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  • Does your team have a chance at striking gold in the NBA draft lottery? If so, who should they take? We answer those questions and more.
By Jeremy Woo
May 14, 2018

When you really think about it, the draft lottery is one of the NBA’s great oddities. Other professional leagues reward losing teams with preferable picks, but the NBA determines their draft order directly according to a weighted game of chance. It’s not all that exciting unless your team is involved, and it’s no Hunger Games, but filtered through the (increasingly glorified) lens of tanking, the actual lottery reveal is perhaps the most consequential 10 minutes on the league’s calendar every year.

With the knowledge that the NBA will ‘smooth’ the lottery system starting in 2019 to try and lessen bad teams’ incentive to bottom out (the three worst teams will have the same odds as the No. 1 pick), Tuesday’s lottery is doubly important for the teams that have a real opportunity to win it. The chances of getting a great return for losing will diminish for the bottom-feeders. And with a handful of high-quality prospects dotting the top of this year’s draft, the stakes are high for teams like the Suns, Mavericks and Hawks, who are set to lose for prolonged periods of time.

The lottery will again be televised by ESPN, and will take place in Chicago this year for the first time, where the draft combine immediately follows on Wednesday and Thursday. With five weeks until the draft itself and prospects already flying around the country for workouts, it's safe to say this can now be classified as urgent business.

With that in mind, we’ve previewed the outlook for every team in the lottery below, with more coverage to follow all week here at the Front Office.

Ethan Miller

HOW IT WORKS

First, a quick procedural reminder. The actual drawing process takes place in a private room right before the results are broadcast on ESPN, with teams sending separate representatives to observe and be present. Fourteen individually numbered ping pong balls are placed in a lottery machine, with every possible four-number combination assigned to a lottery team based on the odds distribution. Four-ball combinations are then drawn and assigned for each of the first three spots in the draft, with picks 4–14 then assigned in the predetermined order, based on reverse order of record.

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THE PROSPECTS

The skinny: Arizona center DeAndre Ayton is the presumptive No. 1 pick, with Slovenian wunderkind Luka Doncic also having earned a place in the conversation and some teams holding Duke big man Marvin Bagley in high esteem. Two more intriguing centers, Jaren Jackson Jr. (Michigan State) and Mohamed Bamba (Texas) are also in the conversation for top-three picks, and Oklahoma’s Trae Young rates as our top available guard. In short, expect the top of the draft to skew heavily toward frontcourt players.

For detailed information and context on the talent pool, check out the Front Office’s most recent mock draft here, as well as our Big Board rankings the Top 100 prospects in the draft. Both lists will be due for updates following the lottery and draft combine, which also takes place this week in Chicago.

THE TEAMS

14. DENVER NUGGETS (46–36)
Probability of winning: 0.5%
Probability of top-three pick: 1.8%
Lowest potential finish: No. 14
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

The Nuggets are almost certainly not winning the lottery, but will be in position to add a good young player to their core at No. 14. They could sensibly go a number of directions, whether it’s finding another ball-handler to pair with Jamal Murray, hoping to find a rim protector to cover for Nikola Jokic or adding help on the wing with Will Barton set to hit free agency. As it stands, Denver will not have a ton of financial flexibility next season as Gary Harris’s big extension kicks in, but there’s not much NBA-ready talent slotted into its range. More likely than not, the player it lands at this spot will be a long-term project type, although the Nuggets could opt to move down in the draft like they did last year and angle for more immediate help. The Nuggets will also pick at Nos. 43 and 57.

13. LA CLIPPERS (42–40)
Probability of winning: 0.6%
Probability of top-three pick: 2.2%
Lowest potential finish: No. 14
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

The Clippers will likely pick back-to-back in this range, with the Pistons’ pick conveying as part of the Blake Griffin trade unless Detroit improbably moves into the top three. Los Angeles has stated its disinterest in a full blow-it-up rebuild, but will have an important opportunity to replenish its talent base. The Clippers have not drafted in the lottery since 2010 and have picked in the first round just once in the past three drafts. Their recent history is also suspect, with Brice Johnson, C.J. Wilcox and Reggie Bullock having been selected in the first round during Doc Rivers’s time running basketball operations. Given DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers, Milos Teodosic and Wesley Johnson all have player options and Avery Bradley will be a free agent, L.A.’s roster could look much different in a few months. With a new front-office structure in place, the Clippers can address multiple long-term needs at Nos. 12 and 13.

