I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but I also didn't expect the San Antonio Spurs' fall to be this drastic. In the midst of a five-game losing streak that included two overtime losses, San Antonio is now clinging to a 1.5 game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans.
In late March, I wrote about how the Spurs were destined for the play-in tournament. At the time, they were 22-17 while the Pelicans and Thunder were sitting at 17-24. It's starting to look like I was naive at the time, as the standings have suddenly tightened to this:
10. San Antonio Spurs: 31-34
11. New Orleans Pelicans: 30-36 (1.5 GB)
12. Sacramento Kings: 29-37 (2.5 GB)
With seven games remaining, the Spurs have the second-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. The Pelicans have the sixth-toughest while the Sacramento Kings have the 20th-toughest. Basically, the end of the season is going to be a free-for-all for the last play-in spot.
Given the loss of Derrick White and an insane schedule in which the Spurs end the season with four games in five nights, the big question here is: Is it even worth it for the Spurs to make the play-in tournament? What about the playoffs? Won't that affect the team's upcoming NBA Draft pick? While the first two questions are subjective (I happen to say yes to both), the last question is answerable.
How does a play-in or playoff spot affect the San Antonio Spurs' draft pick?
You might be curious as to why I think a play-in tournament spot is worth it. In short, it doesn't make a huge difference when it comes to where the Spurs draft in the first round this year. I believe any play-in or postseason experience, no matter how small, can only help a team with a blossoming young core set to take the reins next season.
The 2021 NBA Draft class also promises to be one of the deepest in years, and there are multiple guys who can make an immediate impact in any part of the first round. Potential superstars like Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, and Jonathan Kuminga will be long gone by the time the Spurs draft anyway unless they dramatically move up in the lottery selection, which is highly unlikely.
Here's how everything breaks down regarding this year's NBA Draft. The teams that finish after 10th in both conferences automatically get a spot in the draft lottery, taking up 10 of the 14 available spots. The other four will come from the eight seeds involved in the play-in tournament. Here's a hypothetical to show how that would work:
The Spurs finish 10th and play the Golden State Warriors in the 9/10 matchup. If they lose, they enter the lottery. If they win, they play the Memphis Grizzlies, who lost the 7/8 game. If they lose that game, they enter the lottery. If they manage to win, they'd make the postseason and be treated as the eighth seed when it comes to draft order (meaning outside of the top 14 lottery picks).
Essentially, the difference between where the Spurs draft in either scenario in which they still miss the playoffs is minimal. There doesn't seem to be data made available by the NBA that shows if losing in one game or another increases draft odds. Why not at least get the young guys some semi-pressure-packed experience?
Making the playoffs would be a different story when it comes to draft order, as it would guarantee they aren't thrown into the lottery. That means there's no chance to get lucky and move up a few spots, which is why I understand those who think missing this year's playoffs is best for the future of the team.
It's going to be a photo finish for 10th place in the Western Conference, even if the Spurs are stumbling to the finish line. However the end of the season plays out, it's going to be on the front office to make the most of an offseason full of possibilities.