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Behind the Scenes at the Zion Williamson Lottery

What was the reaction in the room when it was announced that the Pelicans had landed the no. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft? Plus, more insights and analysis from a league-altering night in Chicago.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was almost silent in the room where the NBA’s private draft lottery drawing was being held—other than the sound of 14 ping-pong balls rattling around a glass machine, of course. Those silly balls would determine the fate of more than a dozen teams, and the destiny of Zion Williamson, a franchise-changing prospect projected to go first overall. The silence didn’t last for long. Out of the machine came a seven, then a four, then a 12, then a 13. “New Orleans,” the NBA’s assistant general counsel, Jamin Dershowitz, announced. Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry yelled “Fuck yeah” as he stood up and stretched out his arms like he was Russell Crowe in Gladiator. The room roared. Heat senior vice president Andy Elisburg reached to high-five Gentry, who obliged, and then Gentry slapped hands with representatives of the Timberwolves, Lakers, Hornets, and Celtics. As the drawing was set to resume, Gentry sat down and said sorry.

He had nothing to apologize for. With all due respect to the Pelicans’ first-round playoff sweep of Portland last season, Tuesday night was the biggest victory of Gentry’s New Orleans tenure. The Pelicans just went through a season from hell, fending off a trade request by Anthony Davis and dealing with leaks from parties hoping to pry the superstar away from New Orleans. For months, the talk around the league centered on whether the Lakers, Knicks, or Celtics could put together a sufficient package to land AD. Now, plans change.

The Pelicans will have the opportunity to select Zion, a gravity-defying athlete capable of creating off the dribble and defending multiple positions. He enters this positionless league at the perfect time. One team front office executive told me before the lottery that the Pelicans would attempt to keep Davis, despite his trade request, if they landed at no. 1. Gentry’s comments afterward support that statement. Sequestered in the lottery drawing room, we watched ESPN’s live broadcast of the event and heard Adrian Wojnarowski say, “[Pelicans general manager] David Griffin is looking for someone to play with Anthony Davis, not to move him out.” In response, Gentry yelled, “Thank you!”

After the lottery, Griffin acknowledged to reporters that having the no. 1 pick affords the franchise more flexibility in the coming months. There’s less pressure to deal Davis now. The Pelicans can play it slow, going into the season with a core of AD, Zion, and Jrue Holiday, and see how things play out. If February 2020 rolls around and Davis still wants to leave, the team could trade him before the deadline for a haul. If Davis’s true reason for originally wanting out was to compete for a championship, how many teams can he now find with more long-term potential than the Pelicans?

“He’s wanted to win this whole time and he felt compelled to try to win elsewhere. I think if you look at the totality of where this organization is and where we’re going, we feel very strongly that we’re going to be the environment he wants to be part of,” Griffin said. “And if we’re not, that’s fine; we can deal with it from there. But I’m looking at this, believing that there’s no reason he wouldn’t want to win with us, because that’s what we do. It’s who we are. And I think culturally we’re about all the same things.”

The lottery was bound to have league-altering implications no matter which team came out on top, but now the front offices that were in the hunt for Davis—especially those of the Lakers, Knicks, and Celtics—may have to look elsewhere in their star search. Before Tuesday, it seemed like there’d be a bidding war for Davis; now, there may be no fight at all. There’s suddenly a focus on how the Pelicans can build around their core.

I asked Gentry about the fit between Williamson and Davis, since both players can handle the ball or set screens. They could run devastating 4-5 pick-and-rolls, similar to what New Orleans ran with Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in 2017. Zion has the upside to be much better than Boogie, though, particularly on defense. Gentry refused to comment specifically on Zion, saying, “There are a lot of good players available.” Then he burst into laughter. “I told myself I’m gonna play it cool,” Gentry told me after the drawing. “Then I’m like, nah.”

The coach laughed again and walked away. It was time to share a moment with Griffin and the rest of his team. After winning the Zion lottery, there will surely be more joyous F-bombs to come.

