The combination was 1-7-9-10.
“I haven’t taken them out of my pocket,” Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca said Wednesday night, and he hadn’t, producing the four ping-pong balls that changed the future of the NBA for the next few years. That it was Boston which possessed them surely made Red Auerbach’s ghost cackle, cigar smoke wafting from a nearby ashtray. The deal that made Boston a player again in the NBA was Auerbachian if there ever was one, a trade that has already netted the Celtics a ridiculously good prospect in rookie Jaylen Brown and will pay dividends this year and next.
The Draft lottery last Tuesday confirmed Boston’s status over the 2017 festivities, but it also gave shape to what is one of the better classes in recent years. Now we can see the Los Angeles Lakers, who were on the verge of going out of the picture for the next couple of years, being able to add the dynamic young point guard that Magic Johnson so badly wants. The post-Process Philadelphia 76ers have some nervous months ahead waiting for Joel Embiid to recover from yet another surgical procedure, but they’re sitting pretty at No. 3, able to get just about anyone they want.
Of course, the conspiracy nuts were out in force: the fix was in for the Lakers, because Luke Walton’s hopes were interpreted as certainty by the tin foil crowd. (This, again, conveniently ignored the fact that the Knicks fell from their potential seventh spot in the first round to eighth -- remember, kids, a conspiracy doesn’t have to make sense and doesn’t require a shred of proof; only your own delusions need to fuel the imaginary beast.)
Now that there is at least Draft position certainty, we can begin to think with some rationality about where some of the top prospects will go. The following is not a mock Draft. It is, however, educated speculation, allowing for some wiggle room and the possibility of moves up or down in the first. Only one team doesn’t have to do anything at all and can take anyone it wants, with everyone else powerless to stop it.
1. BOSTON CELTICS (53-29)
HAVES: Perimeter defense, depth
HAVE NOTS: Rebounding, rim protection
In their honest moments, Celtics people will tell you that their group -- which is in the midst of the Eastern Conference finals -- overachieved this season, and that talent acquisition is still a priority. So it’s hard to see Boston moving this pick, even though it came up in trade discussions at the deadline for Paul George and Jimmy Butler. Of course, Isaiah Thomas is central to solving the puzzle; will Boston put $180 million into Thomas, the second-team all-NBA player this season, in the summer of 2018, when he’ll be an unrestricted free agent -- but will also be 29? He’s an amazing player, but while he has vastly improved as a passer since coming to Boston, his greatest skill is putting the ball in the basket. In consecutive years, playoff opponents have successfully gotten the ball out of his hands through aggressive doubles and hard shows -- and he’s not getting any bigger. Either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball is going to be hard to pass up regardless of Thomas’s future, and Fultz’s ability to play off the ball as well would be more of a natural fit with Thomas.
2. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (26-56)
HAVES: Young athletes/length
HAVE NOTS: Team defense
For the third straight year, the Lakers will have the second pick in the Draft. But this time, they’re likely to strike (Forum blue and) gold with whichever of the remaining top point guards is still available after Boston picks first. Cali-born and UCLA one-and-done Lonzo Ball has been linked to L.A. for months. His outspoken father, Lavar, has all but threatened famine and pestilence to come to SoCal if the Lakers don’t take his kid. But it would make all the basketball sense in the world to take Lonzo Ball; while the Lakers haven’t given up on D’Angelo Russell, his NBA future looks more off the ball than on it, and Ball’s outstanding and willing passing eye is going to be hard to pass up. And he is a natural marketing fit, something I understand is of some importance out in LaLa Land.
3. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (28-54)
HAVES: Frontcourt depth
HAVE NOTS: Scoring, rebounding
Don’t think there’s much chance the Sixers move the pick, even though several teams are lining up in hopes they can move to what almost certainly will be the Josh Jackson line of demarcation. With Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric up front, and Ben Simmons healthy, a wing seems the obvious pick here. Would Philly go for Kentucky’s Malik Monk this high, or make the safer choice of Kansas’ Jackson, a potential superstar at the three?
