The 2018 NBA draft is Thursday night, and the main thing everybody seems certain of in the run-up to draft night … is that just about nothing is certain.
From the best choice at No. 1 overall, to the proper value of big men in a league going smaller with each passing year, to the tantalizing but flawed boom-or-bust prospects who could throw the lottery for a loop, everything seems to be up for grabs in this year’s draft, with the annual rumor-mongering and smoke-screening fostered by agents and executives only further obscuring our view of how things might shake out come Thursday. As we get ready for the Phoenix Suns to get on the clock, here are five questions and storylines to consider in your pursuit of draft-night clarity:
What the hell are the Sacramento Kings going to do?
Everything seems to be pointing toward the Suns staying in-state with the first overall selection to snag Arizona big man Deandre Ayton, a Puma pitchman and character enthusiast who also happens to be a massive and mobile 7-footer whose offensive polish makes him an “anomaly” even in an age of unicorns. Ayton’s already getting comfortable putting his John Hancock on Suns-branded gear, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a complete shock to see Phoenix use the No. 1 pick on Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic, an almost unbelievably accomplished 19-year-old point forward who led Real Madrid to Spain’s ACB championship after having won EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP honors. (Here’s where we note that the Suns are now led by head coach Igor Kokoskov, who coached Doncic during the Slovenian national team’s run to gold at the 2017 EuroBasket competition.)
Whichever path Phoenix takes, the Kings, picking second after rocketing up the draft board thanks to some lottery luck, would seem to be sitting in position to land one of the pool’s top two talents. And yet … well, there seem to be some odd rumblings coming out of California’s capital!
ESPN’s Jonathan Givony continues to report that the Kings, led by vice president of basketball operations and general manager Vlade Divac, are “not very high on Luka Doncic and have their sights set firmly on” Marvin Bagley III. The 6-foot-11 forward was incredibly productive during his lone year at Duke, averaging 21 points and 11.1 rebounds per game en route to ACC Player of the Year honors and an All-American selection, though opinions on his pro potential vary. Some think he’s the most modern NBA-ready prospect in the draft, while others worry that the defensive shortcomings he displayed at Duke make him a dicey choice so high in the draft (and, perhaps, not even the best prospect among draft-eligible Blue Devils).
Where will Michael Porter Jr. land?
… when the Kings are tied to Michael Porter Jr., this draft’s agent of chaos, who could go second, 12th or anywhere in between.
The 2017 McDonald’s All-American and Mr. Basketball USA winner was considered a potential No. 1 overall draft pick heading into last college season, before back surgery limited him to just 53 underwhelming minutes at Missouri and hip spasms threw a wrench into his pre-draft workouts. Despite the most recent round of injury concerns — which, for the record, Porter claims “got exaggerated a lot” — the Kings are reportedly seriously considering pulling the trigger on Porter at No. 2, perhaps believing that the 6-foot-10 combo forward has the sort of elite scoring upside that could make him a centerpiece for a version of the Kings that consistently contends for postseason berths.
After 12 straight sub-.500 seasons, nothing to show for the entire DeMarcus Cousins era and little reason to believe anyone presently on the roster can be that sort of elevate-everybody-else focal point, Sacramento could use a star more than any other franchise in the NBA. The possibility that a healthy Porter is more likely to become one than anyone else on the board could lead Divac, owner Vivek Ranadivé and the rest of the Kings braintrust to believe he’s worth the risk … even if it seems like a pretty big freaking risk, with Doncic and Michigan State center Jaren Jackson Jr. still available.
Naturally, Porter doesn’t see it as much of a gamble. After all, he’s a mix of Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Tracy McGrady. Don’t believe it? Well, just ask him:
— Damon Amendolara (@DAonCBS) June 18, 2018
If Sacramento doesn’t take Porter at No. 2, it’ll be fascinating to see where he winds up. He’s been rumored as a target for the Memphis Grizzlies at No. 4 (though it’s tough to square a risk like that with Memphis’ station as a team whose owner just said he expects them to be back in 50-win territory next season), the Dallas Mavericks at No. 5, the Chicago Bulls at No. 7, the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 8, the New York Knicks at No. 9 … you get the idea.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Michael Porter Jr. right now, including who loves him most and believes most fervently that he’s the future. How the answers to those questions unfold could determine an awful lot about the 2018 draft.
