NBA

Tank rank: Predicting the bottom 5 NBA teams this season.

Mar 26, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Houston Rockets center Christian Wood (35) drives to the basket as Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) plays defense in the second half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There are one or two prospects worth tanking for in the lead-up to the NBA draft in most seasons. However, this year’s class has multiple elite prospects, leading to draft experts declaring it a “super-draft.”

Yes, Oklahoma State Cowboys wing is the class standout, leading to the oft-used expression “Fade for Cade.” However, USC’s Evan Mobley, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, and G-League Ignite squad members Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga also in this class, any team that ends up with a top 5 pick is poised to grab a potential superstar.

Therefore, there’s even more incentive than usual for the NBA’s worst teams to tank and finish with better draft odds.

So, which 5 teams will finish with the best lottery odds this year?

To determine a team’s “tank rank” and predict who will finish with the best odds to “Fade for Cade,” this article will use a combination of a team’s current record, current strength-of-roster, and remaining strength-of-schedule (via Tankathon.com).

1. Houston Rockets

Mar 29, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets forward Jae'Sean Tate (8) looks to pass the ball under pressure from Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas (17) during the second half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Michael Wyke/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports
POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

Current tank rank: 2

Current record (as of 03/30/21): 13-33

Strength-of-schedule rank (as per Tankathon.com): 1

Remaining opponent win percentage (as per Tankathon.com): .576

Current starting lineup (as per ESPN depth chart):

PG: John Wall

SG: Kevin Porter Jr

SF: Danuel House Jr

PF: Jae’Sean Tate

C: Christian Wood

Entering the season, the Houston Rockets had the longest consecutive streak of years in the playoffs, with eight straight postseason trips. However, after trading away franchise cornerstone James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets and significant injuries to Christian Wood and John Wall, the Rockets are amongst the NBA’s cellar dwellers.

The season’s lowlight was a franchise-record 20-game losing streak, six short of the single-season NBA record.

On paper, the starting lineup isn’t as terrible as Orlando’s, Detroit’s, or Oklahoma City’s, and Houston isn’t significantly ahead of the former two in the race to the bottom. However, the Rockets haven’t shown any cohesiveness under first-year head coach Stephen Silas.

Over their last 25 games, the Rockets have gone an astonishingly bad 2-23, with the only wins in that span being over fellow tankers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the slumping Toronto Raptors.

Coupled with the league’s most challenging run home and only two remaining matches against current cellar-dwellers, and it’s easy to see them leapfrogging Minnesota for the best lottery odds in the NBA draft.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves

Mar 29, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) dribbles the ball against Brooklyn Nets forward Blake Griffin (2) during the second half at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Current tank rank: 2

Current record (as of 03/30/21): 11-36

Strength-of-schedule rank (as per Tankathon.com): 6

Remaining opponent win percentage (as per Tankathon.com): .518

Current starting lineup (as per ESPN depth chart):

PG: Ricky Rubio

SG: Malik Beasley

SF: Anthony Edwards

PF: Jaden McDaniels

C: Karl Anthony-Towns

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been ravished with outs this season. Karl Anthony-Towns missed extended time on two separate occasions, Malik Beasley has only just returned from a 12-game suspension, and D’Angelo Russell hasn’t played a basketball game since February 9.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Timberwolves find themselves in the all-too-familiar position of owning the league’s worst record.

The advanced numbers agree with the standings. The Wolves have a league-worst points-differential of -7.9, the 26th ranked offense, and the 27th ranked defense.

Minnesota also happens to have the sixth-toughest remaining schedule, with the majority of games coming against playoff teams and only three remaining games against tanking teams (Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, and Houston Rockets).

However, with only a 2.5 game deficit to the Rockets, a notably less challenging schedule, and a roster that’s finally healthy, the Timberwolves are likely to move up a spot in the standings.

3. Orlando Magic

Mar 28, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Orlando Magic forward Chuma Okeke (3) shoots over Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell (15) and forward Kyle Kuzma (0) for a basket in the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Current tank rank: 4

Current record (as of 03/30/21): 16-31

Strength-of-schedule rank (as per Tankathon.com): 18

Remaining opponent win percentage (as per Tankathon.com): .493

Current starting lineup (as per ESPN depth chart):

PG: Michael Carter-Williams

SG: Terrance Ross

SF: Otto Porter Jr

PF: Chuma Okeke

C: Khem Birch

The Orlando Magic were the biggest sellers at the recent NBA trade deadline. After peaking as a low playoff seed the past few seasons and after season-ending injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, the front-office decided to blow up the roster and start a complete rebuild.

