Race to Win the NBA Lottery
Ranking the 10 teams with the best chance of winning the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery
While the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers (among others!) are gunning for the ultimate prize — an NBA championship — other teams will be in the running for another valuable payoff: the top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
This is an early look at the race to win the lottery — the first edition of a regular feature here at NBA Big Board.
While it’s easy to talk about tanking, it’s not always simple to know what each team’s goals are.
On their way to the lottery, teams can try the following strategies:
tanking outright for draft position (for instance, sitting players who might help them win)
rebuilding with losing as a convenient byproduct (for instance, trading away players for draft picks)
playing to win and fall short, sometimes pulling the plug during the season
In other words, it’s a continuum, and the goals for each team can shift during the season. In some organizations, there is a tug-of-war between what the players want, what the coaches want and what the front office wants.
We will use this space to sort out where each team falls on the continuum and to handicap its chances to grab the top pick.
Of course, we’ll also keep you posted on the point of all this — the top talent available in the draft, and where those players might land as we get deeper into the season.
Even if the 2022 NBA Draft doesn’t have quite the star power of the 2021 NBA Draft, it has plenty of talent to excite teams. With college freshmen Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga, Jalen Duren of Memphis, Paolo Banchero of Duke and Caleb Houstan of Michigan plus Jaden Hardy of the G League and Yannick Nzosa of Real Madrid, the top of this year’s lottery has a number of Tier 2 prospects who have Tier 1 upside.
Here's a look at where the 10 worst teams in the NBA stand in their quest for the No. 1 pick in the draft.
1. Orlando Magic
After making the playoffs for two straight years, the Magic went into full rebuilding mode at last season’s trade deadline, sending out their three most established players, Nikola Vučević, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, for young players and three future first-round draft picks. They went 6-22 the rest of the season. Projected over an entire season, that would’ve been the worst record in the NBA.
Magic brass Jeff Weltman and John Hammond know what they are doing. They sold ownership on a two- to three-year rebuild, so Magic fans can expect to stay in the lottery for a while. The Magic were quiet in the offseason with the exception of adding No. 5 pick Jalen Suggs and No. 8 pick Franz Wagner to their young core. Suggs should have an impact right away, and a healthy Jonathan Isaac will also give the Magic a boost, but Orlando is both painfully young and lacking in star power.
They might not finish with the worst record, but look like a lock to finish in the bottom three, giving them a good shot at an even higher draft pick, perhaps No. 1 overall.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder were the worst team in the NBA in the last two months of the season, going just 2-23 in April and May. Their only significant additions this offseason were two lottery picks — Josh Giddey and Tre Mann.
So why aren’t they ranked No. 1? Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has a lot to do with that.
The Thunder went 6-31 when SGA wasn’t playing and 16-19 when he was on the floor. Al Horford also played a role, but SGA was the real catalyst. Now that he’s healthy, he alone could push the Thunder out of the competition for worst record in the league.
3. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons landed the top pick in the draft, Cade Cunningham, and the thinking in Detroit is that Cade’s addition should immediately help a team that lacked any sort of star power last year. However, Cunningham’s summer league performance left enough questions to make you wonder how much he’ll boost the Pistons in the win column this season.
There should be improvement from their 2020 first-round picks — Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart — as well. But we should expect incremental improvement, not a big jump.
Now that “Fade for Cade” has paid off, the Pistons look a lot like a typical rebuilding team. Given how many teams in the East look improved, it’s likely Detroit will be adding another high lottery pick in June.
4. Houston Rockets
The Rockets ended up with the worst record in the NBA last season despite starting 10-9. Of their 17 total wins, 10 came with John Wall and either Christian Wood or Eric Gordon on the floor. The team really cratered when two or more of those veterans were off the floor.
Wood and Gordon are back (Shams recently reported that Wall won’t play for the Rockets this year) with the Rockets this season and if healthy, those two combined with No. 2 pick Jalen Green and three more first-round picks — Alperen Şengün, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher — should make them a more formidable opponent. That’s especially true if Kevin Porter Jr. and Jae’Sean Tate take another big step in their development.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs were another team flirting with the “worst team in the NBA” status last season. And they don’t look a lot better yet. Adding Evan Mobley with the No. 3 pick and Lauri Markkanen via trade provides an infusion of young talent on their front line, but that was offset by the loss of Larry Nance Jr., one of the Cavs’ better players when he was healthy.
This team is young, so growth from Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro should allow them to improve on their 22 wins last season. Mobley has the talent to help, although rookies rarely have a big positive impact on winning.
6. San Antonio Spurs
Status: Playing to win
The Spurs often overachieve thanks to coaching and a great culture. However, this particular team looks very thin on veteran talent. Thaddeus Young and Doug McDermott will help, but the roster has no All-Stars and is loaded with players with four or fewer years of experience.
That means there’s a lot of interesting young talent on the roster, but even with a genius like Gregg Popovich on the sidelines, it’s unlikely we’ll see the Spurs improve from last season, when they were 33-39 and drafted No. 12. It’s more likely that the Spurs will receive their highest draft pick since 1997, when they won the draft lottery and selected Tim Duncan.
