The NBA Draft lottery used to be an afterthought for the Indiana Pacers – they missed the playoffs just once from 1990 to 2006.

Memo to Pacers: More ping pong balls in the draft lottery is a good thing.

These days it’s practically a given.

For the fourth consecutive season the Pacers will be postseason spectators, left to hope for a lucky bounce in the lottery.

This time of year, bad teams often find ways to lose, increasing their odds at a top pick.

Not the Pacers – they finish strong. Unfortunately for them, strong finishes mean nothing but fewer ping pong balls.

This end-of-season trend has become the norm under Pacers’ head coach Jim O’Brien.

In O’Brien’s first year (2007-08) the Pacers won 11 of their last 16 games to finish 36-46 – one game out of a playoff spot.

As a result they ended up with the No. 11 pick and took Jerryd Bayless, who was later traded for Brandon Rush – both average players.

Had they been a little worse and gotten the No. 10 pick, they could’ve landed Brook Lopez, a big-man averaging 19.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Oops.

In O’Brien’s second year (2008-09) it was more of the same. The Pacers closed the season with a fury, winning eight of their last 12 games. Finishing 36-46 again, the Pacers found themselves three games out of a playoff spot.

This meant another mid-round draft pick for the Pacers, which they used to select Tyler Hansbrough with the No. 13 pick.

Had the Pacers flamed out down the stretch they could’ve been looking at a guy like No. 10 pick Brandon Jennings who is averaging 15.7 points and 5.9 assists per game this year.

This season the Pacers are again finishing strong. About three weeks ago, they had the fourth-worst record in the NBA. But heading into Friday night they had won six of their last seven games and held the 10th worst record in the league – equating to a potential drop of six spots in this year’s NBA Draft.

To put it in perspective, the 10th worst record gives a team a 4 percent chance at a top five pick while the fourth-worst record gives a team an 82.8 percent chance.

In previous years late-season win streaks kept things interesting for fans, as the Pacers fought for the final playoff spot. But this year they are so far behind the pack it doesn’t matter.

For those hoping the Pacers can gain some ground in the draft lottery standings down the stretch, don’t hold your breath.

Five of Indiana’s final seven games are at home, where the Pacers have a 20-16 record and have won eight straight. Four of those seven contests are against teams out of the playoff race.

While O’Brien and Pacers management will insist winning is always a good thing, it’s hard to find the benefits at this point. Does a strong finish create a winning atmosphere? Maybe … though that theory hasn’t proved to be true for this team in the past.

Perhaps the lottery balls will finally bounce the Pacers’ way and make this topic irrelevant, but I wouldn’t count on it.

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