The Implications of a Wild NBA Draft Lottery

14 teams enter; 1 team leaves…with Zion. This year’s NBA draft lottery had the kind of high stakes drama, excitement, and anguish that would be well-suited for the Thunderdome. The prize, Zion Williamson, is the most anticipated player since Lebron James in 2003. Drafted behind Zion will almost certainly be Ja Morant and RJ Barrett. With the new lottery format flattening the odds, all the teams had a more equitable chance at grabbing one of these top guys. The rule changes clearly worked. The Pelicans and Grizzlies rode some luck up the draft board and snagged the top 2 picks; the Knicks and Lakers followed them with picks #3 and #4. A surprising lottery is an appropriate start to a summer that will feature blockbuster trades and stunning free agent signings. Here, I’ll take a look at where the winners of the draft lottery stand now and I’ll get into some future hypotheticals they may face.

Before the lottery, the future of the Pelicans was clear, albeit bleak. The only viable option was to trade Davis during the summer, get whatever assets they could in return, and begin their rebuild. Now, after winning the 6% jackpot, the Pelicans face a dilemma: should they trot out Davis next season and hope he and Zion form the kind of chemistry that makes Davis rethink his future? The newly appointed GM of the Pelicans, David Griffin, believes his team “can be Oklahoma City with Paul George,” which suggests his intent may be to keep Davis next year.

On paper, it seems like it’s worth the risk. A frontcourt featuring Davis, Zion, and Julius Randle (assuming he resigns with the team) would be among the most dominant in the league; Jrue Holiday plays near an All-Star level and there projects to be enough cap space to sign a serviceable wing player. This team won’t win the championship, but Griffin and the Pelicans only aim to show Davis that a winning future is possible with Zion in the mix.

Winning the lottery could also induce the Pelicans to lean into the rebuild and trade Davis for more young assets. If the Pelicans do decide to move on, finding a trade partner for the big man would be interesting. Davis is a free agent in 2020 and is only willing to sign a long term deal with “a handful” of teams. Among those on the list are the Knicks and Lakers. The Knicks could offer this year’s #3 pick, likely to be Zion’s Duke buddy RJ Barrett, and future picks in return for Davis. The Lakers could send an offer similar to their February proposal of 6 players and 2 picks in return for Davis. As great as Anthony Davis is, if the Pelicans aren’t certain he will resign in 2020, they should trade him and get young players to go alongside their new franchise cornerstone. The team just won one lottery, so maybe they decide to roll the dice on Davis too, but they do so at the risk of watching his trade value plummet. By getting the #1 pick, the Pelicans gained power in this summer’s trade deals. How they decide to leverage it, is going to impact the future of Zion and the Pelicans for years to come.

The results of the Draft Lottery create a lot of questions for the New York Knicks as well. Muddling the picture of their future is the prospective free agents that apparently have eyes for New York. Although many Knicks fans are disgruntled with the results of the lottery, staying in the top 3 picks ought to be considered a win. Having a shot at either Morant or, more likely, Barrett is going to give the franchise the kind of star power it desperately needs. “Tank for Zion” may have failed, but consider that a year ago, Barrett was the presumptive #1 pick and that during his time at Duke, he scored more points and totaled more assists than Zion. Also, like Anthony Davis, Barrett prefers to play with either the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Lakers, so he is excited about the team. Pairing Barrett with a young core of Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson, and Kevin Knox should give Knicks fans some hope, but that team isn’t getting near the playoffs without the help of some off-season acquisitions. Looming free agency is what makes the Knicks’ future as uncertain as any team in the lottery.

As a…*deep breath*…lifelong Knicks fan, I have learned to be skeptical of possible free agents like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Trying to predict the decisions of Durant and Irving–two of the more enigmatic personalities in the league–is difficult. However, getting the #3 pick does help the Knicks attract free agents. If the pick is kept, the Knicks will net a young player with the makings of a future NBA all-star. But the question remains whether this is somebody that free agents have a strong desire to play with next year. If the answer is no, then the pick may become a trade chip for Anthony Davis. By doing this, the Knicks would add a player whom Durant and/or Kyrie have a desire to play alongside next year. If the Knicks keep their draft pick, it gives us an indication the team is rebuilding for the future; but, if they trade it this summer, then the franchise is clearly going all-in on next season.

Typically, teams in the lottery are rebuilding for the future. They want their draft pick to bring some excitement, but the player isn’t expected to develop quickly. This is not the case with the Los Angeles Lakers. They already have their star player in Lebron James and, with his championship window closing, the team is in win-now mode. They will make their pick based on who can add the most value in the next 2 seasons. If the Lakers brass–Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka, and LeBron–don’t see that kind of player on the board, they could very well trade the pick. Outside of the top 3, it’s difficult to project each team’s selection, however, the 4th pick will allow the Lakers to draft a high level talent like Jarrett Culver, DeAndre Hunter, or Cam Reddish. Hunter and Reddish play off the ball well and can add some much needed outside shooting. But, adding rookies to the already young supporting cast of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma won’t necessarily help the Lakers win now.

When the Lakers tried to acquire Anthony Davis in February, the Pelicans assumed the Lakers would have a low first round pick. Despite having the 11th best odds, however, the Lakers were able to slide up to pick #4. So is that pick enough to entice the Pelicans into finally doing a deal? Davis and Lebron would be as good as any 1-2 punch in the league and it would make the Lakers a destination for veteran free agents looking for a ring. As a fallback, the high-value lottery pick will open up some non-Davis trade options, such as Bradley Beal. Whether they keep it or trade it, lucking into the #4 pick was a great way to start an important off-season for the Lakers.

Finally, we arrive at the least dramatic of the top 4 lottery teams: the Memphis Grizzlies. While there is a small chance that they select Barrett with the #2 overall pick, the team reportedly favors Morant over Barrett. The Grizzlies are in the midst of a more classic rebuild and, unlike the Knicks and Lakers, they aren’t projected to make any big splashes during free agency. With the selection of another point guard in Morant, the Grizz appear to be moving on from fan-favorite Mike Conley. The 11-year Grizzlies veteran has surfaced in trade rumors. He is poised to give the Grizzlies one last assist by netting them even more assets to build around Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., last year’s #4 overall pick.

The implications of this year’s Draft Lottery are too numerous and too far-reaching to fully get into here, but a few things are clear. For one, the Knicks, Lakers, Pelicans, and Anthony Davis are in some kind of confusing, mostly hypothetical love square. Their connections are littered across this article because the decisions of each party have implications for all others in the group. Each team landing in the top 4 of the lottery just intensified the situation. How these teams and the others that rose to the top of the draft board utilize their newfound capital during free agency and on the trade market is going to sculpt the NBA landscape for years to come.

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