question mark on the Lakers’ season.
Pau Gasol is still in Spain rehabbing his knees after having surgery and stem cell injections in May and another big concern is the surgically-repaired plantar fascia tear in his right foot from last season. Maybe Gasol will be fully recovered for the start of the year and maybe he can get through this season without missing too many games, but at 33-years-old, seeing will be believing. One could choose to ignore that the 39-year-old Steve Nash has been nursing a bad back for years, but at the end of July, the point guard was still dealing with nerve issues resulting from last season’s fibula fracture. How well Nash can perform this season is anyone’s guess.
Dwight Howard is gone and for all the complaints, he still led the NBA in rebounding last season and was second on the Lakers in scoring. Metta World Peace was amnestied and the Lakers best defensive player after Howard was also fifth in scoring. One would be hard pressed to say any of the off season additions have made the Lakers a better team than last year.
If Bryant comes back early and plays like he did at the end of last season and Gasol and Nash are healthy enough to perform at a high level, then this team will be in the playoffs. It would take a lot of nerve or purple and gold colored glasses to predict that was going to be the case.
5. Charlotte Bobcats – 21-61 last season, projected 28-54
It was a surprise when the Bobcats signed free agent center Al Jefferson to a 3-year $40.5 million deal, after two seasons of beyond bad, targeting dead last in the NBA had become expected. This team will at least be more fun to watch this season.
A starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson only averages 23-years-old and while there is plenty of firepower, it will be matched by mistakes at the other end. This team is still under development, but with the veteran Jefferson to anchor center and put up a few more points, the development process should become a lot more positive and the light at the end of the tunnel will no longer be assumed to be an oncoming train.
The Battle For Last
4. Utah Jazz -43-39 last season, projected 26-56
When the Jazz let Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye leave, took back a boat load of salaries no one wanted for 5 future draft picks, and added two 2013 first round draft picks to this season’s roster, the message was clear. The Jazz were tired of mediocrity and the rebuild was on.
It was time to see what Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks could do in starting roles and if the rookie Trey Burke could be this team’s point guard of the future, but everything the Jazz did this summer was about the future and wins are going to be tough to come by.
Even if this implausibly young starting lineup exceeds all expectations, this team has almost no depth and will suffer immeasurably if any starter is missing games, but developing this core and adding another top draft pick next season is absolutely the right way to go.
3. Orlando Magic – 20-62 last season, projected 25-57
The Magic have done an exceptionally good job of rebuilding out of the ashes of their Dwightmare. Just Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson remain from the team that went to the 2009 NBA Finals and 2010 Eastern Conference Finals with Dwight Howard and neither player’s contract is guaranteed past this season.
Last season Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson showed they were part of the future and the second overall 2013 draft pick Victor Oladipo is a potential future All-Star guard. The rebuilding isn’t done and another high draft pick in 2014 is definitely in the plans, but the Magic are on the right path. They just might have trouble winning the race to bottom with the young talent they have already collected, but maybe not?
2. Phoenix Suns – 25-57 last season, projected 20-62
The Suns didn’t win a lot of games last season and based on the moves they made this summer, that number is going to drop. The Suns traded veteran wing Jared Dudley for Eric Bledsoe and flipped Caron Butler for a pair of young prospects from the Bucks. Luis Scola was traded for Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a protected 2014 first round draft pick. Then the team ended the Michael Beasley experiment.
While Bledsoe is a great asset to pick up, the Suns already have a starting point guard in Goran Dragic and this series of moves alone should help the team compete for dead last. The clincher was replacing 12-year veteran head coach Alvin Gentry with the rookie Jeff Hornacek. The coaching move was not unexpected and Hornacek could prove to be the right choice, but as a rookie coach in a tough situation, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to add any wins to the record this season. The Suns gave Hornacek a 4-year deal in recognition of the work ahead.
The Suns have some nice young assets on this roster and a few valuable veterans that could be moved before the trade deadline. New Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough should be busy this season.
1. Philadelphia 76ers – 34-48 last season, projected 18-64
76ers fans have a facebook page called Winless For Wiggins that references the team’s 1972-1973 season where the 76ers lost 20 games in a row and won a total of just 9. It is hard not to believe that the goal in Philadephia this season is very different.
Of course no team can go winless for an entire season, but the Bobcats did keep their win total to 7 games two years ago, even though that was taking tanking to an unnecessary extreme. Last place is achievable with double-digit victories.
Veteran Head Coach Doug Collins got this team to overachieve for two of his three seasons in Philadelphia, but he has been replaced by rookie Head Coach Brett Brown who received a 4-year deal. Everyone knows this rebuild is going to take time.
This roster is young, suspect and ideal for tanking. Veteran Jason Richardson is unlikely to play this season after knee surgery. The team dumped All-Star Andre Iguodala for nothing but wishing and hoping last summer and traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for the injured 2013 sixth overall draft pick Nerlens Noel. The 19-year-old Noel is considered to be a future building block player, but the emphasis on the word future can’t be strong enough.
Rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams will be leading this team that still features Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and a cast of suspects. However, this cast couldn’t hold their season together with Collins coaching and Holiday running the show. An almost Winless For Wiggins season might just be in the cards.
Risks and Obstacles
The race to the bottom is not an easy one to win. Your own players are not going to cooperate. However, by stripping out key players and coaches and then emphasizing the rookies and developing young players, it is possible to make a strong push for last overall. With all the talent available in the 2014 NBA Draft, a lot of teams will have ping pong balls on the brain around All-Star weekend and this year’s race has the potential to get pretty ugly in the second half.
Who do you think finishes in the bottom 3 in the NBA? Which one of these teams out tanks the others to win the most ping pong balls? Can any of these teams be a playoff contender this season? Let us know in the comments below.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors