NBA draft lottery watch: Bulls gain separation from Hawks in race for ping-pong balls

Nikola Mirotic is set to return for the Bulls but it probably won’t help much. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The rebuilding Hawks largely will depend on the draft to add talent but they have plenty of competition in the race to the bottom of the NBA standings and thus the best odds in the draft lottery. The stakes are high: After the 2018 draft the odds for the team with the worst record winning the lottery decrease dramatically.

Here is my weekly look at the lottery prospects for the five teams with the worst projected records in the latest FiveThirtyEight.com predictions, starting with the worst team first (ties broken by rating):

1. Bulls (3-20)

Projected FiveThirtyEight record: 18-64

The Bulls are gaining separation from the pack in the race for the most ping-pong balls. Their four-game lead in the FiveThirtyEight projected lottery standings is the largest of any team this season. The Bulls have lost 10 games in a row and now are projected to finish with an average point differential (-.8.7) that’s two points worse than any other team. After Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers, in which the Bulls blew a 17-point lead, coach Fred Hoiberg said: “The big message to our team is if we continue to play with that type of effort, if we continue to play the right way, and unselfish, we’re going to start winning games.” The Bulls have the worst roster in the league so that’s doubtful.

Significant injuries: Nikola Mirotic is set to make his season debut tonight after sitting out because of injuries sustained in a fight with teammate Bobby Portis. Zach LaVine (knee) isn’t expected back anytime soon.

Up next: at Hornets (9-14) tonight, vs. Knicks (12-12) Sat., vs. Celtics (22-4) Mon, vs. Jazz (13-13) Wed.

2. Hawks (5-19)

FiveThirtyEight projected record: 22-60

The Hawks’ FiveThirtyEight projected record is four games worse than the preseason prediction. They’ve been unlucky with injuries and their expected record, based on point differential, is 8-16. The Hawks are a significantly better team than the Bulls but their injuries mean they have a chance to keep pace in the lottery standings.

Significant injuries: The big rotation has been decimated: Dewayne Dedmon (leg), John Collins (shoulder) and Mike Muscala (ankle) remain out. Dedmon and Collins are not expected to return within the next week, and coach Mike Budenholzer has stopped giving updates on Muscala’s lingering injury.

Up next: vs. Magic (11-15) Sat, at Knicks (12-12) Sun., at Cavs (18-7) Tues, vs. Pistons (14-1) Thurs.

3. Kings (6-15)

Projected FiveThirtyEight record: 24-58

The Kings opened their latest East trip with a 107-106 victory at the Bulls, the lost to the Bucks and Cavaliers. I’ve noted before how coach Kings Dave Joerger has aided the tanking by not playing his best players for long stretches of games. And Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee notes an oddity produced by some of Joerger’s lineup decisions: “Sacramento is the only team to split minutes evenly between starters and reserves, on average. The bench entered Thursday averaging league highs of 49.8 points and 24 minutes per game.”

Significant injuries: Willie Cauley-Stein (back) isn’t on the road trip but is expected to return soon.

Up next: at Pelicans (13-13) tonight, vs. Raptors (15-7) Sun, vs. Suns (9-18) Tues., at Timberwolves (15-11) Thurs.

4. Suns (9-18)

Projected FiveThirtyEight record: 27-55

After Eric Bledsoe talked his way out of Phoenix, the Suns essentially were left with two solid veterans (Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley), promising prospect Devin Booker and a bunch of rookies and first-year players. Now Booker is out with an adductor injury. But the Suns haven’t bought out Greg Monroe, who was acquired in the Gordon trade, and he’s their starting center. If he stays with the team for much longer that makes it unlikely the Suns will gain much ground in the lottery standings.

Significant injuries: Booker is expected to sit out until the end of the month.

Up Next: vs. Spurs (17-8) Sat., at Kings (7-17) Tues., vs. Raptors (15-7) Wed.

5. Mavericks (7-18)

Projected FiveThirtyEight record: 30-52

That the fifth-worst team is projected to win 30 games by FiveThirtyEight indicates that the bad NBA teams this season may not be as terrible as recent years. The Mavericks have played better since their 2-14 start. One development to key an eye on: Nerlens Noel is scheduled for thumb surgery today. Noel has an expiring contract and had fallen out of Rick Carlisle’s rotation. The Mavs want the 2013 No. 6 overall draft pick to get back on the court to generate some trade value, while Noel will want to prove his worth before hitting free agency.

Significant injuries: Noel is out four to six weeks. Dorian Finney-Smith (quad) is expected to miss at least another week. Seth Curry (leg) has been out since the preseason.

Up next: at Bucks (13-1) tonight, at Timberwolves (15-11) Sun., vs. Spurs (17-8) Tues., at Warriors (20-6) Thurs.

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