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Crystal Ball: Predicting the 2019 Lottery Teams

2019 is both far off and quickly approaching. With this year’s lottery nearly set, which teams will miss the playoffs in 2019?

Who will the lottery teams be in 2019?

As the 2017 NBA season draws to a close, it’s increasingly clear which teams will be in the lottery this season. In the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers battle for one spot with three games to go. In the East, Charlotte and Detroit cling to life, but it’s most likely a nine-teams-for-eight-spots race as well.

What is less clear is which teams are going to improve their fortunes over the coming seasons, and which ones are doomed to lottery purgatory. Next season is easier to capture, but two seasons from now? The vision of the future gets more clouded.

But The Lottery Mafia is not content to merely give you coverage of your favorite lottery teams for this season. We go above and beyond to cover the teams of the future as well. Therefore, we will peer into the crystal ball of the NBA and tell you which teams we expect to be writing about in 2019.

Note: We Will Not Be Covering These Teams

The Golden State Warriors are brimming with talent firmly in the midst of their athletic primes. Even in the unlikely event that Kevin Durant leaves after one or two seasons, this team is still stocked with talent. If Durant stays, the Warriors have a core that will last into oblivion. Shooting is the skill that ages the best, and the Warriors have three of the best shooters of all time. Don’t expect to see them in the lottery for a looooooooong time.

Likewise don’t expect to see the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard is under contract through 2019 and is only getting better with each passing season. Even as the Spurs’ aging talent passes from relevance, this organization will at least build a competent team around Leonard.

Out East, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will likewise not grace the lottery in 2019. LeBron James has to get old sometime, but until he starts dropping off we will assume he never will. Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and Tristan Thompson are all under contract as well, keeping Cleveland’s floor high.

The Celtics are loaded with both current talent and future prospects. Not only are they stocking up on elite talent from their Brooklyn picks, but they are hitting up and down the draft board. Their second round pick from last season, Ante Zizic, is destroying opponents overseas and plans to come over next season. An embarrassment of riches that one way or another – trade, draft, free agency – will keep Boston relevant two years from now, if not downright dominant.

Ehh, Probably Not…

Below those four teams is another tier, those teams that most likely will not be gracing the lottery in 2019. This includes two different types of teams – squads with upward mobility, and teams with looming downside.

The Los Angeles Clippers have a core of four players that can stand with anyone in the league (outside of Oakland), but three of the four could hit free agency this summer and leave the team trotting out Austin Rivers and a geriatric Jamal Crawford. Similarly, the Toronto Raptors have multiple key pieces hitting free agency and have to best navigate the waters of re-signing key pieces who will begin to age out of their current production.

The Utah Jazz are held back from the tier above by the decision awaiting Gordon Hayward. If he re-signs in Utah this team will stay in the playoffs merely on the back of Hayward and Gobert sticking around. If he leaves then they will struggle to replace him.

The Houston Rockets have every reason to expect to be a playoff team in two years, but their roster brings a lot of volatility. Trevor Ariza can leave in free agency, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have injury histories thicker than college textbooks, and many of their depth pieces are on short contracts.

The other group are those teams on the rise, who should put things together enough to rise into the postseason but need to prove it first. The Milwaukee Bucks have an intriguing roster of potential centered around the already brilliant Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Washington Wizards are enjoying a great season, and if Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre continue to develop this could be a contender in the East.

The Denver Nuggets have volatility with their veterans, but such a collection of exciting young talent that the veterans may not factor in. The Minnesota Timberwolves have been a lottery mainstay for years, but with head coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm this roster has a bright future, and it would be a surprise to see them in the lottery two years from now. Finally, if the Philadelphia 76ers simply get 60+ games out of Joel Embiid next season they will make the playoffs. He is that dominant of a player.

Just Missed the Cut

Of the remaining 17 teams, just five are “locks” (used loosely – the future is crazy) to make the lottery. That leaves a dozen teams that could scrap into the postseason, or see their seasons end at game 82.

While plenty of uncertainty remains, a few teams have the organizational track record to claim the best odds at sneaking in. The Oklahoma City Thunder will most likely be in the mix for the postseason if Russell Westbrook is still in town – Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo are young and under contract, and this team has added young talent behind them over the last season. They are the current pick to round out the playoff field.

In the East, the Miami Heat get the benefit of the doubt. Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are both under contract through at least 2019, as are the young athletes Miami has placed around them – Justice Winslow, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson. With cap space, an attractive market and a top-tier coach this team has the tools to improve in free agency and stay relevant.

The final choice in the East is difficult, as a number of teams have one or two key pieces, and a lot of reasons to expect them to be in the lottery. Squinting really hard, the floor of the Detroit Pistons is higher than others because their core is under team control for a number of years – but with Andre Drummond’s development leveling out and Reggie Jackson turning in a dud season, that is no surefire result.