4. PHOENIX SUNS (24-58)
HAVES: Guard depth
HAVE NOTS: Defense
The Suns’ problem isn’t scoring; they were ninth in the league this season in points per game (107.7), even though they were a very poor 3-point shooting team (33.2 percent, 27th in the league). Phoenix, though, was dead last in points allowed per game (113.3) and there isn’t much on the roster that would lead one to believe a defensive turnaround is possible any time soon. A point guard wouldn’t seem to make sense with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight still in place, nor would a two seem to play with Devin Booker not yet 21. So a potential two-way small forward like Jackson would be a no-brainer if he is still on the board at four. If not, the Suns could certainly go for Duke’s Jayson Tatum or Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac. But if the Suns truly covet Jackson, engaging Philly to move up one spot would still allow the Sixers to take Tatum.
5. SACRAMENTO KINGS (32-50)
HAVES: Big man potential
HAVE NOTS: Point guard
The Kings actually got some good fortune for once in the Lottery; they got the Pelicans’ first-round pick when New Orleans didn’t get a top-three pick in the Lottery, thus adding the 10th pick overall to their own first-rounder. With a point guard deep Draft, this must be the year for Sacramento to finally solve its floor general problem, which has throttled the franchise, basically, since Mike Bibby started slowing down. A dynamic lead guard like Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox would continue the slow march toward progress the Kings have made in the last few months. With Buddy Hield in place from the DeMarcus Cousins deal, the Kings have a chance to solidify a backcourt that could grow together. If Fox is gone, N.C. State’s Dennis Smith would make sense. At 10, Sacramento would then have a chance to replace Rudy Gay, an unrestricted free agent this summer, if an Isaac was on the board. If not, there will likely be several fours from which to pick (maybe Gonzaga’s Zach Collins) to pair alongside third-year center Willie Cauley-Stein.
6. ORLANDO MAGIC (29-53)
HAVES: Frontcourt size, depth
HAVE NOTS: 3-point shooting
The Magic is, once again, starting over, looking for a new GM who surely will take a blowtorch to what is a mishmash of a roster. Other than Aaron Gordon, back at the four after a strange attempt to make him a 3-and-D guy last season, there’s no certainty anywhere. Point guard Elfrid Payton showed promising signs of growth last season but is still ghastly from 3-point range (27.4 percent last season), exemplifying a team-wide trend. Orlando was 29th overall in 3-point shooting and last in the league in corner 3-point percentage (29.7). How is that even possible in this age? Monk’s shooting (39.7 percent on 3-pointes last season at Kentucky) and scoring ability would make a lot of sense here.
7. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (31-51)
HAVES: Major young talent
HAVE NOTS: Perimeter shooting
Set at two positions -- small forward (Andrew Wiggins) and wherever Karl-Anthony Towns plays -- Minnesota could try to address its bottom 10 3-point shooting if Monk was still on the board. Failing that, the Wolves could potentially go for an elite power forward prospect in Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen if they’re comfortable with Towns at the five long-term. A four with the shooting capabilities of the Finnish marksman would certainly open up the floor for Wiggins and Towns and give coach Tom Thibodeau some frontcourt flexibility, with Gorgui Dieng still in the mix at center.
8. NEW YORK KNICKS (31-51)
HAVES: Centers, A Unicorn (aka Kristaps Porzingis)
HAVE NOTS: Point guard
The Knicks remain in suspended animation as a franchise until the Carmelo Anthony mishegas is resolved, leaving their Draft possibilities in flux. If Anthony uses his substantial leverage (and trade veto power) to remain in town another season, New York would need to address point guard -- whether or not Derrick Rose comes back, he’s not the long-term solution there. New York will likely have a choice of N.C. State’s Dennis Smith or France point Frank Ntilikina. There are some who believe that Smith, the Wolfpack freshman, could be the best of all the young point guard prospects this season, such is his toughness and ability. Ntilikina is a potential stud in the mold of the Atlanta Hawks’ Dennis Schroeder. But if Anthony agrees to a trade, which would suddenly open up minutes at the three next season, Isaac wouldn’t be a bad call here, either.
9. DALLAS MAVERICKS (33-49)
HAVES: Point guard depth
HAVE NOTS: Scoring, rebounding
The Mavericks took a lot of 3-pointers last season -- fifth in the league in makes, sixth in attempts -- but were only middle of the pack in 3-point percentage and last in the NBA in scoring. Some of the scoring issue was due to coach Rick Carlisle taking the air out of the ball, out of necessity, given the team’s defensive issues. Nerlens Noel, acquired at mid-season, should mitigate some of that leakage long-term, leaving the Mavs free to try and find the successor to Dirk Nowitzki at the four. If Markkanen is still on the board, he’d certainly fit the bill; if not, Duke’s Luke Kennard, a potential successor to Wesley Matthews at the two, wouldn’t be a reach.
