Draft Lottery Thoughts

Just time for some super-quick hits following a wild night of ping-pong ball action in Chicago. [Wait, what?] Here goes:

New Orleans getting Zion is like a TV show with a cliffhanger ending. I have no particular issue with the Pels landing the top pick — after all, I did just argue yesterday it might be the only way to save basketball in New Orleans — but it’s weirdly unsatisfying because it doesn’t answer ANY questions. In fact, it just raises a whole bunch of new ones. Will Anthony Davis still want to be traded? If so, will new GM David Griffin succumb to his demands or try to keep it together, at least through February? Is Zion upset about this outcome? Will he want to be traded? What would a Zion trade even look like? Is an AD/Zion/Jrue core good enough to be a top-4 seed in the West?

I don’t know any of these answers, but I know it’s about to be a spicy summer down on the Bayou. Buckle up.

The Lakers have luck tattooed to their asses. When the LA logo didn’t appear in its prescribed envelope last night, every non-Lakers fan, myself included, was apoplectic. How on Earth does this glitzy but incompetent franchise, so wholly undeserving of any sort of good fortune, keep getting blessed with it? Thankfully, they “only” moved up to no. 4 overall, but even still, the way in which possessing such an asset improves their positioning in trades and free agency feels entirely unfair. Does having the pick get them back in the AD sweepstakes, bad blood aside? It’s not as though LeBron has a track record of wanting to play with rookies, so it’s hard to imagine they’ll keep the pick. There’s just no damn justice in the world.

Where does Memphis go from here? Moving up to no. 2 (and thus rolling over the pick they owe to Boston until next year; more on that later) presents a number of interesting choices for the Grizz. First, do they take Ja Morant or RJ Barrett? Most draftniks consider Morant to be the superior prospect, and he could be anointed as the heir apparent to franchise point guard Mike Conley, even if it would result in some redundancy in the short term. Barrett is perhaps the better fit, and there remains quite a bit of disagreement among fans and folks in the league about his actual ceiling. [My quick take: he’s probably better than what he showed at Duke. It has to be tough for an 18-year-old kid who was considered the best player in the country to step onto campus and instantly be outshone by his teammate and best friend. He’s also a classic slash-and-kick wing who, despite the buttloads of talent Duke possessed, really had no shooters to whom he could reliably kick. He’s athletic, his shot mechanics look fine, and the increased spacing in the NBA will suit him well. He’ll need a low-pressure, nurturing environment where he can play through his mistakes (read: NOT the Knicks), but we shouldn’t be writing him off just yet. That said, I would still take Morant over him if it were my team to run.]

Their good fortune also raises the stakes on how to proceed into the future, most notably what to do with Mike Conley. If they were ready to green-light a full-on rebuild, it would make sense to move on from the franchise icon. Conley still has two years remaining on his massive contract — the second year is an Early Termination option, though one suspects he won’t exercise it — but the dollar figure is now a lot less of a turn-off than it once was. Even at 31, he could still have quite a bit of trade value for a team needing one more key piece. [The Jazz, Sixers, and Lakers all make some sense.] There’s a cost/benefit to trading away Conley. It would most likely make the team worse in the short term, which would increase the odds they luck (or suck) their way into rolling over the Boston pick again next season. [It is top-6 protected next year, though as last night’s lottery clearly demonstrated, no amount of tanking guarantees anything in this brave new world.] By the time the pick becomes unprotected in 2021, the team may have amassed enough talent and experience to devalue it to some extent. It’s a dangerous game, but they’re basically playing with house money now, and a bad plan is usually better than no plan at all.

Atlanta got screwed. The evening went about as poorly as possible for the Hawks, in spite of the good karma they banked from rolling out a fun, young, competitive team at season’s end. [Unlike the Lakers and Pelicans, who both effectively shut down their stars over the last month of the season and were rewarded for their chicanery. Again, no damn justice.] Their misfortune was two-fold. First, they didn’t get Zion, despite some hard-to-miss evidence he would have welcomed going to Atlanta:

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Second, the Mavs’ pick, which is owed to Atlanta from the Trae Young/Luka Doncic swap last year, fell all the way to 10th (in addition to their own pick falling to 8th). So, we now have the hindsight to be able to say Atlanta traded Luka Doncic for Trae Young and the 10th overall pick. Not great, Bob.

They’ll add to their war chest of assets in any case, and if, by some miracle, there turns out to be a trade sweepstakes for Zion’s services, signs point to the Hawks being a part of it. More likely, they’ll end up ruing what could have been.

Last night was a sneaky win for the Celtics. It may feel a little disappointing to Boston fans that they left last night with only the 14th pick (in addition to nos. 20 and 22, into which they were already locked), especially considering how valuable the Sacramento pick seemed only a year ago. Barring the unlikely event of the pick jumping into the top-4, however, the Kings’ pick was a sunk cost (sunk asset?). The real action for them was in what happened with Memphis, and the pick rolling over to next year was the best possible outcome for the Celtics.

Actually drafting a player with the 9th pick wouldn’t have held a ton of value for Boston. They would be committing a roster spot (and ostensibly, minutes) to a young guy not ready to contribute for a team looking to win big next season. And as I’ve discussed previously, if they wanted to trade the pick — perhaps as part of an AD package — it’s a delicate dance. They can’t trade for Davis until July 1st, but the draft is on June 20th, so they would be stuck drafting who they think New Orleans might want (assuming no shenanigans) and hoping for the best. By contrast, a less-protected future pick from a team increasingly likely to rebuild is a FAR more valuable asset. A pick is worth more in the abstract than it is once an actual human is attached to it, especially when it has the potential to be an even higher pick at some TBD moment in the future. Danny Ainge has to be thrilled with his under-the-radar good fortune. Short of the Sacramento pick magically moving into the top-4, things couldn’t have worked out better for him.

Did the new format dissuade tanking? Not really, though it certainly made for a more exciting television spectacle. Seeing the Lakers, Grizzlies, and Pelicans all jump up (while Chicago, Phoenix, and Cleveland all fell hard) probably won’t change the behavior of the teams at the very bottom in and of itself, though the unintended consequence may be to change the inflection point at which tanking occurs, and in what form. Flattening the odds across the board makes it less desirable to be one of the very worst teams — and it played out that way last night, with all small sample size caveats being applied — but realistically, most of those teams were going to be lousy anyway, and the new format will have only marginal effects on the in-season behavior of those franchises. However, for bad-though-not-atrocious teams who realize around mid-March they aren’t going to make the playoffs, there are huge potential rewards in throwing away that last month of the year, a period of the season which already suffers from quite enough terrible basketball without additional motivation. Overall, I guess I’m for the changes, but it’s in large part because last night was a captivating thirty minutes of entertainment, not because the rule change ushered in some new, golden era of fairness and competition. Wholesale changes in how the league disperses talent would be needed to fully disincentivize tanking, but that is an entirely separate conversation.

Top Photo Credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Associated Press

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