Tuesday night’s wild NBA Draft lottery drawing produced a top three that was overflowing with trade intrigue. Boston, who will open play in the East finals on Wednesday, claimed the first pick thanks to the 2013 trade with Brooklyn that keeps on giving. The Lakers, who would have been forced to convey their pick to the Sixers had it fallen outside the top three, instead jumped up to the No. 2 spot. And the Sixers jumped up from No. 5 to No. 3 after cashing in on a 2015 trade that included a pick swap with the Kings.
With so many moving parts and flipped selections to sift through, it’s worth taking a moment to examine the top storylines and biggest implications of the lottery drawing.
Let’s run through the winners and losers from the lottery drawing in advance of the June 22 Draft.
Winner: Boston’s Danny Ainge
Danny Ainge made a big bet by doing nothing at the trade deadline, one that set him up for significant blame if the Celtics had flamed out in the playoffs or if they had slipped down to No. 4 in Tuesday’s lottery. All around him, aspiring contenders like Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, and Houston loaded up in January and February. In the days before the deadline, the Celtics were linked to win-now trade scenarios involving Jimmy Butler and Paul George. By resisting both blockbuster trades and smaller moves, Ainge was hoping Boston could live up to its eventual No. 1 seed status while also playing for the future.
That bet was looking dicey when Boston trailed Chicago 2-0 in the first round. Now it looks brilliant. The Celtics eliminated the Wizards in Game 7 on Monday and will host the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday. In between, they added the right to draft Washington’s Markelle Fultz and/or trade the selection as part of a package for a star player. Ainge is having his cake and eating it too: Boston faces zero pressure to beat Cleveland given how well LeBron James is playing and now Ainge holds all the cards in a loaded lottery. Butler’s Bulls, George’s Pacers and Blake Griffin’s Clippers all bounced out in the first round, and the Celtics have a laundry list of flexible contracts, young prospects and now the No. 1 pick to drive their pursuits of trades and high-profile free agents.
Pencil this one in every year since 2013, when Brooklyn went all in to acquire Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from Boston in hopes of making a significant playoff push. In the press release announcing the trade, the 2017 pick swap was practically a foot note, included after the names of the nine total players and three other first-round picks included in the deal. Well, that footnote just turned into Fultz or Ball or whomever else Boston desires.
The layers of depression continue from there. Despite losing more games than any other team this season, the Nets will pick No. 27, behind every other Eastern Conference team with a first-round pick this year. Of course, it gets worse. The Nets must also convey their 2018 first-round pick to the Celtics, even if they finish with the league’s worst record again. “Today, the basketball Gods smiled on the Nets,” Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov said back in 2013, when he announced the trade. Well, Tuesday the basketball Gods laughed in Prokhorov’s face.
There’s a very strong case to be made that the Lakers are much bigger winners than the Celtics, even though they will pick second. Just contrast the worst-case scenarios for both franchises. If Boston’s night fell apart, they are still picking fourth and in the East finals on Wednesday. If the Lakers’ night fell apart by slipping to fourth, fifth or sixth—a scenario that had a 53% chance of happening—Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka would have been stuck without a pick this year and have been forced to send their 2019 first-round pick to the Magic as part of a separate trade. That would have been a true hope-killer for a once-proud organization looking to end a four-year run of futility as quickly as possible. Without a bunch of young prospects who have yet to emerge as franchise talents, LA fans were looking down the barrel of another two or three years without much to cheer.
Instead, Johnson can smile widely and Pelinka can breathe a sigh of relief. Landing at No. 2 removes another layer of pressure: the Lakers likely won’t be forced to choose between Fultz and Lonzo Ball, the Southern California product who starred at UCLA. Had the Lakers landed the No. 1 pick, they would have faced a “Best Player Available” versus “Hometown Kid” debate. They are now free to select Ball—an up-tempo, pass-first shooter who looks like a natural fit in coach Luke Walton’s offense—without nearly as much criticism.
Loser: Markelle Fultz
Look, Fultz isn’t a true “loser.” That’s a misplaced tag for a guy who is widely regarded as the likely No. 1 pick. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s results will force him to keep waiting to find out what’s next for his future. If a team desperate for a franchise star like Phoenix or Orlando had landed the top pick, Fultz would have had a clear sense for how the next eight or nine years were about to play out. He would immediately be the man with the ball in his hands.
The fit in Boston is murky. Isaiah Thomas has blossomed into an All-Star and All-NBA candidate, further solidifying his status as a fan favorite and alpha dog by driving the Celtics’ exciting postseason run. How would Celtics coach Brad Stevens work in Fultz next year? Start him off the ball? Use him as a super-sub? Jaylen Brown, Boston’s 2016 lottery pick, enjoyed a strong rookie season but only saw modest minutes in a complementary, reserve role for most of the year. Does that type of soft launch make sense for a talented scoring guard like Fultz?
