Last month a Toronto Sun columnist declared that "the Raptors
need to lose, lose early and lose often." Too many wins and
Toronto would have no shot at the No. 1 pick, which last year
yielded Yao and this year will presumably be 6'8" high school
phenom LeBron James. Never mind that the NBA team with the worst
record has only a 25% chance of winning the lottery--and, in
fact, hasn't had the first pick in 13 years. Losing has an upside
if it increases those chances. Here are the top contenders for
James's draft rights, with their odds of finishing dead last in
the league. (Records are through Sunday, with games remaining
after the All-Star break against the top eight teams in both
conferences in parentheses.)
HEAT: 16--31 (22). Conventional wisdom holds that Pat
Riley--coached teams excel down the stretch. But conventional
wisdom doesn't have to pass to Vladimir Stepania in the post.
LeLine: 10 to 1.
GRIZZLIES: 13--33 (20). Hubie Brown is coaching Memphis right out
of lottery contention. On the bright side, Jason Williams is
still in charge of distributing the ball. LeLine: 8 to 1.
HAWKS: 19--29 (13). They have the fewest games remaining against
good teams, but don't count them out. Last month Atlanta, with
three former All-Stars, still lost to the Heat by 34. LeLine: 7
CLIPPERS: 17--30 (16). That's 16 playoff-position foes not
counting the Lakers, whom the Clippers face twice more. Things
look even brighter for this club when you factor in its many
disgruntled free-agents-in-waiting and a tradition of failure.
LeLine: 5 to 1.
NUGGETS: 11--36 (17). All the tools are there--a first-year
coach, yard-sale point guards and an offense that has scored as
few as three points in a quarter. The downside is, Denver plays
hard every night, and 6'11" rookie Nene Hilario has shown
disturbing improvement. LeLine: 7 to 2.
RAPTORS: 13--34 (19). Vince Carter is back, but who knows for how
long? Either way, the Raptors have already had a 26-day winless
stretch this season and are fully capable of going 0 for March.
Their date with destiny could be April 16, their season finale,
at Cleveland. LeLine: 3 to 1.
CAVALIERS: 9--39 (20). Ricky Davis can almost win games by
himself, and new coach Keith Smart will try to impress. Still,
with three rookie starters who have made turnovers into an art
form, Cleveland's the clear favorite to lose its way to the
Promised Land. LeLine: Even. --Chris Ballard