What already promised to be an interesting summer in New Orleans just got friggin’ fascinating. After finishing the 2018-19 NBA season tied for the league’s seventh-worst record at 33-49, the Pelicans entered Tuesday’s 2019 NBA draft lottery with a 6 percent chance of landing the no. 1 overall pick. They exited with a 100 percent chance of landing Duke’s Zion Williamson, perhaps the most exciting prospect to enter the draft since Anthony Davis left Kentucky in 2012.
Davis landed in New Orleans, too. Now—as you might have heard—after seven years, six All-Star appearances, two playoff berths and one very messy wasted season, Davis wants out. And now, though it might not have been his first choice, Zion will rush in. The ball bounces funny sometimes.
To borrow a phrase from the author Jonathan Lethem, Williamson is a world, an exploding bomb of possibilities, on the court and off it. Before Tuesday night, one widely discussed possibility was that whichever team wound up with the no. 1 pick would have the ultimate asset to headline a trade package for Davis—the right to draft Williamson and have a generational talent on a rookie-scale contract (and team control over his second deal). Now that New Orleans is the one who’ll be drafting Zion, though, the possibilities change. Chief among them: What if the Pelicans, like, don’t trade Davis this summer after all?
One month after starting his new gig, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin finds himself in the catbird seat. Right after he was hired, Griffin said he had spoken with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports—Davis’s agent/trade-request megaphone, who also represents LeBron James, with whom Griffin won the 2016 NBA championship during his time as the general manager of the Cavaliers. According to Griffin, he and Paul were “both excited about what we could potentially build here.” Adding Williamson—a 6-foot-7, 285-pound marvel capable of making an instant impact at the next level while developing into a devastating scorer, top-flight defensive center, and legitimate playmaker—to a core that already features Davis, two-way ace guard Jrue Holiday, and a crew of hard-charging reserves could give the Pelicans enough raw material to chart a path toward meaningful contention a hell of a lot quicker than anybody anticipated.
Davis might not be onboard with that blueprint, though. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported shortly after the lottery that AD’s “stance on a trade has not changed.” If true, that means he remains uninterested in signing a long-term extension in New Orleans, and wants to be shipped to a new home as soon as possible. But if Griffin can construct a roster good enough to win and enticing enough to convince AD to give it a chance—which sure sounds like his plan—then maybe the Pelicans find themselves vaulting right back into the Western Conference playoff picture next season, and maybe a 180-degree change in the franchise’s fortunes can convince Davis to change his mind about the future. If Davis is unmoved, Griffin can throw open the bidding process as anticipated, inviting the best offers from every team still salivating at the chance to import an MVP-caliber modern big man in his prime—and he doesn’t have to leap at the first passable offer to cross his desk. He can ask for the moon, weigh his options, and wait—maybe, if ownership’s got the stomach for it, even until next season’s trade deadline. He’ll deal from a position of strength, with a new cornerstone already on the way to take Davis’s place in the Pelicans frontcourt and in the hearts and minds of New Orleanians.
Everything’s on the table now—for Davis, for Zion, and for a Pelicans franchise that was in the throes of a crisis just three months ago. The ping-pong balls bounced funny. The bomb exploded. And the league is only just starting to feel the fallout.
Some other big takeaways from Tuesday’s drawing:
Reminder to Knicks fans: Never hope. (Unless …)
So much for miracles. While the Knicks finished the regular season with the league’s worst record and a share of the highest odds for landing the top overall pick, those odds were still extremely long—only a 14 percent chance, which, as my colleague Rodger Sherman helpfully noted, is also an 86 percent chance of not getting the top pick. That New York fell two spots to no. 3 was bad enough; that it was New Orleans who leapfrogged all the way to no. 1, landing the asset that, mere hours earlier, Knicks brass were reportedly planning to dangle in front of the Pelicans for Davis, was even more crushing.
The silver lining for the Knicks: Nobody else has the Zion pick to trade, either. As we consider the post-lottery landscape, it’s worth wondering what the best offers on the table for New Orleans might look like.
