Top 10 Storylines Ahead of 2020 NBA Draft
You know how time seems to stand still in 2020? The NBA apparently never got the memo.
The league crowned a champion in October and will tip off next season in December. This uniquely truncated offseason has both the draft and the opening of free agency on next week's schedule.
It's about to be a roster-altering frenzy, and the rumor mill is already operating at full steam. So, we're examining the top 10 storylines ahead of the 2020 talent grab, subjectively ranked by their perceived importance to the Association.
10. Does Anyone Want to Move Up?
This is finally starting to change, but for months, all draft-night trade talks have involved which teams could be interested in dealing their picks for established veterans or moving down the board—starting with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors, who will select first and second, respectively.
But it takes two teams (at least) to facilitate an exchange, and identifying buyers has been tricky. There are, however, reports finally trickling out about who's looking to move up.
The Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks are all possibilities to trade up to No. 2, per ESPN's Jonathan Givony. Givony added "there are scenarios" in which the Charlotte Hornets could try climbing from No. 3 to No. 1.
Out west, the Denver Nuggets are reportedly seeking a top-10 pick, per Mike Singer of The Denver Post. It's unclear who they're targeting—Singer mentioned Tyrese Haliburton, Isaac Okoro and Devin Vassell as roster fits—but the cost could be significant, since their first-rounder landed at No. 22.
9. Who Are the Trade-Up Targets?
In order for teams to climb the draft board, they must be chasing the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick. In other words, they likely need a specific target to pique their interest before meeting the requisite cost.
While that could technically apply to any prospect—it only takes one interested party, after all—several prospects seem likeliest to warrant such a move.
For lottery teams with win-now intentions (or at least hopes), Obi Toppin could be an option. He has enough defensive question marks to slide, but a front office could grow enamored with his fully loaded arsenal. Onyeka Okongwu—the highest-rated big and No. 3 prospect on the latest big board from B/R's Jonathan Wasserman—could attract someone (cough, Washington Wizards) with a hole at the interior and major defensive needs.
Killian Hayes may warrant a move up if he falls near the back end of the top 10, as many mocks predict. He's No. 2 in Wasserman's eyes and the favorite prospect of The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor. RJ Hampton is an option if teams buy into his shooting improvement. Tyrell Terry, a lethal long-range shooter, and Aleksej Pokusevski, a 7-footer with intriguing perimeter skills, could both convince clubs their sky-high ceilings are worth a trade investment.
8. What Happens at No. 4?
While the draft's uncertainty runs right through the top, the real mystery begins with the No. 4 pick. That's presumably when LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman have all come off the board, leaving the Chicago Bulls to decide between the next prospect tier.
The Bulls are most commonly linked with playmakers. Despite rostering several intriguing scoring options, this club placed just 29th in offensive efficiency. They might need someone to tie all their pieces together—Tomas Satoransky might be the only pass-first player on the roster—which is why names like Deni Avdija, Tyrese Haliburton and Killian Hayes are seen as Windy City targets.
Saying that, Chicago hasn't cracked 30 wins or made a playoff trip in three seasons. The No. 4 pick shouldn't be based on need, especially if the new front office isn't married to the current core. If the Bulls take the best-player-available route, they could lean any number of different directions, which is why this selection spot might shape much of what happens in the opening round.
"[The Bulls have] done a really good job of keeping their options open," Givony said on The Lowe Post podcast (h/t Forbes' Jason Patt). "Even the agents of the players at the top, they have no idea. Usually, by now the agents have a pretty good idea of where their guys stand with each team. Nobody really knows where they stand with Chicago."
7. What Is Happening in Houston?
Beyond the bearded face of the franchise, the Houston Rockets might be hard to recognize next season. Even if you could sense some potential stumbling blocks in Space City, it's still a pretty stunning turn of events for a club with the second-most victories and five playoff series wins to show for the past four seasons.
