While MVP favorites Russell Westbrook and James Harden dueled on Sunday, the Cavs had a costly loss and the Celtics capitalized.
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Maybe one of these days, the NBA playoff race will be the only one that matters this time of year.
But alas, thanks to the imperfections of the league’s draft lottery system and the reality that teams are still incentivized to play the tanking game, we have the unsavory race to the bottom to track too. Especially for teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings, who made trades which may come back to bite them.
With the regular season nearing an end and most of the non-playoff crowd simply waiting for the May 16 draft lottery to see where their pick falls, there’s an extra layer of angst for these two squads. Prominent draft picks are at risk, the kinds of assets that offer hope for the fans and rebuilding tools for the front office executives. The lay of this land isn’t quite as compelling as the postseason push, if only because it’s more like a math quiz than it is a sporting event.
Odds and stakes and protections and percentages, oh my.
But in terms of the big picture, well, this is huge.
After being a bottom feeder for four seasons now, here’s the rare bit of good news for the Lakers: they’ll have at least one first-round draft pick, thanks to the trade made by new front office head/Lakers legend Magic Johnson with the Houston Rockets last month (Lou Williams for Corey Brewer and the first-rounder). The even better news, unfortunately for all involved, can’t come until lottery day.
The stakes: The Lakers’ 2017 first-round pick, which goes to Philadelphia unless it falls in the top three. This pick was originally traded to Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash trade in July 2012, and the Suns later sent it to Philadelphia in the three-team trade that landed them Brandon Knight (for Michael Carter-Williams, who went to Milwaukee). If the pick isn’t conveyed to the Sixers this year, it is unprotected in 2018.
GALLERY: 2016 NBA draft first round
But wait, there’s even more to keep Johnson and new Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka up at night. If the Lakers fall out of the top three and give their pick to the Sixers, then they must also give Orlando their 2019 first-round pick. If they keep their pick, then the Magic get second-rounders in 2017 and 2018. This subsequent aspect of their pick situation is part of the Aug. 2012 trade that sent Dwight Howard from the Magic to the Lakers.
The status: 21-51 (second-worst winning percentage in NBA, tied with Phoenix in standings and 5 ½ games behind Orlando).
The odds: They would currently have a 55.83% chance of landing in the top three and thus keeping the pick (19.9% for No. 1, 18.81% for No. 2, and 17.12% for No. 3). They would have a 31.86% chance at the No. 4 pick and a 12.31% chance at No. 5.
The stress level: nine out of 10.
After a decade of losing and all the recent years of dysfunction, isn’t it time for the Kings to catch a break – especially when some of what’s at risk here isn’t even the current regime’s doing? We shall see.
But this much is clear about the part that does fall on Kings president of basketball operations Vlade Divac: the New Orleans Pelicans, who landed big man DeMarcus Cousins via trade last month, are doing the Kings a favor by playing better of late (five wins in their last seven games). Here’s why…
The stakes: The first-round pick that came the Kings’ way in the Cousins trade is top-three protected, meaning they were getting a tad bit nervous when New Orleans lost six of eight games after doing the deal and upped the odds of landing in that danger zone. If Sacramento had to wait to collect on this pick, they would likely receive it next season (protected solely for the No. 1 pick through 2020; unprotected in 2021).
As part of a June 2011 trade that sent J.J. Hickson from Sacramento to Cleveland, and which was made by former front office head Geoff Petrie, the Kings’ first-rounder goes to Chicago unless it’s in the top 10. If the Bulls don’t get it this year, then the Kings give Chicago a 2017 second-rounder that is protected for picks 56 through 60.
GALLERY: DeMarcus Cousins through the years
The Sixers have the right to swap first-round picks this June with the Kings, who agreed to this as part of the roundly-ridiculed Jason Thompson/Carl Landry/Nik Stauskas salary dump deal in July 2015. This only applies to the Kings’ pick – should they keep it.
The status: The Kings are 27-45 (tied with Philadelphia for sixth-worst record; ties are broken at lottery time by random drawing). The Pelicans are 30-42 (ninth-worst record)
The odds: As it stands, the Kings can rest relatively easy when it comes to the Pelicans pick (New Orleans would have just a 6.11% chance of landing a top three selection). Ditto for the pick that could go to Chicago, as the Kings have a four-game buffer when it comes to real danger on this front: the team with the 10th-worst record, currently Dallas (31-41) would have an 8.98% chance of having the pick land outside the top 10 (the ninth-worst, it should be noted, has a 0.38% chance and the eighth-worst has a 0.01% chance).
But when it comes to the possible pick swap with Philadelphia, the Kings-Sixers dead-heat certainly means the swap is in play.
The stress level: three out of 10.
As if it’s not tough enough for Nets fans to endure this league-worst season, there’s this: the Boston Celtics will be reaping the benefits of all that bad basketball.
The stakes: The Nets are still paying the price for trying to go the Super Team route in mid-July 2013, when they landed Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics and peaked as a 44-win team while they were there (while falling in the Eastern Conference semifinals in that 2013-14 season). Barring a pre-draft trade, the Celtics will swap first-round picks with the Nets this June and thus get their pick of the prized prospect pool that includes Markelle Fultz (Washington), Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Josh Jackson (Kansas) and Jayson Tatum (Duke). As part of the swap, Boston would give the Nets a 2017 second-round pick that is protected for picks 31 through 45 (the obligations end if that pick winds up being protected).
There’s a small silver lining for Nets fans this June, as Brooklyn landed Washington’s first-round pick as part of the trade that sent swingman Bojan Bogdanovic to the Wizards last month. The pick is top-14 protected through 2021 and top-10 protected in 2022 (the Nets get second-round picks in 2022 and 2023 if the first isn’t conveyed by then).
The status: The first-round pick swap has been a foregone conclusion for months. But because the Wizards (45-28) have the sixth-best record in the NBA, the Nets can plan on landing that pick.
The stress level: 0 out of 10.
Other protected picks
- Dallas owes Philadelphia a protected first-round pick for this June as part of the Nerlens Noel deal the Mavericks made last month. But because it’s top-18 protected, and because the Mavericks (31-41) currently have the 10th-worst record in the league, they’ll hold onto it this year. And because it subsequently becomes two second-rounders as a result (2017 and 2020), this much should be said: well done, Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson.
- The Clippers (44-30, ninth-best record) owe Toronto a lottery-protected pick this June, meaning the Raptors can plan on cashing in.
- Toronto (44-29, seventh-best record) owes Orlando a top-10 protected pick for this year, meaning the Magic will get their pick as well.
- Memphis (40-32, 11th-best record) owes Portland a top-five protected pick for this year, meaning the Blazers will also land it.
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick