Cavs, Wizards poised to make big strides after lottery luck
In Tuesday's NBA draft lottery, fortune favored teams building on sturdy foundations rather than those looking to start completely anew. While the Magic, Bobcats and Suns could surely have used the freedom and benefit of the No. 1 pick in order to jump-start their respective rebuilds, that privilege fell to the Cavaliers -- who have now won two of the last three lotteries despite unfavorable odds.
Cleveland this year held just a 15.6 percent chance of scoring the top pick -- third in probability to the Magic and Bobcats. That's an incredible break for a team that already benefited from an even more amazing turn of fortune two years ago, when the Cavaliers were awarded No. 1 (Kyrie Irving) with a first-round pick acquired from the Clippers that had a 2.8 percent chance of ending up in the top spot. As lucky as that result was in itself, the combination of the two fortuitous bounces of the lottery ping-pong balls is even more unbelievable. By draft probabilities alone, the likelihood that those two specific picks would produce the No. 1 selections in these particular drafts is just 0.4 percent. If I may borrow an exercise of probability from Ian Levy of Hickory High, that's just slightly more likely than Cleveland's Alonzo Gee connecting on five consecutive three-pointers last season.
And with this latest draft selection, the Cavs -- if they keep the pick -- will likely select Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel in a move that will begin their defensive improvement in earnest. Cleveland struggled mightily to guard its opponents in each of the last three seasons under Byron Scott, during which the Cavs never escaped the bottom five in defensive efficiency. Scott's dismissal and Mike Brown's subsequent hiring indicate a top-down acknowledgement of the team's lasting defensive woes and serve to highlight the complete lack of growth in defensive comprehension and execution over the course of that time frame. Young teams can be expected to defend poorly, but when three seasons come and go without any demonstrable gains, the problems would seem to go well beyond inexperience.
Brown will demand more of these Cavs than Scott ever did, and in Noel he'll have a fine, intuitive interior defender to mold into a defensive pillar. Noel's season will be abbreviated and complicated by his ongoing recovery from ACL surgery, but the lessons will come early and often from Brown as he attempts to pull his team into finer defensive form. It's a tough task, yet one that would seem well-suited to Brown's skill set. He's far from a perfect coach (as has been aptly demonstrated in his last two head-coaching stops), but clearly more qualified to nurture this kind of budding roster -- fit with Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and potentially Noel -- than the ego-driven mess he encountered with the Lakers. That his team caught a big break in the lottery should only make him look that much better in the short term, as Noel's athleticism and defensive instincts should register some immediate dividends whenever he does make his NBA debut.
Of slightly similar standing are the Wizards, who vaulted from the eighth position in the lottery odds to the No. 3 pick in the June 27 draft. Making good on a 4.8 percent chance of securing the third pick is a nice stroke of luck for a team that already has John Wall (the No. 1 pick in 2010) and Bradley Beal (the No. 3 pick in 2012) as its present-and-future backcourt, not to mention a fantastic finish to the 2012-13 season from which to extend momentum. Neither Wall nor Beal is of Irving's caliber as a franchise centerpiece, but between them Washington has -- at the very least -- some tremendous talent worth investing in and building around. That's much more than can be said of several of the teams that the Wizards leapfrogged. The Magic are enough of an unknown at the No. 2 spot that it's difficult to project what might be available with the ensuing pick, but at least two of UNLV's Anthony Bennett, Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Georgetown's Otto Porter are sure to be on the board for Washington. Each of those players would contribute nicely to a Wizards rotation gunning for the postseason in 2014 while banking on more substantial improvement in the long term -- a luxury born of bucking the odds with a selection in the top three. By comparison, if we slide down to the draft range (8-10) in which the Wizards' were very likely (an 87.8-percent likelihood!) to land, they'd be looking at the far more underwhelming Shabazz Muhammad or the notably more limited Cody Zeller. Both may well turn out to be fine pros, but with a favorable bounce Washington has an opportunity to acquire a significantly more talented prospect who fits its needs better.