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The Winners and Losers of the NBA Draft Lottery

The Celtics are out-Processing the Sixers and the Lakers continue their rebuild apace

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s comical when you think about it: a bunch of ping-pong balls bouncing around a wind machine determine the destinies of organizations within a multibillion-dollar business. But the NBA draft lottery is an annual tradition that I love every minute of. As NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum pulls basketball team logos from envelopes, there’s nothing like the nerves, the excitement, and the euphoria — or dread.

Celtics and Lakers fans were elated Tuesday night, landing the first and second picks, respectively. The Sixers ended up with the third pick, courtesy of the pick swap with the Kings, who will now pick fifth. The Suns got bumped two spots to fourth, while the Magic, Wolves, and Knicks are slotted six through eight. The remainder of the draft stayed as expected, nine through 14: Mavs, Kings, Hornets, Pistons, Nuggets, and Heat.

Here are the winners and losers of the 2017 NBA draft lottery:

Winner: Boston Celtics

“What a great time to be a Celtics fan,” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck told NBA TV’s Jared Greenberg after the Celtics won the lottery, one day after his team beat the Wizards in a Game 7 and one day before they host the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Landing the top pick is the best-case scenario for Boston, but they would’ve been winners no matter the lottery outcome.

Boston is in an incredibly rare spot, as a 53-win team in the Eastern Conference finals with the no. 1 pick. Over the past 40 years, there have been only 10 instances in which a team won over 45 games and used a top-five pick in the draft. The Celtics were one of them last year, when they grabbed Jaylen Brown with the third pick. They will be again if they keep this year’s pick. Here’s the list:

Lottery luck doesn’t guarantee future success, but these players and teams have damn good track records. Two of those franchises became dynasties (the 1980s Celtics and Lakers). There are four Hall of Famers, and only two busts (Bowie and Darko). Bias seemed destined for stardom, but tragically died before playing in the NBA. Brown is off to an encouraging start as a raw rookie earning minutes on a team making a playoff run.

And now the Celtics will be picking first. They’ll have their choice of any player in the class, with Markelle Fultz as the obvious leading candidate. Fultz is the top prospect in The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide as a potential transformative player. Scorers who can take over fourth quarters and playoff games are still the hardest asset to find, and if Fultz blossoms into a star, he can take that responsibility.

More interestingly, the Celtics are now officially in the driver’s seat of all trade conversations. Trade Machine aficionados will look to find ways to land Indiana’s Paul George or Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, both of whom are likely available for the right deal this offseason. But the Celtics could also look to trade down, if there’s another player they like, such as Jayson Tatum or Josh Jackson — in similar fashion as Red Auerbach did in 1980 when he dealt the top pick (Joe Barry Carroll) for the third pick (Kevin McHale) and Robert Parish. Danny Ainge can get creative, seeing as he holds all the cards.

Watching the Sixers’ Process has been amazing — it’s like a real-life version of tanking in Madden or NBA 2K. But the Celtics have a much better version. They used trade override. They landed the top pick. They can create max cap space. Even if you hate the Celtics, there has to be at least a little bit of wonder. The Celtics will probably lose to the Cavs — that’s OK. The real fun happens this offseason. The top pick feels like icing on the cake.

Winner: The Ball Family and the Lakers

Congratulations to the Ball family: Lonzo Ball to the Lakers is what they were hoping for. “Oh, he’s going to be a Laker,” LaVar Ball recently told ESPN. “I’m going to keep talking about it until it happens.” Unless the Celtics pull some shenanigans at no. 1, or L.A. trades the pick for George, who also wants to wear purple and gold, this is happening. It feels like destiny — Magic Johnson gets hired as president of basketball operations, and then drafts the golden boy point guard drawing comparisons to Magic.

Congratulations to Magic (and Rob Pelinka): The Lakers were spared by the basketball gods. Los Angeles had a 46.9 percent chance of keeping its pick — had it landed fourth or lower, the Lakers would’ve been forced to send their selection to the Sixers and their 2019 first to the Magic to close out the Dwight Howard trade. They will lose their 2018 first to the Sixers, but it’s OK. They’re now in a prime position to add a young stud to their core and make other big moves.

Loser: The Phoenix Suns

The Suns got screwed more than any team, coming into the night with the second-best odds but netting just the fourth pick. They have a bright, young roster: Devin Booker dropped 70 and has developed into a more diverse scorer than many would’ve expected this early in his career, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender have terrific potential at the forward spots, and Tyler Ulis looks like a special potential sixth man. But they still lack the guy. Drafting Fultz would’ve accelerated their rebuild, but instead they’ll be forced to choose from the best available of the batch of leftovers.

