What NBA Lottery Teams Should Do After Whiffing on Zion Williamson
Congratulations to the New Orleans Pelicans for winning the lottery and the right to draft Zion Williamson. We care about you a great deal, and you are super interesting, and we have many thoughts on your future, and we most definitely appreciate the mega, chaos-inducing leap you made.
Now, please get out of the way. We need to talk about what comes next for each of the lottery's non-winners.
This year's draft order has more implications than usual. The Anthony Davis sweepstakes have a bunch of teams on tilt, and many of this season's lottery participants are seeking quick, if instant, paths back to the playoffs.
What does that do to the top priorities and most pressing concerns for all the squads who missed out on the Zanos draft slot?
We're so very glad (we're forcing) you to ask.
2. Memphis Grizzlies: Draft Best Player Available/Open Up Mike Conley Bidding
Um, wow. The Memphis Grizzlies entered the lottery with a sub-13 percent chance of landing a top-two pick.
That's all they needed.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the Grizzlies' future—which, incidentally, is all we know about the Grizzlies' future.
Kyle Anderson is a nice piece. Delon Wright's price tag is worth monitoring as restricted free agency unfolds. Dillon Brooks, Bruno Caboclo and Ivan Rabb are all worth having their salaries guaranteed. But Jackson is the Grizzlies' singular cornerstone, and Memphis needs to be in the business of surrounding him with the best possible talent, regardless of immediate fit.
That doesn't change much if the Grizzlies decide to keep Mike Conley and try to chase another playoff bid. It is the difference between considering and passing on Ja Morant for RJ Barrett.
Related: The Grizzlies shouldn't be looking to retain Conley. That ship has sailed. They have overhauled their front office and are searching for a new head coach, and he knows winning in Memphis is no longer a viable option.
With the draft order set, now is a good time to open the bidding for Conley. The Grizzlies know they're positioned to select his replacement, and it'll be much easier to gauge his market among lottery teams who were waiting to see where they'd fall.
3. New York Knicks: Get a Feel for Who New Orleans Likes
Drafting for another team is hardly a good idea without a deal already in place. That holds true for the New York Knicks, no matter how grand their offseason plans may be. They cannot ask the New Orleans Pelicans to make their decision for them on the off chance it leads to an Anthony Davis trade.
So much else will go into determining how those sweepstakes play out. Chief among them: the offers from other teams, and whether winning the lottery deters the Pelicans from moving Davis for a package cobbled together around another rookie and general inexperience.
New York has no shot at putting together the most attractive package without Zion Williamson. New Orleans recently gathered "some intel" on Kevin Knox, per SNY's Ian Begley, but that's standard procedure. It doesn't say much, if anything, about the Pelicans' actual interest in him.
The Knicks also need to see how free agency plays out before they commit to an all-in Davis offer. It doesn't make sense for them to unload the farm when they don't have at least one other star in tow.
Winning the opportunity to draft Zion Williamson was never about immediately dangling him for Davis. It was about having the option to strengthen this summer's pipe dream. The logic doesn't change now.
And yet, this year's draft class still begs the Knicks to get input from the Pelicans. The top of the lottery wants for surefire stars aside from Williamson, New York doesn't have the incumbent talent to draft for fit and the best player available is probably who New Orleans would covet anyway.
Even if it's not, the Knicks need to get a feel for whether they have the tools necessary, without Williamson, to enter the running for Davis.
4. Los Angeles Lakers: Scout with Pelicans in Mind/Hope Celtics Don't Get Frisky
Leaping into the top four is a massive victory for the Los Angeles Lakers. It appreciably beefs up their best offer for Anthony Davis.
Still, rival teams are going to have a monumental influence over the Lakers' next move. The Pelicans won the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. It remains to be seen how that impacts Davis' availability and their asking price, but he does still want to be moved, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania.
Reigniting trade talks with Los Angeles is a given. The Lakers' best possible package is now so much better than it was in February. And unlike other teams, they can afford to make their pick with an unofficial trade partner in mind. No rookie is getting the opportunity to shine during LeBron James' age-35 season.
Los Angeles can attempt to straddle both lines by going best player available. That figures to be someone along the lines of RJ Barrett, Jarett Culver, Darius Garland or De'Andre Hunter.
In the end, though, the Lakers need to hope their Davis offer continues to improve by default. They dodged one potential bullet when neither the Knicks nor Philadelphia 76ers won the lottery, but the Boston Celtics loom. Los Angeles is still in trouble if Boston includes Jayson Tatum—infinitely so if it's also willing to pony up Jaylen Brown.