Beyond Zion: The Outlook Among the Rest of the Top Four

Gentry let it all out. Everyone else kept a poker face. After Memphis landed the no. 2 pick, Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman was urged by a rival team representative to get up and celebrate like Gentry had. Kleiman opted to just smile. Knicks special assistant to the general manager—a title befitting Dwight Schrute—Allan Houston stared straight ahead as New York landed pick no. 3. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka mumbled yesssssss under his breath when Los Angeles jumped seven spots from its projected pick to secure the no. 4 selection. None of these three teams will be in a position to take Williamson on June 20, but they’re all still winners from the lottery. Yes, even the Knicks, no matter what the widespread fan reaction may suggest.

Let’s work in reverse. With the fourth overall pick, the Lakers are now armed with another high-value asset to put on the table in a trade offer for the guy we were just talking about: Davis. Even though the Pelicans have more hope when it comes to keeping Davis than they did 24 hours ago, AD’s future in New Orleans is far from assured, and the Pelicans’ negotiating position should only grow stronger given their increased leverage. The no. 4 pick could net a player like Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, a dynamic shot-maker who runs pick-and-roll like he’s an NBA veteran. He would be a perfect fit next to Holiday. The Pelicans should continue to explore Davis trades, and it’s hard to foresee a team topping the Lakers’ best offer: the no. 4 pick, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and future picks. Even if the Lakers don’t get Davis, they moved up seven spots! That’s a huge win!

Meanwhile, Knicks fans should consider the bigger picture. I mean, it’s understandable why they are depressed: The franchise has been a joke for decades, James Dolan runs the team, and Kevin Knox was underwhelming as a rookie. Zion looks like a transcendent talent. I get it. But the buzz from league executives in Chicago was that Kevin Durant is still likely to go to the Knicks this summer, and someone, possibly Kyrie Irving, will probably join him. Things can certainly change by July 1, so it’s never wise to get overly excited about a distant possibility. But for the first time in years, the Knicks are in an enviable spot: They’re a major-market team with loads of cap space, the interest of the league’s best scorer, a group of talented young players, and the no. 3 pick. If KD comes to New York, the Knicks will become contenders. If he doesn’t, they’ll land another top prospect and retain the cap space to attract future free agents. Is that really so bad?

Memphis is in a fascinating position with the second pick. Entering Tuesday night, it had a 42.6 percent chance to lose its 2019 pick to Boston, a 31.2 percent chance to stay at no. 8, and a 26.3 percent chance to move into the top four. Following the outcome, decision-makers for both Memphis and Boston must be smiling: The pick the Celtics receive from the Grizzlies will now either convey as a top-six protected first in 2020 or an unprotected first in 2021, a more valuable asset that could be used in a potential trade offer for Davis. And Memphis is in the unexpected position to draft another cornerstone to go with Jaren Jackson Jr.

At no. 2, the franchise will have its choice of some talented prospects, namely Murray State point guard Ja Morant, a playmaking savant with rocket-boosters for shoes, or Duke forward R.J. Barrett, a tough shotmaker with the potential to emerge as a versatile defender. Morant, especially, seems like an intriguing fit: He would make for a tremendous long-term pick-and-roll partner with Jackson and could learn the tricks of the trade behind veteran point guard Mike Conley Jr. (That is, unless Memphis trades Conley—multiple league sources said this week that the Jazz are expected to make another push for him after failing to land him prior to the deadline.) However, the Grizzlies stand out as the team that should most strongly consider trading down. Since Memphis will cede a future first-round pick to the Celtics, it has extra incentive to use this pick to acquire another asset.

Trade downs are a rarity in NBA history. Since 1980, there have been just 14 trades in which a team with a top-five pick moved back within the same year’s draft. But it’s now happened twice within the past two drafts, as the Hawks sent the no. 3 pick that became Luka Doncic to the Mavericks in 2018 (for the pick that was used on Trae Young and what became the no. 10 overall pick in 2019), and the Celtics traded the no. 1 pick that became Markelle Fultz to the Sixers in 2017 (for the pick that was used on Jayson Tatum and what became the no. 14 pick in 2019). It’s not like Morant and Barrett are can’t-miss prospects, either. Morant is a dynamic point guard, but also a turnstyle defender with a questionable jump shot; Barrett has a midrange jump shot fetish. Plus, the no. 2 pick could receive significant traction. It’s no secret that the Suns have a crush on Morant, and they have all of their own picks to dangle in potential trade offers. Or if the Cavaliers (who have the no. 5 pick) want a wing such as Barrett or Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, they could seek to move up.

