A playoff berth is iffy, but chances of a high pick are low

Optimism runs rampant after a big victory, and the Trail Blazers have had few this season as big as Wednesday's 92-79 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

But Minnesota, loser of four of its past six games, was playing on the second of back-to-back nights. The Timberwolves, who have scored fewer than 80 points in three of the losses, are struggling to find themselves as they try to add several players just off the injured list into the rotation.

As encouraging as Portland's performance was, perspective is necessary. The Blazers are on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

Look at the record Ñ 31-33 going into tonight's matchup with Sacramento at the Rose Garden.

Look at the standings Ñ Portland is 10th in the Western Conference, and only eight teams make the playoffs.

Look at the schedule the next week Ñ the Kings tonight, followed by road dates at Minnesota, Milwaukee and Indiana. A 31-37 mark entering the final month of the regular season is not out of the question.

Look at the season series with Denver Ñ the Nuggets are 3-0 against the Blazers, with a final meeting in Denver on April 10. If the teams tie for eighth place, Denver wins the tiebreaker and advances.

How the balls bounce

It is not unreasonable to conclude that Portland's 21-year playoff run will end this spring. Or that if the Blazers manage to squeeze past Denver into the eighth spot, the Blazers will take it in the shorts against Sacramento in the first round.

In the past two weeks, there have been suggestions that coach Maurice Cheeks ought to ease off the throttle, give the youngsters on the bench more playing time, tank it a little bit in order to get a more advantageous position in the lottery for the June 24 NBA draft.

Careful what you wish for.

Teams that fail to make the playoffs, but aren't among the teams with the worst records, rarely get high enough in the draft to make a difference.

Beginning in 1986, the lottery has determined the order of selection for the first three teams only. The remaining nonplayoff teams select in inverse order of their regular-season records. The team with the NBA's worst record is assured of picking no lower than fourth, the team with the second-worst record no lower than fifth and so on.

Since 1994, a system has been in place that increases the probability that the teams with the worst records will get higher picks. Out of 1,000 chances Ñ the league uses pingpong balls Ñ the worst team gets 250, or 25 percent. The second-worst team gets 200, or 20 percent. It goes down to the 13th team getting five chances, or 0.5 percent.

Some lucky breaks

Occasionally, a team with one of the better records breaks through. It happened in 1993, when Orlando Ñ at 41-41 tied for the 12th-worst record Ñ landed the first pick. The Magic chose Chris Webber, who was soon traded to Golden State in the Penny Hardaway deal.

It happened in 1990, when Seattle Ñ 41-41 and tied for 10th worst Ñ got the No. 2 pick and selected Gary Payton. That one worked out pretty well for the Sonics.

In 1999, the lockout-shortened season, Charlotte finished with the 12th-worst record (26-24) but earned the No. 3 draft spot, taking Baron Davis.

But those are rare occurrences. If the regular season ended today, the Blazers would be out of the playoffs and would have the No. 12 pick in the draft. Since 1995, the No. 12 teams have wound up drafting 12th eight times and 13th once. We are talking about players such as Cherokee Parks, Vitaly Potapenko, Austin Croshere, Mike Doleac, Aleksandar Radojevic and Etan Thomas Ñ hardly marquee players.

'The lottery is so weighted in favor of the teams at the bottom of the standings, it is awfully hard to get lucky enough to get one of the top three picks in the draft,' Portland President Steve Patterson says. 'You have some anomalies, but only once in awhile.

'I prefer not to be thinking about enhancing our draft position by doing poorly. I want to be in the playoffs. Everybody within our organization wants to have as competitive a team as we can. Given the changes we have gone through this year, it is going to be tough to make (the postseason), but we want to make it.'

Cheeks feels much the same way.

'Right now, we are playing to win games,' he says. 'If it gets to the point where we are out of the playoff race, then we may have to look at it a little more. We are not there yet.'


Fans and media in Philadelphia continue to speculate that Cheeks will be one of the prime candidates to coach the 76ers after this season. Interim coach Chris Ford replaced Randy Ayers when Ayers was fired last month, and there are no assurances Ford will be back. Cheeks, who has two years left on his Portland contract after this season, gets huffy when asked if he would like the opportunity to talk with the 76ers, should they come calling this summer. 'I am not going to talk about Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Philadelphia when we are trying to win games in Portland,' he says. 'I am happy here. I am concentrating on this season of Trail Blazer basketball.'

Patterson says if Philadelphia beckoned, he would not allow Cheeks to interview. 'It is a matter of company policy,' Patterson says. 'If it is a lateral move and a coach has a guaranteed contract, he gives up that kind of flexibility. Mo is our coach. We are happy to have him here. He is happy to be here. The key for us is winning games and not to speculate on what may or may not transpire in Philadelphia.'

Minnesota coach Flip Saunders concurs that it is too early for Blazer fans to start thinking lottery. 'When they made the changes, I thought the Blazers were going to make a strong run,' Saunders says. 'I thought they had really improved themselves defensively with Theo (Ratliff). They have been up and down, but they can be good. They have 18 games left, and every game becomes huge.'

Until 1984, the teams with the worst record in each conference drafted first and second, with a coin flip determining the order. Portland has some experience with that. In 1972, the Blazers, with the worst record in the West, correctly called heads on a coin flip with Buffalo. Portland chose LaRue Martin. The Braves got Bob McAdoo, who said he wouldn't play for the 'chump change' the Blazers were offering. É In 1984, the Blazers Ñ who had secured Indiana's No. 1 pick Ñ had a coin flip with Houston. Portland called tails; the flip landed heads. The Rockets chose Hakeem Olajuwon. The Blazers took Sam Bowie. Chicago, drafting third, took a tongue-wagging shooting guard out of North Carolina, and never regretted it much.

Patterson's father, Ray, won three coin flips Ñ with Milwaukee in 1969, getting Lew Alcindor (Phoenix took Neal Walk); with Houston in 1983, getting Ralph Sampson; and with the Rockets again in 1984, landing Olajuwon. 'I remember after winning the flip in 1983, my father coming out of the league meetings laughing,' Steve Patterson says. 'Pat Williams (former Philadelphia GM) wanted to get rid of the coin flip, and Dad said, 'I know we are not bad enough to be in the coin flip again next year.' ' You never know.

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