What’s more, Fultz is bound to hear a solid month’s worth of trade rumors in advance of the Draft. Without any control over his ultimate destination, he’s facing an uncertain future, much like the circumstances that surrounded Andrew Wiggins shortly after he was selected No. 1 overall by Cleveland in 2014. Things eventually worked out for Wiggins, who needed to wait until August to be officially traded to Minnesota for Kevin Love. Hopefully, Fultz isn’t stuck waiting quite that long as Boston explores its trade options.
Winner: LaVar Ball
LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s outspoken father and Big Baller Brand sneaker entrepreneur, had a perfect night. If the Lakers had slipped out of the top three, his dream scenario of Lonzo staying home would have been dead on arrival. If the Lakers had picked third, there’s a decent chance Lonzo is off the board to a lower profile team like the Suns. If the Lakers had picked first, perhaps Lonzo gets passed over for Fultz.
At No. 2, though, LaVar Ball has the best chance of seeing his son in purple and gold. Johnson and Pelinka are free to take him without fear of Fultz-related second-guessing and they will feel real pressure to select him over the other available top prospects who lack Ball’s name recognition and local ties. Given LA’s need for a point guard and Walton’s desire to play fast and entertaining basketball like Golden State, it’s hard to envision the Lakers’ front office resisting the temptations to select Ball.
Loser: D’Angelo Russell
Russell, LA’s 2015 No. 2 pick, remains stuck in purgatory after two seasons: He hasn’t broken through as a star-to-be and he hasn’t busted out. After struggling as a rookie under coach Byron Scott and repeatedly facing questions about his maturity and commitment to defense, Russell briefly found himself benched in March—a minor red flag regarding his assumed status as LA’s point guard of the future. If the Lakers do draft Ball, they will do so knowing they must commit to him as a pace-setting, distribution-minded floor general. That means Russell will either need to be moved off the ball, a workable possibility, or shipped out of town. Given that Russell is still only 21, this qualifies as a “Life comes at your fast” predicament, like the one that his fellow 2015 lottery pick, Emmanuel Mudiay, is experiencing in Denver.
Winner: Adam Silver
Conspiracy theorists should be quick to note that Tuesday’s results were ideal from the league’s perspective. One of the major stories from the 2017 playoffs has been the gap between the Superteams and everybody else. The Celtics securing the top pick maximizes their ability to mount and sustain a challenge to the Cavaliers. Meanwhile, the languishing Lakers have been nearly unwatchable during Kobe Bryant’s twilight and the aftermath of his retirement. Expecting Ball to be an immediate savior is a big ask, but there’s no question he would restore some excitement and promise to an organization that has been mired in loss-heavy tanks and off-court legal squabbles.
Winners and Losers (Mostly Winners): Kings
The phrase “Philadelphia jumps up thanks to its pick swap with Sacramento” surely made the Kings’ fanbase collectively shudder. The only thing worse than a bad trade—like the future-mortgaging 2015 deal Vlade Divac made to unload salary on the Sixers — is a bad trade that comes back to bite you. That’s what happened here: Sacramento earned the right to select third in this year’s draft, only to fall back to fifth because Divac agreed to a pick swap with since-deposed Sixers executive Sam Hinkie.
Falling back two spots is a bummer, but it could easily have been worse. Imagine if the Kings had earned the right to select first, only to fall back four spots and have their dumb trade rubbed in their face. Or, imagine if that had happened and New Orleans had managed to vault into the top three. In that scenario, the Kings would have been embarrassed by their 2015 trade and have been forced to wait on the prime asset from their 2017 trade of DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans.
Once the dust settled, Sacramento kept both of its lottery picks and will select at No. 5 and No. 10. That still counts as a win, in aggregate, for a rebuilding franchise with massive holes at virtually every spot of its rotation.
Loser: Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough
Rough, rough night for the Suns. After tanking harder than anyone else down the stretch, going so far as to rest several key plays for a month, the Suns got leapfrogged by both the Lakers and Sixers. If GM Ryan McDonough had dreams of adding Fultz or Ball next to star shooting guard Devin Booker to form a backcourt of the future, those visions are now on hold. To really twist the knife, McDonough will wake up on Wednesday knowing that Isaiah Thomas, a former Sun, is leading the Celtics against the Cavaliers. Not only did McDonough trade Thomas to Ainge for peanuts, he must now grapple with the knowledge that Boston gets first dibs on this year’s top prospects. Oof.
Philadelphia didn’t land its dream scenario, which would have been the No. 1 pick (its own) and the No. 4 pick (the one belonging to the Lakers). Still, it jumped up multiple spots in the draft order and should be in position to select a quality wing—Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum—to fill out its starting lineup around 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons and franchise center (when healthy) Joel Embiid. The Sixers can also count on the Lakers’ first-round pick coming next year. Given LA’s youth and relative lack of talent and youth, that should still be a gem.
After firing GM Rob Hennigan and keeping the front office in a holding pattern, the Magic really could have used another dose of lottery luck in the vein of Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Dwight Howard. Instead, the Magic dropped back from the fifth spot to the sixth spot. There will still be serious talent available at No. 6 this year, but Orlando’s clunky season—lowlighted by the reverse-course trade of Serge Ibaka – needed a happy ending that didn’t come.