For the remainder of the NBA season, the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and other lottery-bound teams will be forced to engage in two distinct competitive endeavors every night they take the court: (1) the actual contest with a binary win-loss result, and (2) a more complicated dance to maximize lottery odds for the upcoming NBA Draft. Some teams will be forced to manage the status of protected picks promised to rivals under certain conditions. Other franchises (including the Bucks) need confront the value of their opportunity to land a premium prospect like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid or Jabari Parker in the draft.
Sixers GM Sam Hinkie has engineered his team to chase the best available odds, but even a 20-game losing streak from Philadelphia hasn't been enough to overtake our hapless heroes in Milwaukee. Neither team has much left to play for this season. They've both been officially eliminated from the playoff race (SURPRISE!), so at this point it's all about experimenting with young talent and limping to the finish line to collect a lottery ticket.
Before you dismiss the "tank race" as unimportant or disgraceful, remember that there's a fiercely non-linear talent distribution in every draft class and consider what's at stake in terms top-3 pick odds:
Hinkie has done everything in his power to move the Sixers into that top slot. Will the Bucks do everything in their power to prevent it from happening? If you want the Bucks to engage in any meaningful competition before the season ends, this is it.
I plan to track this race for the rest of the season. It's a compelling look at a smart franchise prioritizing long-term goals at the expense of fairly insignificant short-term opportunity to finish the season with better "momentum." I've assembled a quick graphic to help us scoreboard watch that will receieve periodic updates. I've included a column called "4Q Lead?" that will track how long each team holds an advantage in the final period of play during each remaining game. Consider this the measurement of competitive verve.
Larry Drew and the Bucks have looked better on offense in recent weeks. With a 5-15 record in the last 20 games, the Bucks have held a fourth-quarter lead for 68 of 240 total minutes. The Sixers have avoided drama altogether in recent weeks. In the previous 20 games they've dropped all 20 contests and have not held the lead for a single minute of fourth-quarter play (technically they've held a lead for 20 seconds over this span of games, but we round down...because tanking). Welcome to the competition for lottery odds.
The Bucks fell to the Bobcats on Sunday afternoon, and our own Eric Buenning detailed the 92-101 loss:
There are two things I've learned about Gary Neal this season. The first thing is that his greenlight is the greenest of all the greenlights. It's so green that the NRDC was on hand today to sign Neal to a lucrative endorsement deal, my sources tell me.
The other thing I've learned about Neal is that he is quite dedicated to making sure that the Milwaukee Bucks lose basketball games. He can even manage to pull this off when his allegiances are tied to a different franchise in a different city. Today, Neal had 18 points and the dagger three near the end of the game that helped his Charlotte Bobcats seal off a 101-92 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Though the game was numerically competitive through the full 48 minutes, both teams came out and played mostly sluggish basketball, as if this sport wasn't meant to be played before lunch time or something. For a game that came down to its final minutes, there wasn't a feeling of "wow, look at these two teams going at it." It was more like "okay just someone please take control of this so I can get home and get in some sweatpants before Selection Sunday gets underway."
Expect more updates down the line. If you want more NBA Draft coverage, take a listen to our podcasts and click some of the links embedded below.
UPDATE: The Sixers actually managed to hang with the Pacers for the second time in less than a week, but the result was the same. Philly didn't lead in the fourth quarter (again).