Ranking the Futures of Every NBA Lottery Team
Lottery odds reflect the likelihood of each NBA team winning the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft and are determined by their regular-season record. These numbers shouldn’t change unless a squad deals away its choice ahead of the prospect pageant.
14. Charlotte Hornets (0.8 percent)
The Charlotte Hornets wasted little time replacing their general manager/president and head coach at the end of the regular season. These moves, while arguably needed, seem to suggest the franchise is trying to re-enter the playoff picture soon rather than go through a conventional rebuild.
That makes it difficult to feel good about their future. They’ve now missed the postseason in three of the past four crusades. Why should next year be any different?
With no cap space, no high-end draft prospects and no dispensable trade assets, the Hornets don’t have the ability to change much, if anything. They’ll begin next year hoping that same-old product yields different results. That’s never a good spot to be in.
And worse: Things won’t necessarily get better. They have Dwight Howard coming off the books after next year, at which time Kemba Walker’s free agency will eat up what little flexibility they’d be ticketed for. They’re unlikely to move up this list without hitting reset.
13. Memphis Grizzlies (19.9 percent)
Convincing yourself to put the Memphis Grizzlies higher up on this ladder isn’t hard. They have Marc Gasol. Mike Conley could be healthy next season. Tyreke Evans is coming off the best season of his career and could be re-signed. The Grizzlies may have something special in Dillon Brooks. JaMychal Green can still contribute.
Add what will be a top-three prospect to this core, and the Grizzlies could find themselves back in the playoff fracas.
But then what?
Conley and Gasol aren’t getting any younger, and the Grizzlies won’t have meaningful cap space until 2019 at the absolute earliest. Chandler Parsons will still amount to dead money over the next two years, and there’s no guarantee whoever Memphis selects will be ready to contribute right away.
Presuming good health doesn’t change this outlook. The Grizzlies weren’t assured of being in the playoff hunt entering this year. They surely won’t be guaranteed a postseason bid in the years to come as they get more expensive.
12. Orlando Magic (8.8 percent)
The Orlando Magic should be higher. Every team that loses as much as they have over the past half-decade or so should be higher. All those high draft picks are supposed to amount to something.
Orlando has gone the opposite direction. They don’t have a surefire cornerstone in their possession. Aaron Gordon remains a foundational candidate, but he’s about to cost near-max money, and he’s nowhere near worth that. They’ll have a top-five pick in this year’s draft, but they’ve hardly proven they’re capable of hitting home runs in the prospect pageant.
A new front-office regime could change the tenor of what’s happening in Orlando. The Magic have already fired head coach Frank Vogel, who this latest front office inherited, and Jonathan Isaac flashed serious defensive potential during his limited run as a rookie. Things could feasibly get better.
But there’s only so much faith we can place in a perennial lottery team that heads into this summer with no alpha building block, no clear path to cap space and very few desirable trade assets.
11. Detroit Pistons (0.7 percent*)
*Note that the Detroit Pistons’ pick will be sent to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Trading for Blake Griffin was a shortsighted move by the Pistons. Sure, he’s a superstar when healthy. But his health isn’t a guarantee. No team in the league, including them, should want any part of his contract. He’ll have a player option in his final year (2021-22) worth approximately $39 million.
Fleshing out the roster between now and then will be difficult with Griffin’s money on the books. It will be near impossible while the Pistons are also floating Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson’s deals. This team will have to feast on cheap free-agency dice rolls and hope their drafting chops can unearth high-impact talent later in the order.
Of course, they won’t have the opportunity to do the latter this year. Their pick is headed to the Clippers as compensation for that Griffin trade.
On the bright side, the Pistons’ immediate ceiling is higher than most. They’ll have a chance at making the playoffs next season if Drummond, Jackson and Griffin all remain healthy, and if they stock the roster with enough shooting.
Burning through so much of your future, though, just to get on a treadmill of early postseason exits is hardly good business practice. The Pistons have willingly tethered themselves to the middle, at best, for the next four years.
10. Los Angeles Clippers (0.6 percent)
The Clippers deserve a special kudos for remaining afloat this season. They turned over more of their roster between last season and this year than any other team, and yet they still managed to remain within hugging distance of a playoff berth.
Entering the offseason with two middle of the road first-round picks is a big win, too. They’ll be able to add some cost-controlled talent to a roster that could be ready to resume contending for playoff berths almost immediately.
Still, the Clippers lack direction. Will they re-sign DeAndre Jordan (player option) in free agency? How about Avery Bradley? Are they trying to rebuild or compete? Will the massive amounts of cap space they’re slated to have in 2019 actually mean anything?
It’s tough to show them more love than this when they’re surrounded by so much uncertainty.
9. Brooklyn Nets (2.8 percent*)
*Note that the Brooklyn Nets’ pick will be sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Finally, at long last, the Nets’ draft-pick obligations from that humdinger of a Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade in 2013 are about to expire. They will control all their own first-rounders after this summer, arming them with the most valuable rebuilding tool of all.
Except, the Nets are now approaching a point of reinvestment in the current roster. That’s what’s happens when you spend the past two-plus years collecting assets wherever you can, trying to recoup the depth and upside and big-picture appeal the previous front-office regime squandered.
