One of the major criticisms of the NBA is the now-common practice of teams tanking for better NBA draft lottery odds. Better lottery odds give a team a higher chance of landing a franchise-altering stud college player. Or, a high draft pick can become a powerful chip for a franchise-altering trade. To make matters more troubling for the NBA, the plan, while sometimes long, has some merit. The “Trust the Process” Sixers are the easiest example. Rebuilding by losing is a tough pill to swallow, but the franchise is set up for success. The bumbling Phoenix Suns, however, show that tanking does not always work.
Historically, there are two major paths to contention: the slow grind with careful draft picks or residing in a metropolis and wooing big-name free agents with media and fame.
In recent years, however, high-lottery players have been able to make an immediate impact on teams and push them to relevancy. Jayson Tatum came in as a rookie and became a primary scoring option for the Boston Celtics. Ben Simmons, despite missing a year, won Rookie of the Year and helped lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the playoffs. Donovan Mitchell supplanted the departed Gordon Hayward in Utah and pushed the Jazz to an unlikely trip to the playoffs – and an advancement to the second round.
This year’s NBA Draft features some interesting prospects who could turn a team’s fortunes from cellar-dweller to playoff-ready. Other teams have put themselves in position to weather the losing storm and transform themselves in the offseason. Here are some of the teams that figure to be in the high-end of the NBA draft lottery, and how they could contend for the playoffs next season.
The Knicks have one of the trickiest paths to contention but also offer the highest ceiling based on rumors and rumblings. In a perfect world, the Knicks woo Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Big Apple and win the NBA draft lottery for the right to draft Zion Williamson. They could keep him, and New York suddenly has two of the NBA’s biggest stars and the most anticipated rookie since LeBron James. In a more interesting scenario, they dangle the pick for a third big star (like Anthony Davis?) to pair with Irving and Durant.
Out of all of the reported interested teams like the Lakers and Celtics, the Knicks would have perhaps the most compelling trade chip in the right to take Williamson. The Celtics getting bounced out of the 2019 NBA Playoffs earlier than anticipated alongside the disappointing season for Jayson Tatum may decouple the franchise. Tatum does not hold the same value he did, and now the Celtics have to assure themselves they are keeping Kyrie Irving before cleaning the pantry for Davis. The Lakers are in a similar situation, too. The trio of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma lost a ton of value. Ball and Ingram have legitimate health concerns and did not do any favors to their value on the court this past season. The Pelicans getting Williamson offers an immediate star in the making and a massive marketing chip to make the franchise not only relevant but attractive.
Irving and Durant have both been linked to New York, and Davis listed the Knicks as a preferred destination when he requested a trade from New Orleans. A move like that would instantly make the Knicks contenders, a monumental shift from a horrific sub-20-win team to having championship aspirations. Is it possible? Yes. Likely? Not very, but it is tantalizing to think about.
If the Knicks strike out in free agency again, the path to contention is not in clear sight. Aside from this year’s draft pick plus the picks gathered from the Kristaps Porzingis trade, not much on the roster screams “playoff team.” Kevin Knox had a historically bad rookie season, and there is a reason that Dallas was willing to trade Dennis Smith Jr. away. Mitchell Robinson blocks a lot of shots and Allonzo Trier showed some flashes of being a good isolation scorer. The path to the playoffs rests with the free agents they get.
Internally, it seemed that the Suns felt their additions of Deandre Ayton and Igor Kokoskov, coupled with a roster that already featured Devin Booker and Josh Jackson, would be enough to make a playoff push. How do we know they felt this way? Phoenix signed Trevor Ariza to a silly contract and added Jamal Crawford to provide a scoring punch from the bench. Combined, the Suns would do the improbable and make the postseason!
I’ll take ridiculous ideas for $600, Alex.
In the high-stakes game of NBA coaching, Phoenix decided to make a risky and perhaps reckless move by firing Kokoskov after one season, replacing him with the lovable and deserving Monty Williams. The Suns are still treading water in the high end of the NBA draft lottery. Booker signed a big contract extension, and Ayton has looked very good in his first season. There is some hope there, but what is the ceiling? If they land the No. 1 pick again, how does Zion fit? If they fall to the 2-6 range, do they position themselves for Murray State star Ja Morant? They could trade back for Coby White from North Carolina and acquire assets in the process as well. There are options, but none of them seem to take the Suns from the bottom of the Western Conference to competitive playoff hopeful in such a short amount of time.
Salary cap-wise, the Suns are mostly going to roll back the roster they have. A few players, like Dragan Bender, are going to be off the team. Phoenix will likely try to bring back Kelly Oubre, whom they acquired midseason. As of now, the Suns have roughly $83 million locked up for next season.
The best case is the youngsters grow up with a stable and experienced coach in Monty Williams and all the lottery picks take a step forward. Devin Booker continues to score from anywhere on the floor and finds it within himself to play defense like some people think he can. I find all of that unlikely to happen, but I have been wrong before.
