With the NBA Playoffs rolling and the NBA Draft merely two months away, six members of The Lottery Mafia weighed in on five questions.
1. Which team is most desperate to win this year’s NBA Draft lottery (and why)?
Joshua Cornelissen: The Phoenix Suns have been living in the NBA cellar for three straight seasons without breaking into the top-3 in the Draft. In fact, the Suns haven’t picked in the top-3 since 1987. With a roster full of middling one-way players and a front office on life support, this franchise needs a break.
Ilia Shatashvili: Phoenix. Otherwise what was the point of winning the tanking race to the worst record in the league? Luka Doncic could help Devin Booker elevate the rest of their young and promising roster.
Justin Yoon: Orlando Magic – Ever since the departure of Dwight Howard, the Magic haven’t finished higher than 13th in five of its last six seasons (finished 11th in 2015-16). I’d say they’re quite desperate for a potential franchise-changing top pick.
Gabriel Allen: I’m going with the Pistons. Sure, they have two All-Star-ish big men (one of whom is probably not tradable) and a few other potential pieces, but with their first rounder (protected 1-4) likely headed to the Clippers, there’s not a lot of hope for Detroit basketball.
Jon Elliot: It’s between the Suns and Kings, but Phoenix is constantly talked about as a dark horse trade destination for stars while Sacramento can only lure over-the-hill veterans. Also, Devin Booker is a budding sensation, and the Kings, regardless of De’Aaron Fox’s potential, have yet to recoup fully from the loss of Boogie and will be without a first-round pick next year.
Chris Molicki: The Cleveland Cavaliers are the most desperate to win the lottery, no doubt. Whether or not LeBron James stays or goes hinges on the value of that pick. If the Cavs win the lottery (again), they could move the pick and get the second banana James so badly needs (Kawhi Leonard?). And if the King still decides to go elsewhere, at least they can draft a future superstar to build on as opposed to falling into another post-LeBron abyss. That’s crucial for a team with so few assets. My apologies to the Suns and the Kings who have been terrible for a while, and the Knicks who need to appease their own star, but Cleveland needs the top pick and they need it now.
2. Which teams will make the NBA finals, who wins the title (and why)?
JC: With respect to everything the Houston Rockets have accomplished this season, the Golden State Warriors are going to win the title. They have the most talent, have proven they can win with this core, and their path through the West is much easier. Whoever the East offers up is simply a sacrifice.
IS: The Warriors will beat the 76ers in the finals because I trust The Process against every team except Dub Nation this year. Next year could be a different finals outcome.
JY: The Warriors will win the title because it’s the postseason and the players actually care now. This is assuming Steph comes back healthy and can contribute the way he did prior to his injury. I want to say the Raptors will come out of the East, but it’s tough to pick against a LeBron-led team.
GA: We’re probably sleeping on their path a bit. Still, I’m sticking with the Sixers (in the east) if Joel Embiid comes back soon. It’s pretty amazing that they’re already a top-five favorite to win the championship according to this NBA odds tracker for the Eastern Conference
. And out west, Golden State remains the title favorite despite Houston’s home-court advantage.
JE: The upstart Sixers will expedite their process a bit and meet the “underdog” Warriors in the Finals. (Can I get a mulligan if Curry doesn’t come back fully healthy?) The Warriors will have a lot to overcome in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but Golden State has proven capable of withstanding monster showings from every player under the sun.
CM: Before the playoffs, I would’ve said the Rockets and Cavaliers, but on further review, I think we’ll see the Warriors and the Sixers. Despite it’s Embiid-less struggles in Game 2, Philly has impressed me so much with the talent and shooting surrounding extraterrestrial Ben Simmons. Once JoJo is back on the court, they’ll be too hard stop defensively, especially if they play Cleveland who, despite being the playoffs, still has no interest in even trying on defense. The Warriors haven’t missed a beat without Steph Curry, but the fact that they’ll avoid a star-studded Thunder squad or a hard-nosed Jazz team will be a great benefit to them. I expect Curry back healthy for the WCF, and I think Golden State’s defensive game plan should be able to slow down Houston just enough in a stellar series.
3. Several coaching jobs are open (or set to open up soon). If you’re the top guru and money is not an issue, where are you signing (and why)?
JC: Barring an unexpected opening, the best option now is clearly the Milwaukee Bucks. Not only do they have a true superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it is obvious that improved coaching could immediately elevate this team to new heights. There is also no waiting period, as Milwaukee should be ready to contend in the East immediately.
IS: David Fizdale should sign with Milwaukee because he will already have all the talent he needs to lead them to home-court advantage in the east.
