Posted May 19, 2014 11:01 PM
Last year was different. Last year was the difficulty of predicting the No. 1 pick because the actual challenge was finding someone, anyone, worth the top spot, as the season that followed would prove. Last year was the draft without tank talk.
Now comes 2014 and the class that doesn't just have deserving candidates, it has so many that five or six would have gone first last June, so many that the decision for the team at the top of the board will not involve the backroom discussion of "What is the least bad option?" So many that the lottery will be worth winning again.
The drawing held Tuesday night in New York will determine the order of the first 14 picks for June 26, with 14 ping-pong balls numbered 1 through 14 placed in a drum to create 1,001 possible combinations as part of the process held in secret in a secure room. The 14 teams will each be assigned one of the combinations, four balls will be drawn to choose the winner, four more to decide the second selection and four more for the third. The picks then go in order of worst record and the complete results are announced on stage in front of a TV audience.
And then it really gets good.
Kansas teammates Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins along with Duke's Jabari Parker are the leading candidates for No. 1, according to a front-office consensus. Julius Randle of Kentucky and Dante Exum, coming from Australia without college experience, will get at least passing looks and maybe more, especially with Exum virtually guaranteed to be invited for a visit so the team can get a look at a player with little body of work against credible competition. And if the team is thinking point guard with Exum, it may think about Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State as well.
There are options everywhere. What each team should do if it draws to No. 1 on Tuesday night, all with the assumption, until proven otherwise that Embiid is having a typical recovery from a fractured back:
Bucks (25 percent chance of getting the first pick) -- This could become one of several intersection decisions for the franchise that just changed owners, the kind of transition that could lead to a larger change of direction. There is uncertainty in some corners of the league whether Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry will stick with John Hammond as general manager and, in turn, what that would mean for the future of enigmatic Larry Sanders.
Milwaukee struggled to score, defend and rebound last season and point guard Brandon Knight is a year from free agency, so anything is possible. The encouraging rookie season of Giannis Antetokounmpo would suggest the Bucks won't go small forward with Wiggins or with Parker, seen by some as a small forward and some at power forward. Embiid is the pick.
76ers (19.9 percent) -- A team that will be adding one rookie big man coming off an injury, Nerlens Noel after he sat out all 2013-14 following knee surgery, doesn't need the added risk of another, Embiid. The pick is Wiggins to play alongside Thaddeus Young at forward as part of the hoped-for new future that started with Michael Carter-Williams winning Rookie of the Year. There will be added intrigue about Exum because he got to know Philadelphia coach Brett Brown while Brown was working with the Australian national team, but even with some teams seeing Exum as more of a combo guard and even more shooting guard than point guard, the Sixers won't take him first.
Magic (15.6 percent) -- It would take believing more than ever that Victor Oladipo will make it as a point guard, and then, with Nikola Vucevic at center, it's down to Parker or Wiggins for a forward. Parker it is, with the possibility of playing either spot and the most NBA-ready among the top six.
Jazz (10.4 percent) -- Enes Kanter had a big second half of 2013-14, showing improvement and runs of consistency, but he has yet to prove he can be a full-time starter at center. Meanwhile, Utah finished last in shooting defense. That means Embiid.
Celtics (10.3 percent) -- Parker, who can handle, rebound, plays tough and would have the most seamless transition to the pros.
Lakers (6.3 percent) -- Embiid. For all the speculation surrounding Exum and his L.A. future, none of it has come from the team. Choosing sixth or seventh, sure. But first, they go with an obvious position need and a prospect a lot of front offices see as a franchise center.
Kings (4.3 percent) -- Embiid. As much as Sacramento is searching for a shooter and a distributor, defense is a pressing need. Embiid answers that and fits well with DeMarcus Cousins. Embiid would be an inside presence, Cousins makes an easy slide to power forward and remains the focus of the offense, able to step outside and be a dangerous passer anywhere. Embiid, who already has great footwork despite relatively little experience in the game, is good enough to be a threat from the post but not enough to command the ball inside and cause a traffic jam with Cousins.
Pistons (2.8 percent) -- New head of basketball operations/coach Stan Van Gundy will be making changes. The question is how soon will he be able to change the culture, with a decision to be made on free-agent-to-be Greg Monroe as well as the draft pick. The warp-speed development of Andre Drummond means Detroit doesn't have a need for Embiid. Parker is a very good, very solid fit, but it's easy to see the appeal of Wiggins as well into a franchise that needs that kind of jolt of electricity. The Pistons keep the pick if it's in the top eight, the Hornets take possession if it gets bumped to nine or lower.
Cavaliers (1.7 percent) -- Wiggins or Parker at small forward would be very tempting if Cleveland is convinced Luol Deng has an exit route all mapped out. But Embiid is the way to go anyway after a season of Anderson Varejao, Andrew Bynum and Spencer Hawes at center.
Pelicans (1.1 percent) -- The 76ers get the pick if it's out of the top five. If it's No. 1, New Orleans has to see Embiid as a great fit. Put it this way: The Pelicans started Alexis Ajinca 30 times. Take Embiid, put him next to Anthony Davis and dare opponents to score inside.
Nuggets (.8 percent) -- There is no wrong answer. The Nuggets don't get any scoring from the frontcourt, hoping Danilo Gallinari will provide that if he one day becomes Danilo Gallinari again, and don't have a full-time starter at center. Wiggins would be a good call, for the energy, for the ability to play at Ty Lawson-Kenneth Faried speed better than Parker or Embiid. The biggest risk, with his athleticism that good at sea level, is the number of times he would hit his head on the Pepsi Center ceiling while playing at altitude.
The Nuggets also have the New York pick Tuesday night, with the more favorable staying in Denver and the other being re-routed to Orlando.
Knicks (.7 percent) -- It belongs to the Nuggets if it's No. 1, via the Carmelo Anthony trade. See above.
Timberwolves (.6 percent) -- As the spotlight on the future of Kevin Love intensifies, Minnesota will know several trade options before the draft, even if owner Glen Taylor told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the team won't make a Love trade before the draft. No matter what happens with Love, the Wolves obviously keep No. 1. They not-so-obviously spend it on Parker over the risk/reward of Wiggins. Tough call, though. Nikola Pekovic as a solid presence at center lessens the need for Embiid. The pick goes to Phoenix if it drops a place to 14.
Suns (.5 percent) -- This is Randle's best chance to go No. 1, a power forward who will be an inside presence in place of the perimeter-oriented game of Channing Frye, a player with a great motor that will fit into the new culture. In a season of laughing in the face of pretty much every other expectation, the Suns beating the longest of odds to get to No. 1 would be fitting.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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