The ping-pong balls have stopped bouncing around, and the NBA draft order is now set. What did we learn from the league’s most action-packed night that doesn’t involve a basketball? Here are four lessons:
Tanking Can and Will Backfire
The Grizzlies endured 60 losses this season. Sixty! They were the anti-Warriors, grinding through a disgruntled Marc Gasol season, a head coach firing, and lineups that featured players like Myke Henry and Xavier Rathan-Mayes. So what do they get for their troubles? Not even a top-three pick. Memphis had the second-best odds to land the top pick and a better-than–50 percent shot at staying in the top three. Instead, the Grizzlies dropped to the fourth pick. This outcome is tragic for a team in desperate need of a franchise player. The three teams above them at least have potential stars: The Suns have Devin Booker, the Kings have De’Aaron Fox, and the Hawks even have John Collins. The Grizzlies have … Dillon Brooks? Better start hoping that no. 4 pick yields a star.
Take a look a spot below Memphis, and the situation gets even more bleak. The Magic fell from the fifth-best odds and a 29.1 percent chance to get a top-three pick to sixth overall. This looks increasingly like a two-player draft at the top, but there’s still talent to be acquired through the top five and beyond; it just isn’t transcendent. Orlando needs transcendence, and the chances of the team finding it at no. 6, much like its recent draft history, aren’t great. Aaron Gordon has been improving every season, but he still projects as a high-end role player, not a surefire All-Star. The Magic lost 57 games this season, and, like the Grizz, they made it through the 82 games by trotting out lineups that were seemingly engineered explicitly for losses.
There are no guarantees that attempts to tank will work during the season, either. Just ask the Bulls how they feel about that seven-game winning streak in December after landing the seventh overall pick Tuesday. Next season, as part of the league’s tanking “reform,” it will even the odds of the three worst teams to equal 14 percent chances at the no. 1 pick. Spoiler alert: That won’t stop teams from tanking.
Don’t Trade Kyrie Irving for the Eighth Overall Pick
This could be shortened to “don’t trade Kyrie Irving, period.” Regardless, that the Cavs couldn’t muster any luck to move up into the top three casts an even bigger, uglier shadow on the trade. At no. 8, Cleveland is stuck. The pick by itself is not valuable enough to be a tantalizing trade piece, and unless the team stumbles into the next Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell at no. 8, the pick isn’t going to produce a game-changing talent that could help out LeBron next season. Of course, there’s a chance [engage galaxy brain] that LeBron could advise the Cavs front office on who he likes—à la the Shabazz Napier pick with the Heat—only to bounce come free-agency time. What a way to leave Dan Gilbert that would be.
It’s hard not to blame Gilbert for what the Cavs look like right now, as they trail the Celtics 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals and hold a pick that likely won’t help them in the short term. Gilbert was manning the controls when general manager David Griffin left without a contract extension at the start of an offseason when the Cavs were rumored to be in play for Paul George and Kyrie was asking for a trade. You can argue the Cavs took the best available deal, but acquiescing to the trade request so easily left them no other choice. The problem, of course, is that the Nets improved under Kenny Atkinson and won 28 games, more than enough to spoil any dream of drafting a player with talent even close to Kyrie’s. The lesson: Don’t trade superstars.
Danny Ainge Wins (Sort of) Even When He Loses
Boston had a slim chance to move up to no. 2 or no. 3 and steal the Sixers pick (via the Markelle Fultz trade) this year. Though that didn’t happen, Boston gets the next-best thing: next year’s Kings top-one-protected first-rounder. That 2019 pick is in addition to three other potential picks: a top-eight protected from Memphis, a top-14 protected from the Clippers, plus Boston’s own first-rounder. That’s a total of four possible first-round picks next year. Add that to the Celtics’ deep postseason run without Kyrie and Gordon Hayward, and it’s the chocolate syrup, whipped cream, sprinkles, and cherry on top of their already-golden sundae.
This is the killing Ainge has made from the Brooklyn deal, which somehow still continues to have a monstrous impact on the future of the league. He’s multiplied the assets from that deal and turned them into even more assets or star players like Kyrie, convinced All-Stars to pick Boston, and hired a head coach that is putting together a Popovichian season. I will speak for all the non-Celtics fan out there and ask in angst: Can Danny Ainge make a mistake already? It probably won’t happen anytime soon. While the Warriors seem unbeatable in the present, Boston has the firepower to keep getting richer for the future, while staying competitive right now. It’s the best of both worlds. While the lesson here may just be to marvel at the Celtics, the bigger message is: Don’t trade with Danny Ainge.
Jerry West Will Gladly Take Late Lottery Picks
Before the lottery order was finalized, newly hired executive Jerry West joked that he would probably fall asleep during the proceedings because of the slim odds the Clippers had to move up from their 12th (from Detroit) and 13th slots. And maybe they don’t need to: West is one of the best at evaluating talent and finding jewels in the rubble of prospects that come into the league every season. Giving him a pair of opportunities to find that diamond, even at the tail end of the lottery, is like giving a slugger two consecutive swings at hittable pitches. He’s probably not going to miss twice.
You need luck on lottery night, but there are teams that need it more than others. The Kings’ ascension to the second overall choice is a celebration not only because they caught a break, but also because it mitigates the danger of screwing up. Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic are both franchise-changing prospects, and Sacramento will be fine with either. History tells us that the Kings aren’t the best at drafting players in the top half of the lottery, but history also tells us that people like West can be the difference between drafting a bust or ending up with Donovan Mitchell. Whether or not there’s a Mitchell in this draft, it’s hard not to trust West to maximize those late picks, or at least trust him more than, say, Charlotte at no. 11, Cleveland at no. 8, or even the Knicks at no. 9. For all the hoopla around the ping-pong balls, at the end of the day, teams still have to make the right picks. And for now, West has the track record to earn Clippers fans’ faith. He also has the same pick that landed Mitchell last season: lucky no. 13.