NBA Draft Lottery Winners and Losers: Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis and the Pelicans' Perfect Night
The NBA lottery has come and gone, and the New Orleans Pelicans left the Chicago Hilton with 10 times more hope than the team had 24 hours ago. After entering the night with just a 6% at the No. 1 pick, New Orleans GM David Griffin did his best to keep a straight face as he accepted congratulations from Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum, who announced to a ballroom full of NBA personnel that the Pelicans would be picking first in June. "We've got a lot of work to do," Griffin told ESPN afterward. When pressed on whether the team would be taking Zion Williamson, he smiled and said, "We've got a lot of work to do."
So that's where things stand after Tuesday. For a closer look at what went down and what it might mean, here are some winners and losers.
Pelicans. Really, the Pelicans were huge winners on multiple fronts. First of all, they entered the most dramatic lottery in years and came away with the right to draft the most exciting prospect to hit the NBA since LeBron James 16 years ago. Zion isn't necessarily the best prospect—that was probably Anthony Davis, or if not AD, then Kevin Durant or Greg Oden—but not since LeBron have we seen a player with his combination of hype and talent. Zion is the basketball player that can make non-basketball fans care about basketball, and for a team that has seemed to be on the verge of relocation at various points throughout its history, he can help solidify the future in more ways than one. Exhibit A: Birdman GIFs and crashing Pelicans ticket servers Tuesday night.
The chance to draft Zion is only half the story, though. The Pelicans probably still have to trade Anthony Davis and that was the second half of the jackpot Tuesday. The Knicks and Lakers are two of the most notable AD suitors, and both of them fared well in the lottery. New York fell to three but avoided a slide to five, while L.A. entered the evening with the 11th best odds and somehow landed at four. There was always going to be an Anthony Davis bidding war between the Knicks and Lakers (and Celtics, and maybe the Clippers), but the stakes got higher Tuesday night. As the bidding war escalates, it may leave New Orleans with a choice between a very tempting Lakers offer (Brandon Ingram and the fourth pick) or the Knicks picking up their war chest and dumping it on the table in front of Griffin (Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., the third pick, and two future Mavs first rounders). Whatever happens, and whichever offer New Orleans prefers, all of it looks more lucrative after the lottery.
P.S. Yes, the Lakers are still the last place New Orleans will ever want to send AD, but they put up Brandon Ingram and No. 4, it becomes much harder to hang up the phone.
P.P.S. After Tuesday, it's worth noting that there's always a chance that Anthony Davis stays. That idea seems far-fetched given everything he's gone through in that city and how complicated a return might be, but it's technically possible. Zion is fantastic, and if his presence is enough to change things, or if Griffin can flip Williamson for another star who could change AD's mind, the Pelicans can still offer Davis significantly more guaranteed money than any team on the market. Will any of this actually happen? Probably not. But the possibility has to be mentioned.
Grizzlies.The Grizzlies spent the final two months of the season continuing to compete and win in the hopes that the team could convey this year's pick to the Celtics. That didn't happen and what happened instead is much better. After landing the rookie with maybe the highest upside of anyone in last June's draft, the Grizzlies came away from Tuesday's lottery with the chance to pair Jaren Jackson Jr. with the No. 2 pick. It's a huge win for a team that deserves one. Among small market teams, none have been run better than Memphis over the past 10 years, and when the Grizzlies are good, those games are as much fun as any atmosphere in the NBA. After a years watching the Grit and Grind era slowly crumble, it was an open question as to when the Grizzlies might be relevant again. Here's to hoping that Tuesday night gets them one step closer to getting there sooner than anyone expected.
Knicks. I understand that Knicks fans wanted the No. 1 pick. Zion in New York would've been cool. But honestly, any true Knicks fan understands that the team's karma probably should have landed them at five. Splitting the difference and getting the third pick is a win. At No. 3 they can still try to trade for Davis, which they may have done even if they'd won the lottery. Landing at No. 5 would have been a true gut punch—the draft gets thin after the first few picks, so it's unclear how much value the fifth pick will have as either a trade asset or a path to a future All-Star. But three is fine. Three could be RJ Barrett, Ja Morant, Jarrett Culver, Darius Garland, or the centerpiece of a trade for an All-Star. The Knicks can work with that.
Knicks fans who enjoy being miserable. I feel like 90% of being a Knicks fan is talking about how much you hate being a Knicks fan, so in that respect, the lottery was another win for those people.
David Griffin's lucky tie. I want to watch a two-hour documentary about this tie.
Lakers. We should all be very happy for the Lakers. This is a team that has drafted well, signed elite free agents, stocked its front office with lifelong winners, and recently hired not just a head coach, but a top-notch assistant to help him steer the ship. In so many ways, we're looking at the gold standard. You might see some pundits who claim that, because of all that success and competence, this was the last team on earth that deserved good luck on lottery night. Pay them no mind. The truth of the matter is that winners make their own luck. If that makes the whiners unhappy, so be it.
(For real though: I'm glad the Lakers didn't get No. 1, if only because that would have led to two months of rioting from basketball fans and quite possibly a Congressional investigation.)
