Lottery snubs Pistons, but it’ll help fortify the East
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There was an insult-to-injury quality to the way the lottery sneered at the Pistons the other night. Not only were they knocked back the one spot they couldn’t afford, ceding their pick to Charlotte because it suddenly fell out of the top-eight protection it held, but they were displaced by the unfathomably lucky Cleveland Cavaliers.
So not only did a division rival cost them a lottery pick, they did it while capitalizing on the mere 1.7 percent chance the Cavs held for the No. 1 overall pick in a draft that has been circled for two years by NBA general managers for its quality at the top.
The Cavs could go in a few different directions, but one of the strongest possibilities is to use the top pick on Kansas 7-foot freshman Joel Embiid. Whether the presence of an athletic young 7-footer to pair with Kyrie Irving is enough to lure LeBron James back as a free agent remains to be seen, but if Embiid meets expectations the Cavs suddenly would add a player who could eventually rival Andre Drummond for upside.
So beating the astronomical odds of landing three No. 1 picks in four years enables the Cavs to atone for one of the biggest draft gaffes of the recent past – bypassing Drummond two years ago in favor of Dion Waiters.
The Palace will be a pretty good litmus test for the quality of this draft, as it turned out. The top two picks will go to division rivals Cleveland and Milwaukee – meaning those players are guaranteed to visit The Palace twice every regular season – and the next two picks also will call the East home, Philadelphia and Orlando occupying those spots.
Boston holds the sixth pick, one spot after Utah, so the East gets a jump start on attempting to once again close the considerable gap between conferences.
There is a consensus top-three in this draft, in dramatic contrast to a year ago, and that means there’s a probability that Embiid, Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker will play in the East. Dante Exum is close to a consensus No. 4, but whether he fits in Orlando after the Magic took Victor Oladipo a year ago will be a tough call.
Boston could wind up with either of the top two point guards after Exum, Marcus Smart or Tyler Ennis, enabling the Celtics to dangle Rajon Rondo for a healthy return. Or the Celtics could add some needed athleticism to their frontcourt with Noah Vonleh or Aaron Gordon – or, perhaps, Julius Randle if he’s still on the board.
That’s going to make at least four Eastern Conference lottery teams instantly improved for next season. Philly and Orlando each have a second lottery pick, as well, and Charlotte – which finished as the No. 7 seed this season – will add a nice rotation piece, it figures, with the pick the Hornets snatched from the Pistons.
The Pistons will take their cap space – and, depending on what they do with player options for Chauncey Billups, Josh Harrellson and Peyton Siva – that could climb to about $14 million. If Jonas Jerebko opts out of the final year of his contract, add another $4.5 million to the total. Even on the low end, they’re going to have enough money – and enough flexibility – to make deals and jump with both feet into free agency.
And the odds that they come up with a player at 38 good enough to make a run at the rotation next season are probably about 50-50. They’ve had good success in recent drafts picking in the 30s. This draft, by most accounts, is strong through that range this year.
The draft preview series we’ve done the past four years became considerably less ambitious with Tuesday’s lottery results. But we’re going to look in depth at the players who might be available to the Pistons in the second round throughout June leading to the June 26 draft.
After that, the focus shifts to free agency. It’s going to be another critical summer.