The Lottery Circa 2019

That leaves fourteen teams in the lottery in 2019, a generous baker’s dozen of squads without the confidence of future success. The following order is of course made up and entirely arbitrary.

14: Portland Trail Blazers – The Trail Blazers are a hard team to project out. If they play like they have since the All-Star break, this team is going to be in the playoffs in two seasons. Damian Lillard is an amazing offense player, and C.J. McCollum is right behind him. But an almost identical roster (Nurkic has been great, but he isn’t Olajuwon) was in shambles earlier in the year and kept alive by a mediocre middle of the West. If that Portland team hangs around all bets are off.

13: Dallas Mavericks – There is no way to project what a post-Dirk world would look like in Dallas. But they are quietly amassing a solid core of undervalued young talent, and adding a top draft pick in this draft will only add to that. Plus Rick Carlisle is a wizard. Let’s not forget that.

12: New Orleans Pelicans – This ranking represents a hedge between DeMarcus Cousins staying in the Big Easy and taking his talents elsewhere. If he stays it means the Pelicans most likely figured out this pairing, and they will be a playoff team based on that talent alone. If he leaves, they probably didn’t, and this ranking could be much lower.

11: Memphis Grizzlies – The Grizzlies are aging quickly and have very little young talent to protect them against it. But in two years the newly upgraded Marc Gasol will still be bombing from deep, Mike Conley will still have his prime in sight, and Vince Carter will apparently still be throwing down highlight dunks. So they won’t completely bottom out.

10: Indiana Pacers – Another pick of uncertainty, as Paul George is a superstar wing that will decide Indiana’s fate. If he leaves in the summer of 2018 (or is traded prior to that) this team will most likely be bad in 2019. If he stays and young center Myles Turner develops, this team will be in the postseason. That they are behind the Pelicans and Mavericks should tell you which way the crystal ball sees that ending.

9: Chicago Bulls – The Bulls currently have Jimmy Butler, and that is worth remembering. They also continue to trade away their young talent and add pieces with glaring flaws. The boon to their playoff chances in 2019 is that Rajon Rondo will not be under contract. Unless they extend him, in which case they deserve their fate.

8: New York Knicks – From an organizational standpoint, the Knicks deserve to be hanging out at the bottom with the Sacramento Kings. But what sets them apart from the teams below them is Kristaps Porzingis, who is an elite player building towards his prime. He gives the Knicks hope.

7: Charlotte Hornets – After spending their cap space for the next three seasons last July, the Hornets were locked into this roster. With Nic Batum and Marvin Williams both past the peak of their careers, this year was their best chance to maximize that roster. Kemba Walker is brilliant, but as a small point guard he will not age well either. This team will unfortunately be trending down in the seasons to come.

6: Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers lack a true superstar prospect, and after winning three games in a row they are dangerously close to losing their 2017 draft pick and a shot at drafting such a prospect. But the purple and gold are always a contender for free agents, as much as we would like to deny that, and Magic Johnson knows how to charm. This team could easily field a team including Russell Westbrook and Paul George in 2019. They could just as easily win 25 games.

5: Atlanta Hawks – Similarly to Charlotte, this Atlanta team seems to be trending downwards without much hope in sight. If Paul Millsap re-signs for the max, they will be paying him over $30 million a year as he passes that in age. If they let him walk, they have no means to replace him. Unless one of their wing prospects makes the leap, this team will be building slowly through a few high lottery picks.

4: Phoenix Suns – This team has a number of intriguing young players, from Devin Booker to Dragan Bender. They need to continue to add talent this season, and find someone who can play defense. While the sheer youth of their roster means they will most likely miss the playoffs in 2019, this team has a brighter future than those teams around it.

3: Orlando Magic – A new front office this offseason makes the Magic a wild card. They have real talent on their roster, and Aaron Gordon has all of the traits of a star. But until this team proves it can put things together they will wallow at the bottom of this list – and the standings.

2: Brooklyn Nets – Without a high draft pick until the 2019 draft, this team lacks the path to relevance. But Jeremy Lin will be playing in Brooklyn through at least 2019, and surrounded by the Nets’ combination of young talent and veteran castoffs has lead Brooklyn to a number of wins over the last six weeks. With Lin at the helm, they can at least be competitive in 2019.

1: Sacramento Kings – Sure, Buddy Hield has looked better since being traded to Sacramento. Yes, Willie Cauley-Stein has more space to roll to the basket without Cousins in the lane. Yeah, Skal Labissiere should have been drafted before the 28th pick last June. But this team has no stars, a number of draft restrictions, and the worst front office in the league. Barring the unlikely, this team will be passing a top-3 pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019.

*Bonus* Rookie of the Year: LaVar Ball – Inspired by his son’s success in the NBA, Ball comes out of retirement and makes his NBA debut. Backing up his claims that he could beat Michael Jordan in 1-on-1, Ball shows off his elite foot speed and runs away with the Rookie of the Year award. A shocked Stephen A. Smith tragically passes away on the day of the announcement.

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