D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are all extension-eligible this summer. They’ll each be making substantially more by the start of 2019-20. Caris LeVert isn’t far behind them; he’ll be extension-eligible in 2019.
The Nets must now figure out whether they’re ready to double-down, in any way, on the current core. How many of these guys will they keep? Two of them? All of them? None of them?
Re-signing any of them shows a commitment to winning in the near future. Trading some of them would hint at the Nets trying to prioritize their draft picks. Regardless, the road back to respectability remains a long one—not a hopeless one, but a long, winding one.
8. Sacramento Kings (5.3 percent)
Scroll through the Sacramento Kings’ depth chart, and you won’t find a clear-cut need. They have bodies at every position, both young and old.
This is equal parts a blessing and a curse. It’s good to have prospects to monitor at every turn, but you also want to have as many marquee youngsters as possible. With all due respect to Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Aron Fox is the only one of the Kings’ kiddies with a superstar ceiling. The team will need more high-upside picks like him before they’re on the right track.
Here’s the thing: The Kings didn’t tank hard enough this year. Having top-seven lottery odds is far from a victory when they don’t control their own 2019 first-round pick. They needed to lose more and ensure themselves of a top-three prospect—the building block they don’t currently have.
Sacramento will have some cap space this summer and even more in 2019. That helps. But as the Kings have shown before, they cannot be trusted to spend their slush fund wisely. They have a lot to prove, in every area imaginable, before we’re ready to rate them higher than this.
7. Chicago Bulls (5.3 percent)
Meet the Sacramento Kings of the Eastern Conference, only with a slightly brighter future.
The Chicago Bulls are another team that could have benefited from a more serious commitment to tanking. They wrapped the first quarter of the season with the league’s worst record. Playing themselves out of top-five lottery odds verges on devastating when you look at how inconsistent and uninspiring their rotation was to close the year.
Lauri Markkanen is wrapping up a promising rookie campaign. The Bulls clearly have something in Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis. They found a nice defensive flier in David Nwaba. Cameron Payne might yet salvage his career. The Bulls have cap space. They have another top-seven prospect, most likely, en route. And they have Zach LaVine.
Ah, yes. Zach LaVine. The centerpiece of last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade. He will be a restricted free agent after appearing in under 30 games while dealing with knee injuries. The Bulls somehow have to put a price on his future without having seen him play through an adequate sample size. That’s dangerous territory for a team barren of superstar prospects. Rebuilding squads are supposed to be gambling on cost-controlled youngsters, not footing significant bills for a question mark like LaVine.
6. New York Knicks (1.7 percent)
Consider this is a gift to New York Knicks fans. They could easily be lower.
If Kristaps Porzingis never tore his ACL, they would of course be higher. The hardest thing to do in any rebuild is acquire a franchise-altering superstar. He has shown he’s just that when healthy. But he’s not healthy. He might not play again until 2019. That puts a damper on the Knicks’ future.
Having Frank Ntilikina helps, but New York seems content to underdevelop him. Taking fliers on Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay is fine, but neither profiles as a defensive plus or long-term solution at point guard. The team fired head coach Jeff Hornacek, but has thus far staged a rather aimless search for his replacement.
Similarly complicated, the Knicks cannot be trusted to see anything through. Will they really wait out their financial flexibility for 2019? Or will we see them make impulsive win-now moves that don’t actually nudge their needle in the right direction?
Not being able to answer these questions is a big deal. But Porzingis’ health is the biggest deal of all. We have to wait and see how his knee responds to recovery and how he performs upon his return before viewing their future in rosier terms.
5. Atlanta Hawks (13.7 percent)
Don’t sleep on the Atlanta Hawks’ rebuild. They have almost everything one looks for in an encouraging reset.
Dennis Schroder’s contract is the lone real stain on their books, and he’s not necessarily immovable. Even Kent Bazemore’s timeline-divergent deal isn’t that much of an eyesore; it has just two years left.
The Hawks do have a glaring absence of superstar prospects. But, on the other hand, maybe they don’t. Rookie John Collins showed he’s more than just a lob finisher. He has some handles to his game, and the Hawks let him shoot corner threes. If he can ever pair his already solid rebounding with some legitimate rim protection at the 5 spot, he has a chance to sniff stardom.
Taurean Prince appears to be right on the brink as well. He assumed more control of the offense down the stretch of the regular season, and the additional work looked good on him. He has to improve his decision-making out of the pick-and-roll, but it’s clear that he’s more than just a spot-up shooter. Attach this more-expansive-than-advertised offensive bag of tricks to his cross-wing defense, and he he’ll have an outside shot at earning fringe All-Star love—think of a bigger, stronger, not-as-long version of Khris Middleton.
DeAndre’ Bembry is also an interesting prospect to watch. He didn’t play much this year, but he’s flashed the capacity to essentially be the next Kent Bazemore. And the Hawks would take that.
Combine what’s already in place with gobs of cap space and five first-round picks over the next two drafts, including top-three lottery odds ahead of this one, and the Hawks seem to be on the right track. Their relationship with head coach Mike Budenholzer is touch-and-go, which is a concern. But their assortment of talent transcends whatever drama exists there.
