Every Rebuilding Team's Biggest Need in the 2017 NBA Draft
It's an annual debate, one that rages through every front office in the lead-up to and at the NBA Draft.
Do you select for need? Or do you take the best player available, regardless of fit, and figure it out later?
Those often contrary concerns could line up perfectly for many of the teams that will still be in the midst of a rebuild come June 22, 2017. This year's class could be particularly deep at point guard, with Washington's Markelle Fultz and UCLA's Lonzo Ball flanked by N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr., Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox and France's Frank Ntilikina.
But don't discount the top-tier talent on the wings (Kansas' Josh Jackson, Duke's Jayson Tatum, Kentucky's Malik Monk, Florida State's Jonathan Isaac) and up front (Arizona's Lauri Markkanen, Germany's Isaiah Hartenstein, Michigan State's Miles Bridges, Texas A&M's Robert Williams, Creighton's Justin Patton).
For each of the following teams—included according to record and rebuilding status, and listed in alphabetical order—there should be at least a prospect or two who makes sense based on positional deficiencies and draft slots.
The Hornets are built like a ball club looking to contend, but are playing like one on the verge of a revamp. A slump sans Cody Zeller has Charlotte on the outside of the East's playoff picture looking in, and the contracts of Zeller, Nicolas Batum, Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Miles Plumlee and Marvin Williams leave the team with little (if any) wiggle room to improve its prospects until 2019.
If the Hornets land in the lottery, they'd do well to target another wing shooter or a big who can rebound and play in the pick-and-roll...like, say, Cody Zeller.
Chicago is on track for a playoff spot, and should hang on if its youngsters play with the same manic energy they displayed against the Golden State Warriors during a TNT showdown on Thursday.
But the specter of a Jimmy Butler looms large over the Windy City, and will until the Boston Celtics either pull the trigger on a trade or shop their assets elsewhere. If Mr. Buckets gets the boot, the Bulls could clearly use a scoring wing to take his spot and another point guard prospect to throw into Derrick Rose's old shoes.
The Heat seemed set for a trip deep into the lottery after an 11-30 first half. Then, they won 13 games in a row behind the gritty efforts of castoffs like Rodney McGruder, Willie Reed, Dion Waiters and James Johnson to put themselves within striking distance of a playoff spot in the East.
Among that motley crew, only McGruder doesn't control his own fate this summer. The rest can or will be unrestricted free agents. Getting Justise Winslow back from injury next season should shore things up on the wing, though there will still be a Chris Bosh-sized hole to fill at power forward.
Brooklyn Nets: Power Forward
What don't the Brooklyn Nets need? Judging by their league-worst record this season, the Nets would do well to nuke their entire roster and start over this summer.
But finding a taker for Brook Lopez was tough enough at the trade deadline, even after Brooklyn reportedly dropped its asking price to a first-rounder and a second-rounder, per ESPN's Marc Stein. Getting something in return for the former All-Star won't be any easier after this season, when he'll look more like a 7-foot expiring contract than a bona fide stretch 5.
Then again, that could look like a cakewalk compared to unloading Jeremy Lin, who's missed a whopping 44 games to injury in 2016-17 and is signed to eight-figure salaries for another two seasons.
Lin's presence need not preclude Brooklyn from pursuing a point guard in this year's draft, which is loaded at the position. The Boston Celtics' swap rights on the Nets' top pick, on the other hand, will encumber that effort considerably.
Assuming those two vets stick around, and Brooklyn likes what it's seen out of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and rookie Caris LeVert on the wings, general manager Sean Marks could turn his attention to power forward. The Nets figure find some solid prospects at that spot—including Kentucky's Bam Adebayo, Oregon's Jordan Bell and UCLA's T.J. Leaf—with the late first-rounders they'll have at their disposal.
Dallas Mavericks: Power Forward/Center
First came Wesley Matthews, whose shooting touch (37.9 percent from three this season) has largely returned two years after his Achilles tendon snapped. Then came Harrison Barnes, who's emerged as a steady 20-point-per-game scorer outside of Golden State.
This season, the Mavs happened upon Yogi Ferrell, the Western Conference Rookie of the Month, to run point and snagged Nerlens Noel, a feisty defender and finisher, from the Philadelphia 76ers at the trade deadline.
If those pieces fit, all Dallas needs to do now is find someone to take the giant German's place when he decides to hang 'em up.
