NBA Teams That Had a Shot at Zion Williamson but Likely Dropped the Ball
The Zion Williamson hype train is heading to an NBA arena near you.
The most dominant force in men's college basketball saw his freshman campaign screech to a halt in the Elite Eight. Despite another act of brilliance on his part (24 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, three blocks, three steals), top-seeded Duke couldn't escape second-seeded Michigan State.
While that result busted a metric ton of brackets, it moved Williamson closer to his draft-night destination. Assuming he bypasses the combine and workout circuit—when he's the clear-cut No. 1 prospect, he has nothing left to gain—his next notable appearance could come when he shakes NBA commissioner Adam Silver's hand on June 20.
One lucky franchise will have its fortunes changed that night.
But if it's not one of the following five clubs, they'll be kicking themselves for not doing more to increase their lottery odds. Each had its own reason to tank but either neglected it or didn't embrace it enough, which may have cost it a shot at Williamson.
Atlanta arguably brightened its future as much as anyone this season, so it may not have major regrets about winning at a higher clip than the actual bottom-feeders.
Still, look at what the Hawks have moving forward.
Trae Young should man the lead guard spot for a decade-plus, dismantling defenses as a limitless sniper and crafty shot-creator. Kevin Huerter completes the Splash Brothers East backcourt as a quantity-plus-quality shooter. John Collins is a budding big man with bounce, relentless energy and an expanding offensive arsenal. Taurean Prince, if he's kept, fits as needed on the wing and adds yet another shooting element.
As Andrew Sharp wrote for Sports Illustrated, Zion Williamson would complete this picture and potentially make it a museum-quality masterpiece:
"Zion in Atlanta would mean a decade of alley-oops from Trae Young, and it might mean monthly Fox Sports segments with Dominique Wilkins in which they watch film and discuss various dunks that made opposing players consider retirement. Meanwhile, Zion's passing would be a deadly secondary weapon in pick-and-rolls with Young, John Collins would be a floor-spacing 20-and-10 third option who would also be dunking dudes into oblivion, and Kevin 'Red Velvet' Huerter would be floating around the perimeter and hitting open threes. I don't know if that team could ever guard anyone, but if they are scoring 135 points-per-game on dunks and 30-foot threes and Trae Young floaters, I don't know if it would matter."
Prince is 25 years old. Collins is the next oldest of the group at 21. Add first-year skipper Lloyd Pierce to the equation, and Atlanta—a 43-win team in 2016-17—may have already assembled all the key components of its rebuild.
But Williamson might be just outside the Hawks' reach. Their 10.5 percent odds look decent, per Tankathon, but they fall behind those of this season's four full-fledged tankers—the New York Knicks (14 percent), Phoenix Suns (14 percent), Cleveland Cavaliers (14 percent) and Chicago Bulls (12.5 percent).
Rather than flip their All-Star point guard for a rebuilding starter kit, the Hornets spent this season in Kemba Walker-preservation mode. With unrestricted free agency awaiting the 28-year-old, they knew their best recruiting chances came by being as competitive as possible.
Previous roster transgressions made that impossible.
Barring a minor miracle, the Hornets are about to miss the playoffs for the sixth time in Walker's eight seasons. This supporting cast underwhelms from almost every angle, even though it's exorbitantly priced. It's possible Walker's three most interesting teammates are rookie Miles Bridges, 2017 second-rounder Dwayne Bacon and impending free agent Jeremy Lamb.
Had Charlotte moved Walker, it could have pointed itself toward a future hopefully guided by Williamson—a Carolina native. Instead, it might be moving forward without either one. The Hornets have just a 1.5 percent chance of climbing up to No. 1, and the odds of keeping Walker could be just as long after all the losing he's endured.
"I no longer think it's likely Kemba Walker re-signs with the Charlotte Hornets," Rick Bonnell recently wrote for the Charlotte Observer. "More importantly, I no longer can give you a strong argument why he should."
With no Walker or Williamson, the next face of the Hornets would be...Lamb, whose career 15.9 player efficiency rating is just a pinch above average? Bridges, a nightly supplier of just 7.2 points and 3.9 rebounds? Bacon, who wasn't getting regular minutes at the start of March? Malik Monk, the fast-fading prospect with grisly career shooting marks of 37.5 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from outside?