10. SACRAMENTO KINGS (See above)
11. CHARLOTTE HORNETS (36-46)
HAVES: Ballhandling, playmaking
HAVE NOTS: Bench depth
The Hornets were middle of the pack in many categories last season, but one of their five-man lineups stood out: Kemba Walker at the one, Marco Belinelli at the two, Nicolas Batum at the three, Frank Kaminsky at the four and Cody Zeller at the five. That quintet, per NBA.com/Stats, had an offensive rating of 128.6 in 94 minutes together last season. It’s a small sample size, but telling; that lineup featured three of Charlotte’s top four 3-point shooters last season. So it wouldn’t be dumb for the Hornets to further enhance their perimeter stroke by taking someone like Duke’s Kennard if he was still on the board.
12. DETROIT PISTONS (37-45)
HAVES: Wing depth
HAVE NOTS: 3-point shooting
If, as Stan Van Gundy says, the Pistons are still cool with Reggie Jackson at the point, then Kennard would be a sensible play as the team contemplates how much it’s willing to give restricted free agent two guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. You could also see SVG being high on a talent like Indiana’s O.G. Anunoby, a potential 3-and-D talent coming off of an ACL tear. The Pistons need to make a call at the four, too, with Jon Leuer and/or Tobias Harris splitting starts through the season. If Detroit wanted to go in another direction entirely at that position, a choice of Collinses -- Gonzaga’s Zach or Wake Forest’s John -- could be in order.
13. DENVER NUGGETS (40-42)
HAVES: Scoring, rebounding
HAVE NOTS: Team defense
The emergence this season of “The Joker” -- aka, Nikola Jokic -- changed the calculus of the Nuggets going forward. With the second-year center exploding onto the scene, Denver has a much more linear path back to respectability than appeared possible a year ago. The Nuggets score a ton of points. Offense is not the issue as they boast diversified talents in Jokic (the post) to Will Barton (off the bounce) to Wilson Chandler (driving to the cup) to Danilo Gallinari (firing away on 3-pointers). They need someone to give them some identity at the other end of the floor. Anunoby could do that. But if Denver wants to double down on offense, any from among either North Carolina swingman Justin Jackson, Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell or Terrence Ferguson, who played this past season in Australia for the Adelaide 36ers, would add to the fireworks.
14. MIAMI HEAT (41-41)
HAVES: Shot blocking, defense
HAVE NOTS: Consistent front court scoring
The Heat’s rise from nowhere to the very precipice of the playoffs in just a couple of months needs to be assessed soberly by Miami’s coaches. Was that a harbinger of things to come? Did Dion Waiters and James Johnson turn the corner from okay rotation guys to top-of-the-scouting-report players? That will certainly color Miami’s decision making in the Draft. The Heat’s position means it can be pretty open looing for the best player and fit to augment the roster. Other than point guard and center, any of the available players noted above would work, and if a potential-laden four like California sophomore Ivan Rabb has great pre-Draft workouts, it wouldn’t be a shock to see someone take a flier on him in the top half.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
Cleveland Cavaliers (2-1): The Cavs’ second-half collapse Sunday night, blowing a 21-point lead early in the third quarter en route to a Game 3 Eastern Conference finals loss to Boston, doesn’t change the utter dominance they’ve shown for six of the eight quarters against the Celtics. Kevin Love looks shot out of a cannon, such is his confidence; the Cavs haven’t even really missed the struggling Kyle Korver or Deron Williams off their bench.
TEAM OF THE WEAK
Turkey (0-1): Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter claimed his native government cancelled his passport because of his strong views against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, leaving him a man without a country for a few harrowing hours this past weekend. Thank goodness Kanter immediately used social media to detail his detainment, which certainly put public pressure (along with subtle private entreaties from the NBA) on Turkey to knock off the nonsense and let Kanter on his way. He arrived back in the States on Sunday afternoon after spending several hours in Romania Saturday; Kanter said the Turkish government had cancelled his passport, a tactic that can sometimes lead to a native citizen being extradited back to Turkey -- something that decidedly would not have been in Kanter’s best interest.
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