4. Dallas Mavericks (13.8 percent)
A lot of faith is being placed in the Dallas Mavericks’ basketball structure here. They have an owner, in Mark Cuban, who’s willing to spend, and a head coach, in Rick Carlisle, who remains known for extracting the most possible value out of incumbent talent.
Dennis Smith Jr. just put a bow on a confusing rookie campaign. He wasn’t particularly efficient, but he posted one of the eight highest usage rates for a first-year player in NBA history. Carrying that workload isn’t easy. He should improve with time and retains his superstar ceiling as a result.
The problem? Smith is about the extent of Dallas’ pure prospects. They have some nice pieces on the margins in Dorian Finney-Smith, Yogi Ferrell (restricted) and maybe even Nerlens Noel. But they lack that true No. 2 in training to pair with Smith.
Some will think it’s Harrison Barnes. It’s not. He’s young enough to be part of a rebuilding squad, but his fit next to a ball-dominant scorer is iffy this side of his tenure with the Golden State Warriors. He prefers to operate with the rock in his hands, yet he isn’t an exceptional distributor or foul-drawer.
All of that said, the Mavericks have plenty of things going for them. They are among the few teams with serious cap space this summer, Dirk Nowitzki is still balling in a complementary capacity, and they’ll add a top-five pick to their current pool of talent this June. Don’t be surprised if they’re one of the first two teams on this list to secure a return to the playoffs.
3. Phoenix Suns (25.0 percent)
Giving this spot to the Phoenix Suns feels generous, stingy and perfect all at once.
Yes, they were the worst team in the league this year. But that only means they have the best odds at landing the No. 1 pick. Yes, they haven’t done anything to advance the developments of Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, but they have Devin Booker, TJ Warren and, most recently, Josh Jackson all showing out. And yes, Warren (already re-signed) and Booker (extension-eligible) are about to cost more money. But the Suns have a bunch of cap space this summer at a time when most teams do not.
Indeed, Phoenix first needs to make the most of their situation. The front office, along with Booker, wants to make the playoffs next year. That could pave the way for some reckless spending in free agency and haphazard gambling on the trade market.
Overall, however, the Suns are sitting pretty.
As we said previously, the hardest part of any rebuild is acquiring that star prospect. They have that much in Devin Booker and should, in all likelihood, have the opportunity to land another one in this year’s draft.
2. Denver Nuggets (0.5 percent)
The Denver Nuggets came oh-so-close to landing the No. 1 spot. Others would put them there, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
Nikola Jokic doesn’t just give them a superstar prospect. He’s already knocking on the door of superstardom. He will be a liability on the defensive end when guarding in space, but he’s a good rebounder and okay rim protector. Everything he does on offense will always outweigh anything he doesn’t do on defense.
Jamal Murray may be following Jokic’s lead. He closed his sophomore season looking like a toned-down, more defensively aggressive version of Damian Lillard. If he actualizes that trajectory, it will be huge for the Nuggets.
Gary Harris gives them an additional fringe star. His four-year, $84 million extension is set to kick in next season, and he’s worth every penny. He doesn’t need the ball to be effective on offense, and his defensive hustle and physicality belies his size.
Denver’s trajectory gets a little more difficult to read after this. Having Paul Millsap on the docket gives them immediate playoff appeal, but they lack upside on the wings. Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez are their best prospects on the perimeter, and they barely saw the floor this season. The Nuggets can get places relying on Will Barton and Wilson Chandler (player option), but one or both of them could leave in free agency.
The team’s cap situation is also weird. The Nuggets have a path to get cap space, but it would entail them being willing to end up in the luxury tax—something small-market squads aren’t usually open to paying, particularly after failing to make the playoffs the year before.
Look for them to be active on the trade market, be it to shed salary and become free-agency players, or to acquire an A-list name. Either way, their core straddles the line of both youthful and established. That bodes extremely well for their next five years of development.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (1.1 percent*)
*Note that the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick will be sent to the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics.
Props to the Lakers for making us almost not care that they don’t own this year’s first-round pick. Their nucleus showed out during the regular season, playing well enough for the team to embrace a more traditional rebuild should their free-agency ambitions not pan out.
Brandon Ingram. Lonzo Ball. Josh Hart. Kyle Kuzma. Julius Randle. That makes for one heck of a talent base. And the Lakers have the ability to keep all of them while carving out two max-contract slots they could use on LeBron James and Paul George. It would take some serious pot-sweetening on the Luol Deng trade front, but it is possible.
Whiff on adding a star free agent, and the Lakers have a ton of different directions in which they can go. They could let their young core marinate and revisit free agency in 2019. They could cobble together some of the most interesting superstar trade packages in the league. They could hedge both fronts—signing a couple of mid-end free agents to complement the growth of their prospects.
It’s fine if you want to put the Nuggets here, with the Lakers a little lower. We get it. But for all the knocks against this team, they’re finally making their way into the modern-day NBA. Giving them both high-impact kiddies and massive amounts of cap space makes for a dangerous combination.
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