If Walker bolts, this is a strong candidate to become the Association's next directionless team. Considering both the risk and limited reward, Charlotte should've abandoned all present plans and shifted its entire focus forward with an unabashed Williamson pursuit.
Last season, the Mavericks learned the league levies a stiff penalty for public admissions of tanking. But considering their race to the bottom helped net freshman phenom Luka Doncic, does anyone think Dallas regrets flooding the loss column?
Sure, they've learned to be more tight-lipped about it. After trading away nearly the entire starting five at the deadline for a package built around injured All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, team owner Mark Cuban still declared, per Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News, "I'll tell you one thing: We definitely aren't tanking. We're going for the playoffs."
Of course, their actions said otherwise, and they've gone just 7-19 since the swap. But unless they hit the draft-lottery jackpot, they'll regret not pulling the plug sooner.
This was a 58-loss squad last season. Even if you were bullish about Doncic's readiness and DeAndre Jordan's ability to strengthen the backline, what was the realistic ceiling for this club? Oddsmakers didn't have them even sniffing the postseason, so why did the Mavs waste so much time chasing a spot in the Western Conference's midsection?
Even if they secured an unlikely playoff spot, they would've just served as first-round fodder for a true heavyweight. While some clubs built around youngsters might appreciate that postseason exposure, Doncic's extensive experience overseas could've lessened that impact.
At the very least, nothing that occurred in the playoffs would've been remotely as helpful as opening up a line to Williamson. Between Luka-to-Zion lobs or endless pick-and-pops with Williamson and Porzingis, the Mavs could've formed the foundation of the West's next superpower. Instead, they'll likely see their top-five-protected pick transferred to the Hawks.
Memphis must have set the record for the world's slowest demolition by now.
Tony Allen and Zach Randolph bolted from Beale Street in the summer of 2017. Marc Gasol wasn't shipped out until this past February. Mike Conley is not only still with the team, but he's also signed for at least another season (early termination option for 2020-21).
The Grizzlies have moved away from the grit-and-grind era, but they haven't quite moved on. Even in the Gasol trade, they mostly brought back win-now assets like 26-year-olds Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright.
That'd be fine if Memphis still boasted a reasonable blueprint to chase something significant with Conley. But the future of the franchise runs through 19-year-old Jaren Jackson Jr., who'd be much better positioned alongside Williamson than he is next to Conley.
"Three years from now, a Williamson and Jaren Jackson Jr. duo could compete for the NBA's top frontcourt," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote. "Their fit together couldn't look cleaner on paper, with Jackson's shooting and rim protection complemented by Zion's explosiveness and power around the basket."
Memphis might not have much else to build around, but that looks like the backbone of an NBA powerhouse. Too bad it's unlikely to form, as the Grizzlies have just a 7.5 percent chance of snagging the top selection.
Usually good but never good enough, the Wizards had the opportunity to stop spinning their wheels with an overpriced core and start over.
A sluggish start made the entire roster available. John Wall's injury woes (first heel surgery, then a ruptured Achilles) wrecked any plans of recovering. An everything-must-go kind of house-cleaning felt inevitable.
But Washington stopped well shy of self-destructing. In fact, giving up Kelly Oubre Jr. for Trevor Ariza was a win-now move. Trading Otto Porter Jr. might not have been one on the surface, but it could be if the cap savings are used to re-sign Ariza, Jeff Green and other veterans in their 30s.
The Wizards are chasing something. It's probably something they have no business putting in their sights. This core bumped into a second-round ceiling too many times to believe it can rise higher, and that was while Porter helped connect the dots as a do-it-all glue guy.
If they desperately wanted a future with Bradley Beal, that's fine. He's a 25-year-old two-time All-Star who's (relatively speaking) reasonably paid. But there's no evidence he can be the best player on a really good team, let alone a great one. He needs (at least) another star around him, and best of luck to anyone who believes an injury-riddled, near-30-year-old Wall can be that player.
The Wizards should've done everything in their power to up their odds in the Zion sweepstakes. They now hold just a 5.2 percent chance of striking lottery gold instead.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.