Thursday's NBA draft could be a free-for-all, with executives placing long-shot bets. There's an underwhelming crop of talent beyond Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, and the roll of teams hoarding picks means plenty of wiggle room for general managers to get creative.
Conversely, there is no margin for error for the Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers. They've suffered embarrassing lows on the court over the past three seasons, with nothing yet in the way of a future superstar to show for the misery they've inflicted on their fans.
Screw this one up, and the future could be as bleak (and as long) as the recent past.
Fortunately for them, the top two picks are no-brainers. According to Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes, the Sixers have already told LSU's Simmons he'll be the No. 1 pick. That leaves Duke's Ingram as the Lakers' clear choice at No. 2.
Not everyone can get in on the fun—nine squads, to be exact, won't have any first-rounders with which to play around. But these six organizations, listed in alphabetical order, should have the selections and the stomach to spring some surprises (and head-scratchers) during the 2016 draft.
It's not every day that a team wins 48 games, cracks the playoffs and winds up with a top-three pick the same year.
That combination puts Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge in a sweet spot compared to executives of other lottery teams. He already has the pieces in place to put Boston back in the postseason for a third year running come 2017, after gutting his team (and the Brooklyn Nets' draft stash) in 2013.
The C's want to do more than just crack the postseason, though. To make some serious noise next spring, they'll need another cornerstone to pair with All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas.
Ainge appears eager to move the No. 3 pick—and, perhaps, Nos. 16, 23, 31, 35, 45, 51 and 58—in pursuit of another major puzzle piece. The rumblings began with Jimmy Butler (per ESPN's Marc Stein and Chad Ford), then Kevin Love (per RealGM's Andrew Perna), and have since roped in Khris Middleton (per Pro Basketball Draft) and Nerlens Noel (per Hoops Critic's Brian Geltzeiler).
If Ainge manages to land a more veteran talent in exchange for some of his picks and, say, a player or two, he'll likely have some remaining selections with which to play around.
If he's unable to swing a franchise-changing trade before Thursday's draft, he'll have even more freedom to spend a blue-chip pick on the best prospect available, regardless of age or position, be it a young big such as Dragan Bender, or a mature guard such as Kris Dunn or Buddy Hield.
The Denver Nuggets already have the makings of a team on the rise out West.
Wing scorers? That's provided if/when Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler come back healthy.
Young guards? Check, thanks to Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris.
A hungry rebounder and finisher? Kenneth Faried will do that.
Skill up front? Check, check and check among Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne.
A dynamic sixth man? Will Barton says, "Check, please!"
Between all that talent and head coach Michael Malone's tutelage, the Nuggets could be looking at a 2016-17 on the upswing. Before then, GM Tim Connelly will have to figure out how best to spend the team's three first-round picks (Nos. 7, 15 and 19) and two second-rounders (Nos. 53 and 56).
Does he package them to trade up? Does he look to trade down from seventh overall? Could he try to trade out of the first round in pursuit of a player who's ready to help right away? Or might he keep the pick if a potential star, such as Dragan Bender or Jaylen Brown, falls into his lap?
Whatever Connelly does, he can lean on his team's internal improvement as the surest means of ending a three-year playoff drought in the Mile High City.
Three years ago, Milwaukee Bucks GM John Hammond rolled the No. 15 dice on a skinny mystery kid from a lower-division team in Europe. Today, with Giannis Antetokounmpo turning out triple-doubles as Milwaukee's point-center, Hammond looks like a genius.
That doesn't mean he is any more clairvoyant than his peers. What it does mean is he should have more freedom to explore off the beaten path on draft day. Hammond's current roster should afford some of that leeway, too. Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker look like the clear-cut cornerstones.
The rest of the cast could be up for change. According to Sheridan Hoops' Michael Scotto, Greg Monroe is on the chopping block. As mentioned above, Khris Middleton could be, too. And with Antetokounmpo assuming creative duties, don't be surprised if Michael Carter-Williams gets shopped before summer comes to a close.
With all that in play, the Bucks' plans for the No. 10 pick remain a mystery. They could beef up their front line with another big-bodied rebounder such as Deyonta Davis or Domantas Sabonis. Or, they could strengthen their perimeter rotation, with three of last season's constituents (Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, Greivis Vasquez) ticketed for free agency. Dejounte Murray and Wade Baldwin may be available in Milwaukee's range.
Or, perhaps a trade for a top-five pick will render all of these points moot. Either way, the Bucks have the tools and the track record to play the part of wild card Thursday night.