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12. DETROIT PISTONS (39–43)
Probability of winning: 0.7%
Probability of top-three pick: 2.5%
Lowest potential finish: No. 14
Who they should pick No. 1: Luka Doncic

With a front office already working in complete limbo after Stan Van Gundy’s exit, the Pistons are likely to lose this pick to the Clippers barring a wayward stroke of fortune. Should they miraculously leap into the top three, they’ll keep their pick. If they do, the prudent move could be Doncic given the need for a perimeter playmaker and how much cash is already tied up in the Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond frontcourt over the next several years. Detroit will likely have just pick No. 42.

11. CHARLOTTE HORNETS (36–46)
Probability of winning: 0.8%
Probability of top-three pick: 2.9%
Lowest potential finish: No. 14
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

The Hornets keep finding themselves in tricky draft slots, and are in need of a clear direction as they enter their first draft with new general manager Mitch Kupchak at the helm and new coach James Borrego now in place. All of their principal pieces are under contract for next season, but trade speculation surrounding Kemba Walker will likely persist. Hopes are still high for Malik Monk as a backcourt scorer, and with the roster as-is, shoring up their forward spots makes the most sense from an immediate-help perspective. Given the unfortunately large financial commitments to Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, the draft will be the best way for Charlotte’s team to get more athletic, with Miles Bridges, Mikal Bridges and Kevin Knox all good candidates at this spot. Charlotte also has pick No. 55.

10a. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (via Lakers)
Probability of winning: 1.1%
Probability of top-three pick: 1.1%
Lowest potential finish: No. 13
Who they should pick No. 1: Luka Doncic

Winning the lottery would create quite the conundrum, albeit an overwhelmingly fortunate one for the Sixers: DeAndre Ayton and Luka Doncic’s best individual roles mirror that of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. We won’t waste time worrying about that scenario, given the Sixers are most likely going to pick at 10, where Mikal Bridges is the ideal fit as an NBA-ready 3-and-D wing. If this Lakers pick jumps up into spots No. 2 or 3, then it conveys to Boston. The Sixers should own a league-high six draft picks, including No. 26, when all is done.

10b. BOSTON CELTICS (via Lakers)
Probability of winning: 0%
Probability of top-three pick: 2.9%

The Celtics likely won’t end up with this pick, meaning they will instead receive the better of the Sixers’ and Kings’ picks next year, protected for pick No. 1 (in which case Philly would keep it and Boston would receive the worse of the two). If this scenario somehow happens, the Celtics would likely turn to one of the best available big men, choosing between Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson and Mohamed Bamba given their enviable perimeter depth at present. Boston has pick No. 27 regardless.

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9. NEW YORK KNICKS (29–53)
Probability of winning: 1.7%
Probability of top-three pick: 6.1%
Lowest potential finish: No. 12
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

As enticing as the thought of a Euro-heavy Knicks rotation would be with Luka Doncic next to Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina, 1) Ayton would be a devastating frontcourt partner for Porzingis in theory and 2) New York is in all likelihood not winning the lottery. Regardless, the Knicks will be in position to address a few different needs with David Fizdale now leading the team, be it depth on the wing or continuing to sift through potential backcourt partners for Ntilikina, who spent an increasing number of his minutes playing off the ball as the season went on. This could be an ideal fit for Collin Sexton or Mikal Bridges. The Knicks also have pick No. 37.

8. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (via Nets)
Probability of winning: 2.8%
Probability of top-three pick: 9.9%
Lowest potential finish: No. 11
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

The Cavs will get this unprotected selection from the Nets, by way of the Celtics following last year’s Kyrie Irving deal. Irrespective of what happens with LeBron’s free agency, a top-three pick could and should amplify the fate of a franchise that’s certainly no stranger to surprise lottery results. The Cavs should be in position to take the best prospect available regardless of where their pick falls. Adding a guy like Wendell Carter to address their issues up front or a playmaker like Trae Young at No. 8 could be strong options.

7. SACRAMENTO KINGS (27–55)
Probability of winning: 5.3%
Probability of top-three pick: 18.3%
Lowest possible finish: No. 10
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

How rough is Sacramento’s ongoing lottery frustration? The Kings haven’t picked in the top three since 1991, yet have fallen between selections 5 and 8 in each of the last eight lotteries dating back to 2010 (and picked No. 4 in 2009). The Kings are building around De’Aaron Fox and will end up eyeing help on the wing or in the frontcourt. Despite a glut of centers on the roster, it wouldn’t make sense for them to pass on any of the top bigs should they make a leap into top-three position. If the Kings end up at No. 7 as projected it’s unlikely any of those guys slip to them, presenting a choice that may well dictate the flow of the lottery. Sacramento also has pick No. 36.