All the more reason, then, that the Mavs have to hope Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen is still on the board when it's their turn to pick. Read this description of the Finnish phenom from Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman and try not to picture a young Nowitzki...I dare you:
A mobile, perimeter-oriented 7-footer, Lauri Markkanen brings lethal shooting (44.4 percent from three) and unique, face-up scoring ability for a 230-pounder. He'd offer even more value if he proves he can log minutes at both power forward and center, which would allow the Mavericks to play big (with Nerlens Noel at center) or small (with Harrison Barnes at the 4).
Nowitzki told ESPN's Marc Stein that he intends to return for his 20th season in 2017-18. Perhaps he can spend some of his final campaign teaching his successor a thing or two, including the secrets behind Nowitzki's patented step-back jumper.
Los Angeles Lakers: Point Guard
"I'm not trying to say he won't play for a different team," the elder Ball told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman. "But I'd like him to play for the Lakers because it's home and I'd love him to learn from Magic (Johnson). He's the best guard ever to me, and nobody better for Lonzo to learn from than Magic Johnson."
Johnson, for his part, has no illusions about the Lakers landing his facsimile to save the franchise.
"I don't think it's about getting another Magic or another Kobe [Bryant]," he said, per Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus. "Whoever that person is will be their own person. We just want to fall in love with him. We have a bunch of young players that we're falling in love with right now. We're seeing them grow up right in front of our eyes."
None of those players looks the part of a bona fide point guard. D'Angelo Russell has been manning the position, but has to learn on the job after arriving in the NBA as a scorer with a knack for seeing passing angles. The Lakers have given rookie Brandon Ingram a shot at some of those responsibilities, though more to get him comfortable with making plays as a pro rather than to transform him into a full-time floor general.
Put Ball in Purple and Gold, and Russell, Ingram and Julius Randle can play to their strengths as shooters and slashers while the UCLA product handles the setup. The same would be true if L.A. landed Washington's Markelle Fultz or N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr.
The Lakers won't land any of those blue-chippers, though, without some lottery luck come May. Should L.A.'s 2017 pick fall outside of the top three, it'll convey to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Small Forward
At full strength, the Minnesota Timberwolves' biggest need is something that can't be found in the NBA draft: time.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the last two Rookie of the Year winners, look like franchise cornerstones in the making. Between Ricky Rubio, rookie Kris Dunn and sophomore Tyus Jones, the Wolves should have starting and backup point guards. Gorgui Dieng does all the in-between work at power forward—from cleaning the glass and disrupting on defense to draining midrange jumpers—with the richest NBA contract ever signed by a West African player. Shabazz Muhammad has settled in as the token bucket-getter off the bench.
If Zach LaVine were healthy, he'd be the last link in the chain: a high-flying, quick-first-stepping, jump-shooting swingman who averaged nearly 19 points per game this season. But the UCLA product tore his left ACL in early February, opening the door for Minnesota to consider adding another wing.
Should the Wolves decide to hold LaVine's place with a rookie, rather than package their pick with other assets for more veteran help, Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman has them pegged for Florida State's Jonathan Isaac:
With three-point range, ball-handling skills, shot creativity and defensive quickness, Isaac projects as a mismatch if he can tie everything together. But the Wolves may wind up valuing his ability to defend the pick-and-roll the most.
Adding Isaac could push Wiggins from small forward back to shooting guard, where he spent plenty of time during his first two seasons. Defensively, the wiry Canadian might actually be better suited to the 2, and if his shooting continues to improve (46 percent from the field, 35 percent from three this season), he should be able to swing that switch.
New York Knicks: Point Guard
According to ESPN.com's Ian Begley, a deal that would've sent Derrick Rose to the Minnesota Timberwolves fell apart. The Knicks wanted another asset (i.e. a pick or a prospect) as recompense for the two years and nearly $29 million left on Rubio's contract. The Wolves balked. New York reportedly relented, suggesting a straight-up Rubio-for-Rose swap just before the deadline...and Minnesota balked again.
Now, the Knicks will head into the summer with a glaring weakness at point guard once again, whether or not they re-sign Rose. Assuming the former MVP comes off the books for good after this season, Phil Jackson and friends will have ample cap space to throw at the likes of Jrue Holiday, George Hill and Jeff Teague, but not enough to attract a top-tier talent like Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry without offloading some other salary first.
If you're the Knicks, why bother overpaying for a point guard who's injury-prone, aging and/or just plain not worth the price tag—aside from franchise precedent, that is? And why do it while holstering a high pick in a draft loaded with up-and-coming floor generals?