Losing LeBron James for the second time has somehow been less painful than before, though Baron Davis doing his thing in 2010 was pretty fun. The Cavs have guaranteed a top-three NBA draft lottery spot and will end up with the maximum amount of ping pong balls, which means they could end up with Zion. In a weak Eastern Conference, coupled with Kevin Love and improving rookie Collin Sexton, that might be enough to make some noise.
The more likely scenario is they end up with Jarret Culver or R.J. Barrett and continue the rebuild. If luck is not on their side, Cleveland could trade back and search for a point guard who fits alongside Sexton (yes, I know Sexton is technically a point guard, but there are concerns about his ability to facilitate). Coby White and Ja Morant are two of the top point-guard options in the draft, and the new head coach may play a factor in whom they draft.
Cleveland moved on from Larry Drew, as expected, and hired John Beilein from Michigan. The 66-year-old head coach has experience developing young players and established a culture of winning in Ann Arbor. He turned around a floundering Wolverines program and established them as a national powerhouse. He will be tasked with something similar in Cleveland. Beilein traditionally played two-guard lineups, which means the Cavs could take Morant and plant him next to Sexton. Defensively, it would be a disaster at first, but Beilein has a modern NBA offensive scheme that could make the pairing work. Determining his influence on the upcoming draft will help provide the Cavs’ outlook next season.
In terms of salary cap space, Cleveland will continue to cut back and should get further under the tax. J.R. Smith will likely be waived, as his $14 million contract is only guaranteed for $3.5 million next season. Tristan Thompson, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova are all on expiring contracts next season and total around $70 million. If the Cavs are looking to cut salary and make a play for the summer 2020 free agency class, it is possible. But in the short term, the Cavaliers are unlikely to make noise next season barring Sexton becoming a total point guard with Zion and a full healthy season from Kevin Love.
The Hawks are already a sneaky team and should be a dark-horse candidate to make the playoffs next season. You haven’t heard it here first, but I will reinforce the belief. General manager Travis Schlenk was panned for trading away the rights to Luka Doncic for Trae Young, but that has paid off in a big way. Young has blossomed into one of the more talented point guards in the league and already has a good pick-and-roll sidekick in John Collins. To wet the mouth further, Atlanta could receive Dallas’ pick this year (assuming it lands outside the top five) in addition to their own. That’s two additional lottery picks this year to supplement a good young roster with even more talent.
Perhaps the most intriguing fit is Zion Williams on the Hawks with Young throwing lobs essentially to a robot built for basketball. Factor in Collins and young sharpshooter Kevin Huerter, and suddenly Atlanta has a tremendous core. NBA Twitter is salivating at the thought of Williamson in Atlanta, and although unlikely, that fit would certainly merit salivary excretion.
Salary-wise, Atlanta only has $56.9 million guaranteed for next season. They could make a play for a free agent that complements the fast-paced offense head coach Lloyd Pierce runs. They could look for defensive help too, as the Hawks ranked 30th in opposing points scored and 26th in defensive rating this season. Jarrett Culver, if he falls, would be a tremendous piece next to the defensive-deficient Young. To be precise, Young had a defensive rating of 113.6 which was far too high and outweighed his offensive impact.
In terms of ability to realistically make a leap, the Hawks might have the best chance to push for the playoffs. While the Knicks have the highest ceiling with the possibility of Durant and Irving, it is far from a lock that two of the biggest free agents are headed to the Big Apple. Atlanta has a very good chance at two lottery picks this year and showed growth with the current players on their roster. I’ll take Atlanta as the most likely team on this list to make the playoffs next season.
Bonus: Chicago Bulls
Chicago was one of the early-season dumpster fires before a series of changes started to provide some clarity for the future. The firing of Fred Hoiberg was coming from a mile away, and he is rightly back in college with Nebraska. New head coach Jim Boylen has instilled a level of toughness, and now he just needs his players to reflect that vision. The Bulls may not have it now, but what they do have is an interesting core of players. Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markannen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Zach LaVine present a blend of athleticism and shooting, while Carter should be able to defend the paint.
While they may not end up with the right amount of ping pong balls to wind up in the first three spots of the NBA draft lottery, Chicago should still be able to add a high-end player. Rui Hachimura may slide out of the top five and be a capable “three” or small-ball “four.” Culver has been mentioned several times, but his defensive tenacity would work wonders on the turnstile Bulls. Coby White could easily slide into the point-guard role and give the Bulls a floor facilitator, putting an end to the Kris Dunn experiment.
The trade for Porter was initially puzzling, as there were several contenders looking into him at the trade deadline. Now, it seems like he is a solid-fitting piece in the puzzle. Since being acquired by the Bulls, Porter is averaging 17.5 points per game on 48% shooting including 48% from behind the 3-point line. Even taking on Porter, the Bulls still only have $81 million guaranteed for next season too, making the trade a little easier to swallow.