The closest race in the NBA is at the bottom, where Minnesota and New York are neck and neck for the league's worst record—and the best shot at the No. 1 overall draft pick—with Philly and Los Angeles not far ahead. Last night's T-Wolves/Knicks tangle at MSG had the feel of a championship game—a poorly played, poorly attended championship game where neither team particularly wanted to win.
But someone had to! And the Timberwolves, beset by injuries and dontgiveafuckitis, had just seven players ready to dress, one short of the NBA's requirement. So they turned to two-guard Sean Kilpatrick, who starred at Cincinnati but couldn't catch on with an NBA team. Why Kilpatrick? He was literally the closest competent basketball player.
"We had to fulfill our rules, so we had to go find somebody that was within a train ride away," Wolves coach Flip Saunders said.
Kilpatrick plays for the Delaware 87ers—at the time, the nearest D-League team. (The Knicks' Westchester affiliate was traveling to South Dakota.) Around 3 p.m., just after 87ers practice, Kilpatrick got the call to head up to New York under a 10-day contract. He hopped in his car, made the drive up, and arrived under an hour before tip-off.
To be fair, Kilpatrick's not just some nobody. He worked out for the Wolves last year before going undrafted.
"We had him in before so we worked him out, so we knew about him and we've been following him, but there's no question that geography helped," Saunders said. "We had to have a guy here ready to play at 7:30."
Kilpatrick's family is from New York, so they were able to get the the Garden to watch his NBA debut. "It's kind of a blessing," he said. He saw 10 minutes of action, taking (and missing) one shot, grabbing one board, and turning the ball over once.
It was a remarkably competitive game down the stretch—and why not? Many of these guys on both teams aren't going to be around next season, so why should they care about maximizing their teams' lottery odds? Alexey Shved nailed both free throws with seven seconds left in regulation to send the damn thing to overtime, but Zach LaVine nailed four of his own at the end of the extra frame to give Minnesota the 95-92 lead. Andrea Bargnani missed a three at the buzzer, the Wolves broke a six-game losing streak and a tie in the standings, moving one game up on the Knicks.
The NBA's worst team gets a 25 percent chance of picking first overall; the second-worst has a 19.9 percent chance. Flip Saunders, in explaining why his team isn't tanking, seems to be struggling with how probabilities work.
The Timberwolves have a history of being unlucky in the lottery, so Minnesota's Flip Saunders said no one would tank for draft positioning no matter how much they may want the pick.
"You can't do that, because everything in this league is all based on, it's the lottery. It's called luck, so what you do is you go out to play and you try to do that for respect of the game," said Saunders.
Saunders is team president as well as coach, so he's got incentive to tank. But this can't be emphasized enough: tanking is a front-office thing. No one actually thinks that players and coaches out on the floor aren't trying to win, or to maximize their own chances at continued employment. Knicks-Wolves was a remarkably competitive game between two evenly matched teams, and it came down to the wire. How about that?