Mike D'Antoni is gone. Daryl Morey is gone. Russell Westbrook wants out, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. James Harden is still committed to the Rockets, per Charania and Kelly Iko, but it's safe to assume the 31-year-old MVP will be closely watching to see what, if anything, Houston can get for Westbrook.
"As it pertains to both Harden and Westbrook, there is concern about the direction the team is heading in, specifically worried that the team may prefer a rebuild sooner rather than later," Charania, Iko and Sam Amick reported. "Both have zero interest in a rebuild."
The Rockets will always present some level of a threat as long as Harden is around because he's a transcendent scorer who has been optimized by their system and supporting cast. But strengthening this roster won't be easy, and Westbrook's colossal contract ($132.6 million for the next three seasons) probably torpedoes his trade value.
6. Is Edwards at Risk of a Draft-Night Slide?
At different points of the pre-draft process, Edwards has appeared likeliest to land No. 1, and there's still a chance his name gets called first Wednesday night.
But among the three prospects seemingly vying for that spot, his position feels the most tenuous. While he boasts an NBA-ready build and best-case scenario comparisons to Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo, Edwards' red flags may be outweighing his reward.
"Teams are worried about Edwards' drive and enthusiasm for winning," Wasserman reported. "Scouts and executives have mentioned that his teams haven't won at any level, and that he even forgets plays and actions."
Wasserman's stock report, which included an unfavorable comparison to Dion Waiters, came before Edwards disappointed in his televised pro day with "sluggishness and inconsistencies with his jump shot," per Givony. The Athletic's John Hollinger recently wrote, "I can’t find anybody excited to pick him, and that makes me wonder if he could slip."
If Edwards gets past No. 3, which still seems less likely than not, it'll be fascinating to see how far he could fall and whether anyone might move up to stop his skid.
5. Will Warriors Keep or Trade No. 2?
There are two ways for the Warriors to view the second overall selection.
On one hand, they could treat it as their key to brokering a blockbuster for an impact player who instantly helps Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green compete for the 2021 title. On the other, they may view it as their bridge to the chapter to follow the aforementioned 30-somethings.
Each viewpoint has merit, and it's unlikely the Dubs view either side as the definite answer. This all hinges on value—both of the available prospects and the incoming trade offers, which haven't crystallized just yet.
"I think the concrete stuff comes next week," Warriors general manager and president of basketball operations Bob Myers told reporters. "'What would you do with your pick' 'I don't know, what do you want for it, or what would you give us for it?' But we haven't had a lot of firm, 'We'll give you X, Y, Z.'"
The Warriors are uniquely positioned as an early lottery team with legitimate title aspirations. It's no stretch to say their handling of the No. 2 pick could reverberate across the basketball world.
4. Can Wiseman Convince Clubs That Size Still Matters?
Last summer, Wiseman stood above the rest of his freshman class as the top-ranked recruit, per 247Sports composite ranking. Now, he's generally regarded as one of the three top prospects in this draft, but even that opinion isn't shared by all.
"I've spoken with NBA executives who have Wiseman first, and others who have him ranked outside of the top 10," O'Connor reported.
Wiseman is overloaded with physical tools. He's 7'1" with a 7'6" wingspan, and he has bounce. That's an intriguing combination, though it may be less in demand than ever as the league increasingly shifts to a smaller, faster, more perimeter-oriented style.
He should seamlessly slide into a rim-running and finishing role, and that has some value—but not top-five-draft-pick value. So, how can he reach that level? Will his flashes of perimeter shot-making manifest into legitimate three-point range? Can he clean up his footwork and fine-tune his instincts to stifle opponents on defensive switches? Could coaches coax better reads and playmaking out of him?
He seems the safest of the top prospects with his projectable role, but front office opinions about his ceiling and fit in the modern game will determine exactly where he lands.
3. Who Wins Jrue Holiday Sweepstakes?
When the New Orleans Pelicans landed Stan Van Gundy as their next head coach, conventional wisdom suggested the hiring might keep Jrue Holiday based in the Big Easy. Coaxing a 61-year-old away from a cushy broadcasting gig isn't easy, especially for a club potentially considering moving its timeline into the future.