The Celtics have been waiting years for their chance to bid for Davis, but the uncertainty surrounding Kyrie Irving’s future looms large. If the All-Star point guard pulls up stakes after a disappointing end to a disappointing season, Davis could take a dimmer view of Boston’s prospects for long-term title contention, thus making him the kind of one-year rental for whom Celtics president Danny Ainge might not want to sacrifice potential cornerstones like Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. Even after the still-unbelievable exit of Magic Johnson and the month of internal chaos that has ensued in Los Angeles, LeBron’s Lakers surely still have interest in adding another marquee star to spark the return to prominence that was supposed to come this season. But given how testy negotiations got back in February, will Pelicans owner Gayle Benson be willing to gift-wrap Davis for L.A., even if Griffin evaluates the Lakers’ offer—which could now include this year’s no. 4 overall pick—as the best haul?
Other teams will likely get into the mix, too, including some we might not expect. (The dream of an Anthony Davis–Nikola Jokic combo is alive in my heart.) But it’s possible that, as frustrating as Tuesday’s result is for Knicks fans, New York could present a compelling enough package—involving some combination of the no. 3 pick, recent lottery picks Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., and Frank Ntilikina, the 2021 and 2023 first-round picks they got from the Mavericks in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, and (though the Knicks would probably resist this) second-round shot-blocking monster Mitchell Robinson—to make the Pelicans think hard about whether they’d get more elsewhere. Maybe that’s enough to land Davis, who could join a maximum-salaried free agent or two in a completely revamped Knicks lineup with a chance to be special.
It got harder to pull off on Tuesday, but New York’s dream scenario is still possible. How much hope you’re willing to invest in that outcome likely depends on how much of a masochist you consider yourself. Although, if you’re a Knicks fan, we already know the answer.
The Lakers won big, but what will they do with their winnings?
Under the new flattened-out lottery odds implemented this year, L.A. had only a 9.4 percent chance of getting a top-four pick. And yet, the Lakers rocketed all the way up from no. 11 to the no. 4 spot, which seemed to please the King …
#4 Beautiful.— LeBron James (@KingJames) May 15, 2019
... and which could offer a dramatic boost to the trade package they could offer for Davis. Provided, of course, that’s still the tack they plan to take.
As mentioned, it’s been a weird month in Lakerland, full of shifting power dynamics, midstream course changes in coaching hires, and what appears to be a fundamental lack of direction. The Lakers still have LeBron to build around, and with two guaranteed seasons left on the 34-year-old’s contract, the time seems ripe for a win-now reload prioritizing the addition of elite talent, both in free agency (the Lakers have enough cap space for a top-tier veteran maximum salary) and in trade. Then again, there seems to be at least some who watched the Lakers crater due to James’s midseason groin injury and the overarching effects of the Davis debacle, and think the franchise’s best path forward might instead be to reinvest in the young pieces—Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart—so frequently bandied about as fungible sweeteners in a potential AD deal. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recently described the Lakers’ eventual decision to hire Frank Vogel as their new head coach as their “passive-aggressive way of sort of resetting the LeBron era. I think this is their passive-aggressive way of saying, we need to empower our young guys, we need to get back to being a team.”
Those young guys can’t be empowered if they’re not on the roster. Is that no. 4 pick destined to become the swing piece in a Davis deal that sends the Lakers’ brightest young things to the Big Easy to link up with Zion? Or is it about to become the focal point of a tug-of-war over the wisest path forward for one of the NBA’s most volatile and drama-soaked organizations?
A new era in Memphis?
In a cosmic sense, it feels like a tough beat that the Grizzlies have now finished second in lotteries preceding drafts that featured LeBron, Blake Griffin, and Zion as consensus no. 1 prospects. In the specific context in which these Grizzlies are operating, though, second sure beats the eighth overall pick they were most likely to come away with in Tuesday’s drawing—especially since, had Memphis’s pick fallen below no. 8, it would’ve conveyed to the Celtics, as part of the ill-fated 2015 trade for Jeff Green. (For what it’s worth, Memphis’s good fortune also benefits the C’s; instead of Boston getting a mid-to-low lottery pick this season, the first-round debt now rolls over again, guaranteeing the Grizzlies concede either a top-six protected pick in 2020 or a totally unprotected selection in 2021.)