Kyrie Irving's free agency (player option) is the Lakers' best friend. The Celtics would likely guarantee his return by landing Davis, but mortgaging the future before he hits the open market would be a huge risk. Though Davis doesn't need Irving in Boston to stick around long-term, the odds of him re-signing next summer would be "significantly lower" if the point guard is gone, per The Athletic's David Aldridge.
Waiting for the free-agency dust to settle wouldn't weaken the Celtics' best offer. It could, in theory, increase the likelihood Irving leaves. That, in turn, would boost the odds of them never offering New Orleans the moon.
And that, by extension, could improve the Lakers' chances of assembling one of the two best packages, if not the absolute best package, for Davis.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers: Draft Best Player Available
Taking the best player available isn't groundbreaking stuff, but it uniquely fits the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Unlike most other squads, they aren't tied to a specific need or timeline. Having Kevin Love doesn't demand they prioritize instant impact. He's under contract for another four years, and Zion Williamson himself wouldn't have guaranteed reentry into the Eastern Conference playoff conversation.
Collin Sexton has no bearing on how Cleveland drafts—in a good way. He profiles as an off-guard down the road, so they can take another primary playmaker but needn't accelerate the process of finding one.
Sexton played his butt off over his final 30 games, during which time he made mini-strides as a setup man. He should only improve under new head coach John Beilein, a noted offensive tactician. Cleveland has another year before it must altogether abandon the idea of Sexton running point guard.
Cedi Osman can play with anyone, and the Cavaliers need wings more than the average team. They are guard-heavy, but Jordan Clarkson, Matthew Dellavedova and Brandon Knight come off the books next summer, and JR Smith's partially guaranteed deal isn't making it into July.
The same goes for the frontline. John Henson and Tristan Thompson are expiring contracts, and Larry Nance Jr. is neither good enough nor expensive enough to force the Cavaliers' hand.
Love is certainly expensive enough, but the top of this year's draft class isn't populated by can't-miss bigs, and his outside shooting lets him play alongside just about anyone on the offensive end. Between him and an excess of placeholders, the Cavaliers get to be flexible when they're on the clock.
6. Phoenix Suns: Take Darius Garland If He's Available/Trade Down If He's Not
Tough stuff for the Phoenix Suns. Ja Morant was their non-Zion Williamson pick, but he's out of reach. That leaves them with essentially three options: Take a stab at Darius Garland, draft the best player available or look to trade down.
Going with Garland is a sensible option...assuming he's still on the board at No. 6, which he might not be. He appeared in just four full games at Vanderbilt before he suffered a torn left meniscus, but his game projects as a clean fit beside Devin Booker. As ESPN's Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz wrote of Garland:
"High-level pull-up shooter with deep range who can get to his shot at will out of pick-and-roll or isolations thanks to his ball-on-a-string handle and polished footwork. Creates space with step-back jumpers in either direction. Live feet with quick-twitch athleticism. Comfortable shooting off the catch as well, sprinting off screens or hopping into 3s out of handoffs. Allows for more lineup versatility with his ability to play off the ball offensively. Clean, simple mechanics with a quick release.
"Plays off the threat of his jumper to get into the lane. Shifty ball handler. Good feel for when and how to change speeds and directions. Tough to keep in front in the half court. Not a great finisher yet but shows potential with floaters and creative scoops. Has passing instincts when he breaks down the defense. Has shown he can hit the roll man or find shooters after the defense collapses."
Phoenix might not view Garland as the answer. He wouldn't alleviate Booker's playmaking load as well as Morant, and his defense is an even bigger question mark following his meniscus injury.
Scoping out the trade-down market should be the Suns' play if they're not zeroing in on him or if he's already gone. They cannot be faulted for targeting the best player available, but they have Deandre Ayton at the 5, TJ Warren at the 4 and more than enough wings.
7. Chicago Bulls: Hope Darius Garland Falls/Draft a Wing
Dropping to No. 7 may preclude the Chicago Bulls from drafting a point guard. Ja Morant will be long gone, and Darius Garland probably isn't falling past the Suns at No. 6.
Chicago doesn't have a decision to make is Garland is available. He's an even better offensive plug-in than Morant if they don't want to take the ball completely out of Zach LaVine's hands.
Picking a wing is safer either way. Garland is working off a left meniscus tear that limited him to four full games at Vanderbilt. As of now, he's more of a secondary playmaker than a floor general. The Bulls need the latter.
They also need wings. Badly.
