The day that several NBA teams have anticipated all year is finally here. With the draft lottery set to air at 8:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, we'll finally know which team will receive the right to draft Zion Williamson at No. 1. Several teams need to land Williamson, but who really deserves him? The Crossover staff looks at the needs of lottery teams and what they stand to lose if the ping pong balls don't bounce their way.
Andrew Sharp, Pelicans
All eyes on will be on the Knicks and Cavs at the top, the Lakers and Mavericks as longshots, and maybe the Hawks as the basketball hipster favorite. That’s fine, and the stakes are high for all of them. Yet if we want to be technical about this highest stakes question, we need to be honest: the only correct answer is the Pelicans.
The Pelicans have the seventh best odds on the board, which gives them a 26% chance at a top-four pick and a 6% chance at No. 1. Meanwhile, if New York, L.A., or Boston land near the top of the board, each of those picks are likely to be offered for Anthony Davis. If the Knicks or Lakers actually land at No. 1, each of those teams immediately have the best Anthony Davis trade offer of anyone on the market, and instead of potentially launching a new era with a bunch of failed Lakers experiments as the cornerstones, the Pelicans can trade AD and start fresh with the most exciting rookie to hit the NBA in 15 years.
In short: The goal for New Orleans on Tuesday is to get lucky themselves and to hope that potential AD suitors get lucky as well, driving up the market before we even make it July 1st. It’s really not inconceivable that the Pelicans could be entering next season with Zion Williamson *and* an additional top-five pick like Ja Morant or Jarret Culver. Or, if things break bad Tuesday, the Pelicans could be stuck at No. 7 and all their trade partners could strike out just the same.
Rohan Nadkarni, Knicks
The Knicks, more so than most teams, have put all their eggs in the 2019 offseason basket. At one end of the spectrum, they end up with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Zion Williamson. On the other end, Boogie Cousins and max-JJ Redick are in the opening night starting lineup. That first scenario obviously starts with winning the lottery. New York needs a foundational young piece, especially after (kinda recklessly!) jettisoning Kristaps Porzingis at the trade deadline.
After years of poor play, the Knicks still don’t have any homegrown talent with star potential. Dropping in the lottery would not only lessen New York’s chances at finding a superstar, it could jeopardize the free-agent plans. Maybe Durant is really joining no matter what. But will he really sign with a team with no other top talent? What if the famously mercurial Irving wants to re-team with LeBron? Winning the lottery would finally reward the Knicks for years of ineptitude, put them on a path toward something resembling success, and serve as a beacon of hope for big names around the league. If New York loses out on Zion, not only would its latest tank job have been worthless, but it could start a chain of events that leaves the Knicks empty handed this summer.
Michael Shapiro, Cavaliers
In terms of opportunity for acquiring talent, the Cavaliers are in a pretty desperate state just 10 months after LeBron James took his talents to Hollywood. The Knicks could land the best player in basketball in July. The Suns, Hawks and Bulls have building blocks for a potential playoff team early in the next decade. Where can Cleveland turn to? Collin Sexton and an aging Kevin Love is not an encouraging combination. The Cavaliers' last notable free-agency signing aside from LeBron is Larry Hughes, and their history of attracting impact players is as slim as any team in the league. Cleveland needs to strike gold in the draft to revive the franchise. Landing Zion would be another miracle landing in Dan Gilbert’s lap.
Jake Fischer, Lakers
The Lakers need the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft. From the Magic Johnson debacle to Luke Walton's firing, only leading towards the team's top-two options choosing not to join Los Angeles, one thing has remained clear: The Lakers have LeBron James. And no matter what happens on the margins or within the organization's ever-changing power structure, the only thing that truly matters is surrounding James with premier talent. Zion Williamson projects as the most impactful draft prospect since perhaps James himself. His positionless, multifaceted, incessant style of play would fit seamlessly alongside James in the open court.
But even more critical: There's no more cost-effective way to build a contending roster than by obtaining an All-Star caliber talent still on his rookie contract. If the Lakers were to land the top selection on Tuesday night, it opens a plausible reality where Los Angeles could add not only Williamson, but two max-level free agents this summer—who would be all the more enticed to join James' kingdom with an athletic marvel heir to the throne already in place.
DeAntae Prince, Bulls
The Bulls have lived in the lottery for years now, and while they haven’t completely missed on their picks, in recent drafts they haven't landed early enough to get the absolute home run, either. Chicago hasn’t had the first pick since it selected Derrick Rose at No. 1 overall in 2008. In the years since, selections of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have impressed, but we won’t know their true value for quite some time. Both guys have promise, yet neither screams franchise player at the moment. They’re great building blocks, but Zion Williamson is the type of player who provides a foundation.
This isn’t fully about the players, though. The Bulls’ front office has become notorious for making tough free agency and coaching decisions, and it’s only a matter before that extends to every corner of the team, including the draft. In a year this shallow with so many teams pinning their hopes to Williamson, it’s imperative that Chicago comes away from the draft lottery with the No. 1 pick. That would take the decision out of the hands of John Paxson and Gar Forman and save Chicago from the doldrums of the NBA, where they’ve dwelled since trading Jimmy Butler to Minnesota.
Ben Teitelbaum, Wizards
The Wizards need Zion more than Game of Thrones needs a Season 8 script review from George R.R. Martin. Washington has the worst contract in the NBA, and arguably the most destructive deal ever, in the $37.8 million they owe John Wall’s ruptured Achilles next season (that number balloons to almost $47 million in 2022-23). Add on the $21 million dollars tied up between Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard, and you’ve got some real Beltway gridlock.
The Washington fan base is already as cynical as any, and if you’re looking for hope along the Beltway, well, let’s just say that President Obama’s not in town anymore. Even superstar-level Bradley Beal just isn’t enough, as evidenced by the team’s meager 32 wins. But getting Zion… now that would be like morning in America after a long night. The Wizards have next to no chance of signing a marquee free agent, and all the other top prospects are either redundant (i.e. Ja Morant) or uninspiring (i.e. Cam Reddish). Washington has a 9% chance at the top pick, which means a 9% shot at optimism and relevance. Or a 91% chance at continued suffering, however you choose to look at it.