By Bryan Toporek
On Monday night, the Boston Celtics earned a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals with a hard-fought win over the Washington Wizards in Game 7 of their second-round series. Less than 24 hours later, the pingpong gods smiled upon them at the 2017 NBA draft lottery, granting them the No. 1 overall pick.
The lottery gods were likewise kind to the Los Angeles Lakers, ensuring they’d keep their 2017 top-three-protected first-round pick (and thus their 2019 first-rounder as well) by handing them the second overall selection. The Philadelphia 76ers rounded out the top three by virtue of their right to swap first-rounders with the Sacramento Kings, who entered the night with the eighth-best lottery odds.
Who walked out of the New York Hilton Midtown hotel as winners and losers on lottery night? Let’s take a look.
Winner: Boston Celtics
Celtics fans should pour one out for former Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King, the architect of the ill-fated trade that sent three (!) unprotected future first-round picks to Boston along with this year’s first-round pick swap for the rapidly decaying corpses of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry.
While teams that win the No. 1 overall pick are frequently coming off miserable seasons, the Celtics had the best record of any Eastern Conference squad this year. Adding the likes of Washington point guard Markelle Fultz or UCLA combo guard Lonzo Ball to the core of Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown—not to mention Game 7 hero Kelly Olynyk—is a case of the rich getting richer. Both Fultz and Ball are NBA-ready, so whichever player the Celtics prefer should be able to slide into a rotation role immediately.
Tuesday’s good stroke of fortune not only bolsters the Celtics’ short-term future, it also sets them up to remain an Eastern Conference force throughout the early 2020s. Even in the unlikely event that Thomas, Bradley and Smart all depart as free agents in 2018, having Brown, this year’s No. 1 overall pick and the 2018 first-rounder from Brooklyn gives Boston a strong young core to build around moving forward. Though Fultz or Ball won’t have the opportunity to put up huge numbers like they would on some of the league’s other bottom-feeders, they’ll instead have the chance to contend for an NBA championship immediately.
The main losers here are those who already detest Boston fans, as they’re sure to grow exponentially more intolerable after Tuesday.
Loser: Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns entered Tuesday’s lottery with the second-best odds, but the Lakers and Kings’ good luck sent them plunging down two spots to fourth overall. It’s not a devastating setback by any means, but on the off-chance the Celtics preferred Ball over Fultz, Phoenix won’t be able to stumble its way into the Washington floor general.
Had the Suns stayed in the top two and drafted either Fultz or Ball, it would have enabled them to shop injury-prone point guard Eric Bledsoe this offseason. They could still go that route—Kentucky floor general De’Aaron Fox could be a legitimate consideration at No. 4 overall—but Kansas swingman Josh Jackson or Duke forward Jayson Tatum appear more likely for now. That only raises questions about T.J. Warren’s long-term outlook in Phoenix, as the rising fourth-year swingman is eligible for a contract extension this offseason.
The Suns are still in position to add a potential difference-maker to pair alongside Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, but luck was not on their side Tuesday.
Winner: LaVar Ball
On Monday, ESPN published a Ramona Shelburne feature about Lonzo Ball and his controversial father, LaVar, in which the latter said about his son, “Oh, he’s going to be a Laker. I’m going to keep talking about it until it happens.”
Twenty-four hours later, LaVar Ball suddenly looks clairvoyant.
Lonzo and his father have been openly thirsting after the Lakers for months. During an appearance on ESPN’s SportsNation in early April, the Chino Hills, California, native said it’d mean more to him to be a Laker than to be the No. 1 overall pick. In February, after saying on the radio that Lonzo would “only play for the Lakers,” LaVar told ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, “I’d like him to play for the Lakers because it’s home and I’d love him to learn from Magic . He’s the best guard ever to me, and nobody better for Lonzo to learn from than Magic Johnson.”
According to ESPN.com’s Chad Ford, the Lakers “appear to be enamored with Ball, a local product who could add star power to a team desperately in search of it.” At 6’6″, the UCLA floor general could slot in alongside D’Angelo Russell in the Lakers starting backcourt, giving the team two interchangeable versatile playmakers. It’s a dream scenario for a Lakers team in the midst of its worst stretch in franchise history, especially with Paul George reportedly interested in signing with them as a free agent in 2018, per USA Today‘s Sam Amick.
“If he gets drafted by the Lakers, that is a perfect setup,” longtime shoe executive Sonny Vaccaro told Shelburne. “If you take one thing from what I said, remember this: The Lakers are the salvation for him, and he’s the salvation for the Lakers.”
Loser: Orlando Magic
While the Orlando Magic didn’t tumble as much as the Suns, their slide from the fifth-best odds to No. 6 overall could have drastic ramifications nevertheless.
Assuming Fultz and Ball went first and second, respectively, and Jackson and Tatum went third and fourth (in some order), Orlando would have been positioned to grab Fox at No. 5 as the heir apparent to Elfrid Payton. Instead, the point guard-needy Kings will likely select Fox fifth, leaving Orlando to sort through the likes of 2-guard Malik Monk, Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac, Arizona stretch 4 Lauri Markkanen, N.C. State floor general Dennis Smith and international man of mystery Frank Ntilikina.