JY: Milwaukee Bucks – With an up and coming superstar and a strong and youthful supporting cast, the Bucks are on the doorstep of becoming one of the elites, a step many thought they would have taken this year.
GA: Clipper-land, here I come. With cap space, draft picks, Jerry West and a rough-and-tumble roster, the warm weather clinches the deal.
JE: I’m going to Milwaukee. Not only do the Bucks have quite possibly the most talented or athletic player in the league, they have a young team with plenty of potential and talent surrounding him. The Bucks are on the up-and-up and look to compete in the East for many years, and the other coaching opportunities for the most part appear to be destined for years of rebuilds.
CM: As you’ll see in my first TLM article
, Memphis is a hot destination. The head coach there would have a top pick in a loaded draft, two stars, and veteran leadership. I get the allure of going to New York or another rebuilding project and bringing an incompetent team out of the ashes, but far too often coaches are fired before they even get a chance to make their mark on a franchise. Go to the Grizz and you’ll be competitive right away. Go to Phoenix, Orlando, or the Big Apple, and circumstances out of your control could doom you.
4. Which team that made the playoffs this year is the best bet to miss out next season (and why)?
JC: Anyone watching the Cleveland Cavaliers this season has to think LeBron James is at least considering an exit, if not set on one. If he leaves this summer, the Cavaliers will be trapped without the cap space to replace him, and this roster (without The King) is not a playoff squad in an improving Eastern Conference.
IS: Cleveland Cavaliers, because LeBron is gone and without him Kevin Love’s broad shoulders won’t carry this roster to a .500 record.
JY: Cleveland – This is under the assumption that LeBron bolts for a second time. If he does, we remember what happened the first time around.
GA: Miami could falter if Dwyane Wade hangs up his sneaks, Hassan Whiteside flames out and Goran Dragic’s production nosedives. San Antonio is a candidate to collapse depending on what happens with Kawhi Leonard. But short of Cleveland winning the draft lottery and Dan Gilbert gifting the franchise itself to LeBron, I can’t envision James remaining in Ohio.
JE: I’m betting on a rough offseason in Ohio and with that, an end to a four-year streak of playoff appearances. If LeBron does sign elsewhere, expect a team led by Kevin Love to struggle getting back to the postseason.
CM: This hinges on Paul George going elsewhere, but I’ll say the Thunder. Russell Westbrook is a phenomenal basketball player, but his style of play isn’t entirely conducive to winning. There’s a lot of poor shots, ball stopping, and all Billy Donovan can do is let Russ be Russ. A pick and roll with Steven Adams is still deadly, but Melo is a shell of his former self, and the last time we saw solo Russ play meaningful games, he was getting undressed by the Rockets. The Warriors, Jazz, Pelicans, Blazers, Rockets, Timberwolves, Lakers, and Nuggets are all either on the rise or already on top, and it’s not out of the question that the Grizzlies join them. In a loaded West, RussBall may not be enough to get it done.
5. WHICH TEAM THAT MISSED THE PLAYOFFS THIS YEAR IS THE BEST BET TO QUALIFY NEXT SEASON (AND WHY)?
JC: It may seem obvious, but the Denver Nuggets have the combination of youth and experience that are indicative of playoff teams. Another year of development from Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray should be enough to push them into the postseason.
IS: The Denver Nuggets — because they already have all the pieces to be a playoff team and Jamal Murray will be even better.
JY: The Nuggets were a few baskets away from making the playoffs this year. With another summer of improvement from its young and talented core of Nikola Jokic, Garry Harris, and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets will likely be in the middle of the pack out west.
GA: Picking Denver would mean that one of the Western Conference teams would need to fall out of the picture. I’m not yet ready to sleep on the Spurs, and there’s little reason to expect one of the other seven squads that qualified will drop next season. So while the Nuggets are the best team currently on vacation, that doesn’t necessarily make them the favorites here. Instead, that honor is shared by Charlotte (if they don’t deal Kemba Walker) and Detroit.
JE: Believe it or not, the Unicorn himself may be able to lead the Knicks to the postseason for several reasons. The Knicks were trending towards playoff competition early in the year before KP’s injury, the East is perpetually susceptible around the eight seed, and the Cavs may fall from prominence if LeBron ditches home for greener (or redder) pastures.
CM: Denver will be the popular pick, so I’ll take the Lakers. L.A.’s offseason could go one of two ways: They could strike gold in free agency with all their cap room and a slew of hot commodities (LeBron James, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, even Kawhi Leonard), or they could make some decent free agent additions, and the young core builds off this season’s developments. It wouldn’t shock me if Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball make a big leap forward next year, and that coupled with an improved defense (12th in the league this past season) makes it possible to imagine the Lake Show back in the postseason.