It could still work out. There honestly aren’t any true “losers” from the lottery. The 2017 draft class is ripe with potential franchise-changers. The difficulty is figuring out who they are: There’s a thin line between success and failure in the NBA. Phoenix should target whoever it views as the top available prospect, regardless of position or fit.

Winner: The Sixers, Sam Hinkie, and the Process

The night could’ve gone better for the Sixers, but they will get the Lakers’ 2018 first (an even better draft up top, depending on who you ask) and they’re still in the third spot. It’ll be fascinating to see what they do with that pick. Malik Monk is a perfect fit next to Ben Simmons — we have him going there in our mock draft — because Monk doesn’t dominate the ball, is a superb athlete, and can be a knockdown shooter. But in terms of draft value, Monk is probably better served to go a few picks lower, so the Sixers could always look to trade down to a spot they can still get Monk and add additional pieces — I pitched this idea to Jonathan Tjarks on Tuesday’s post-lottery High Upside podcast.

But what about a trade up? Bryan Colangelo should at least give a ring to Ainge and see what it’d take to trade up for Fultz or Ball. The Sixers have so many unloadable assets that they could theoretically put together an appealing package, especially if the Celtics are unable to flip the first pick for an established superstar. Maybe nothing makes sense here, but I’m just trying to think outside the box — that’s what NBA executives do, so why shouldn’t we?

In the meantime, cheers, Sixers fans. Rejoice. Sam Hinkie’s gifts are still flowing. Feel hope for the future.

Loser: Small-Market Teams

If we’re being honest, the lottery results are a dream for the NBA. Three of the most popular, oldest franchises won the lottery — the Celtics, Lakers, and Sixers. I know some of y’all out there are wearing your tinfoil hats and imagining ways for the 2017 draft to be frozen enveloped — maybe with weighted lottery balls, or Adam Silver standing at the door of the lottery room with a neuralyzer from in Men in Black.

The draft lottery isn’t fixed. The odds were in favor of two of the three teams that won, and the Sixers benefited from the pick swap with the Kings. Some smaller-market franchises did get the short end of the stick, though. The Suns, Kings, Magic, and Wolves are all trailing right behind in the four-to-seven range. It’s a shame for them. The optics of having a top-three pick would’ve meant a lot for the franchise. The Kings haven’t had a top-three selection in their 11 straight lottery seasons. Damn.

All of these teams can still land viable pieces in their respective spots. The thought of pairing De’Aaron Fox in the backcourt with Buddy Hield should be exciting to Kings fans. They’re two culture-changing personalities that free agents may someday want to play and win with.

Winner: Joel Embiid

This was Joel Embiid’s reaction when the Sixers were awarded a top-three selection:

Plus, Embiid revealed he’ll have an MRI in three weeks and could find himself back on the basketball court soon. The Sixers were rewarded Tuesday, but there would be no better gift than a healthy Process.

Loser: Phil Jackson and the Knicks

“I think that we’re good at what we do,” Phil Jackson told the media after the Knicks landed the eighth pick. Are they really? They probably aren’t good at what they do — at least Jackson hasn’t been in his three years as team president since signing a five-year, $60 million contract in March 2014.

Jackson doesn’t have much to show for his tenure other than Kristaps Porzingis. He flipped Tim Hardaway Jr., who will get paid this summer, for Jerian Grant, a dud now coming off the Bulls bench. He signed Robin Lopez to a large contract in 2015, then flipped him one year later for Derrick Rose. It seemed like a smart cap-clearing move, but then he signed Joakim Noah to an albatross contract, and made it rain for a journeyman in Courtney Lee. They’ve had four head coaches in that time; none have been able to install the triangle offense to Jackson’s liking.

Jackson’s moves have been bizarre, to say the least — both in the front office and on social media. Willy Hernangómez has exceeded expectations for a second-rounder and undrafted free agent Ron Baker has a chance to stick around on a roster, but in Jackson’s three years at the helm, there’s only one player on the Knicks roster who is conceivably part of a potential championship core: Porzingis.

The Knicks could’ve used some lottery luck to shake off their dysfunction. They didn’t get it. They still need to figure out the Carmelo Anthony fiasco. If progress isn’t felt this offseason, for the franchise to truly move forward, Knicks owner James Dolan will need to wash his hands of Phil Jackson.