As we approach the mid-point of the season we are starting to see the playoff picture take form. By now we know who most of the real contenders are, but over the next several weeks we will not only see teams trying to claw their way into the final playoff spots, we'll also see teams racing to the bottom of the standings in an effort to improve their draft lottery odds.
The Boston Celtics have the 5th worst record in the league, yet they are closer to the 8th seed in the playoffs (3 games back) than they are to falling behind Philadelphia for one of the bottom three spots (6 games). With Danny Ainge holding an (almost) everything must go sale, the C's aren't likely to move up significantly. Unfortunately they may have already banked too many wins to move down much more, which means they'll need some lottery luck in order to snag a top-3 pick this summer.
To see where Boston stands in terms of their potential lottery odds, we'll be keeping an eye on the standings to see which teams are rising and falling, while exploring how their movement in the standings impacts the Celtics.
These are the teams currently bound for the lottery, along with some useful information regarding their remaining games, courtesy of ESPN's Playoff Matchups page.
These teams are currently in the lottery but have recently shown progress in moving up toward the playoff picture.
Oklahoma City Thunder: An obvious choice given that most us pegged them as one of the top contenders before injuries derailed them, leading to a slow start. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are back and playing like superstars again, but given how loaded the West is, claiming a playoff spot will be no easy challenge. They currently sit 3.5 games behind the Phoenix Suns for the 8th seed. If they stay healthy and play to their ability they are a threat to knock someone out of a playoff spot out West. The Clippers are currently 6th in the West, but they have the defending champion Spurs and scorching Suns sneaking up on them. That's good news for Celtics fans, given that Boston owns the Clippers first-round pick. While it may seem like a long shot for Boston to get a lottery pick from them, it won't take much of a slip up for them to tumble down the standings of a loaded Western Conference, with a dangerous Thunder squad eager to steal their spot.
Detroit Pistons: After opening the season by digging themselves into a 5-23 hole, Detroit has ripped off an 11-3 streak since dumping Josh Smith. The bold decision to waive the former All-Star forward has allowed their frontcourt of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe to thrive without as much concern over spacing issues or Smith's horrible shot selection. At only 1.5 games back of the Brooklyn Nets for the 8th seed in the East, the Pistons may not be in the lottery much longer. If Boston has any ambition of competing for a playoff spot, this resurgent Pistons team is one they may need to climb over.
These teams continue to sink further down the standings in an effort to gather more ping pong balls for the lottery.
Los Angeles Lakers: Their current 5-game losing streak is tied for the longest in the league and they've lost eight of their last ten games. Kobe Bryant can essentially be considered day-to-day for the rest of the season as the Lakers look to preserve their aging star by giving him plenty of rest. He's missed eight of the team's last fifteen games and the Lakers are only 2-6 without him in the lineup during that stretch. The more games Bryant sits out, the harder it will be for Boston to fall behind them to increase their lottery odds.
Indiana Pacers: They are the other team on a 5-game losing streak and have lost seven of their last ten. This team is a long way from the one that took the Miami Heat to six games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, having lost Paul George to a season-ending injury and Lance Stephenson to free agency. They are tied with Boston at 19.5 games back in the East, but remain percentage points ahead of the C's by virtue of having played four extra games so far.
These teams are in the drivers seat for having top-3 lottery odds, providing the Celtics with their biggest challenge for a top draft pick.
Philadelphia 76ers: They seemingly had the blueprint for mastering the tanking strategy, which almost makes it a disappointment for them that two other teams are beating them at their own game. Their -12.7 point differential is by far the worst in the league, so the Sixers aren't in any danger of moving out of this bottom group.
Minnesota Timberwolves: We knew losing Kevin Love was going to have a major impact on this team in the short term, but injuries to key players have blown up their season completely. Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic should return soon, while Andrew Wiggins continues to blossom into a star with 20+ points in 10 of his last 14 games. Working against them is that they play in the West, which makes their remaining schedule much more difficult than the two other teams in this section. More than half of their remaining games are against teams with winning records.
New York Knicks: Is Carmelo Anthony still a superstar? Sure, he's 4th in the league in scoring at 23.9 points per game. Still, if he was really that good then he wouldn't be leading the team with the worst record in the league - no matter who he has for teammates. He's been slowed by an ailing knee that may eventually force him to shut it down for the season, but as admirable as it may be to try to gut it out in order to give Knicks fans a reason to keep watching, he may be doing more harm than good in the long run by not sitting out.
The current projected draft order (pending lottery results).
|1. New York Knicks|
|2. Minnesota Timberwolves|
|3. Philadelphia 76ers|
|4. LA Lakers|
|5. Boston Celtics|
|6. Orlando Magic|
|7. Utah Jazzz|
|8. Indiana Pacers|
|9. Detroit Pistons|
|10. Sacramento Kings|
|11. Charlotte Hornets|
|12. Denver Nuggets|
|13. Houston Rockets (via New Orleans Pelicans)|
|14. Oklahoma City Thunder|