7. Sacramento Kings
Status: Playing to win
I think there is a significant gap between the first six teams and the last four on the list. Every team left on this list will be playing for, at the very least, a play-in berth en route to the playoffs. One or two of them might even make it.
The Kings have missed the playoffs the last 15 years. For many of those years, including the past couple, the preseason narrative coming out of Sacramento has been the same — this is the year. Count me as skeptical.
The Kings’ only big offseason addition — lottery pick Davion Mitchell — will certainly help the worst defensive team in the NBA last year. Tristan Thompson and Alex Len might help a bit defensively, too.
But nothing about the Kings says playoff contender in a loaded Western Conference. The Kings fell a little short of the play-in tournament last year, and that looks like where they'll be again.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Status: Playing to win
The Wolves didn’t make any major additions to their roster this summer, but I still think we will see a significant improvement from them this season.
After an abysmal start, the Wolves ended the season 11-13 — they were essentially a .500 squad thanks to a finally healthy roster (Karl-Anthony Towns missed 22 games, D’Angelo Russell 30 and Malik Beasley 35) and a second-half surge from rookie Anthony Edwards (24 ppg after the All-Star break). When Towns, Russell and Edwards played together, the team went 13-11.
I doubt they are a .500 team or better this season, even if everyone stays healthy, unless they somehow manage to land Ben Simmons in a trade. But it’s likely they’ll top last season’s 23 wins — especially if Edwards and second-year forward Jaden McDaniels continue the improvement arc we saw in the second half of the season and Leandro Bolmaro (a 2020 first-round pick who played in Barcelona last year) joins the team.
9. Toronto Raptors
Status: Playing to Win
It’s tough to know where to slate the Raptors. Based on last year’s performance and the loss of Kyle Lowry, this placement seems generous. But the Raptors had the biggest caveat of any team playing last season. They essentially had 72 road games, being unable to play in Toronto because of COVID issues. Just how much that weighed on the team is hard to quantify, but it had to play some role.
On paper you can make an argument that the Raptors will be fine. The team will have 41 home games this year. Goran Dragic (if he stays in Toronto) is a solid replacement for Lowry, and Precious Achiuwa was a nice pickup. Scottie Barnes, the No. 4 pick in the draft, should be able to come in and make an impact defensively right away. And you can make the case that OG Anunoby is still improving as a player.
On the downside, Pascal Siakam had shoulder surgery over the break and might not be available until November or later. If it’s going to be a while until he’s 100%, that would be a huge blow to the Raptors’ playoff chances.
10. Washington Wizards
Status: Playing to Win
The Wizards actually cracked the playoffs last year before losing 4-1 to the 76ers in the first round. Some significant offseason changes make their return questionable.
Russell Westbrook is now a Laker. Spencer Dinwiddie, who was signed to replace him, played just three games for the Nets last season because of injuries and has struggled to stay healthy in his career.
The Wizards made a flurry of other additions — Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Holiday and first round pick Corey Kispert — and are expecting to get back a key player sidelined by injuries last year, Thomas Bryant. But even with a star in Bradley Beal, how far can they go in a Eastern Conference that got significantly better this summer? And if they struggle coming out of the gate, will the pressure to move Beal increase as we get closer to the trade deadline?
Perhaps the Hornets, Bulls, Pelicans or Grizzlies would be better choices for this final spot. But with the expected improvement from the young players on those four teams, I expect them to be a bit better than Washington.
Next four in: Pelicans, Hornets, Bulls, Grizzlies
Interesting piece, Chad. Thanks. I do appreciate what you wrote about Toronto and their unusual mitigating circumstances. But that very paragraph contains within it the reason for my one beef with this.
You wrote: "But the Raptors had the biggest caveat of any team playing last season. They essentially had 72 road games, being unable to play in Toronto because of COVID issues. Just how much that weighed on the team is hard to quantify, but it had to play some role."
Fair enough. But I think it's also clear that two other teams on this list were about as heavily affected by COVID issues as Toronto: San Antonio and Washington. Look at the end of San Antonio's schedule, for instance. Through March 31st, they were 24-21. They finished 9-18 and barely made the play-in round. Did they get bad? No. Did losing Aldridge hurt that much? No. They struggled because of COVID postponements, partly of their own games and partly from other teams (e.g. Memphis). From April 1 through May 16, they played 27 games in 46 days--17 of them on the road. 22 of the 27 were against teams that made the playoffs. The worst was a 12-game stretch over just fifteen days, 10 of which were against playoff teams and only two of which were home games. Washington had similar difficulties, just at different times in the season. Many of the teams that aren't on your likely-lottery list also had significant COVID-related difficulties (e.g. the Celtics), while others didn't (e.g. Phoenix).
So to you (and every basketball writer), I'd recommend that if you're going to base this year's projections on last year's results, you need to consider positive and negative mitigating factors for EVERY TEAM. Either that or don't consider them at all.