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The Houston Rockets (16-54) have already clinched the NBA’s worst record, along with all of the associated draft lottery odds. However, with the 2020-21 season now in its final weekend, many variables remain that could influence Houston’s eventual first-round draft picks.
The primary teams to focus on are Miami (39-31), Portland (41-30) and Milwaukee (45-25). As of now, the Heat would be at the No. 18 or No. 19 slot in the first round (depending on a random draw), while the Trail Blazers would be at No. 22 and the Bucks at No. 24.
Why are these three teams important to watch? Here’s a refresher:
Milwaukee: Houston owns its 2021 first-round draft pick.
Portland: Houston owns its 2021 first-round draft pick, lottery protected.
Miami: If Houston does not land in the draft lottery’s top four (a 47.9% chance), Oklahoma City will swap Miami’s first-round selection for that of the Rockets
Once the regular season concludes on Sunday, May 16, any ties in the draft order will be broken by random draw. The usual tiebreakers for playoff seeding, such as head-to-head records, will not factor in.
With Milwaukee and Miami, the calculus is simple. The lower those teams are in the standings, the better for the Rockets. Right now, the Bucks are only a game behind Denver and Brooklyn. With two games left, the Heat are within two games (in either direction) of Golden State, Atlanta, New York, Portland, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
In Thursday’s results, Portland fell back to No. 6 in the West with a close loss at Phoenix. The Blazers were the only team in the competitive range (No. 17 to No. 26), as it pertains to Houston’s potential first-round draft picks, to lose. That loss also drops Portland to only one game ahead of the defending NBA champion Lakers, who are at No. 7 in the West.
Hypothetically, if the Lakers jumped Portland, the Blazers would have to win a game in the West play-in tournament to qualify for the playoffs. If they do not, their draft pick obligation to the Rockets rolls over to 2022.
That makes it a risk-reward balance, in terms of rooting interests for Houston fans. If Portland falls to No. 7, their 2021 pick moves slightly higher in the order, relative to being at No. 5 or No. 6. However, that also brings in some risk of the pick not conveying at all this year, thanks to the play-in tournament. So, in terms of who to cheer for, it depends in part on how much of that risk each person is willing to accept.
For Friday’s games, here’s our preferences for each pick:
Miami: Cheer for Warriors over Pelicans
Why: There’s still a shot that Golden State could tie Miami, if they win out and the Heat lose out.
Milwaukee: Cheer for Nuggets over Pistons
Why: Denver is only one game up on Milwaukee.
Portland: Cheer for Mavericks over Raptors
Why: With a win, Dallas can move one game in front of Portland with only one game left, clinching at least a tie.
We’ll post a new version of this guide each day during the final weekend of the NBA’s 2020-21 regular season. Stay tuned!