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Predicting the Unpredictable: The Race for the Worst Record

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There are five teams in the running for the top five odds in the draft lottery. Let's take a stab at predicting the last few games of the season for each of them.

"You take it!" "No, you! We need to lose this game!" "Us too!"
"You take it!" "No, you! We need to lose this game!" "Us too!"
Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

This time of year in the NBA, it's hard to predict how games will go. Many of the best teams in the league have clinched their playoff spot and seed, and therefore have no reason not to rest five or six players. Other teams are desperately jockeying for playoff positioning and the chance to move on to the NBA postseason. Then there are the teams that sometimes would rather see a loss than a win to improve their odds at a high draft choice (and/or not lose their draft pick). Lastly, there are the teams in the middle: no chance at the playoffs, not bad enough to work up in the lottery, just nebulously mediocre.

These four groups often make results that look surprising on the surface, and make predicting games this time of year an even more inexact science than the rest of the year. But hey, this is a Timberwolves blog, and there are draft odds to worry about. Let's take a look at the remaining schedule for the bottom five teams in the NBA and see what we can look for.

1. New York Knicks (14-60)

Remaining games (8):

Wednesday 4/1: vs Nets (playoff race)

Friday 4/3: @ Wizards (playoff race/clinched)

Sunday 4/5: vs 76ers (thinking about new kicks)

Wednesday 4/8: vs Pacers (playoff race)

Friday 4/10: vs Bucks (playoff race)

Saturday 4/11: @ Magic (new kicks)

Monday 4/13: @ Hawks (clinched)

Wednesday 4/15: vs Pistons (team mediocre)

The Knicks are almost assuredly locked in to the best odds. They have three games against teams still fighting in the morass that is the 6-10 slots in the Eastern Conference, although the Bucks may be able to lock themselves into the 6 seed by the time they see the Knicks next week. They've lost seven straight, five of those by fifteen points or more. There will have to be a remarkable surge by Langston and the 'Bockers to mess this up.

Predicted remaining record: 1-7, they steal one over the Magic after they lock up the worst record.

Predicted final record: 15-67.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves (16-58) (2.0 GB)

Remaining games (8):

Wednesday 4/1: vs Raptors (playoff race-ish)

Friday 4/3: vs Magic (new kicks)

Tuesday 4/7: @ Kings (team mediocre)

Wednesday 4/8: @ Trail Blazers (playoff race)

Friday 4/10: @ Lakers (new kicks)

Saturday 4/11: @ Warriors (clinched)

Monday 4/13: vs Pelicans (playoff race?)

Wednesday 4/15: vs Thunder (playoff race?)

The Wolves have a key matchup in Los Angeles against the Lakers which, by that point, could lock the Lakers out of the top two picks (they're currently 4.5 back and keep doing this winning thing) should they win. Other than that, they have a winnable matchup against the Magic, who have done a remarkable job of jumping back into this conversation and giving the Lakers a scare.

The last thing this injury-ravaged team needs to contemplate winning is a four-games-in-five-days West Coast swing, which is exactly what they have next week through Oregon and California. The last two games of the season could either be massacres or neutral meh-fests, depending on whether the Pelicans manage to scrape their way back towards the Thunder or whether that race is settled by then. Hopefully these games feature more fierce Wiggins dunks.

Predicted remaining record: 1-7, with a win over the Magic on Friday.

Predicted final record: 17-65.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (18-57) (3.5 GB)

Remaining games (7):

Wednesday 4/1: @ Wizards (playoff race-ish)

Saturday 4/4: @ Hornets (playoff race)

Sunday 4/5: @ Knicks (new kicks)

Wednesday 4/8: vs Wizards (playoff race-ish)

Saturday 4/11: @ Bulls (clinched?)

Monday 4/13: vs Bucks (clinched?)

Wednesday 4/15: vs Heat (clinched?)

It'will be interesting to see whether the 76ers will stay at 3 or drop below one of the other teams to 4. Their OT loss to the Lakers on Monday night certainly helped get them some breathing room, but this team is interesting. Fun fact: since the All-Star break, the Sixers have the fifth-best defense in the entire NBA by defensive rating. Nerlens Noel has turned into a monster in the paint, and while the Sixers can't score to save their lives, they play great defense.

Depending on how the East shakes out, the Sixers could end up with up to five of their remaining seven games against reserve lineups. The Wizards are basically locked into the 5 seed in the East, too far away from either Chicago (3 back) or Milwaukee (5 ahead) to worry about much. The Hornets are somehow still in the race for that 8 seed, but have managed to drop 1.5 games behind Boston (?!) and will realistically need a win on Saturday to stay in touch. Both the Bucks and Heat will likely have clinched the 6 and 7 seeds by the last couple of games of the season, and will likely take the opportunity to rest some players.