Since everybody knows the Pelicans are taking Williamson, the draft, as they say, really starts with the Grizzlies at no. 2. So which way will they go?
After failing to find a deal to send Mike Conley Jr. out alongside longtime teammate Marc Gasol at February’s trade deadline, the Grizzlies still have to figure out what they’re going to do with the cornerstone point guard. They kept Conley in part to help foster the development of 2018 lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr., and Conley played some of the best basketball of his career down the stretch. Now Memphis has a chance to draft a potential replacement: Murray State point guard Ja Morant, one of the most explosive and productive players in the class.
Will the Grizzlies pull the trigger on the changing of the guard by drafting Morant? And if they do, will they give him a year to develop under Conley’s mentorship or look to move Conley (who has expressed his displeasure at remaining in limbo after being shopped at the deadline) this summer and hand the keys to Morant right away (while also securing other players and/or future draft assets in the process)? If they like another prospect—say, Duke swingman R.J. Barrett, whom The Ringer’s 2019 NBA Mock Draft has headed to Memphis at no. 2—the Grizzlies could pass on the opportunity to take the point guard of the future in pursuit of an even bigger swing to kick-start the rebuild. (Should they go that route, Grizzlies fans will hope against hope it doesn’t pan out the same way it did the last time the franchise had the no. 2 pick, when they drafted UConn center Hasheem Thabeet over, among others, James Harden and Stephen Curry.)
A-Town down ... for now, at least
The Hawks kind of got the shaft. Atlanta entered Tuesday with a 44 percent chance at a top-five pick and a slim but real shot at another midlottery selection, thanks to the 2018 draft-night swap that landed Luka Doncic in Dallas and Trae Young and a top-five-protected 2019 pick in Georgia. Instead, the odds weren’t in their favor; the jumps from the Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Lakers bumped Atlanta’s selections down to eighth and 10th, making it more likely that they’re picking from fringier, more flawed prospects than potential blue-chippers who might be able to instantly bolster the burgeoning core of Young, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter.
Then again, maybe not. It’s worth remembering that the team the rebuilding Hawks are trying to emulate—the Golden State Warriors, where Travis Schlenk worked his way up from the video room to assistant GM before leaving to take the reins in Atlanta—didn’t Presti or Process their way into a string of top-four picks. The Warriors landed the central players of their first title team seventh, 11th, seventh, and 35th, then added the other core pieces with savvy trades. Atlanta still needs a Draymond Green to make it all sing, especially on the defensive end—really, who doesn’t?—but maybe Cam Reddish drops to become their Harrison Barnes, helping turn one of 2018-19’s most interesting teams into one that might be ready to make a push into playoff contention in the shaky East as soon as next season.
The new system worked
All six of the teams with the NBA’s worst records this season—the Knicks, Suns, Cavaliers, Bulls, Hawks, and Wizards—will wind up picking lower than they would have had the NBA just doled out picks based on where you finish in the standings. None landed in the top two. Three of the teams that did end up in the top four—New Orleans, Memphis, and the Lakers—won at least 30 games and were at least within hailing distance of the playoffs before their seasons were detonated by injuries, trade demands, or top-down edicts to pursue a perhaps past-due rebuild.
In years past, those teams—the ones who at times were pretty good, but not quite good enough, and ended up bad, but not quite abysmal—would’ve had only a vanishingly small shot at catching a break to rise up the draft order and find themselves in position to draft a potential game-changer who could help them get closer to real contention in short order. But the institution of draft lottery reform to flatten out the odds changed that, and the result was carefully managed chaos. Ultimately, the new system should benefit several teams who generally made honest efforts to compete for most of last season at the expense of several teams that, by “going young” or essentially punting on point-guard play, more or less didn’t.
That’s a cold cup of coffee for teams like Atlanta and Washington, who were not actually trying to be bad but just sort of wound up that way anyway, and could have greatly benefited from a lucky bounce of the ping-pong balls. For the most part, though, the decent teams got help, the tankers got punished, and fans got a whirlwind of activity to breathlessly track on television and social media. All told, you’d imagine the league office will consider the first pass on lottery reform a roaring success. (Even if they couldn’t wind up rigging Zion to the Knicks.)