Otto Porter Jr. is the Bulls' only true wing. Chandler Hutchison stans will disagree. I'll allow it. That's still not enough. Any team that needs Denzel Valentine to soak up time at the 3 upon his return from a left ankle injury is at a deficit in the 2-3 department.
Jarrett Culver's and Cam Reddish's names should be doodled inside hearts.
8. Atlanta Hawks: Look at Trading Up/Draft Best Player Available
Is Zion Williamson really out of reach for the Atlanta Hawks? Like, does a package of their own pick, the Dallas Mavericks' selection, Taurean Prince and another future first get the Pelicans to consider moving out of the No. 1 spot?
Definitely not. That isn't getting the job done. Nor will anything else. The gap between Zion and everyone else in this class is more like a universe. Dealing him for anything less than established superstardom is not advisable, and even that's not a no-brainer decision.
Atlanta is better off calling other teams in the top five.
Sniffing around Memphis' selection isn't worth the trouble unless Hawks want to pair Ja Morant with Trae Young. Would the Knicks consider No. 8, No. 10 and Prince for the third pick? Do both of the Hawks' selections get the Cavaliers to part with No. 5?
Defaulting to the best players available works for the Hawks. Jaxson Hayes or Brandon Clarke would be an interesting frontcourt partner for John Collins, and embracing a slight reach for a high-variance prospect like Kevin Porter Jr. wouldn't be a bad idea for a team with a coaching staff geared toward player development.
9. Washington Wizards: Hire a Friggin' General Manger
Winning the draft lottery would have afforded the Washington Wizards some leeway in their general manager search. It doesn't take as much prep work to select the unchallenged No. 1 prospect.
Missing out on that good fortune places an additional burden on the Wizards. Much of the scouting is no doubt done, but they have to map out more what-ifs. And they need a direction before they can do that.
Do they offer Bradley Beal a supermax extension if he makes an All-NBA team? Might they consider trading him?
Trevor Ariza, Thomas Bryant (restricted), Jeff Green, Bobby Portis (restricted) and Tomas Satoransky (restricted) are all heading into free agency. Who among them will Washington look to re-sign? How many can they afford? What's the call on Jabari Parker's team option?
Oh, and here's a doozy: Are the Wizards against rebuilding? In favor of it? Open to considering it?
Ernie Grunfeld's replacement will need time to answer all these questions. The answers and leanings will impact how the Wizards approach the draft. They're in best-player-available country, but that rings hollow until they have a larger plan for the future of the franchise.
10. Dallas Mavericks (Pick Goes to Atlanta): Focus on Free Agency
Many thanks to the Dallas Mavericks for participating in this year's draft lottery. For their sake, here's hoping they're not back next year.
Failing to jump into the top four isn't all bad. This year's draft is light on star prospects after Zion Williamson, and Dallas' first-round obligations to New York as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade will now wrap up by 2023 instead of 2024 or later.
Free agency becomes the focus with the lottery hashed out. The Mavericks plan to go after Khris Middleton (player option) and Kemba Walker "with gusto," according to the New York Times' Marc Stein, and they need more cap space to do it.
Conveying their selection to the Hawks fast tracks them to almost $28 million in spending power if they keep Ryan Broekhoff and carry holds for Porzingis and fellow restricted free agents Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber. That puts them inside $5 million of starting salaries for Middleton or Walker.
Offloading Justin Jackson into another team's cap space makes up most, but not all, of the difference. The Mavericks can stretch Courtney Lee's $12.8 million salary, but that leaves him on the books at $4.3 million annually for the next three years.
Greasing the wheels of a larger salary dump is more impactful, and Lee is their best candidate. Expiring pacts are easier to move, and the Mavericks don't have the asset buffers necessary to unload the final two years and $37.1 million on Tim Hardaway Jr.'s deal.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves: Roll the Dice on a Wing
Anyone who can sponge up time at the 2, 3 or 4 will suffice for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Karl-Anthony Towns has center on lock, and while they need a big-picture option at point guard (sorry, Jeff Teague), they don't have access to that type of prospect in this slot.
Snagging a reliable outside marksman would be preferable, but any wing would do. Towns' outside touch allows the Timberwolves to roll the dice on a non-shooter they need to develop (Brandon Clarke) or someone with a not-so-expansive resume from beyond the arc (PJ Washington).
Shopping this pick shouldn't be off the table. Trading down would still permit them to scoop up a wing if they're not wowed by anyone in the lottery, and they might find a team willing to surrender something else of interest to enter Clarke and Jaxson Hayes range. A contender at the end of the first round may even fork over an asset or two to swing for the fences on Bol Bol.