In trading away all-star Nikola Vucevic and starters Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, the Magic currently has the NBA’s worst roster. The only player on the current roster who can somewhat create their own shot is Terrance Ross.

However, with Fultz’s and Isaac’s return next season, a potential top-five pick, and a potential top-ten pick from Chicago, Orlando has plenty of motivation to lose games this season.

For most tanking teams, a challenging remaining schedule is preferable. However, Orlando’s roster is very weak on paper. Therefore, there’s a strong argument that more games against bad teams are beneficial because losing not only improves their lottery odds but hurts those of their competitors.

While the Magic have a relatively easy remaining schedule, they have more games remaining against tanking teams than any other team mentioned. Upcoming fixtures include matches against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Orlando might have won too many games earlier in the season to secure the best draft-day odds, but they’re arguably more in control of their tanking destiny than any other team.

4. Detroit Pistons

Mar 29, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Pistons center Mason Plumlee (24) is fouled by Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) during the second quarter at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Current tank rank: 3

Current record (as of 03/30/21): 13-33

Strength-of-schedule rank (as per Tankathon.com): 14

Remaining opponent win percentage (as per Tankathon.com): .498

Current starting lineup (as per ESPN depth chart):

PG: Dennis Smith Jr

SG: Wayne Ellington

SF: Saddiq Bey

PF: Jerami Grant

C: Mason Plumlee

Despite being tied with the Houston Rockets for the second-worst record in the league and an unspectacular starting-five outside of Jerami Grant, the Detroit Pistons are a much better team than their win-loss ratio suggests.

As per NBA.com, a “clutch-game” is a game where the margin is five points or less at any point during the last five minutes. The Detroit Pistons have the worst winning percentage of any team in clutch-games, with their 4-19 record resulting in a win percentage of .174. For context, the next-worst team in clutch-games is the Houston Rockets, with a win percentage of .267.

Coupled with their -3.5 point-differential, it’s apparent that the Pistons’ terrible record is partly due to bad luck.

Detroit also happens to have the easiest remaining schedule of any team mentioned in this article. With only three remaining games against current top-three seeds and a remaining opponent win-percentage of .498, they have a great shot of making up the two-game difference with the Magic.

Although no coach wants to lose games deliberately, the Pistons front-office may gently nudge Dwayne Casey to rest veterans such as Mason Plumlee under the guise of player development.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

Mar 29, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Aleksej Pokusevski (17) goes to the basket as Dallas Mavericks forward Maxi Kleber (42) defends the shot during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Current tank rank: 8

Current record (as of 03/30/21): 19-27

Strength-of-schedule rank (as per Tankathon.com): 8

Remaining opponent win percentage (as per Tankathon.com): .510

Current starting lineup (as per ESPN depth chart):

PG: Theo Maledon

SG: Luguentz Dort

SF: Alexsej Pokusevski

PF: Darius Bazley

C: Moses Brown

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a unique case amongst the teams mentioned in this article. Thus far, they’ve already won 19 games this season, four games better than the Orlando Magic, the team with the second-best record of the five.

However, their star player Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is without a timetable for a return. Furthermore, Al Horford is out for the season despite being healthy, and Darius Bazley remains without a return date.

As a result of injuries and resting Horford, the Thunder boasts one of the youngest and least experienced starting lineups in NBA history. They’re fun to watch, but the closest thing they have to a shot-creator is the uber-talented but uber-raw Aleksej Pokusevski.

Their 4-6 record over their last ten games masks their recent on-court struggles. In that period, the Thunder have by far the worst net rating in the NBA, at a horrific -9.1.

They’ve been surprisingly good at winning close games, with a 13-8 record in “clutch-games,” good for the seventh-best record in such games in the NBA. However, this is because Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is already one of the NBA’s best clutch players. Without him for the foreseeable future, expect Oklahoma City’s good fortune to change for the worse in tight contests.

Furthermore, Oklahoma City has the eighth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA, with a combined opponent win-percentage of .510. The two remaining games against the Detroit Pistons and one against the Cleveland Cavaliers may prove pivotal in determining lottery odds for the NBA draft.

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