Will Kawhi shake up the first round?
From one massive unknown to another. Now that Kawhi Leonard and his representatives have made it clear that the two-time All-NBA selection and Defensive Player of the Year would prefer not to play for the San Antonio Spurs anymore, and that if he had his druthers he’d be playing in Los Angeles next season … well, what comes next?
We know that Leonard and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich met in San Diego on Tuesday, with sources telling Yahoo Sports NBA insider Shams Charania that the meeting was conducted “professionally and confidentially.” (Which, I suppose, is better than the alternative!) A face-to-face meeting would seem like a solid first step toward some semblance of resolution. But if Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford can’t get a firm handle on this situation by draft night — not an unreasonable assumption, considering the parties involved apparently haven’t been able to do so all season — then could the 26-year-old superstar who was limited to just nine games by a right quadriceps injury be this year’s version of Jimmy Butler, an all-world two-way talent moved in a draft-night blockbuster?
If Buford and Popovich believe wholeheartedly that the Kawhi relationship is irrevocable — and we don’t know for sure yet that it is — then it’s incumbent on them to try to extract as much value as possible in return for a legitimate top-five talent, even if it means keeping him in-conference, loathe as San Antonio might be to do so. But with Leonard coming off a worrisome injury, with only one year left on his current contract before he can choose to enter unrestricted free agency next summer, and with multiple reports suggesting he’ll be uninterested in re-upping long-term anywhere but Los Angeles, how much any prospective suitor might be willing to offer for his services remains very much an open question.
Word is the Suns have no interest in dealing the top pick for Leonard. The Kings, at No. 2, might be a little less hard-and-fast on the matter. The Los Angeles Clippers are reportedly interested in getting in the bidding, and “would be willing to create a package with forward Tobias Harris and the 12th or 13th pick in this year’s draft,” according to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times, which would give the Spurs multiple first-rounders in Thursday’s draft.
The Cavs have inquired about Leonard’s availability, according to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, and could use whichever player they select at No. 8 as part of a package in a deal after making the pick. The Boston Celtics only have one pick in this year’s opening round, the 27th overall, but could have as many as four next season, including an extremely tasty Kings pick protected only for the top overall spot. If Danny Ainge decides he wants to get aggressive in getting into the Leonard market, he could always look to package future picks and young talent to secure a high-profile choice this year, if the Spurs have something specific in mind.
While the Spurs have reportedly been answering the phone when rival teams have rung them with inquiries on Leonard, they’ve been “reluctant to give teams guidance on the players, or packages, that would interest them in trades.” That could suggest that they’re not “quite ready to make him available.”
On one hand, that’d make sense. You’d figure the Spurs would prefer to take their time in figuring out their approach to the Leonard question. With a player this good, a situation this volatile and a set of circumstances this rare, discretion could be the better part of valor. You don’t want to act hastily and wind up holding 25 cents for the dollar you shipped out in a fit of pique. (Remember that, this time last summer, LaMarcus Aldridge wanted out of San Antonio, too, before some air-clearing conversation led to a contract extension and an All-Star season.)
Then again, timing might be everything here. The longer Leonard’s public discontent lingers, and the longer the Spurs go without making a move, the less compelling the offers they receive are likely to be; when everyone thinks you’ve got to sell, they’re going to try to get the best bargain possible. Striking by draft night could give San Antonio the best chance of landing a significant return for a player who sure seems to be spoiling for an exit, and allow the Spurs to move into the next phase of their summer business with a new potential franchise tentpole and without the Kawhi drama hanging over their heads.
If I was a betting man, I’d wager that the Spurs stand pat, that Leonard’s still in silver-and-black come Friday morning, and that San Antonio’s front office takes as much time as possible to sniff out the best possible endgame, whether or not that results in Leonard suiting up for the Spurs next season. But weird stuff happens when the offseason starts, and Leonard’s de facto trade request certainly kicked this year’s festivities off in earnest. Teams with multiple picks, young players worth pining over and their sights set on adding a difference-maker who could shift their franchise from competing to legitimately contending could very well spend the next two days lining up their best pitches for Buford and Pop, hoping to end draft night as the only team who added a bona fide superstar.
What do the Cavs do at No. 8?
