Upside-down logic: Why the Pelicans have incentive to lose

Wednesday March 5th, 2014

Anthony Davis Anthony Davis may not get help in New Orleans from a 2014 first-round pick. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images)

If you're a Pelicans fan, do you root for or against your team the rest of the season?

That sounds like a troll of a question, but consider the options.

On the one hand, winning is fun. It feels good. Some would even say it's the point of playing sports. But victories aren't all that useful to the Pelicans (24-37), who are 11½ games out of a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference.

On the other hand, if the Pelicans lose enough of their remaining 21 games, they possibly won't have to relinquish their lottery pick in one of the most anticipated drafts in years. New Orleans would be able to select a potential superstar (Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, etc.) to play alongside Anthony Davis and provide hope for the 2014-15 season and beyond.

But New Orleans can't lose just a few games here and there. The Pelicans need to lose a lot. That's because the draft lottery system gives them incentive to be terrible.

GOLLIVER: All-Tank Team: Starting lineup built to lose to the Sixers

In a draft-day trade last June, the Pelicans acquired point guard Jrue Holiday from the 76ers for a 2014 first-round pick. The pick is top-five protected this year (that remains the case until 2019), meaning the Pelicans would keep it only if it lands in the top five after the lottery.

Right now, the Pelicans have the 10th-worst record in the league. But New Orleans is only three games ahead of the fifth-worst team, the Lakers, whom the Pelicans beat on Tuesday to snap an eight-game losing streak. The May 20 lottery determines the top-three picks in the June 26 draft, and the rest of the lottery teams pick 4-14 in inverse order of regular-season record.

The pick looked like a lock to go to Philadelphia for a while, as New Orleans was a respectable 15-16 on Jan. 3. But the Pelicans have lost 21 of their last 30 games while dealing with injuries to the likes of Holiday, forward Ryan Anderson and center Jason Smith.

Of the Pelicans' 21 remaining games, 14 are at home and 12 are against teams over .500. With a slew of injuries, a free-agent flop (Tyreke Evans), a struggling player on a max rookie extension (Eric Gordon) and a couple of players looking to establish themselves (Austin Rivers, Jeff Withey), winning might not exactly come easy to the Pelicans under any circumstances. But there's no doubt that losses are worth more than victories to New Orleans these days.

With "tanking" becoming a daily topic of conversation in NBA circles, the league must find a way to prevent situations like this in the future. Whether it's the Draft Wheel -- suggested by Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and discussed at length at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last week -- or some other system that doesn't give teams an incentive to lose, the NBA needs to reassess its rules so teams such as the Pelicans have a reason to win even when out of playoff contention. New Orleans isn't the only team whose 2014 first-round pick is in question, either. Another notable example is Detroit, which must send its 2014 first-round pick to Charlotte (as part of the Ben Gordon trade in 2012) if it falls outside the top eight. (The pick is top-one protected in 2015.) The Pistons (24-36) have the 11th-worst record and are three games ahead of the teams tied for the seventh-worst record, the Jazz and Kings, but the Pistons are also only three games out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Playoff teams, of course, miss the lottery and select no higher than No. 15 with their own picks.

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