Anthony Davis dark web trade chatter. The next two months are going to be full of so much misinformation and rumors that they will make January and February look like child's play. The Lakers don't even technically have a team president right now. The Knicks had a beat writer claim to breach the NBA lottery's security protocol on Tuesday night. The Celtics have been strategically leaking things to the media for decade. The Clippers are ready to trade every single player on their roster if the right deal emerges. The next two months are going to be a MESS. I can't wait.
Lottery drama. It remains to be seen whether lottery reform will actually curb tanking—the Knicks, Bulls, Suns, and Cavs were plenty awful this year—but it certainly succeeded in making the lottery more dramatic. I've always loved lottery night, and if Tuesday's chaos is going to be the baseline going forward, this night is only going to get better as the years pass.
Lottery lessons. All of Tuesday's chaos was made possible by lottery reform, of course. The league won on that front as well. By relegating the Cavs, Suns, and Bulls to fifth, sixth, and seventh, the 2019 lottery worked exactly as intended and became its own compelling argument against any team that tries to tell its fans that punting an entire season is actually the smartest path forward. Ultimately, I think that was the league's goal. There will always be bad teams in the NBA, but lottery reform at least casts doubt on the idea that fans should actively cheer for their teams to be awful. In turn, it makes it more difficult for teams to strip their rosters bare, save money, and convince their fans that it's the smartest plan. Debunking that myth is a step in the right direction, at least as far as the league office's objectives are concerned.
The final order. Think about this: 1) A fledgling but beloved small market landed the chance to draft the most marketable player to hit the league in 15 years. 2) Another fledgling small market will have the chance to pair a future All-NBA center with the No. 2 pick. And then 3) the two biggest franchises in basketball landed at three and four, giving each of them an extra asset as they battle each other in trade talks for the next two months and try to build a title contender before next October. All of this is a lot more fun than if, say, the Hornets, Cavs, and Suns had landed in the top three. I'm not saying Tuesday's lottery was fixed—seriously, it wasn't—but if someone ever did want to fix the lottery, I think this is the exact order I would've picked on the NBA's behalf.
Wizards. The Wizards entered the night with the sixth-best odds in the lottery, so it's not as if any Washington fan should have felt entitled to good fortune. Having said that, the Wizards did have a 37% chance of moving into the top four. There was a strong possibility that the lottery night would be the first good news Wizards fans have seen in roughly eight months. Instead, the team fell from the seventh spot to the ninth spot (leapfrogged by the Grizzlies and Lakers). Afterward, there was this note from The Washington Post's Ben Golliver: "After the first 3 of 4 lottery numbers were drawn, the Pelicans had the most winning combinations, followed by the Wizards. In the room, Washington's Tommy Shepherd tracked numbers & knew exactly how close franchise came to winning the Zion draft. Later, he declined comment."
I entered the night with low expectations and a promise to myself that I wasn't going to be disappointed. But then there it was. The Wizards came that close to a whole new era with Zion, and instead they fell to ninth and I ended the night reading Sekou Doumboya draft profiles. Perfect. (Also, if you want to get even darker: the Wizards experienced a similar timeline eight years ago when they had the second-best odds at Anthony Davis as a potential John Wall sidekick, only to lose out to New Orleans and land the No. 3 pick, ultimately waiting seven years for Bradley Beal to become an All-Star.) (Hear that, Knicks fans? True misery is suffering in silence and confining your self-loathing to throwaway parentheticals that most people won't read and definitely don't care about).
Cavs, Suns. The Cavs entered the night in a tie for the best odds at Zion Williamson and they finished with the fifth pick, while the Suns entered with the same odds and landed at six. Both of them were leapfrogged by the Lakers, which only twists the knife further. It was bad news all around. The Suns may miss out on both of the elite point guards available (Garland, Barrett), while the Cavs now have to spend the next two months hoping that Jarrett Culver drops to fifth. Meanwhile, former Suns No. 3 pick Josh Jackson recently got arrested for running away in handcuffs at Miami music festival. Rough week all around.
Bulls. Instead of a chance at Zion Williamson, the Bulls were reminded that John Paxson is still running their basketball team and will probably be running the team forever.
Mavs. The dream of Luka, Kristaps, and Zion was always too good to be true, and now it's officially dead. Time to shift our energy toward willing a Beverley-Luka partnership into existence.
Hawks. With all due respect to the Pelicans and the hypothetical Mavs superteam, the Hawks were always the coolest Zion destination. I'm still upset that we were robbed of Trae Young running pick-and-rolls with Zion, and I will probably be wondering about that alternate timeline for the next 15 years. Even Zion seemed to know that this was meant to be. Alas. Instead: the Hawks saw their own pick fall three spots (from fifth to eighth) and saw the Mavs pick fall from ninth to 10th. Terrible. And speaking of near-misses...
Celtics. The team that has spent several years preparing to trade for Anthony Davis came very, very close to landing the fourth pick and dramatically improving their bargaining position—and then watched the Lakers land there instead.
A fitting end to the year from hell in Boston.