Pursuing deals for an impact player is another option, albeit not the smoothest one. Picks outside the top five in this class aren't anchoring trades for Bradley Beal or Jrue Holiday—Mike Conley is a different story—and new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas hasn't (publicly) committed to a win-now timeline.
12. Charlotte Hornets: See Who New Orleans and Washington Are Vibing
Kemba Walker's free agency must be at the forefront of everything the Charlotte Hornets do. That includes their draft-night approach.
Letting Walker, ahem, walk is not in the cards, otherwise they would have put him on the chopping block leading up to one of the past two trade deadlines. But they're not locks to keep him, either.
Charlotte's fifth-year trump card doesn't mean as much if Walker plans to reach free agency again over the next three years or, more likely, ranks winning ahead of contract value. He has reached the playoffs just twice in eight years, and the Hornets haven't yet figured out how to get him a genuine sidekick—failures he has taken to heart.
"I got the sense in talking to people, that trade deadline really deflated him," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Woj Pod (h/t Clutch Points' Bruno Manrique). "When they were pretty close on a Marc Gasol deal, and it fell apart. It didn't happen. He goes to Toronto. And he looks around and goes, 'Come on, what are we trying to do here?'"
Finding a running mate for Walker isn't getting any easier. The Hornets will be up against the tax if they max him out and completely blow past it if they also bring back Jeremy Lamb. Coughing up this year's lottery pick should get talks started in some instances—Mike Conley, perhaps—but it'll take much more to land a younger star.
Phoning the Pelicans and Wizards is a good place to start. The Hornets may not have the supplemental assets to pry away Jrue Holiday or Bradley Beal, and giving up Miles Bridges for either stands to result in an overpay. But they have to see what, if anything, this year's first-rounder can help them get.
Walker's free agency, and therefore Charlotte's future, depends on it.
13. Miami Heat: Draft Best Non-Big Available
Under no circumstances should the Miami Heat use this pick to lop off salary from the bottom line. They'll remain comfortably over the luxury tax even if they waive Ryan Anderson's partial guarantee, but using a lottery selection to save money isn't good business—for now, anyway.
Team president Pat Riley has designs on signing two max players in 2020. The Heat need to jettison two of James Johnson (two years, $31.4 million), Kelly Olynyk (two years, $23.9 million) and Dion Waiters (two years, $24.8 million) to make that happen. And whereas Olynyk is movable on his own, it'll take a buffer to unload one of the other two.
That's a pickle for another day—another year, really.
Cap space shouldn't be created unless the Heat absolutely need it, and they won't have a concrete grasp of their free-agency prospects until closer to next July. They can worry about pawning off contracts when Johnson (player option) and Waiters are entering the final year of their deals and won't cost as much to relocate.
In the meantime, the Heat need cost-controlled depth everywhere except the 5. They have enough bodies to stick at the 4, as well, but their primary options at power forward are either best suited at center or unfit to take reps at the 3.
Opting for a combo wing (2-3/3-4) is the most endorsable move given where they sit, and they're positioned to reach for a high-variance prospect after they almost made the playoffs this year. Kevin Porter Jr. springs to mind before anyone else.
No. 14, Boston Celtics: Ramp Up Davis Pursuit/Draft Best Player Available
It really is too bad for the Celtics that the Sacramento Kings weren't, well, too bad this season. A better pick coming their way would make for an even more unbeatable Anthony Davis trade package.
Not much changes for Boston following the lottery. Maybe New Orleans' asking price somehow shifts after winning the rights to Zion Williamson. Los Angeles will move the baseline-offer needle following its leap into the top four. That's all fine. No other team can offer more for Davis than the Celtics, and Kyrie Irving's free agency will define their offseason blueprint.
Figuring out the order of operations remains their biggest obstacle. Going all out for Davis before free agency should increase the chance that both he and Irving stick over the long haul.
Except, what if it doesn't?
Shipping out Jayson Tatum—and potentially Jaylen Brown—is one thing when it results in a core headlined by both Davis and Irving. It becomes an entirely different matter if Boston winds up with Davis alone and no assurances of his return in 2020.
Waiting for free agency to unfurl is the Celtics' best bet unless Irving declares his intention to stay put...again. Acting earlier only behooves them if they fancy the Knicks a legitimate threat to acquire Davis and poach Irving. And after missing out on Zion Williamson, New York is arguably neither.