The Minnesota Timberwolves' interest in Jimmy Butler is about much more than just reuniting the All-Star swingman with head coach Tom Thibodeau.
The T-Wolves have to do something with the No. 5 pick in this year's draft. Spending it on another young talent, who will need time to adjust to the NBA, might not make the most sense, especially with a winning coach such as Thibs at the controls.
Between Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the league's last two Rookies of the Year, the team has two franchise talents to build around. And with Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng on the roster, the T-Wolves have the makings of a marvelous nucleus, one potentially capable of ending Minnesota's 12-year playoff drought next season.
"Making the playoffs and learning to win more games than our history shows. And that's big," Towns told NBA.com's David Aldridge when asked about what the next step is for his squad. "Andrew and Zach have had two years of experience; I've had one."
Another rookie won't do anything but deepen that paucity of experience. However, if Thibs and his front office can't find a taker for their pick, they could do worse than spending it on a more pro-ready prospect, such as Buddy Hield or Kris Dunn, thereby adding to their impressive stockpile of young studs.
The Phoenix Suns are the only team with multiple lottery picks in this year's draft. They have their own (No. 4) and the Washington Wizards' (No. 13), courtesy of a midseason trade involving Markieff Morris. By the looks of how 2015-16 turned out, Phoenix could use home runs at both spots. It followed up a respectable 8-9 start by winning just 15 times over the final 65 games.
Then again, the franchise's undoing this past year had more to do with internal turmoil and injury woes than a general lack of talent. Morris' dispute with the team over trading his brother, Marcus, didn't help matters. Neither did injury setbacks to Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler, among others.
A healthy Suns squad, with Earl Watson at the helm, wouldn't have too many gaping holes to fill. Among Bledsoe, Knight and Devin Booker, they'd have three guards who can handle, create and score. In Chandler and Alex Len, Phoenix features a veteran at center and a youngster who's brimming with ability. On the wing, T.J. Warren (11 points per game on 50.1 percent shooting last season) could be a valuable scorer.
The only glaring area of need is at power forward, and the Suns needn't necessarily settle for a rookie at that spot.
"From everything that I'm hearing, Phoenix is talking to a lot of teams about a lot of things that would have them maybe moving No. 4, to move out of the draft completely and get a youngish veteran that can come in and contribute right now," ESPN's Chad Ford said during a recent appearance on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Burns and Gambo show. "Again, Robert Sarver is not a patient man, has not shown that he's been willing to stick with a plan for very long.
"I think if they can turn this No. 4 pick into a guy who is an immediate contributor, who is young enough to really fit the direction the Suns are going, they're willing to do that."
Thus, even though the Suns have gone a franchise-worst six seasons without a playoff appearance, GM Ryan McDonough may once again have the wherewithal to swing for the fences, even though previous attempts (i.e., adding Isaiah Thomas to Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in 2014, signing Chandler to lure LaMarcus Aldridge last summer, etc.) have fallen flat.
Should the Suns hang on to the No. 4 pick, a skilled forward such as Dragan Bender or Jaylen Brown would make sense given their needs up front.
Like the Celtics, the Toronto Raptors are in the thick of the lottery after committing highway robbery against a New York City squad back in 2013. In Toronto's case, the No. 9 pick came courtesy of a deal that sent Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks, with the Raptors' own pick (No. 27) still in play.
At this point, the Raptors are much closer to title contention than the C's. Toronto's coming off a franchise-best campaign, built on 56 regular-season wins and the team's first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. But that doesn't make this summer any less uncertain: DeMar DeRozan, the more consistent of the team's two All-Stars during the postseason, is bound for free agency. He figures to find plenty of interested suitors south of the Canadian border.
Toronto isn't short on options for replacing DeRozan internally. Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph and Norman Powell could all start next to Kyle Lowry, and each of them has at some point.
Filling the depth chart at power forward could be trickier, though Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll should both see plenty of time there.
There's no guarantee the Raptors will use their picks at all, much less to address their areas of need. Per TSN's Josh Lewenberg, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri is itching to make a move:
"It's something I'm entertaining," Ujiri told Lewenberg of a possible trade. "We're talking to a few teams and we'll see how it plays out."
The Raptors are already loaded with projects, chief among them Bruno Caboclo and Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira. It couldn't hurt to find another gem for their NBA D-League roster in the event they can't cobble together a deal for someone ready to serve the senior squad. If that's how Toronto goes, a raw prospect such as Marquese Chriss could pay off in a big way down the line.