The last month of the NBA regular season is almost upon us. Meaning a handful of teams will now begin jockeying for position at the bottom of the standings in the hopes of securing a coveted high lottery pick.
This year adds an extra layer of intrigue with multiple teams having to forfeit their first-round pick if it does not land high enough in the draft lottery. While the NBA has introduced lottery reform in recent years, there are a few franchises that may still resort to some chicanery in order to boost their draft position. We have already seen the Thunder shut down Al Horford for the stretch run of the season.
This year's draft class also appears to be especially laden with top-tier talent. Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, USC's Evan Mobley and Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs are just a few of the crown jewels projected to go in the top five. For teams barren of young talent, one of these top prospects could easily become a building block toward a future playoff contender and beyond.
The strength of the upcoming draft class leaves no question as to why a team like the Magic chose this of all years to break up their perennial playoff team. However, the Magic should not be the only ones desperately sinking to the bottom of the standings this season.
Sports Illustrated ranks the five most desperate lottery teams this season.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are completely set for the future having control of 17 first-round picks over the next seven years. Much of that is to the credit of the deals GM Sam Presti has swung to trade stars Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Chris Paul.
Even though OKC is in no bind for future draft capital, they still have a budding All-Star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is ready to contribute to a winning team. The point guard will enter the final year of his rookie contract next season and will in all likelihood command a max offer sheet from the Thunder to retain him.
If they intend to build around Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City is only guaranteed a five- to six-year window before he can hit unrestricted free agency. This puts at least a mild amount of pressure on the Thunder to quickly assemble a good young core around SGA so they can maximize their window with him and increase the chances he sticks around for the long haul.
4. Detroit Pistons
Detroit had what seemed like at the time a perplexing 2020 offseason, signing the Nuggets' Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee to a total of almost $85 million over three years. Those signings have held up better than expected though with both players recording a career-best PER in their first season with the Pistons.
Grant and Plumlee have not, however, given Detroit any direction toward the future. As of right now, the team has a record of 16–36, and not one of its recent draft picks is averaging more than 11 points per game. The Pistons are in desperate need of some more talent, and being in a small market, Detroit's front office must continue to rely heavily on the draft.
Aside from reclamation projects Josh Jackson and Jahlil Okafor, the Pistons have no former top five picks currently on their roster. A high lottery pick this year would immediately become the focal point of the team's future.
3. Washington Wizards
The Wizards will finish their disappointing season in all likelihood with yet another trip to the draft lottery. Many expected Washington to be a solid playoff team at the start of the season after swinging a blockbuster trade to acquire Russell Westbrook. However, those hopes are likely dashed as FiveThirtyEight gives the Wizards a less than 1% chance to make the playoffs at this current juncture.
The timer on Washington is ticking with its franchise player Bradley Beal. He has been very vocal about wanting to play on a winning team and the Wizards have not made the playoffs since 2018. The St. Louis native could decline his player option and become an unrestricted free agent in the 2022 offseason.
A high lottery pick this year could give the Wizards some more options for the future. They could either package it for a player who could help them win next season or keep the pick and rebuild around whomever they select.
2. Houston Rockets
After trading James Harden earlier in the season, the Rockets have entered a full-on rebuild. However, the consequences of their past decisions still remain. Houston gave the Thunder the ability to swap its own or Miami's 2021 first-round pick with the Rockets' (given it is not in the top four) in the Russell-Westbrook-for-Chris-Paul swap.
Though the Rockets have set themselves up with a treasure trove of future picks from the Harden trade, OKC maintains at least partial control of Houston's own first-round draft picks from 2024 to 2026 (another remnant of the Westbrook trade), providing it even more incentive to improve its roster quickly. Keeping its pick this year, when it has the second-worst record in the league, would go a long way for a Houston team desperately needing a young franchise cornerstone.
1. Minnesota Timberwolves
Though having two former No. 1 picks already on the roster, the Timberwolves have to be this year's most desperate lottery team. The reason being Minnesota will lose its first-round pick entirely to Golden State if it does not fall within the top three.
This season has been anything but what the T-Wolves' front office envisioned when they traded their top-three protected 2021 first-round pick and Andrew Wiggins for D'Angelo Russell last year. Mired by injuries, players contracting COVID-19 and a midseason coaching change, Minnesota has had its two best players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Russell, on the court together for a mere 125 possessions this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Their season has still illuminated the Timberwolves' supporting cast needs to be improved so they can make the jump to the next level, and this year's draft presents a great opportunity to add to their collection of young talent.