- We dig into the 2017 NBA draft's big winners and losers, with the Bulls breaking down and the Kings breaking old habits.
Jimmy Butler got traded, Paul George didn’t, Markelle Fultz went first, LaVar Ball got his wish, and a vast majority of the lottery picks in Thursday night’s draft found their new homes without too much drama.
Let’s dig into the winners and losers from the 2017 NBA Draft.
Losers: Chicago Bulls
There’s an old employment adage that goes like this: You never truly get the respect you deserve until your second job. At job one, you might receive pay raises and promotions but—in the minds of the bosses—you will always be viewed as the whippersnapper whom they originally hired.
That brings us to Jimmy Butler and the Bulls, which now simultaneously goes down as one of the most successful and most depressing player development stories in recent NBA history. During his rookie contract, Butler blossomed from an end-of-the-first-round role player to a bona fide two-way All-Star, making his bosses look like geniuses for drafting him and emerging as one of the great “hard work will take you anywhere” success stories of Tom Thibodeau’s coaching tenure.
In blossomed form, Butler has been a certified franchise guy, making three straight All-Star teams, earning All-NBA honors and ranking third in the league in Win Shares last season. He might have a big personality that has led to public exchanges with coach Fred Hoiberg and his younger Bulls teammates, but Butler is a big impact player (Chicago’s net rating was +3 with him on and -7.1 with him off) on a very, very, very reasonable contract number deal ($18.7 million next season). He was—by far and away—the best thing Chicago had going during a dismal 2016–17 season.
But instead of granting Butler the franchise-player treatment once he had earned it, Chicago’s befuddling management team continued handling him like just another guy. They low-balled him on his rookie extension offer. They dangled him in trade talks for more than a year. They awkwardly fired Thibodeau and then hired Hoiberg, whose personality was night-and-day from Butler’s. They never attempted to construct a logical roster around Butler—a la James Harden in Houston—and stupidly assembled the doomed-to-fail “Three Alphas.” And they ultimately chose Hoiberg over Butler and cashed him out for a dismal package of unproven young players.
Chicago’s return for Butler includes Zach LaVine (a scoring guard with untapped potential and atrocious defensive impact numbers who is rehabilitating from knee surgery), Kris Dunn (a 23-year-old point guard who was one of the league’s most disappointing rookies relative to preseason expectations) and Lauri Markkanen (a seven-foot shooter who has yet to prove he can do anything else). While all three could theoretically hit, all three could miss too. As the Bulls await the results from their triple dice roll, they will be forced to confront two realities: 1) They had to do better than this package for a proven All-Star in his prime, and 2) They are going to lose so many games next season and beyond.
How, exactly, did Butler’s fairy-tale rise to stardom in Chicago end like this?
Winners: Minnesota Timberwolves
Thibodeau’s arrival and Karl-Anthony Towns’s strong rookie season combined to generate a backbreaking amount of unwarranted hype for Minnesota entering 2016–17. Now, the Timberwolves are officially ready for the hype. In Towns and Butler, Minnesota suddenly has one of the most impressive and complementary star duos in the game, and Butler’s arrival directly aids Minnesota’s lagging defense (No. 26 last year).
What’s more, Butler’s presence now removes any and all possible excuses for Andrew Wiggins. The former No. 1 pick has emerged as a dependable scoring threat, but he’s yet to make major progress on numerous other aspects of his game (rebounding, team defense, playmaking for others) and has faced questions about his tendency to float. Butler should serve as a role model for Wiggins—on the court and in practice—and help make his life easier on offense by creating more favorable scoring opportunities. If Wiggins makes a major leap over the next two seasons, Minnesota’s ceiling gets super high super quickly. Even if his progress comes more gradually next year, the Timberwolves are in prime position to make the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Winners: Sacramento Kings
A staple of the “Losers” section of this column for years, the Kings managed to avoid all of their deeply-ingrained bad habits: reaching for no-namers, drafting redundant players at the same position and swinging terribly misguided trades. Not only that, Sacramento successfully achieved three “Smart management” moves on the same night!
First, and most importantly, they landed De’Aaron Fox, a top target at a major position of need, without needing to pay to move up. The draft order one through four broke as expected, leaving Sacramento in position to select Fox, the class’s leader in charisma and a freak athlete with the potential to be the face of a team.
The Kings then slickly addressed another position of need—small forward—by recognizing that their No. 10 pick was more valuable as a trade chip. By moving back just five slots, Sacramento pocketed an extra first-round pick, the type of asset management that virtually always draws praise. They then selected Justin Jackson, one of the more NBA-ready forwards in this class, as a preparatory step towards the likely departure of Rudy Gay.
Finally, the Kings used their extra pick exactly how a young and rebuilding team should: by snaring Harry Giles, the ultimate flier. A former No. 1 pick candidate during his prep days, Giles has suffered two knee injuries that caused him to drop well out of the lottery. The Kings are banking that he still hasn’t recovered his top form and that he can sustain an NBA career despite his health setbacks. This is a quintessential “Why not?” call.
Sacramento is years away but this roster got way more intriguing, way more fun and way more talented on Thursday night. This is, without a doubt, a team to circle on the Las Vegas Summer League schedule.
Losers: Boston Celtics
According to data provided by Twitter, the biggest flurry of activity on the social media network on Thursday night came during Jayson Tatum’s selection. That’s right, Boston’s pick at No. 3 topped Lonzo Ball going to the Lakers and the Butler trade. Is that a sign of angst, excitement or some combination of both?
