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Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder game preview

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder wrap up their season series tonight. It’s a quick end to a four-game set between two teams expected to be firmly in the lottery by season’s end.

Instead of talking about the game, which is just a rehash of a game we’ve seen three times already, I wanted to spend this time talking about the lottery. Because I think there are some misconceptions among Rockets fans, and I’d like to clear those up.

Misconception #1: With the new lottery system, it doesn’t matter where you finish. Everyone has the same odds.

This is just patently false. The bottom 3 teams all have the best chance (14%) to get the first overall pick. There’s still value there.

Once you fall out of the bottom 5, your odds go into the single digits of obtaining the top pick.

Misconception #2: So there’s no difference between having the worst and third-worst record.

Again, false. While the bottom 3 teams all have a 14% chance of landing the top pick, there is still the matter of dropping in the order. The furthest a team can drop is four spots. So the worst team in the NBA knows that it will be picking in the top 5. The third-worst team knows it will be picking in the top 7.

If you don’t think this is important, then we can’t be friends.

Misconception #3: It’s fine to end up with a pick in the middle of the lottery (around #7) if the young guys are showing progress.

We can split hairs on this one, but I disagree. Look no further than the Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons, two teams that have been stuck in lottery hell for years.

The Kings have not made the playoffs since 2006. Since then, they have drafted once (ONCE!) in the top 3. And because the draft is a crapshoot, they took Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Their other picks during that time, again despite being bad, have been 4, 5 (twice), 6, 7 (twice), 8, 10, and 12. And last I check, the Kings are bad once again and would need an unexpected run to make the playoffs.

From 2002-2008, the Pistons made it to six straight Eastern Conference Finals and won an NBA title in 2004. Since then, they have made the playoffs a total of three times and have never made it out of the first round. In fact, they were swept in all three of those series. So if you’re keeping track at home, the Pistons have not won a playoff game since May 26, 2008. That’s almost 5,000 days ago.

And guess where Detroit has drafted in those years before landing the #1 overall pick this summer? That would be 7 (twice), 8 (three times), 9, and 12. And because the draft is a crapshoot, the best player they landed in that bunch was Andre Drummond. After that, there’s a decent talent drop before we hit Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as their second-best pick.

Looking at their records, there are lot of seasons in which these two teams won between 27-40 games (Sacramento here and Detroit here). That’s the hell zone, because it keeps you away from the talent and forces you to hope for a lucky bounce of the lottery balls. 27-40 win seasons gets players traded and coaches and GMs fired just as quickly as 20-win seasons do. Limbo is death in the NBA.

I know that for some of you, I’m preaching to the choir. For others, you don’t really care about the future and just want to see the Rockets win games no matter what because they’re your favorite team (a totally valid outlook!). I just think that the “Let’s win some games and develop the youth” is a strategy that leads to middling seasons. And the whole point of the NBA is to win a championship.

When you finish last, you’re picking in the top 5. When you finish 5th-worst, you’re picking in the top 9. Trae Young was drafted at #5 overall in 2018. Do you remember who went #9?

Exactly.

Tip-off is at 7pm CT on AT&T SportsNet Southwest