With all due respect to Ayton, Doncic, Bagley, Porter, Kawhi and everybody else, the single biggest question in the NBA this summer is where LeBron James is going to play next year.
He made it clear during Cleveland’s four-game sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals that what he prizes most is a collection of teammates who can think the game at an elite level as he looks to remain in “championship mode” and topple Golden State in what remain of his prime years. He’s also made it clear, though, that the comfort and wishes of his family — now set up back in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, four years after the last time he faced this specific choice — will factor heavily into his decision-making calculus.
The best player in the world has a lot to consider — uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, and all that — and, as is LeBron’s wont, he will take his time to consider it. That puts the Cavs in a tough spot, because they’ve got the No. 8 pick in the draft — by way of the Brooklyn Nets, who gave it to the Boston Celtics a half-dozen years ago in what will go down as one of the most painful trades in NBA history, before Boston shipped it (along with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Ante Zizic) to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving last summer — and they’re going to have to go into draft night not knowing if what they do will have any bearing on their chances of keeping James in wine and gold.
That’s probably pretty stressful for GM Koby Altman and owner Dan Gilbert. You’d imagine they’d love to have some semblance of a head’s up as to whether their selection would have any bearing on their chances of keeping LeBron, because … y’know … you want to keep LeBron. Then again, maybe it’s freeing. If you love a prospect — say, Porter Jr., or Trae Young out of Oklahoma, or Duke’s Wendell Carter, or Mikal Bridges from Villanova, or Kentucky’s Kevin Knox — and he’s on the board, but you know that LeBron’s really got his heart set on Alabama’s Collin Sexton, you find yourself between the proverbial rock and a
Shabazz Napier hard place.
If you don’t know what LeBron wants to do, because LeBron doesn’t know yet what he wants to do, then you can proceed in whichever direction you think might be best for the future of the Cavs independent of James’ plans. Reasonable people can disagree over how effective it was, but Altman showed at last year’s trade deadline he wasn’t afraid to make a bold swing to try to change his team’s fortunes; whether Cleveland comes away from Thursday with something to build around in a potential second post-LeBron era could depend on how willing and effective he is at doing it again.
How much draft-night dealing will we see?
The Clippers own the Nos. 12 and 13 picks, thanks to the swap that sent Blake Griffin to Detroit, and if the Leonard reports are true, they’re willing to put them on the table in pursuit of a significant roster upgrade. (Including, perhaps, one they could land by moving up into the top 10.) The Chicago Bulls also have two first-round picks to use as they try to build around a young core headlined by rising sophomore Lauri Markkanen and healthy-again swingman Zach LaVine.
While the Suns are reportedly reluctant to move off the No. 1 pick in pursuit of a game-changer, they’ve also got two more picks in the top 31 they could use to move up or move out, if another team is willing to give up future considerations to pluck a preferred prospect. Similarly, the Atlanta Hawks, with four picks in the top 34, have reportedly been very active in exploring potential uses of their draft capital to move some of their players with significant long-term money still on the books as GM Travis Schlenk continues his from-the-ground-up rebuild in Georgia.
The Philadelphia 76ers face a numbers crunch, with four choices in the top 40, six overall and 11 players already on guaranteed contracts for next year, leaving them with just four open roster spots. Acting personnel chief and head coach Brett Brown is either going to have to draft some guys with the express purpose of stashing them or look to consolidate those choices, whether by packaging them to slide up in the order or by kicking the can down the road to open up a spot for another team to rise up the board.
The Washington Wizards, cap-strapped after dishing out max deals for John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, are reportedly dangling the No. 15 pick to any team willing to take on expiring contracts owed to the likes of center Marcin Gortat or power forward Markieff Morris. In a financial environment in which few teams have meaningful flexibility, with the bill for all those rich deals handed out in the salary-spiking summer of 2016 coming due, other teams could well be in that same boat, looking to give up future prospects to fix past mistakes.
Will the few teams with some cap space to burn — Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix — pounce on those opportunities, renting out their flexibility to get another crack at landing a contributor? Will a star we’re not talking about in the Kawhi-and-LeBron-dominated run-up to draft night find himself on the move in exchange for a passel of picks and young players? Will anyone, at long last, be able to discern what Sacramento’s plan actually might be? We’ve got lots of questions and comparatively few answers, but we’re only a short time from finding at least some clarity in it all.
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