There is absolutely no indication that Memphis would even consider moving out of this spot. I just think that in its situation, with a roster in need of more than one player to contend, it should consider whether another team might overpay to move up. (For what it’s worth, I felt the same way about the teams that landed top picks in 2017including the Celtics.) All the same ideas apply to the Lakers and Knicks, too. The talent in this draft class plateaus rather quickly, but the teams that got bumped from the top spots could still look to move up the board.

The Resonance of a Night That Was Absurd in the Best Way

I’ve been watching the draft lottery ever since I was a kid, so I was stoked to be in Chicago this week for the drawing. Having an opportunity to be in the private room isn’t something I ever imagined. It’s not something I take for granted—not a moment of it.

When we’re kids, we’re constantly stimulated by new experiences that shape or entertain us because nothing beats what’s new. As we get older, it gets harder and harder to find experiences like that—that surprise us, delight us, and challenge us in unique ways. Tuesday provided one of those moments. I felt like a kid again as NBA vice president of basketball communications Maureen Coyle and director of basketball communications Joanna Shapiro escorted me and 11 other media members through the hallways of the Hilton Chicago to the room housing the lottery machine. Coyle and Shapiro constantly checked that our group was all still together. It felt like we were on a school field trip.

Once we arrived at our destination, we were greeted by two other NBA employees who took our phones and any other devices that could connect to the outside world. After that, we went through a security check that was more rigorous than the TSA’s. My belt buzzed. My pen buzzed (since I forgot to take my extra one out of my pocket). My sock buzzed for some reason. National security has nothing on draft lottery security.

I sat there snickering as NBA executive vice president Kiki VanDeWeghe explained the lottery process for four minutes and 30 seconds: how the ping-pong balls are mixed for 20 seconds; how the system features official timekeepers, people who weigh and protect the balls, and contingency plans for if the machine abruptly stops working; how all of this produces a lottery order that is one of 1,001 potential combinations. These shenanigans may seem excessive, but they work. It then took two minutes and 13 seconds for NBA vice president Lou DiSabatino to load the lottery machine with the ping-pong balls. Eight minutes later, it was over. We knew the draft order but couldn’t leave until the rest of the world knew too. It was absurd in the best way, and I relished every second.

As the room of about 40 people stood around, chatted, and ate over the ensuing hour, media members and executives largely agreed that the lottery changes approved in September 2017 were a success by the league’s standards. Tanking was indeed decentivized; only one of the three teams with the best lottery odds (the Knicks) ended up in the top four.

Yet there is still so much unknown. Moments after learning that the Pelicans would have the first pick, David Griffin said, “We got a lot of work to do, but this is a good start.” It’s true. The work is only beginning, and luck beyond winning the Zion lottery remains essential to New Orleans’s hopes. The same goes for the league at large. One team that was a loser on Tuesday may end up a winner by making a genius (or lucky) pick. All teams can really do is try to maximize the position they’re in given the circumstances.

You’ve got to celebrate your victories, though; it’s why Gentry reacting the way he did was so special. It was a moment of pure joy that must’ve felt all the sweeter on the heels of a season full of frustration. After being released from the lottery room, I hoped to locate Griffin to tell him about it, knowing he’d appreciate Gentry’s genuity. As Griffin was walking to do a hit on NBA TV, I pulled out my phone so he could read this tweet; he unleashed a celebratory punch into the air as he shouted, “Yeah!”

It’s a good feeling. I reacted the same way as soon as I got back to my hotel room to begin writing about a day that altered the very fabric of the league and made me feel like a kid again. It was a good day.