Explain One Play Mailbag #10. Play-In losers in Lottery? Consolation pick for losing pick? Final standings?

Can we shoot for the stars and get a golden ticket as we fall?

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Losing the Play-In Tournament and the Lottery?

Many people have asked, Dear Tank Commander, what happens to the losers of the Play-In Tournament? Do they get into the lottery? Asking for a friend.

In short, losers go to the lottery, winners do not.

Here’s what ESPN says:

  • Game 1: The No. 7 team in the standings by winning percentage will host the No. 8 team, with the winner earning the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The losing team gets another chance in Game 3.

  • Game 2: The No. 9 team will host the No. 10 team, with the winner moving on to Game 3. The loser is eliminated and enters the NBA draft lottery.

  • Game 3: The loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup will host the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup, with the victor grabbing the No. 8 seed in the postseason. The loser of Game 3 also enters the lottery.

It’s not clear which lottery seed the losers will get. I assume all lottery teams will be ordered by win record with usual tiebreakers.

Update (12:40pm): To be clear, the “usual tiebreakers” are that teams with the same record have order determined by random drawing. So NO complex tiebreakers like for playoffs with head-to-head record, etc etc.

Let’s consider the case where GSW loses the Play-in. The possibility was raised of enough teams falling out of the play-in to push a non-playoff GSW “out of the lottery”. This is not mathematically possible, because after the play-in, there will be 16 playoff teams and the usual 14 non-playoff lottery teams.

In fact, because the East stinks, their Play-In teams are MIA (32-30), CHA (30-31), IND (29-32), WAS (27-34). Currently, GSW has a better record than all but MIA, so at least one and maybe two teams with worse records than GSW will jump out of the Lottery, which will give GSW a lottery seed one spot better, and possibly two spots better.

The Odds

Here is my calculation of the odds for winning the lottery (getting a Top 4 pick) for each slot.

For context, GSW is (as of Apr 27) #13 and are the lowest play-in seed today (#10 conference team).

With careful, lucky tanking (or bad lineups or no Stephen Curry), GSW could fall, say 4 games in the standings, which would drop them all the way to #8 overall where you have some pretty significant chances at the Top 4.

The Lowest Odds

Even the lowest 2.4% chance makes the lottery worth watching. The least likely lottery wins have been:

  • 1.52%, 1993 ORL. Pick: Chris Webber, who got traded to GSW and as I recall had a long successful and controversy-free career here. Yep.

  • 1.7%, 2008 CHI. Pick: Derrick Rose. They lucked into an MVP.

  • 1.7%. 2014 CLE. Pick: Andrew Wiggins, traded for Kevin Love.

  • 2.8%. 2011 LAC but owned by CLE. Pick: Kyrie Irving. Wow, that LeBron James can’t catch a break, huh? CLE nailing super-long-shot lottery odds twice in four years to roll out the red carpet for LeBron’s rebound relationship after dumping Miami.

There’s possibly a Tank Commander argument for GSW not trying to win the play-in game: hey, we’re going to be roadkill for the #1 or #2 seed, so heck with it, let’s take the lottery ticket for this five star draft. I wrote up my very brief too-soon notes on the 2021 draft here:

But quite frankly… if we can get into the play-in game, I am going to want to win, all utility arguments and Trust The Process be damned.

Losing Our 1st, but a Big Consolation Prize

That loss to DAL might have sealed the deal on GSW not finishing Top 10 in the league, which means they keep their 1st round pick. (Otherwise it would convey to OKC as part of the Kelly Oubre trade.)

But for the record, there is a significant consolation prize if GSW loses their 1st rounder:

  • If GSW finishes Top 10, they lose their own 2021 GSW 1st to OKC, but keep the 2021 MIN 2nd (which today would be #33).

  • If GSW finishes #11 - #30, they keep their own 2021 GSW 1st, but lose the 2021 MIN 2nd to OKC. 

“Threading the needle” means getting a playoff spot while keeping the pick. So threading means keeping a pick that’s #17-#21 and losing the #31-36 pick.

Of course, that’s a downgrade, but not as much as you think, as the top second round picks are very valuable, possible more valuable than the bottom 1st round picks due to the cheaper contracts and lack of contract guarantees. 

Right now #10 in the league is ATL/NYK (with the #21 pick) at 34-28. Our mega-loss to DAL popped them to the #9 spot. GSW themselves are #10 in the West and they are #18 in the league today.

Predicting the Future

I took my best guess at the final Warriors games. First, let’s look at team motivations.

  • MIN should tank but aren’t. Their odds of keeping their pick (40%) are equally maximized at seeds #1 - #3. I explored this in thorough detail from the GSW perspective here. MIN is currently #3 and only 0.5 game ahead of DET in #4 and 3 games ahead of CLE for #6. Falling to #6 drops their Keep odds to 28%.

  • HOU is clearly tanking and might even throw in a discount at Landry’s Seafood. They might be so far ahead for #1 that they don’t mind trying their best, but I assume GSW can take them anyway.

  • OKC is tanking epically, going 2-17 in their last games.

  • UTA and PHX will probably still be in a death struggle for the #1 seed. It might not matter as much as usual for the 1st round, due to the randomness of the Play-In, but it would matter a lot for Western Finals homecourt.

  • MEM will probably be playing for Play-In position.

That leaves the biggest question mark, New Orleans. NOP owns their picks. I don’t know why this team is playing so poorly with a reasonably talented roster. NOP is 3.5 games behind GSW for the last Play-In spot. Between now and the May 3 game against GSW, NOP will go on a 3 games in 4 days road trip to DEN, OKC and MIN. It would be hard to go better than 1-2 there. GSW has a good chance of being 2-0 in the next couple of games. So, probably NOP will be tanking, as they are only 2 games out of the #7 seed (compared to their current #11 seed). But if things break wrong for GSW, the NOP games will be a mini-play-in playoff to get to the Play-In.

To be clear: I don’t think teams tank in the sense that they tell players to lose games. But they might rest their best players and give big minutes to the bench, then let the loaded dice fall as they may.

So here are my projections.

By this model, GSW should end the last 10 games 7-3. The last four games are easily losable, so if GSW gets dangerously close to finishing league #10, then they can tank the last four games, easy-peasy.