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Karma Police 2018: Lottery justice for the NBA’s sorriest teams (plus BOS/PHI), part 1

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They have been weighed. They have been measured. And they have been found wanting.

Julie Jacobson/AP Photo

Welcome to the semi-annual Karma Police NBA Lottery rankings! Typically Knick fans spend lottery night resigned to knowing New York won’t move up and processing our feelings about some other team’s or teams’ luck. So here’s your primer for this Tuesday’s lottery, divided into two parts and three levels of differing emotions. Today in part one, we’ll look at which results could provoke the first of those emotions.

DEFCON 3: Resignation

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (22-60)

No. 1 pick odds: 19.9%
Top-three odds: 55.8%

For the record: Led by new Knick coach David Fizdale, Memphis started out 5-1 last year. Mike Conley got hurt, Fiz and Marc Gasol clashed, the coach was canned, and eventually the Grizzlies were 18-31. Nothing to write home about, but no reason to hang their heads in shame, either.

Then Memphis went on to lose 29 of their last 33 games in a shameless, months-long stumblebum. Ever hear of Kobi Simmons? Ivan Rabb? Rolo Tomasi? All three were starting down the stretch for the Grizz. Tomasi is actually from L.A. Confidential. The fact that you didn’t flinch reading his name tells you all you need to know about how hardcore tanking has become.

I’ve always liked Tennessee. I don’t know why. In the 1980s there was a TV commercial that advertised some offer that was valid in 49 states. The spot always ended with the narrator saying “Sorry, Tennessee!” Maybe it started then. I liked Pat Summit and Chamique Holdsclaw and followed the Tennessee women’s team. The first time I visited the Volunteer State and entered a gas station and heard the accent I was in ecstasy. I like that the Grizzlies play in a pyramid. Memphis will never, ever attract a superstar in free agency. I’m OK if they win the lottery.

Judgment: Memphis winning the lottery would not even be a blip on my moral radar.

ORLANDO MAGIC (25-57)

No. 1 pick odds: 8.8%
Top-three odds: 29.1%

For the record: Orlando jumped out of the gates 8-4. Their next 21 games featured 3 wins and a pair of 9-game losing streaks, not to be confused with a pair of 7-game losing streaks later in the season. They basically sucked for 70 games. That’s not tanking. In tanking there is a rise, or at least an equilibrium, followed by a fall. The Magic tripped right out of the blocks and spent the rest of season spontaneously combusting.

My better angels imagine what it must feel like suffering so many years of piss-poor basketball by a team that’s mostly whiffed on four top-6 picks the past five years. My bitterer angels remember how obnoxious the Magic’s P.A. announcer and fans are whenever the team is any good and feel that’s the sort of evil you bury beneath an ocean of time and never let see the light of day again.

Judgment: Orlando winning the lottery would be like a dog that chases cars finally catching one. It wouldn’t know what to do with it.

SACRAMENTO KINGS (27-55)

No. 1 pick odds: 5.3%
Top-three odds: 18.3%

For the record: Sacramento’s tank was one of quality, not quantity. Their 55 losses are pedestrian compared to some other lottery teams. They had a few slumps during the year, but nothing that stands out. What does stand out is how often the Kings got blown out. A lot. Nearly half their defeats (26) were by 15+ points. As if that isn’t bad enough, only once all season did Sacramento win a game by that margin, and that came against a tanking Atlanta team plummeting like Icarus toward his watery grave.

Judgment: Sacramento winning the lottery would be like Trump “winning” the presidency. You know the worst outcome your imagination can create will pale before the absurdity of the spectacle to follow. You know you can’t stop reality from being real. Still. That doesn’t make it any easier to see it burn. Whomever the Kings draft, something’ll go wrong. Imagine the Knicks run by an even loopier activist owner. What can there be but ashes? Rise, Sacramento.

DETROIT PISTONS (39-43)

No. 1 pick odds: 0.7%
Top-three odds: 2.5%

For the record: If the Pistons move to a top-three spot, they keep the pick; otherwise it belongs to the Clippers. Last season their performance was an inverted bell curve: in their first 13 games they were 10-3 and in their final 13 they were 9-4. But the rest of the year they were 20-36. Blake Griffin has been added and the hotter Van Gundy brother has been removed. Detroit doesn’t have cap space to add any meaningful talent, and as talented as Griffin and Andre Drummond are, their ceiling is limited, even if Reggie Jackson returns to optimum form.

The gods respect teams that do their best, even in the face of hopelessness. Winning a top-three pick would make the open coaching position and the Pistons’ prospects a lot more exciting.

Judgment: Detroit winning the lottery would be like when Frodo offered Galadriel the ring: an unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that lets your imagination run to some pretty wild places, but narratively, looking at the big picture, it wouldn’t really add up.

DENVER NUGGETS (46-36)

No. 1 pick odds: 0.5%
Top-three odds: 1.8%

For the record: The summer before I started fifth grade, my family moved from Long Island to Rochester. A few months after school started I was informed that I was being entered into the E.S.P. program. I didn’t take the news well, since in my old school E.S.P. was the program for English-second-language learners, and English was my first language. In my new school, E.S.P. was a program for the most promising students (in my old school it was M.A.L., which literally stood for “More Able Learners.” The 1980s were not about sensitivity).

One day a friend and I found a stack of floppy disks in a supply closet and, as luck would have it, a magnet. My friend spent 15 minutes ruining all the floppy disks with the magnet while I soaked in the spectacle. The closet door opened and there stood Mrs. Frank, the E.S.P. teacher, staring at us like it was the end of “Lord of the Flies” and she’d just landed on the island and found us naked and bloodied. We both got in trouble, despite me pleading my innocence — after all, I hadn’t magnetized a single disk. Why was I in trouble?

“Because you were there,” Mrs. Frank said. “Sometimes that’s enough.”

Denver made it to overtime of game 82 before being eliminated from playoff contention. The Nuggets are light years removed from most of the aimless trainwrecks in this lottery. But they’re here anyway. Sometimes that’s enough.

Judgment: Denver winning the lottery would be like the already-rich getting way the hell richer.

That’s all for part one. Tomorrow we’ll go over the rest of the would-be lucksters, including the karmic case for the Knicks.