Commentary

How low can they go?

Where the Celtics stand in the NBA's cutthroat battle for last

Updated: March 6, 2014, 6:20 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

The Boston Celtics own the fourth-worst record in basketball and endured one of their ugliest losses of the season Wednesday night. At this point, spring training baseball might be more than enough to hijack the attention of the casual local hoops fan.

Even die-hard Celtics supporters might be content to hibernate for the final 21 games of the regular season and rise on May 20 when the annual pingpong-a-palooza will determine where the Celtics will pick in this year's NBA draft.

Recalling those fleeting visions of Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant in green, you know by now that the NBA determines its draft order by a lottery process. Teams with the worst records have the best chance at a top spot, but those pingpong balls have a mind of their own.

It's worth noting that the worst record in basketball hasn't landed the top pick in the draft since 2004 (Orlando Magic). In fact, over the past nine years, here's a quick rundown of where the team that emerged with the top pick ranked in the final standings:

2013: Cleveland Cavaliers (3rd-worst record)
2012: New Orleans Hornets (tied-3rd worst)
2011: Los Angeles Clippers (8th worst)
2010: Washington Wizards (5th worst)
2009: Los Angeles Clippers (tied-2nd worst)
2008: Chicago Bulls (9th worst)
2007: Portland Trail Blazers (6th worst)
2006: Toronto Raptors (5th worst)
2005: Milwaukee Bucks (6th worst)

Over the past decade, that averages out to teams with the fifth-worst record in basketball claiming the top spot.

That's part of the reason the Celtics haven't been afraid to win games this season. As hard as teams try to lose to better their draft position, the pingpong balls often have a way of scorning them (as the 1996-97 and 2006-07 Celtics know too well).

But it's undeniable that the lower you finish in the regular-season standings, the more likely you are to have a decent pick (even if you get leapfrogged along the way).

Here's what we know about the 2014 draft lottery: The bottom two positions are likely cemented. Milwaukee is 12-48, and even after gutting its roster and with the potential it might not win another game this season, Philadelphia (15-46) will be hard-pressed to make up the 2½-game difference on the Bucks.

The standings are a bit more cluttered from there. The Orlando Magic (19-44) own the third-worst record in basketball and have a two-game cushion over the Celtics (including three games in the loss column).

Behind Boston, there is a cluster of four teams in the Lakers, Jazz, Kings and Knicks (who traded their pick to the Nuggets), all of which are within two games of the Celtics entering Thursday's action.

What's working in Boston's favor is that 14 of its final 21 games are against teams that are currently slotted in playoff berths. The Celtics also have two games with a Detroit team that is still within striking distance (three games back of the final playoff berth) in the East.

Looking down, can the Celtics sink below the Magic? Boston might kick itself a bit for going 3-1 against Orlando this season. Of Orlando's remaining 19 games, 13 are against current playoff teams. It's going to be tough for Boston to make up that two-game gap, particularly with teams a bit more cognizant of the jockeying once April rolls around.

Looking up, Boston has to be leery of seeing three Western Conference foes nearby given the increased competitiveness of that conference. Even after dropping games to the Lakers, Jazz and Kings during their last road trip, the Celtics will likely be jockeying with that cluster over the final 40 days of the season.

According to the 5,000 computer simulations run by John Hollinger's Playoff Odds, here's how the bottom of the NBA standings currently project:

[+] EnlargeJeff Green, Brad Stevens, Jared Sullinger, Kris Humphries
AP Photo/Alex BrandonThe Celtics are playing for pride at this point, but 21 more losses wouldn't be terrible.

Sacramento: 31-51
New York: 31-51
Utah: 29-53
Boston: 28-54
L.A. Lakers: 27-55
Orlando: 26-56
Philadelphia: 18-64
Milwaukee: 17-65

In the event that teams finish tied in the standings, the total number of pingpong balls for their slots are split evenly (with a coin flip determining who gets any extra, as well as who would pick first in the event that both land outside the top three spots).

The danger for Boston is that even if this draft is indeed as loaded as some make it out to be, there is a decided drop after the top spots. Teams are salivating to get Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. It gets murkier after that with Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon among the most bandied names. The chance to get a franchise-changer dips after the top picks.

From a coach's perspective, the Celtics' Brad Stevens reaffirmed after Wednesday's 108-88 loss to the Golden State Warriors that his team is playing for pride and he sees a challenging end-of-season schedule as a chance for his team to prove itself against quality opposition on a nightly basis.

You get the sense that, if the Celtics win games, Stevens & Co. can revel in progress; if they lose, oh well, it's a chance at better draft position.

Ultimately, there are too many variables that are outside of a single team's control, so the Celtics don't plan to sweat them. They have taken a "chips fall where they may" approach to the season and will continue that focus.

That may leave fans second-guessing come May, but remember that this team hasn't put its fate in the hand of pingpong balls.

Stacked with a troth of future draft picks (including as many as 10 first-round selections in the next five drafts), Keith Bogans' nonguaranteed contract, trade exceptions (including a $10.3 million chip from the Brooklyn swap) and an ownership willing to spend over the tax line, the Celtics have the means to navigate this transition process without breaking out all their lucky charms on May 20.

A higher pick would just be another asset in navigating this rebuilding process.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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