The New Orleans Pelicans won Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery, which poses a karma conundrum. On one hand, their fans endured a hellish season in which superstar Anthony Davis requested a trade, and the promise of Zion Williamson — the most anticipated prospect since Davis — is a heck of a consolation prize if that request is finally granted this summer. On the other, the organization’s failures have driven the last two faces of the franchise — Davis and Chris Paul — to ask out before the end of their rookie contract extensions. Let us all hope this third time is the charm.
There is a new show-runner in New Orleans. Former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, who built a champion around LeBron James, took over last month for longtime GM Dell Demps, the man who failed Paul and Davis. Griffin is hopeful that he can entice Davis to stay, especially now that Williamson is part of his sales pitch, but Davis reportedly remains steadfast in his desire to be traded.
Either way, the Pelicans are in a position of strength entering the draft, with multiple paths to success and a GM who will not be easily swindled. As Griffin told reporters at the lottery in Chicago, “We knew we were the epicenter of the offseason. Now we are to a greater degree.’’ If the Pelicans are forced to follow the path of rebuilding around Williamson, then which team can offer the best trade package for Davis?
When the first few lottery picks were announced on Tuesday, the Celtics looked to be in for a disastrous night. Their top-one protected pick from the Sacramento Kings stayed at No. 14, and two teams jumped from double digits into the top four, meaning their top-eight protected Memphis Grizzlies pick would likely convey at No. 10. Making matters worse, the Lakers — Boston’s chief competitors in the Davis sweepstakes — were one of the teams that still had a chance at Williamson.
When the dust settled, the Celtics emerged OK.
Memphis moved up to No. 2, meaning Boston’s pick from the Grizzlies is now top-six protected in 2020 and unprotected in 2021. The likely addition of Murray State sophomore Ja Morant means good things for a Memphis future that also includes Jaren Jackson Jr., but it may also spell the end of Mike Conley’s tenure. A return to Grit ‘n’ Grind glory is still years away, so the pick still holds value for Boston.
The Celtics also have Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart to dangle in any potential trade for Davis. Despite Tatum’s step back into the midrange, he might be the best trade chip on the market, and Brown is not far behind. Open up their chest of first-round picks, which include the one from Memphis and pick Nos. 14, 20 and 22 this season, and it is hard to imagine any other team matching that breadth of young talent, all of which would fit seamlessly around Williamson.
Would the Celtics still swing for the Davis fence if Kyrie Irving leaves in free agency? All indications are that Ainge would be unafraid to make the move, even after Davis’ father said he doesn’t want his son in Boston. Regardless, chances are that the addition of Davis would help the Celtics sell Irving on staying on a revamped roster.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers had a bit of lottery luck, moving up from the 11th spot to No. 4 overall. That gives them one more asset to throw into a package that reportedly featured some combination of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
Their best offer, which also included multiple draft picks and salary cap relief, was rejected by the previous Pelicans regime. It remains to be seen whether Griffin will be more willing to deal with the Lakers, but reports prior to his hiring in New Orleans suggested that the organization had no interest in trading Davis to L.A.
While the No. 4 pick sweetens the pot, the rest of the Lakers’ trade package has taken a turn for the worse since the trade deadline. Ball never returned from a badly sprained ankle in January — and nearly had an unauthorized surgery on it, which was the latest reminder that he comes with headaches, too. Ingram’s season was also cut short in March by a blood-clotting issue. And Hart fell back to Earth before being shut down for the final 11 games with knee tendinitis that lingered all year.
Oh, and the Lakers traded promising young center Ivica Zubac for no reason.
If the deal wasn’t good enough for New Orleans before, I’m not sure adding, say, Texas Tech sophomore Jarrett Culver to the mix makes up for question marks that follow presumed blue-chip assets Ingram and Ball into next season and beyond.
New York Knicks
The Knicks owned the NBA’s worst record and a share of the best odds at landing the No. 1 overall pick. There were conflicting reports about what they would do with that pick, with The Athletic’s Shams Charania reporting that the Knicks would deal Williamson for Davis and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting that they would not.
None of it mattered, because the Knicks landed at No. 3. That pick would now be the centerpiece of their offer for Davis, and who knows, maybe the thought of reuniting Williamson with fellow Duke freshman RJ Barrett is of interest to Griffin.
The Knicks have few enticing trade chips on the roster, outside of 2018 second-round pick Mitchell Robinson. Recent lottery selections Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox are not blue-chip assets. It is hard to imagine Griffin dealing Davis without getting one proven NBA talent in return, even though the Knicks now hold a trove of first-round picks that includes a pair from Dallas from the Kristaps Porzingis deal.
The Sixers had a 1 percent shot at the No. 1 pick, if the top-one protected Sacramento selection they owed to Boston somehow landed them Williamson.
It did not.
