I have been saying for about a month now that the bottom three teams in the NBA are etched in stone: Bucks, 76ers and Magic. However, thanks to a nine-game Celtics losing streak, combined with an unlikely two-game Magic winning streak, I was wrong. Both teams enter Thursday with records of 23-55, sharing the third spot in the lottery.
This is exactly what Danny Ainge had in mind at the start of the season, and now his plan is coming to fruition. But with only four games remaining for both Orlando and Boston, losing has become as important as ever this season. The Magic still have the inside track, as they play the Wizards, Nets (looking for revenge for Orlando’s win Wednesday), Bulls and Pacers.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have some very winnable games, so this is going to require some dedication to losing. The C’s face the Bobcats, Cavaliers, 76ers and Wizards in their final four outings. Yes, that’s right, the Celtics and 76ers will face off in another dreadful battle like the one we saw last Friday night at the Garden. Boston’s other three opponents are either trying to fight their way into the postseason or are jostling for position, so they arguably have something to play for.
This is all speculation at the moment, but if we are going by what the numbers tell us, Orlando will lose out. Meanwhile, the C’s should lose three of those games, leaving us with the 76ers contest. Look, the Celtics roster is clearly better than Philly’s, but Brad Stevens and company are going to have to understand the importance of sacrificing this game. This single game could hold the value of moving up one spot in the lottery — or not falling back a spot, depending on which way you want to look at it.
On top of that, unless the 14-win Bucks finish on a hot streak, the 76ers have nothing to lose by winning games now. They are six wins behind the Magic and Celtics, so even if they win out they still hold the second spot in the lottery. Essentially, I am saying the 76ers can stop tanking and it will not affect their lottery odds. Monday night in Philadelphia is the Celtics’ biggest game of the season.
This is all premature, as we have no clue what will happen in these games. The Magic are hot, maybe they can win another one and the C’s finish with sole possession of the third lottery spot. Maybe Orlando’s schedule is too much and Boston slips back to the fourth spot. Then there is the event of a tie, which actually is more likely at this point — both teams could easily go winless the rest of the season. If Boston and Orlando share the third-worst record in the NBA, they would split the lottery odds of third and fourth down the middle — a 42.4 percent chance at a top-three pick and an 89.4 percent chance at a top-five pick each.
So the Celtics actually are improving their lottery chances, unexpectedly, and the timing couldn’t be better. Five the top seven prospects outside have declared for the draft, and Jabari Parker and Julius Randle still have until April 27 to decide. Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Noah Vonleh all have confirmed they will be on the board come June 26. Doug McDermott is a senior, so we know he is in. Expected top-10 pick Aaron Gordon is still weighing his options as well.
Regardless of what Parker and Randle decide to do, this is still a very deep draft with some headline talents at the top. Certainly Parker and Randle entering would put the class over the top, I am on the record that Parker is the perfect fit for Boston. But just getting a high pick this early into a rebuild on a roster with Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger is a great start. Whether Ainge decides to use the pick and go young, or trade it and pair a star with Rondo is all up to him, but either way, it gets the Celtics closer to contending again than they are now.
There is a lot on the line the last week of the NBA season. Teams are battling for playoff position and playoff spots are even still up for grabs, but the Celtics have a pretty big final week themselves, albeit for very different reasons.
Stay tuned next week for another mock draft once all the final lottery seeds are locked in. We finally find out where the Celtics land, and who they may choose.
Follow Julian Edlow on Twitter @julianedlow