With just three weeks to go, there is a lot left to decide for the NBA’s lottery teams, with the future of many hanging in the balance.
For months – years, even – the 2017 NBA Draft has been hailed as the strongest in recent memory. While there is no surefire All-NBA talent like Anthony Davis or LeBron James, there are ten or more players wearing the tag of “can’t miss” prospects.
That group is lead by dynamic point guards in Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, and contains everything but a bruising center. Justin Jackson, Jayson Tatum and Jonathan Isaac all bring two-way upside on the wing, the league’s most coveted position. Dennis Smith is the third-best point guard in this draft and could have been a top pick in other years. Lauri Markkanen could be the best stretch-big since – well, we’re not allowed to compare him to Dirk.
The list goes on, from international prospects such as Frank Ntilinka, to center prospects boasting impressive skillsets but caught in limbo by the sheer number of centers in the league today. Miles Bridges could be one of the best players in the class and is often slotted outside the top ten in mock drafts. We haven’t even mentioned a Kentucky Wildcat, and that team may have three lottery picks on its roster yet again.
With such a strong draft, teams want desperately to get into the best possible slot to draft a premier talent. With just three weeks remaining in the season, there is still a lot of shuffling that will go on in the standings. What are the lottery implications of the final weeks? How can teams improve – or shatter – their fortunes by the end of the year?
Balanced on a Knife – Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers have done a brilliant job of stealth-tanking over the past few seasons, from Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour to the bizarre challenge extended by President Jeanie Buss to her brother Jim. The end result is a team that has kept its top-3 protected pick for multiple seasons.
This year the Lakers removed the “stealth” part of their mission and have gone all-out to lose games, shutting down veterans for the year and taking D-League players from out of the league to the starting lineup. The Lakers are going all-out to lose as many games as possible, despite a promise from Jeanie Buss that tanking is “unforgivable.”
This season the Lakers owe a top-3 protected pick to the Philadelphia 76ers, by means of Phoenix from the Steve Nash trade. For a Lakers franchise that never thought it would be in the position to desperately need a pick, confident in its own gravitational pull to acquire stars, this is a shocking place to be.
Currently with the second-worst record in the league, the Lakers currently own a 55.8 percent chance of keeping their pick. That means there is a 44.2 percent chance they lose the pick altogether, missing out on the golden crop of draft talent.
There is virtually no chance the Lakers pass someone in the standings – they are sitting every player possible, putting together ineffective rotations, and if they aren’t purposefully allowing teams to score they’re making a good show of doing exactly that. The Los Angeles Lakers have lost 13 of their last 14 games, and have a two game “lead” on the Phoenix Suns for the second-best lottery odds.
Adding to the stakes is that the Lakers owe the Orlando Magic a first-round pick in the 2019 draft. Because of the Stepien Rule preventing franchises from trading their draft picks for consecutive drafts, if the pick owed to Philadelphia doesn’t convey this year (and is rolled to next season), the Lakers cannot give Orlando their 2019 pick and it thus becomes two second-rounders, a much milder asset.
To hear their name called fourth or fifth at the Draft Lottery would be tantamount to disaster for a Lakers franchise that has lost a staggering amount of games over the last four seasons with no true star to show for it. Perhaps D’Angelo Russell takes the next step, or Brandon Ingram adds weight to his pogo stick frame, or Ivica Zubac becomes the next Shaquille O’Neal. But realistically the Lakers need the opportunity to draft Lonzo Ball and give their team a spark to start moving forward.
As Many Bites at the Apple…Philadelphia 76ers
While the Los Angeles Lakers were busy losing games and convincing people they weren’t tanking, Philadelphia took the heat for being honest to their fans. Maximizing their losses over a three-year span, the 76ers came away with a collection of young talent and a franchise superstar who will validate all the losing if he can stay healthy. And that’s without considering they have last season’s first overall pick yet to play a minute.
But with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid expected to begin next season fully healthy, this season might represent the 76ers’ last chance to add elite talent to its core via the draft. With Jahlil Okafor, Richaun Holmes, and Dario Saric filling out a loaded frontcourt, the 76ers need an infusion of talent in the backcourt. This draft offers just that, with the true prizes resting at the top in Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball.
To get there, the 76ers have brought together a number of options for high picks through the savvy trading of the Sam Hinkie era. The former Philadelphia GM turned Michael Carter-Williams (currently barely playing for the lottery-bound Chicago Bulls) into a top-3 protected Lakers pick with a 44.2 percent chance at conveying to Philadelphia this season as the fourth or fifth pick in the draft.
Sam Hinkie also fleeced Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings, extracting not only a 2019 unprotected pick in exchange for the burden of taking on salary from the Kings, but a pair of pick swaps as well – one of which takes effect this season. If the Kings – currently one spot ahead of Philadelphia in the standings – fall below the Sixers, they have to trade places with Philly.
This means Philadelphia is sitting on a pile of movable assets, which could combine to give the 76ers two blue-chip pieces to add to their core. Worst case, and the 76ers are still getting a top-seven player in a ten-player draft.
The path where everything comes together sees Philadelphia leaping over Los Angeles in the Draft Lottery, handing themselves a top-3 pick while significantly increasing the odds of the Lakers dropping to fourth. That would give the 76ers two picks in the top-4, and the option to add nearly whatever combination of players they wish.
