Lottery on the line as Pistons, Timberwolves play out season

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Tuesday’s matchup between the Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves won’t have one iota of impact on the playoff standings. Both teams are guaranteed of having a losing record for the second straight season, and their players can start making offseason workout plans and short vacation trips after Sunday’s regular-season finales.

There’s something bigger at stake for both teams.

Minnesota's Anthony Edwards.

The outcome will play a big part in determining where each team finishes in terms of the worst records in the league, which factors into the final odds entering the draft lottery on June 22. The teams with the three worst records will have the best odds (14%) of getting the No. 1 pick.

Entering Tuesday’s showdown, the Pistons have the second-worst record at 20-49 and the Timberwolves (21-47) are tied for fourth, where the odds to get the No. 1 pick drop to 10.7%. Minnesota has something bigger at stake, though. After the lottery, if the Timberwolves’ pick falls out of the top three, it will be conveyed to the Golden State Warriors.

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Their precarious situation is of their own doing.

The Timberwolves have had a spirited finish to the season, including a four-game win streak at the end of April. That included back-to-back victories over the Utah Jazz — who have the best record in the Western Conference — as well as one over the league-worst Houston Rockets, and one over the aforementioned Warriors.

Although losing would improve their odds, the Timberwolves, behind last year’s No. 1 pick, Anthony Edwards, as well as Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, have found a nice groove and they’ve shown momentum that they can build on as they head into next season.

"Winning is a lot more fun," Wolves coach Chris Finch told reporters. "So when winning is fun everything is a lot easier reinforce what you've been trying to sell because the guys can see it working a little bit." 

On Sunday night, they trounced the Orlando Magic, moving into a tie with the Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers at 21-47. It’ll make for an intriguing finish to the season for the Timberwolves, who have made the playoffs just once (2018) in the last 17 years.

For the Pistons, it’s also an important game for their draft outlook. They are one game worse than the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-48), who have lost seven straight games and appear to be hurtling toward a bottom-three record. There’s another half-game that separates the three-team gridlock of the Cavs, Magic and Timberwolves, so the outcomes in the final week will be critical in how the final standings look.

Regardless of the outcome, the lottery drawing can change the draft order significantly. Even if Minnesota finishes outside of the three worst records, they could jump back into that group — and retain its pick. Likewise, even if the Pistons finish in the bottom three, they could end up with a lower pick, as they did last season, when they had the fifth-worst record but dropped two spots and selected Killian Hayes with the seventh pick.

The remainder of the schedule isn’t favorable for the Pistons to get on any kind of winning streak. They face the Denver Nuggets (44-24), who are vying for the third or fourth playoff seed, on Friday, and finish against the Miami Heat, who are battling for the fifth seed — and to stay out of the play-in games — in the finale on Sunday afternoon.

All together now

In recent games, the Pistons have had some of their veterans back in the lineup, including Saturday’s loss at Philadelphia, but they’re committed to giving their young players more of the playing time. In Sunday’s loss to the Bulls, they had a breakout game from Hayes, who had 21 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.

“We have a great future. We’re a fun team and we love playing with each other,” Hayes said Sunday. “We love sharing the ball and seeing each other succeed. It’s a fun team. I love my teammates and we have a bright future.”

That cohesiveness is starting to show, with four rookies leading the team in scoring on Sunday and showing that there’s more to the future than just hope. Hayes, in particular, is starting to find a good rhythm, especially in working with the rest of the young core.

“I’m just playing with a clear mind, playing free and not overthinking things. Just go with the flow and have fun on the court,” Hayes said. “That was one of my issues, especially at the start, just overthinking things. All the coaches and my teammates are just telling me to be me and think freely out there.”

Timberwolves at Pistons

►Tipoff: 8 Tuesday, Little Caesars Arena

►TV/radio: BSD/950

►Outlook: The Pistons (20-49) have lost two straight and nine of their last 11 games overall. They’ve been staying close in recent games, but with most of their young players logging heavy minutes, they haven’t had many strong finishes to games.