When it's too late to Brick For Vic
Are the Utah Jazz, who entered the week at 12-6, too good now to find a pathway to the No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA Draft? History says very likely "yes"
On this Newsletter Tuesday, I feel compelled to admit something that I'm not sure has ever been uttered by a national NBA scribe who could rightly be admonished for (occasionally) paying insufficient attention to so-called smaller markets:
I can't stop thinking about the Utah Jazz.
This is the sixth week of the 2022-23 regular season and the Jazz awoke Monday with a West-leading record of 12-6. They couldn’t beat the Paul George-less LA Clippers on Monday night without their own injured Mike Conley, but let's fixate on that 12-6 mark and the idea discussed countless times since Utah’s offseason trades of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell: Aren't the Jazz supposed to be tanking for Victor Wembanyama?
What if I told you that NBA history suggests it's almost mathematically impossible for them to tank now?
Soccer-minded readers hopefully took note of my announcement last week that I'm collaborating with The Sporting News on some World Cup cameo coverage to see if my footy-writing hat still fits my gargantuan head. The bonus plan stemming from that collaboration is that it reunites me, at least for the moment, with TSN’s NBA-loving assistant managing editor Micah Adams, whose peerless research work in a past life as part of ESPN's Stats & Info team always made me look smarter than I really was.
So I've naturally been unable to resist talking to Micah a fair bit about the Jazz, in between World Cup convos, and he inevitably dug up some tremendous background to support my gut feel that it would be an NBA first now if Utah conspired to fall shy of 30 wins after the start it had through 18 games.
As confirmed by Adams' research: Since 1983-84, when the NBA expanded its playoff format to eight teams per conference, 111 teams have started precisely at 12-6.
No less than 101 of those 111 reached the playoffs.
The 10 that fell short, furthermore, won at least 33 games ... while combining to win an average of 39 games. With even a total as low as 33 wins, it would take something stronger than mere good luck for #thisjazz to win the No. 1 overall pick in the lottery in May and have a clear shot at drafting Wembanyama.
The sense I get from afar is that Jazz fans are so smitten with how much rookie coach Will Hardy is getting out of Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton and Co. that they would rather see them play it out than try to force a Wemby-first strategy by trading away more talent. The recent rumbles that the Jazz continue to express trade interest in Atlanta’s John Collins would suggest that management feels the same way.
If such presumptions are wrong and the desire to tank remains strong, bear in mind that no team since the inception of the draft lottery in 1985 has finished with higher than the No. 2 overall pick after a 12-6 start.
The 2018-19 Memphis Grizzlies are that outlier. That Grizz team started 12-6 but finished 33-49 after offloading Marc Gasol, Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green at the trade deadline. They entered the lottery with the eighth-best odds for the No. 1 overall pick (6%) and excitedly vaulted to No. 2 overall to win the opportunity to draft Ja Morant.
That, of course, was the first draft to feature the NBA’s flattened lottery odds, which should make Cinderella lottery leaps like the Memphis exception more possible going forward. The teams with the three worst records in the league this season, remember, will possess only a 14% shot at the top pick in June ... compared to the old system that gave the team with the worst record a 25% shot at No. 1. So it is at least more conceivable in the future that a 30-win team or two finds lottery glory.
For now, though, those Grizzlies are indeed the only squad #thisleague has ever seen to start 12-6 and come away with a top-five pick in June. Also bear in mind that the average win total for teams that start 12-6, once again, is 39. That will almost certainly land at the low end of the lottery odds every time.
Here are the 10 teams since 1983-84 to open up 12-6 and miss the NBA postseason:
2018-19 Memphis Grizzlies
Drafted: Ja Morant at No. 2
2017-18 Detroit Pistons
Drafted: No pick
2005-06 Minnesota Timberwolves
Drafted: Brandon Roy at No. 6 but sent him to Portland in a draft-night deal for No. 7 Randy Foye.
2005-06 Golden State Warriors
Drafted: Patrick O’Bryant at No. 9
2004-05 Minnesota Timberwolves
Drafted: Rashad McCants at No. 14
2004-05 Cleveland Cavaliers
Drafted: No pick ... but, luckily for them, already had a certain LeBron James on the roster.
2004-05 Orlando Magic
Drafted: Fran Vázquez at No. 11 ... but Vázquez infamously never came to the NBA.
1997-98 Orlando Magic
Drafted: Michael Doleac at No. 12
1996-97 Cleveland Cavaliers
Drafted: Derek Anderson at No. 13
1989-90 Atlanta Hawks
Drafted: Rumeal Robinson at No. 10
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eBay Purchase of the Month
For the back half of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, there is pretty much nothing I wanted to hold more than a wax pack of trading cards. Or better yet: Multiple packs.