They also traded almost all of their building blocks during the regular season. Dario Saric went to Minnesota in the deal for Jimmy Butler. Landry Shamet and two future first-rounders, including an unprotected 2021 pick from Miami, went to the L.A. Clippers for Tobias Harris. And former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, if he even held any future trade value, was turned into a top-20 protected pick from Oklahoma City.
Butler and Harris helped the Sixers come within a Kawhi Leonard miracle of the Eastern Conference finals, so chances are the front office will try to keep this roster intact and hope one more year of continuity can carry them past the second round.
One question remains: Would they trade Ben Simmons for Davis? He is a 22-year-old All-Star who does not fit perfectly with superstar center Joel Embiid and who has disappeared for stretches of his first two playoff runs. Yet, he would be the best building block on the table if Philadelphia offers him to New Orleans, although the fact that Rich Paul represents both Davis and Simmons complicates matters.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Lakers and Sixers both helped the Clips in their quest to build a super-team in L.A., handing them Shamet, Zubac and two-first-round picks to add to a package that would have to include promising rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Montrezl Harrell, who will be a free agent again in 2020, also made himself an asset.
Shamet, Zubac and Gilgeous-Alexander started for a team that earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference and took the Golden State Warriors to six games in the opening round of the playoffs, and Harrell was more productive than all of them. They are also all 25 years old or younger. That is not such a bad sell if you are Clippers consultant Jerry West, who has orchestrated many a trade coup before.
Still, none of those guys is the sort of blue-chip talent the Pelicans will be looking to land in return for Davis. The 2021 unprotected pick from Miami is probably their best trade asset, but the Clippers also owe their own 2019 and 2021 picks in previous trades, so the depth of what they can offer to sweeten the pot is limited.
The Suns shared the best odds at the No. 1 pick with the Knicks and Cavaliers, and then dropped to sixth, which put a dent in any offer they might make for Davis. Recent lottery picks Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender have done them no favors, and while Mikal Bridges has a promising future, he can’t anchor a trade offer, either.
Still, the Suns have two players — scoring sensation Devin Booker and 2018 first overall pick Deandre Ayton — who might trump any other package by themselves.
Would Phoenix risk trading either player for Davis, considering the Pelicans star could walk in 2020 free agency? It seems unlikely that Davis would want to trade one bumbling organization for another, and it would be a tall order for the Suns to start contending with either Booker and Davis or Ayton and Davis leading the way.
The Suns can create cap space and lure another big-name free agent to form a big three, but the Lakers, Clippers and Knicks are all theoretically more attractive free-agent destinations. The Celtics and Sixers present a chance to contend right now with Davis. There might just be too many moving parts for Phoenix to make a deal.
Do not count Raptors president Masi Ujiri out of the Davis sweepstakes. He gambled on Kawhi Leonard last summer, and it has already paid off with an Eastern Conference finals appearance, even if Leonard walks in free agency this summer. But what if he stays? Ujiri might just try to roll the dice on another one-year rental.
Pascal Siakam transformed himself into a borderline All-Star in his third season, and he would be the centerpiece of Toronto’s trade offer. Ujiri spent some of his assets to acquire Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, but he hung onto O.G. Anunoby, who along with Siakam would give the Pelicans a wealth of versatility.
However, the Raptors already owe their 2019 first-round pick to San Antonio, and a potential Leonard-Davis pairing would all but ensure their 2021 pick wouldn’t be so great. Without a top-end pick to package around Siakam and Anunoby, it will be hard to sell Griffin on that deal, unless Siakam makes another leap in these playoffs.
The Nets impressed this season, earning their first trip to the playoffs since they started paying off their debt to Boston. After years without them, they now have two first-round picks in this draft, Nos. 17 and 27, and their own going forward.
They also patched together some interesting young talent. D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen were key to their playoff run. They are all 26 and under. Russell was the best of the bunch, and he would have to be included in any deal for Davis. The problem is that would require a sign-and-trade, which means Russell would have to agree to join Williamson in New Orleans.
There are questions about paying Russell the sort of money he will be seeking in restricted free agency this summer, and Griffin could be looking for more cap flexibility than committing to the much-maligned former No. 2 pick long term.
Jamal Murray may have been inconsistent throughout his third season, but he was also a big reason why the Nuggets came within a Game 7 collapse of the Western Conference finals this season. A package including him is at least interesting.
Denver does not have a top-end pick to offer New Orleans, and it owes its first-rounder this year to Brooklyn, but it does have the promise of Michael Porter Jr. — a one-time elite prospect who missed his rookie season with back issues — and several other young talents, including Gary Harris, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley.
Betting on Murray to morph into a consistent star, without draft picks to make this deal more palatable, would be quite a bet for Griffin, but man, it would be something to see Davis and Nikola Jokic play together in the same frontcourt.
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