Chances are, New York won't have anything better than an outside shot at Washington's Markelle Fultz or UCLA's Lonzo Ball. But N.C. State's Dennis Smith, Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox and France's Frank Ntilikina could all be quality additions to a roster needs someone to get the ball to Carmelo Anthony now and give the Knicks another star to pair with Kristaps Porzingis going forward.
Orlando Magic: Point Guard
Elfrid Payton has spent his third season with the Orlando Magic shuffling into and out of head coach Frank Vogel's starting lineup. He's produced at an almost identical rate in either role.
The biggest differences: his shooting (he has a 53.3 true shooting percentage off the bench vs. 49.0 percent as a starter) and the Magic's record (11-13 with Payton as a reserve, 12-26 with him as a starter).
Payton only recently turned 23, but he may top out as a quality backup point guard who struggles in a starting role. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but Orlando would do well to find a full-time solution at the NBA's most crucial position. And what better time than the 2017 draft to do so?
The Magic are on track to land a top-five pick, which should put them within striking distance of this year's second tier of point-guard prospects (i.e. N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr., France's Frank Ntilikina and Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox). Any one of those three could be just the distributor Orlando needs to set up the likes of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross for easy baskets.
Philadelphia 76ers: Shooting Guard
Long before Ben Simmons was ruled out for the remainder of the 2016-17 season, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown suggested he'd toss last year's No. 1 pick into the fire as a point guard whenever he's ready to play.
"I felt like initially to just say, 'Welcome to the NBA, 19-year-old who's never played a point guard in your life and here's the gym, here's the ball,' was borderline cruel, was not very responsible," Brown said, per CSNPhilly.com's Jessica Camerato. "I think as time has unfolded, talking more with him, seeing the team that we have, studying more and more and more what he actually brings to the table, I want to try it."
Simmons' latest setback shouldn't change that trajectory. Nor should Joel Embiid's absence or Dario Saric's emergence distract from Philly's need for a scoring wing who can shoot.
Enter Kentucky's Malik Monk, who lacks the requisite height (6'3") and length (6'3.5" wingspan, per DraftExpress) to defend 2-guards, but has the range and confidence in his shot needed to succeed offensively.
Given their history of drafting prospects who either come in with serious injuries and/or subsequently suffer them in Philly, the Sixers may want to steer clear of Smith Jr., who tore his left ACL in 2015.
Phoenix Suns: Small Forward
If the Phoenix Suns wind up with one of the top two picks in this year's draft, general manager Ryan McDonough may have little choice but to add one of the game-changing guards (Washington's Markelle Fultz or UCLA's Lonzo Ball) to a backcourt-heavy squad.
That doesn't mean the Suns won't have options on the wing if they so choose. If their pick position shifts between now and draft day, their needs may line up more closely with the prospects at their disposal.
Perhaps they'd prefer a physical force with an improving outside shot like Kansas' Josh Jackson. Maybe they'd be inclined to select a natural scorer at that spot such as Duke's Jayson Tatum.
Either way, draft day could spell the end of T.J. Warren's brief tenure as Phoenix's starting small forward.
Sacramento Kings: Point Guard
It's almost too easy to clown the Sacramento Kings for the DeMarcus Cousins trade—from how they handled it to what they got in return for him. But the grades on that transaction would be best left incomplete until the Kings' front office has its say on draft day.
If Sacramento's tank goes according to plan and the New Orlean Pelicans continue to sputter with Boogie and Anthony Davis together, the Kings could come away with two top-10 picks in what's shaping up to be one of the deepest drafts in years. Better yet, they could spend one of the two to (finally) find a long-term fit at point guard and save the other for a wing/forward to install on Buddy Hield's other side.
The stock of quality creators and ball-handlers in the class of 2017 should be too good for Sacramento to pass up. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman pegged the Pelicans pick as the perfect spot for the Kings to pick up N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr.:
Kings management will be salivating at the chance to grab Dennis Smith Jr., who'd give the team a high-upside playmaker to pair alongside Buddy Hield. The explosive, shifty Smith, who's averaging 18.7 points and 6.3 assists, projects as a scoring point guard, though coaches must look to monitor his hero-shot selection.
Of course, when it comes to the Kings, there's no such thing as trust at the draft. Last year, they swapped the rights to Marquese Chriss, a Sacramento native, for those of George Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere (among others). In 2015, they passed on the likes of Devin Booker and Myles Turner to add Willie Cauley-Stein. And that's not to mention all of the Kings' other recent draft-day flops, from Jimmer Fredette and Thomas Robinson to Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas.