Last month a Toronto Sun columnist declared that "the Raptors need to lose, lose early and lose often." Too many wins and Toronto would have no shot at the No. 1 pick, which last year yielded Yao and this year will presumably be 6'8" high school phenom LeBron James. Never mind that the NBA team with the worst record has only a 25% chance of winning the lottery—and, in fact, hasn't had the first pick in 13 years. Losing has an upside if it increases those chances. Here are the top contenders for James's draft rights, with their odds of finishing dead last in the league. (Records are through Sunday, with games remaining after the All-Star break against the top eight teams in both conferences in parentheses.)
HEAT: 16-31 (22). Conventional wisdom holds that Pat Riley-coached teams excel down the stretch. But conventional wisdom doesn't have to pass to Vladimir Stepania in the post. LeLine: 10 to 1.
GRIZZLIES: 13-33 (20). Hubie Brown is coaching Memphis right out of lottery contention. On the bright side, Jason Williams is still in charge of distributing the ball. LeLine: 8 to 1.
HAWKS: 19-29 (13). They have the fewest games remaining against good teams, but don't count them out. Last month Atlanta, with three former All-Stars, still lost to the Heat by 34. LeLine: 7 to 1.
CLIPPERS: 17-30 (16). That's 16 playoff-position foes not counting the Lakers, whom the Clippers face twice more. Things look even brighter for this club when you factor in its many disgruntled free-agents-in-waiting and a tradition of failure. LeLine: 5 to 1.
NUGGETS: 11-36 (17). All the tools are there-a first-year coach, yard-sale point guards and an offense that has scored as few as three points in a quarter. The downside is, Denver plays hard every night, and 6'11" rookie Nene Hilario has shown disturbing improvement. LeLine: 7 to 2.
RAPTORS: 13-34 (19). Vince Carter is back, but who knows for how long? Either way, the Raptors have already had a 26-day winless stretch this season and are fully capable of going 0 for March. Their date with destiny could be April 16, their season finale, at Cleveland. LeLine: 3 to 1.
CAVALIERS: 9-39 (20). Ricky Davis can almost win games by himself, and new coach Keith Smart will try to impress. Still, with three rookie starters who have made turnovers into an art form, Cleveland's the clear favorite to lose its way to the Promised Land. LeLine: Even.