For now, Celtics president Danny Ainge is asking for patience from his fan base yet again. After the highs of Boston’s strong postseason run, the last month or so has produced some real lows—the trouncing in the East finals and Isaiah Thomas’s injury—coupled with some major questions. Boston got its man in Tatum at three and it got great value by trading back two spots. But Ainge won’t get to introduce Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball this week, he hasn’t yet traded for Paul George, and he missed out on Jimmy Butler. If Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin opt to stay put in their current situations or go elsewhere, the years of pent-up hype around Ainge’s high-end rebuild will be put off until the trade deadline and poor Tatum will face monster expectations during his rookie season.
Boston’s upward momentum in recent years and its cache of assets will help restore an equilibrium soon enough, and the shot to land Hayward and George keeps the Celtics in the mix as potential off-season winners. Nevertheless, Thursday night felt a bit disappointing—especially for Tatum skeptics—following the jubilation of the Celtics’ lottery drawing win.
Winner: LaVar Ball
The master plan played out exactly as he hoped—even better, really, now that D’Angelo Russell has been exiled to Brooklyn. Give it to him.
Loser: LaVar Ball
The very last thing the Lakers need right now are playoff expectations. There will be plenty of long-suffering Lakers fans and L.A. media members around to drive the hype during Lonzo Ball’s rookie year; LaVar really shouldn’t make this worse. The great hope was that LaVar would understand that draft night marked the official baton-passing moment from proud father to newly-minted professional son. Instead, Lakers coach Luke Walton found himself answering Lavar-related questions on day one of the Lonzo era. Magic Johnson better get this under control before LaVar is giving motivational halftime speeches to the Lakers on national television at Las Vegas Summer League.
Winners: Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball
Boston’s win on lottery night raised questions about possible compromises and alternate, trade-influenced realities. Following the Celtics/Sixers trade, this class’s consensus top two prospects both found ideal homes.
In Philadelphia, Fultz fits cleanly into a core alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons that is as mouth-watering as it gets. He won’t have to carry a franchise by himself, he won’t have to fit in around established players like he would have had to in Boston, and he will get plenty of leash to learn on the job in year one. (For more on Fultz with the Sixers, read Philadelphia’s trade grade here).
Ball’s desire to play for the Lakers has been well-known for years, and this week’s D’Angelo Russell trade significantly simplifies his life. There won’t be any fight over the ball and there won’t be any style of play questions. Ball should be turned loose by Walton to play an up-and-down exciting game, and he is well-positioned to receive partial credit for Brandon Ingram’s year-two development. If the Lakers can swing a George trade now, Ball will truly be in position to showcase his top skill: making his teammates better.
For long stretches of the last three seasons, the Sixers and Lakers have been unwatchable. Both franchises turned the corner in a major way on Thursday.
Losers: Blazers and Pistons
Both Portland and Detroit needed to get off salary and neither did. In the Blazers’ case, their three first-round picks became two after their trade with the Kings and they added depth in the form of Zach Collins and Kaleb Swanigan to a frontcourt that already has too many pieces. The early reviews for the Collins selection are generally positive, but Portland had much bigger fish to fry than adding a longer-term big man option. The Blazers either struggled to find takers for their bad deals, didn’t have good enough picks to get anyone excited or decided to give this bloated roster another chance in 2017–18. None of those options sound great even knowing that midseason acquisition Jusuf Nurkic will be back in the mix to lift spirits after a deflating late-season injury.
The Pistons are facing even direr straights than the Blazers, as they probably need to break out the dynamite on their core guys (Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, etc.) while looking for other creative ways to trim salary. But Detroit made no progress on that front, instead settling for Luke Kennard, a player whom Stan Van Gundy immediately lit up for his lack of defense. Welcome to Detroit!
Consider this a footnote, but Golden State’s “Buy a pick to snag a role player to fill a specific roster shortcoming” has officially replaced San Antonio’s “Stash a European player for four years until he comes over to pay awesome dividends” as the Cool Thing That Great Teams Do That Makes Everyone Else Envious. Last year, the Warriors grabbed Patrick McCaw, who made a name for himself by providing a jolt of offense during Game 5 of the Finals. This year, the target was Jordan Bell, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year out of Oregon who arrives as yet another developmental shot-blocking option in a frontcourt that has plenty of youth behind its stars.
Paying $3.5 million to acquire a second-round pick is borderline flaunting and taunting from the “Light Years” ownership group. Who is prepared to keep up?
Cleveland did nothing on draft night so they’re not “true” losers because they didn’t make a mistake. However, their official press release announcing their total inactivity came off awfully depressing in light of owner Dan Gilbert’s decision this week to part ways with GM David Griffin and his key lieutenant.
"We came into tonight’s NBA Draft with an opportunistic mindset should a situation develop for us to acquire any pick we felt would help improve our roster,” read the carefully-worded statement, which was attributed to assistant GM Koby Altman. “While we had discussions specifically focused on acquiring picks tonight, we did not feel any of the draft-related options available to us created an opportunity to improve our team or tie into larger deals at this point. As we do year-round, our group will continue to creatively and aggressively evaluate and consider potential trades and free agent signings that would help us reach our singular goal of winning another NBA championship."
There’s no minimum word count here, guys. It’s OK to just say, “We browsed but didn’t find anything we liked so we’ll come back to work tomorrow.” There’s a whiff of overcompensation that only reinforces the notion that Cleveland’s off-season to come should be filled with fascinating drama.