The brilliance of their situation is that if Sacramento leaps into the top-3, it accomplishes the same thing for Philadelphia. They get to swap picks with the Kings and take their top pick, and see the Lakers pushed back. With the Orlando Magic playing with an edge in recent games, the 76ers could reasonably fall behind them in the standings and finish with the fourth-best odds to win the lottery by themselves, and overall the best odds to claim the top-pick when combined with Sacramento.
A young core of Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid is a terrifying prospect for rival Eastern Conference teams. That’s the upside the 76ers hold in this year’s draft.
Preventing Their Own Happiness – Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings have the best shot at acquiring two lottery picks this season of any team in the league, owning their own pick and the rights to New Orleans’ pick if it lands outside the top-3. With the Pelicans currently sporting the ninth-worst record, New Orleans has just a 6.1 percent chance of jumping into the top three spots, and less than a 1 percent chance at making the playoffs.
What Sacramento has done, however, is limit itself from every best-case scenario out there. If they get “lucky” and leap into the top pick in the draft, they have to swap with Philadelphia. If the Pelicans’ pick they own gets “lucky” and leaps into the top-3, they lose it as well. Sacramento may have a roughly 93 percent chance at two lottery picks, but they have no chance at the top pick in the draft.
The Kings could come out of this draft with a combination of players such as Dennis Smith, Jr. and Jonathan Isaac, two solid prospects at positions of need. But they cannot come out of the draft with the best player of their choosing – their best case scenario is the second overall pick in the unlikeliest of outcomes. If New Orleans leaps the pack, the Kings could come away with just Malik Monk, the latest in a line of shooting guards doomed for Sacramento.
With the dysfunction of New Orleans since the Boogie Cousins deal, it’s possible Sacramento won that trade. But because of their inability to extract a clean pick from the Pelicans – and the mistakes of the slightly-more-distant past – this team has once again stood in the way of its own happiness.
Thick Around the Middle – Lottery Shuffling Still To Come
Rather than highlight individual teams, it’s valuable to note that the middle of the lottery is far from decided, with so many teams bunched together that a few wins for any squad could change their draft slot significantly. After the bottom three teams – Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Phoenix – there is a lot of movement still to come.
Just 1.5 games separate Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento and New York from each other for picks 4-7, and all of those teams need to maximize their selection come draft night. The Magic have no future All-Stars on their roster, the Kings may not have any future starters on their roster (although shout-out to Skal Labissiere!), and the New York Knicks need a distraction from themselves. Philadelphia has talent, but it could use a rookie who actually stays healthy.
The next grouping is just a few games back, with four teams having between 29 and 31 wins. The Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets are all hovering in the area between fighting for an unlikely playoff berth (a combined 6 percent chance at one of those teams making the playoffs) and giving up to drop in the standings. While New Orleans does not own its pick and Minnesota is flush with young talent, both Dallas and Charlotte are relatively locked into average cores that could use a blue chip prospect added in.
With most teams yet to play 11 to 13 games, there is plenty of time for teams to move in either direction, giving the middle of the lottery fungibility. The eighth pick could be a significantly better draft slot than eleventh or twelfth, and for teams in that pack it may be worth it to drop back and solidify the best possible selection.
Rigging the System – The Most Exciting Outcome
With all of the possibilities in play, what is the most exciting way the chips could fall in this season’s draft lottery? Here’s the way to generate the most change and drama in a way that seems fitting to the teams involved.
Pick 1: Philadelphia 76ers, by way of Sacramento Kings – The Kings leap into the top overall pick, grabbing the franchise-defining talent they desperately need…and promptly handing him over to the 76ers. Lonzo Ball goes from NCAA tournament champion with UCLA to newest member of Hinkie’s legacy.
Pick 2: New Orleans Pelicans – A double gut punch to the Kings, when the Pelicans also move into the top-3 and therefore keep their pick. They take Markelle Fultz of the Washington Huskies.
Pick 3: Boston Celtics, by way of Brooklyn Nets – Boston fans will feel crushed by missing out on the top-overall pick, completely ignoring the pure gold they have been handed with guaranteed high-lottery picks in years where they are competing for a Conference title. Danny Ainge now has to decide whether to double-up on athletic defensive wings or take a point guard in Dennis Smith who could eventually replace Isaiah Thomas. He goes with the wing, the league’s most valuable asset. Boston selects Justin Jackson out of Kansas.
Pick 4: Philadelphia 76ers, by way of Los Angeles Lakers – Trust the Process! Philadelphia adds Jayson Tatum of Duke to their dream scenario, robbing the Lakers of this pick and stocking their cupboard full of elite talent. Sam Hinkie then steps on stage to accept GM of the year.
Pick 5: Phoenix Suns – Again left out in the cold without the best of a draft class, the Phoenix Suns are left deciding whether to add another Kentucky guard – take your pick of Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox – or another stretch-4 in Lauri Markkanen. They ultimately avoid both options and take Jonathan Isaac of Florida State on the wing.
Other fitting picks: Orlando takes De’Aaron Fox over Malik Monk, again ignoring the three-point line completely; New York takes Dennis Smith, Jr. so he can disappoint another tortured fan base living on old highlights; Dallas takes Frank Ntilikina, as they have in every mock draft published in the last year; Sacramento takes Malik Monk, because he’s a shooting guard and that’s who they always take if there isn’t a Greek center available; Minnesota somehow gets Lauri Markkanen, the perfect fit to their roster; Charlotte rolls the dice with Harry Giles, giving every North Carolina resident who roots for both Duke and the Hornets an immediate stroke; Chicago trades their pick to the Knicks to reacquire Joakim Noah so they can recapture their culture of winning.