Predicted remaining record: 4-3, losing only to Charlotte, once to Washington and one of their three last games.

Predicted final record: 22-60.

4. Los Angeles Lakers (20-53) (6.5 GB)

Remaining games (9):

Wednesday 4/1: vs Pelicans (playoff race)

Friday 4/3: vs Trail Blazers (playoff race)

Sunday 4/5: vs Clippers (playoff race)

Tuesday 4/7: @ Clippers (playoff race)

Wednedsay 4/8: @ Nuggets (team mediocre)

Friday 4/10: vs Timberwolves (new kicks)

Sunday 4/12: vs Mavericks (playoff race)

Monday 4/13: @ Kings (team mediocre)

Wednesday 4/15: vs Kings (team mediocre)

The Lakers might be trying too hard. With recent OT wins over both the Timberwolves and Sixers, they have dropped all the way back to a full 3 games behind Philly for the third worst record, and the Magic are nipping at their heels. They will likely be eliminated in the race for worst record on Wednesday or Friday. However, the Western Conference might just come to their rescue.

Out of the Lakers' last nine games, five are against teams in the 3-7 mess of Western playoff contenders, who will likely be jockeying for position all the way until the last game and tuning up their attacks to deal with each other. This includes two games with the Clippers, who will likely do the best they can to just run the Lakers out of Staples Center. They have two back-to-backs, including the dreaded second leg at Denver. This should keep them locked into either the third or fourth worst record, depending on what the Sixers do above them. If there were ever a team that needed to be sure and lose a few games, it's this Lakers team. It's been well documented that should the Lakers drop below the fifth pick in the draft, their pick is transferred to Philadelphia. If they manage to finish the season with only the fifth worst record in the league, all it takes is one team jumping in the lottery for them to be completely screwed.

Predicted remaining record: 2-7, with wins over the Wolves and once over the Kings.

Predicted final record: 22-60.

5. Orlando Magic (22-52) (8.0 GB)

Remaining schedule (8):

Wednesday 4/1: vs Spurs (playoff race)

Friday 4/3: @ Timberwolves (new kicks)

Saturday 4/4: @ Bucks (playoff race)

Wednesday 4/8: vs Bulls (playoff race?)

Friday 4/10: vs Raptors (playoff race?)

Saturday 4/11: vs Knicks (new kicks)

Monday 4/13: @ Heat (clinched?)

Friday 4/15: @ Nets (playoff race)

The Magic are late entrants to this race, having gone on a spectacularly bad run of late. They're 3-13 over their last sixteen games, 1-9 in their last ten. They've likely made their move too late, but there's a chance they could get in there and complicate things. They, like the 76ers, have several games against teams who may be resting starters by the time they play, but the Bulls and Raptors both could still be fighting for position, and there's an okay chance the Heat could still be stuck in the mess of 7th and 8th on the second to last game. What could happen? Let's find out.

Predicted remaining record: 0-8. Chances for wins over both Minnesota and New York, but the will to win is weak.

Predicted final record: 22-60

(Imaginary) Tiebreakers

The final tank standings, under the predictions above, look like this:

Team Record GB
Knicks 15-67 --
Timberwolves 17-65 2.0
76ers 22-60 7.0
Magic 22-60 7.0
Lakers 22-60 7.0

That's right, the predictions ended up with all three of the Sixers, Lakers and Magic on the same record. If the draft lottery used the playoff tiebreakers (which it should, coin flips are boring), they look like this:

  • Wolves won the season series with the Knicks 2-0, so the Knicks take that advantage, should it be relevant.
  • Sixers won the seasons series with the Wolves 2-0, so the Wolves have that advantage, should it be relevant.
  • In two-way tiebreaks between the Sixers, Lakers and Magic: Lakers won the season series over the Sixers 2-0; Magic won the season series over the Sixers 2-1; Lakers and Magic split the season series 1-1, Magic win the tiebreak on better conference record.
  • In the three-way tiebreak scenario above, first tiebreak is best combined record in matchups between the teams: Lakers 3-1, Magic 3-2, Sixers 1-4. So the Sixers get the third slot, the Magic the fourth, and the Lakers the fifth.

In reality, tied teams are split up by a coin flip, although I am unsure how a three-way tie would be flipped. In summary, the Knicks and Wolves are more than likely locked into their spots at worst and second-worst, based on their schedule and remaining opponents. The race for the third- through fifth-worst spots could end up very interesting (and very bad for the Lakers).

Credit to the inimitable Tankathon.com for stats, records and lottery information.