The NBA’s lottery reform won’t go in effect until 2018-19, meaning there’s still the same old incentives to sink to the bottom of the standings this season. Every team has a greater than 75% chance of not getting the No. 1 pick, as the league’s worst record only cinches a 25% chance, and no team can guarantee the bottom record at this point. But here are the teams “leading” the race for the top pick:
New franchise player Zach LaVine will miss at least the first month of the season, and it’s unclear how athletic he’ll look upon his return from a torn ACL. The roster is littered with other rookie-scale players who haven’t shown the acumen to contribute positively to winning: Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis, Cameron Payne and even Lauri Markkanen, a rookie who’s admittedly more of an unknown quantity. The only seasoned veteran, Robin Lopez, specializes in the dirty work that won’t matter much on a team where nobody can do the heavy lifting. The Bulls are knowingly rebuilding, and if their goal was completely bottoming out this year, they’re looking good.
Possessing Brooklyn’s unprotected first-rounder from the Kyrie Irving trade, the Cavaliers have a backdoor into the lottery. The Nets were the NBA’s worst team by a four-game margin last season. Then, they traded their best player. Brook Lopez went to the Lakers for D’Angelo Russell, an intriguing prospect, but a player still in need of major fine-tuning. Jeremy Lin should be healthier. Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov are all helpful veterans (though overpaid, which is why they were acquired). The Nets have no incentive to be bad. But they probably can’t help themselves. They were so thin at center, Tyler Zeller was a major upgrade.
The Hawks are finally rebuilding after a decade-long playoff streak. They lost their two best players from last season, Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, and a couple others who were in the running as third-best, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha. Despite a 43-39 record last year, Atlanta had the point difference – typically a better predictor than record of future success – of a 39-43 team. The bottom might have fallen out, anyway. The Hawks just mostly kicked it out themselves. Atlanta is trying to remain somewhat competitive, but that’s probably a losing battle with this starless/not particularly deep roster.
At least the Kings are young. With eight players on rookie-scale contracts – plus 2014 first-rounder Bogdan Bogdanovic signed to a larger deal this summer – Sacramento has done well in prioritizing team control. Having traded their 2019 first-rounder and not yet possessing an elite prospect, the Kings are particularly incentivized to tank while they still can this year. Newly signed Zach Randolph and Vince Carter are probably too old to get in the way of that. George Hill is far more productive, but he can’t seem to stay healthy.
With Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe, the Suns could be frisky. But Bledsoe has had trouble staying healthy, and Phoenix has proven its eagerness to shift into mid-season tanking. Giving playing to raw young players like Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender would both help their development and improve the team’s draft position.