The jolt of excitement I get in adulthood from coming across modern-day cards, to be honest, isn't far off that feeling, but I'm also frankly intimidated by the scope of the hobby in 2022 and the absolute glut of product in the marketplace today. It's hard, when you've been away from the front lines for so long, to know what to buy and how to keep track of all the various sets, brands, most coveted cards, etc., in circulation.
That's why, in my old age, I find myself hunting down cards I wished I had as a kid or cards that simply mean a lot to me personally for whatever reason — Cal State Fullerton ties are often a motivator — as opposed to trying to figure out which specific Giannis or Luka or Zion that I should be stockpiling.
That's obviously nowhere close to the most lucrative collection strategy, or an advisable one, but it's what works for me as a fiftysomething trying to get a handle on contemporary collecting.
In the name of pure memorabilia joy, then, you can probably understand my giddiness when I discovered that Topps quickly issued a Kevin De Bruyne card from Manchester City's summer tour in the United States in July. I don't even remember exactly how I became aware of this card, but I bought three of them as soon as I found them on eBay, because this is a priceless picture of KDB after one of his goals in the NRG Stadium victory over Club América that I attended with my 16-year old.
Make it one for my collection, one for Aaron's and one to display proudly on my desk in the home office as a constant reminder of the glorious first leg from a summer of unforgettable travel with my son.
Thank you, Topps!
Tonight marks the first time Brooklyn's Ben Simmons will play in Philadelphia since his last appearance there as a Sixer: Game 7 of Philly's second-round exit to Atlanta in the 2021 playoffs ... 520 days ago on June 20, 2021. The Sixers' three best players — Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey — are all out with foot injuries. My former ESPN teammate Ramona Shelburne has a preview.
(Editor’s Note: We were way off on this number in the 800s initially until the mistake was helpfully spotted by reader John Steichen.)
Fun footnote to our lead item on Utah and its 12-6 start. My pal @MicahAdams13 points out that only one team in league history has started better than 12-6 through 18 games since 1983-84 and then failed to reach the playoffs. That would be the Jazz in 2010-11 in the legendary Jerry Sloan's final season on Utah's bench.
From the same genre as the Utah team we devoted so much space to above ... check out the Indiana Pacers, people, and what they think of all of us outsiders expecting them to tank:
The Lakers, entering Tuesday's play, were still last in the league in 3-point shooting at 31.2% ... but the No. 29 Knicks (31.6%), No. 28 Hornets (31.9%) and No. 27 Hawks (32.0%) don't have much of a cushion as L.A. picks up its play (improving to 5-10 with three consecutive wins over the sub-.500 trio of Brooklyn, Detroit and San Antonio).
The Warriors finally did pick up a road win in Houston, but the point from my tweet on the matter last week about the shocking nature of Golden State’s struggles away from Chase Center still stands:
Brooklyn's Kevin Durant has racked up seven technical fouls in just 17 games ... putting him on pace for 34 Ts if Durant plays all 82 games. A one-game suspension is assessed by the NBA for every other technical foul (No. 16, 18, 20, 22, etc.) after a player reaches 16. Golden State's Draymond Green and Dallas' Luka Dončić are next in line with six and five techs, respectively.
There wouldn't have even been a #LadderGate controversy in Philadelphia on Friday night if Giannis Antetokounmpo hadn't shot 4-for-15 from the free-throw line in the Bucks' road defeat. It's perhaps the most glaring source of concern amid Milwaukee's impressive 12-4 start without the still-recovering-from-wrist-surgery Khris Middleton: After shooting 72.2% from the stripe last season, Giannis is down to 57.5% this season.
There's a lot from the aforementioned Adams in this newsletter, but I can't help it … he just knows how to research and tweet the stuff I'm looking for. Check out this gem about the Kings, who have rebounded from an 0-4 start with a 9-2 surge that has raised hopes in Sactown for the club's first playoff berth since, well, a certain social media app that we all rely on heavily — and which has been in the news a LOT lately — came into existence:
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"The recent rumbles that the Jazz continue to express trade interest in Atlanta’s John Collins" love the rumblingsl
Is there a chance Ainge was never trying to “tank,” but media just looked at the trades, looked at the Cs/Brooklyn trade and made assumptions? Or did Ainge really just fall into a surprise here? It’s wild not just how good the Jazz are but how fun they are.