With first-year head coach Frank Vogel having soured on Payton at points throughout the year—and former head coach Scott Skiles having reportedly resigned in part due to his frustration with Payton, per Chris Mannix of The Vertical—grabbing another shooting-challenged point guard in Fox may not have been in the cards anyway. But outside of Fultz and Ball, Fox has seemingly worked his way into the next tier of prospects alongside Tatum and Jackson, while there appears to be a slight dropoff after that trio.
Monk would make sense as a floor-spacer next to Payton, but after having just acquired Terrence Ross from Toronto for Serge Ibaka and signing Evan Fournier to a five-year, $85 million contract last offseason, 2-guard isn’t a huge need for Orlando. Taking Isaac as a rangy forward to pair alongside Aaron Gordon would be an appealing route, but the raw Florida State product won’t expedite the Magic’s rebuild. They’ll just have to hope Fox somehow slips to No. 6.
Winner: Sam Hinkie
The Sixers didn’t walk out of Tuesday’s proceedings with two top-four picks, nor did they exit with the No. 1 overall selection for the second straight season. But thanks to the ingenuity of former general manager Sam Hinkie, they did secure their fourth straight top-three pick.
Two years ago, Hinkie traded the rights to Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic to the Sacramento Kings for Nik Stauskas, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, an unprotected 2019 first-round pick and two first-round pick swaps in 2016 and 2017. While the 2016 pick swap never came to fruition—the Sixers won the No. 1 pick outright—the 2017 pick swap came into play Tuesday, as Sacramento jumped to the No. 3 overall selection, two spots ahead of Philadelphia.
Suddenly, what once seemed like a meaningless throw-in on an already abysmal trade made Hinkie look that much more ingenious for exploiting the Kings before they hired anyone with a semblance of front office experience. Hinkie’s foresight wasn’t lost upon managing owner Josh Harris, who thanked the general manager he helped overthrow roughly 13 months prior. With a completely unprotected 2018 first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers and an unprotected 2019 first-rounder from the Kings heading their way over the next two years due to Hinkie, the Sixers’ future is looking exceedingly bright if their top prospects can manage to stay healthy.
Is it any wonder, then, why Sixers fans at the Rights to Ricky Sanchez lottery party memorialized the architect of the Process by raising a banner of him to the rafters?
Sam Hinkie goes into the rafters. Thank you Sam. pic.twitter.com/O2zMTxyj9F
— Jake Pavorsky (@JakePavorsky) May 16, 2017
Loser: Vlade Divac
Even when the Kings win, they lose.
Rather than being armed with the Nos. 3 and 10 picks after Tuesday’s proceedings, Sacramento conveyed the third overall selection to Philadelphia as a result of Vlade Divac’s disastrous cap-clearing deal from two summers ago. Adding insult to injury, the main prize from that offseason’s free-agent haul, Rajon Rondo, spent precisely one season in Sacramento before fleeing to sign a two-year deal with the Chicago Bulls this past July.
The Kings still moved up to No. 5 after entering the night with the eighth-best odds, which ensures they’ll have a chance to draft a top-tier point guard such as Fox, Smith Jr. or Ntilikina. They also avoided disaster with their other lottery pick (via this past February’s DeMarcus Cousins trade), as the New Orleans Pelicans didn’t jump into the top three and keep their own selection. If New Orleans did land a top-three pick, Kings fans would have vanished from Twitter faster than the Jedi after Order 66.
The downgrade from No. 3 to No. 5 isn’t likely to be franchise-crippling by any means, but when you’re a rebuilding team looking to amass talent at most positions, every little bit helps. Divac’s ill-fated wheeling and dealing with Hinkie went from bad to worse Tuesday, and the main prize from the Sixers’ perspective—Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder—is still two years away.
Winner: Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers
If the Chicago Bulls or Indiana Pacers were intent on trading away Jimmy Butler or Paul George this offseason, respectively, Tuesday’s lottery couldn’t have gone much better for them, as The Ringer’s Bill Simmons noted on Twitter.
That lottery was a best case scenario for Indy/Chi if they want to trade George/Butler – could they just play LA and Celts off each other?
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) May 17, 2017
Boston general manager Danny Ainge may be understandably reluctant to give up the rights to the No. 1 pick for a player with only a year or two remaining on his contract, but his offseason course of action may depend on the outcome of the Eastern Conference Finals. If the Cavaliers easily dispatch the Celtics, Ainge may decide it’s best to hang onto the No. 1 pick and wait out the end of LeBron James’ prime, whereas a competitive six- or seven-game series may compel him to go all-in and acquire a third star to pair alongside Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford.
The Lakers likewise could prefer to keep their second overall pick and see how the chips fall in free agency next summer, particularly given George’s reported interest in heading to L.A. If Magic Johnson gets antsy between now and draft night, though, dangling that No. 2 pick in combination with one or more of his other young prospects—notably Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram or Larry Nance Jr.—could be too much for new Pacers team president Kevin Pritchard to turn down, especially since George already seems to have one foot out the door.
Who’s in for a bidding war in the hours leading up to the draft? Get your #WOJBOMB Twitter notifications ready now.