No. They can’t. The lottery is restricted to non-playoff teams. Sorry for the cheap headline. Gotta get those clicks.
Here’s the thing, though: the Celtics could absolutely make the playoffs and MISS the lottery with a bottom-14 record, just by winning the overflowing bathroom trash can known as the Atlantic Division. In fact, if the season ended today, that’s exactly what would happen to the Raptors… and Boston’s only a half-game out of the division lead.
Toronto’s record is 6-10, 10th worst in the NBA. Normally, the 10th-worst record in the NBA gets you in the lottery with about a 1% chance at the top pick in the draft, and a 4% chance at one of the top three picks. Failing that, you get the 10th pick. But in this case, that record wins the Raptors the division title, which earns them the privilege of a thrilling first-round series against the Hawks to decide who gets swept by Miami. After that, they get to fall five spots in the draft and pick 15th.
This would be hilarious if it happened to the Raptors. Action should be taken to ensure that it does. But again, the Celtics are only a half-game out of first. And tragedies are not funny when they affect stuff you care about.
Many people, most recently Zach Lowe, have pointed out that divisions are stupid and pointless and should not influence anything. Most of the arguments have been in defense of good teams that could miss out on higher playoff seeds in favor of a worse team that wins its division. But what about the bad teams that valiantly lose games on purpose, then win their division by accident, causing them to miss out on lottery picks? Won’t somebody think of the bad teams?!