To tank, or not to tank, that is the question for the Los Angeles Lakers and the other 13 teams that will not be participating in the 2017 NBA playoffs.
Players and coaches don’t intentionally lose games that we know of, but with nothing meaningful left to play for, many Lakers fans are rooting for losses in the team’s final five games of the season to ensure the best odds possible when the NBA Draft Lottery rolls around on May 16.
As the teams currently stand, the Lakers (22-55) “trail” the Phoenix Suns (22-56) for possession of the second-most lottery combinations, which means they would have the third-best odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick and staying in the top three. In case you haven’t heard it a million times already, the Lakers will lose their first round draft pick to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside of the top three as a result of the Steve Nash trade five years ago.
If Los Angeles ends up in sole possession of the second-worst record in the NBA for the second straight season, they will have a 19.9 percent chance of landing the top pick for the first time since 1982 and a 55.8 percent chance of staying in the top three. If they end up winning more games than Phoenix and finish in third, those odds drop to 15.6 and 46.9 percent, respectively.
If the two teams end up with the same record, the total number of combinations for second and third will be combined and then divided between the teams. Since that total is an odd number (355), a coin flip will decide who gets 178 lottery combinations (17.8 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick) while the loser gets 177 (17.7 percent). In that scenario, the odds of staying in the top three would be 51.6 percent for the winner of the coin flip and 51.4 percent for the loser.
After the regular season wraps up on April 12, the odds forecast should be clear, barring a coin flip because of a tie. The Lakers will know their chances after just five more games, but how have teams fared in the past entering the lottery in the top three?
The NBA Draft Lottery was first implemented in 1985 and has endured a few changes to the formatting along the way. It wasn’t until 2005 that the current allocation of lottery combinations among the 14 teams was put in place. Now, just twelve lottery events with the current format is a relatively small sample size, but here is a look at how teams with the three worst records wound up each year.
Although the Brooklyn Nets (18-59) appear to have a stranglehold on the worst record in the league (25 percent chance at the top pick, 64.3 percent for a top three pick), their recent mini-surge technically has it still in play for the Lakers, so that slot is included just in case, even though it’s highly unlikely Los Angeles ends up with it.
In 12 draft lotteries, teams with the second-most lottery combinations have actually fallen outside of the top three eight times (66.67 percent). Meanwhile, teams with the third-highest odds have seen an even 50-50 split.
In 2005 and 2009, odds were split for the second and third spots heading into the lottery because of two teams finishing with the same record. It brought bad luck to both teams in 2005, but in 2009, the Los Angeles Clippers lost the coin flip to the Washington Wizards before later winning the lottery, which allowed them to select Blake Griffin with the top pick.
The New York Knicks entered the 2015 lottery in second, but watched the Lakers jump from fourth to second, dropping the former two spots, although they still ended up with Kristaps Porzingis. Then of course, the Lakers stayed put at second last year as the lottery went chalk for the first time, resulting in Brandon Ingram’s arrival.
It’s all a numbers game and the odds will be set in place shortly. Obviously, the more lottery combinations, the better. Five more losses will ensure the Lakers a record that is at least tied for one of the two worst in the NBA. Will their lottery luck of the past two years continue in May or will the second or third slot drop outside of the top three again?
No matter how the Lakers finish their 2016-17 campaign, fans will be on pins and needles next month when we finally see which way the ping pong balls bounce this time. The Sixers will be watching closely, too, as the Lakers hope to delay the inevitable for just one more year.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @garykester.