But the Pels are "openly discussing" Holiday deals, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, and it's probably the prudent move if the price is right. Holiday lands a rung below stardom, and at 30 years old, his prime window doesn't align perfectly with those of 20-year-old Zion Williamson or 23-year-old Brandon Ingram, a restricted free agent New Orleans is expected to retain, per Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor.
Holiday should hold significant appeal among win-now shoppers. He's a brilliant defender who offers substantial versatility on both ends of the floor. Whether teams need a lead guard or an off-ball shooter and secondary playmaker, the 2012-13 All-Star can scratch either itch.
The Denver Nuggets, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors all loom as logical suitors. The Atlanta Hawks "have emerged as a potential trade destination" for Holiday, per Marc Stein of the New York Times, and the Celtics are eyeing Holiday too, per O'Connor. If the Pelicans are in the market for draft assets, they might find them at the annual talent grab.
2. Is LaMelo a Lock at No. 1?
LaMelo Ball has the highest ceiling in this draft.
As subjective as that sounds (and is), it almost feels more like an objective observation given the massive impact he can have on an offense. There's a universe in which he's a defense-bending supplier of deep, off-the-dribble threes and delectable dimes, all of which simplify the game for the players around him. Wiseman and Edwards offer star potential of their own, but Ball might be the only one who can establish an organization's identity.
That likely explains why "many around the NBA are operating under the assumption that Ball will be the [No. 1 pick]," per Givony. Ball isn't the cleanest fit with D'Angelo Russell, but if Minnesota believes he's the best prospect in the draft, it should either take him anyway or trade out of the top spot.
The Wolves seem to be giving Ball serious consideration—Givony noted Ball's private workout with them was his first with any team—as they should. While the defensive concerns are enormous with a Ball-Russell-Karl-Anthony Towns trio, the offensive upside might be even higher. Plus, if you have a preternatural passer, wouldn't he be best weaponized when surrounded by scoring threats?
These conversations surely are taking place right now in Minnesota and may well continue into Wednesday night. This is the most important call to make with any draft pick, but one plot line surpasses it in league-wide importance for its potential to shake-up the 2021 championship race.
1. Who Gets the Point God?
Chris Paul's days with the Oklahoma City Thunder are numbered. The team is about to plunge into a top-to-bottom rebuild, which is the last way a (ring-less) 35-year-old future Hall of Famer wants to spend his twilight years.
Any contender with a less-than-elite option at point guard should be looking to facilitate his escape from the Sooner State. His contract is admittedly atrocious ($85.6 million for his age-35 and -36 seasons), but that should mean his trade cost is clearance-priced. If a second-tier prospect or mid-first-round pick could anchor an exchange, that's absurd value for someone who still grades out as elite.
In 2019-20, he was one of only 10 players to average 17 points, six assists and five rebounds. He ranked fifth in ESPN's real plus-minus and ninth in win shares. He collected MVP votes and landed an All-NBA second-team spot.
He can transform a team, just like he did with the Thunder. He makes all the sense in the world for the Milwaukee Bucks, though they're reportedly balking at his contract price, per The Athletic's Sam Amick and Eric Nehm. But if taking on the money shows a commitment to chasing championships and convinces Giannis Antetokounmpo to ink a super-max, few dollars would ever be better spent.
The Philadelphia 76ers need more playmaking, shooting and leadership. Paul could check all three boxes. The Los Angeles Clippers could be a floor general away from a title. A reunion with CP3 might seal the deal. The Phoenix Suns are in hot pursuit, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps, and while Paul probably wouldn't turn them into a 2020-21 contender, he could snap their playoff drought and make them a tricky matchup.
Nearly every trade route would have Paul impacting next season's playoff picture if not the championship race. The lone exception might be a reunion with his former agent, Leon Rose, on the New York Knicks, and even then, he'd be changing the culture of the most recognizable team in the country's biggest market.
A CP3 trade will be a big, big deal whenever it goes down.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.