Teams Best Positioned to Blow Up 2018 NBA Draft
The NBA draft never proceeds perfectly in line with expectations.
Some years deviate more than others (see: Bennett, Anthony in 2013), but every one features unexpected choices and trickle-down effects that wreck even the most carefully crafted mock drafts. The 2018 edition will be no different, as prospects such as Mohamed Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. are itching to join Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton in the top tier.
Not every team is capable of blowing up the draft and creating those unforeseen developments. The ones that have such power feature motivation to trade up or down, a plethora of picks or tradable stars who could be shopped to gain more lottery selections. Some even boast a combination of those unique elements.
If your favorite mock draft gets shredded before we're more than a few minutes into the 2018 NBA draft, you'll likely be blaming one of the following organizations.
The Atlanta Hawks aren't guaranteed to pick at No. 3, even if Luka Doncic is still on the board. Should the Euroleague MVP fall past the first two teams and the Hawks remain uninterested in him, they could be inundated with offers from other squads looking to move up. But that isn't the only way they could shake things up.
Dennis Schroder seems to want to leave the only NBA franchise for which he's suited up, and the Hawks are already swimming in draft capital. With the Nos. 3, 19, 30 and 34 picks, they trail only the Phoenix Suns in Tankathon's draft power rankings, which sets the stage for plenty of possibilities.
Atlanta doesn't have as many ways to affect the top of the draft, but it could still muck things up for much of the night.
The Memphis Grizzlies could cause a cascading effect if they elect to go with a more seasoned prospect at No. 4. Whereas most teams would covet youth and upside, this organization could be looking to maximize the window created by the enduring presences of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, now 33 and 30 years old, respectively.
This won't be an issue if Doncic slips outside of the top three and is there for the taking. But if he has already been snatched up, Memphis could eschew players such as Mohamed Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. to take a gamble on the player it feels has the best chance of sparking a playoff run in 2018-19.
Maybe that's Mikal Bridges—one of the few upperclassmen widely projected as a lottery pick. Maybe Memphis would choose an even more unorthodox direction. But veering away from the consensus top-tier prospects would create quite the ripple.
Unless the Philadelphia 76ers decide to move one of their core players—Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, followed by Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Markelle Fultz—they won't be affecting the lottery order. But that doesn't change their ability to wreak havoc on the back end of the first round and keep the second round more interesting than normal.
Thanks to their constant accumulation of picks over the years, the Sixers now own the Nos. 10, 26, 38, 39, 56 and 60 selections. Yes, that's right. Four picks in the second round alone.
If they want to throw in sweeteners or package together choices to move up in the order, they have the ammo necessary to do so.
After firing head coach Dwane Casey following their LeBron James-led sweep in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Toronto Raptors could enter full-fledged rebuilding mode. Doing so would involve trading DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry, as well as shopping Jonas Valanciunas, Norman Powell and every other piece the Canadian franchise could offer to tempt another organization.
But that route isn't guaranteed. Far from it, in fact.
Toronto could easily promote an internal candidate such as Nick Nurse or Jerry Stackhouse and then run the rest of its roster back as is. The team's schemes worked so well throughout the regular season, but a lack of adherence to them in the face of adversity again allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to get out the brooms. That's the preferable route for the Raptors, although any clear-cut indication that a rebuild is nigh would push them well clear of the honorable mentions.
Mohamed Bamba is a coveted prospect for good reason.
Though his three-point stroke never developed into a consistent weapon during his freshman season at Texas, he showed enough flashes to convince NBA scouts he had the potential to become a true stretch big at the next level. Couple that with the longest wingspan recorded in NBA combine history (7'10") and preternatural defensive instincts, and you have a tantalizing package.
Teams outside the top five might covet a move up to grab him. The Boston Celtics could be one such organization, according to Sean Deveney of Sporting News:
"Sources told Sporting News that Boston has expressed interest in Bamba, including interviewing him at the Chicago predraft combine two weeks ago. Bamba measured in with a record wingspan of 7'10" in Chicago, reinforcing his status as the most ready-made rim protector in the draft.
"Of course, the challenge is securing a pick that will be high enough to land Bamba. He could go as high as No. 3 to the Hawks, and there has also been talk that the [Orlando] Magic—picking sixth—are high on Bamba and won’t let him drop past their slot."
Naturally, a rebuttal already exists—almost a certainty at this smokescreen-filled time of year.
"Don't waste your time on that one," an anonymous source told the Boston Herald's Mark Murphy, referring to the possibility of the Celtics moving up for Bamba.
Still, how can we not at least consider it? The Longhorn makes perfect sense for as an understudy to Al Horford, and the Celtics have a veritable war chest of assets at their disposal.
The returns of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward could make Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown somewhat expendable, and that's saying nothing of this year's No. 27 pick and future firsts coming from the Los Angeles Clippers (lottery protected in 2019 and 2020), Memphis Grizzlies (protected for the top eight selections in 2019, then the top six in 2020) and Philadelphia 76ers/Sacramento Kings (whichever is more favorable in 2019).
If the C's do want Bamba, they have the assets to go get him.
- Consolidation remains necessary, since the Nuggets have a surplus of players under contract and can't use them all in a typical rotation.
- Small forward presents a glaring hole, especially if Wilson Chandler opts out and seeks a deal the Nuggets can't afford.
- Finances are becoming tricky, and Denver will push toward the luxury-tax threshold if it turns down Jokic's team option to immediately hand him a max contract this summer.
The Denver Nuggets' core already looks promising.
Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic are three of the NBA's brightest young talents, and they're joined by Paul Millsap at the 4. As long as everyone stays healthy, that alone should be enough to guarantee playoff contention in the Western Conference, although injuries and a bit of underachieving prevented the Nuggets from hosting a playoff game this season despite a 46-36 record.
But the Nuggets remain fascinating because of their roster composition, and three narratives will continue to take center stage:
That makes Denver one of the draft's biggest wild cards.
With the No. 14 pick, the Nuggets could easily reach for a small forward (Jacob Evans seems particularly intriguing at that spot) or go after a big man who complements Jokic. They could package a lesser asset like Malik Beasley or Juan Hernangomez to move up, perhaps targeting a forward such as Miles Bridges. But they could also give another squad an extra (or initial) lottery pick by packaging it with an unpalatable contract they need to offload.
We're already seeing hints of that last route.
"The Nuggets have been trying to get off of Kenneth Faried's contract for a year-plus. They're a candidate to use that 14th pick to get off of that salary," ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday (via Denver Stiffs' Ryan Blackburn).
Don't expect that to be the only rumor about what this borderline playoff team could do with the last pick of the 2018 lottery.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers are searching for direction.
Chris Paul is gone, having completed a successful first season with the Houston Rockets that left no indication he'd be departing in the offseason. Blake Griffin followed him out the door, joining the Detroit Pistons midway through the 2017-18 campaign via a blockbuster trade.
Is DeAndre Jordan next?
The uber-athletic center could turn down a $24.1 million player option for 2018-19, electing to pursue a long-term deal that would likely be his final massive payday. His first signs of decline popped up throughout this past season, and he isn't getting any younger as he prepares to celebrate his 30th birthday in late July. That's troubling for a big man whose game is predicated upon his athletic advantages.
But a franchise in flux doesn't necessarily have to qualify for one of our featured spots. The Clippers could figure out their direction in free agency, either jumping into a mini-rebuild if Jordan leaves or trying to shore up the defense around him if he stays.
That uncertainty in conjunction with multiple lottery picks earns L.A. its placement here.
Thanks to that aforementioned Griffin swap, the Clippers boast the Nos. 12 and 13 selections in this year's draft. They don't have another pick in either round, but that back-to-back pair is enough to give them the eighth spot in Tankathon's draft power rankings.
With those two picks, they could do anything.
Package them to move up? That's possible.
Use them to select two prospects? We can't rule that out, as they could look at multiple wings and start an early run for that positional grouping.
Trade down to get more veteran presences alongside Jordan while the playoff window is still open? Don't bet against that strategy, either.
Volatility reigns supreme here.
Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough wouldn't rule out the possibility of trading the No. 1 overall pick during an appearance on ESPN2 at the draft combine:
"We're certainly open to that. We'll consider it. Obviously, we'll have more information closer to the draft than we do today, after we go through the workout process and the interview process and we get the medical physicals. So we're open to that.
"I think if you look around the NBA, as far as the veteran players, there are probably a few players we'd consider trading the pick for, not ... just pick for player No. 1. So it'll be a busy month for us."
That alone would throw a massive wrench in draft-day plans. But even if they do hold onto the initial selection—which McDonough subsequently deemed an "overwhelming likelihood"—they could send everyone into a frenzied spiral by refusing to select either of the two consensus top picks: Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic.
Phoenix already boasts a plethora of big men on its roster. Tyson Chandler, Alan Williams, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are all under contract, and that's saying nothing of unrestricted free agent Alex Len. So, what if it decides not to overload the position with Ayton and feels as though Doncic isn't an ideal fit alongside emerging star Devin Booker?
All of a sudden, trading up gets far more appealing for the NBA's other organizations.
None of this is especially likely. AZCentral.com's Scott Bordow tacitly explained why in a recent mock, indicating that Phoenix has reason to fall in love with either of the top two candidates:
"The hiring of Igor Kokoskov as coach—as well as Phoenix's need for a point guard—means Slovenia's Luka Doncic will be part of the conversation. But general manager Ryan McDonough has said center is a 'slightly higher' priority and NBA scouts have compared Ayton with Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns. The Suns can always find guards/wing players in free agency. But a physically dominant center who fits today's NBA game? How can the Suns pass that up?"
But trades and unexpected picks at No. 1 remain possible, and the mere chance matters with a selection this significant. Plus, we haven't mentioned Phoenix's subsequent choices at Nos. 16, 31 and 59.
San Antonio Spurs
What if the Phoenix Suns offer the No. 1 pick (and other pieces) to the San Antonio Spurs, only for Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and the rest of the Alamo City decision-makers to fall in love with Ayton or Doncic and agree to trade Kawhi Leonard?
What happens if the Sacramento Kings make a similar offer? The Hawks? Another squad in a three-team transaction that still nets the Spurs one of the premier picks in the draft?
Until we have resolution on the Leonard front, anything is possible. And so far, we don't seem close to getting that long-awaited resolution—an oddity for a franchise that has served as the league's model organization for well over a decade.
"I think he wants to be in San Antonio," teammate Danny Green said in reference to Leonard during an appearance on ESPN's Get Up!.
But we have yet to hear as much from the man himself, and that has to be a bit troubling. This saga has taken all sorts of twists and turns, and it's doubtful the ultimate reveal will come from Green in such nondescript fashion.
Until Leonard—or someone from Leonard's camp—speaks on the record, this situation will remain mired in uncertainty.
San Antonio only has the Nos. 18 and 49 picks in this year's draft. But because of a potentially disgruntled superstar, it has the ability to affect the proceedings like no other team.