6. CHICAGO BULLS (27–55)
Probability of winning: 5.3%
Probability of top-three pick: 18.3%
Lowest possible finish: No. 9
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

Winning a tiebreaker with Sacramento for this spot was a major boon for Chicago, which could end up with its choice of Trae Young, Michael Porter or Wendell Carter, or potentially Mohamed Bamba or Jaren Jackson Jr. should they slip a spot or two. The Bulls got a glimpse of their future this season, with Kris Dunn rejuvenating his career, Lauri Markkanen emerging as a terrific piece and a healthy Zach LaVine probably worth retaining in restricted free agency, given they have the cap space. Expect Chicago to look hard at Porter if they feel comfortable with his medical situation, and Wendell Carter could make a lot of sense as a complement to what they have in place. In the event they win the lottery, pairing Ayton with Markkanen would be a fascinating experiment. The Bulls will have two first-round picks, also receiving the Pelicans’ selection at No. 22.

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5. ORLANDO MAGIC (25–57)
Probability of winning: 8.8%
Probability of top-three pick: 29.1%
Lowest possible finish: No. 8
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

The Magic haven’t drafted in the top three since 2013, when they drafted Victor Oladipo at No. 2, and have had a bit of hard luck overall in the lottery. With Jeff Weltman preparing for his second draft at the helm, expect Orlando to keep the long view in mind and choose the best player available. Last year’s prized prospect was Jonathan Isaac, who lost time to injury as a rookie and is still at a very early stage of his development. There’s room for optimism, but the Magic need to nail this pick, whether it’s finding a cornerstone in the frontcourt or potentially gambling on Trae Young at point guard. All options will be on the table. For narrative’s sake, Orlando winning the lottery and drafting Ayton as the philosophical heir to Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard would be juicy. The Magic also have pick Nos. 35 and 41.

4. ATLANTA HAWKS (24–58)
Probability of winning: 13.7%
Probability of top-three pick: 42.6%
Lowest possible finish: No. 7
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

This is a massive year for GM Travis Schlenk’s rebuild, with the Hawks owning pick Nos. 19, 30 and 33 in addition to their lottery ticket. Getting immediate returns out of John Collins was one of last year’s draft success stories, and the goal this time around should continue to be accumulating as many valuable assets as possible, regardless of position. If they win it, Ayton would be a great foundational piece, and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s defensive-minded game would be a particularly nice fit with Collins anywhere after that. Atlanta is rife with options, and could also explore using its other picks to move up. This will be Atlanta’s highest draft pick and first Top-10 selection since drafting Al Horford in 2007.

3. DALLAS MAVERICKS (24–58)
Probability of winning: 13.8%
Probability of top-three pick: 42.6%
Lowest possible finish: No. 6
Who they should pick No. 1: Deandre Ayton

Dallas won a critical tiebreaker with Atlanta for this position and will almost certainly use this opportunity to add to its frontcourt. This will most likely be its highest selection since 1998, when it drafted Robert Traylor at No. 8. The Mavericks have the ball-dominant Dennis Smith in place, and the possibility of pairing him with Ayton, Bagley or Jaren Jackson Jr. somewhere in this range is tantalizing. Doncic’s talent makes sense in most places, but the Mavericks are one of the teams you could reasonably see passing on him. Dallas has retained a ton of long-term cap flexibility, and finding a star with this pick would be a major development as Dirk Nowitzki nears retirement. Dallas also has pick Nos. 34 and 54. 

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2. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (22–60)
Probability of winning: 19.9%
Probability of top-three pick: 55.8%
Lowest possible finish: No. 5
Who they should pick No. 1: Luka Doncic

After a down year full of injuries and much more losing than expected, the Grizzlies are in position to bounce back with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol returning. Given they don’t have much cap space opening up, finding help through the draft could be a major factor (Memphis also has pick No. 32), and gives the Grizz more of a case to prioritize Luka Doncic at No. 1 than any other team with a reasonable chance of winning the lottery. Doncic’s intelligent game would immediately help Memphis better move the ball, allowing Conley greater offensive freedom and giving Gasol another pick-and-roll partner. Playing off those two would help unlock him as a scorer early on. It’s an ideal fit, and the Grizzlies may not have to win the lottery to make it happen. This will be their highest selection since 2009, when they infamously selected Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2.

1. PHOENIX SUNS (21–61)
Probability of winning: 25%
Probability of top-three pick: 64.2%
Lowest possible finish: No. 4
Who they should pick No. 1: DeAndre Ayton

The Suns’ hiring of coach Igor Kokoskov immediately raised the Doncic alarm, after the duo helped lead Slovenia to a Eurobasket title last year. While the intimate familiarity will certainly help Phoenix make an informed decision, if the odds hold and the Suns win the lottery, it would still be difficult to pass on Ayton given their situation. After nailing the Devin Booker pick but getting mixed early results out of Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson, Phoenix needs a second star to help pull together its various, still-very-young pieces. Doncic certainly has a case as a natural playmaker who could help set an unselfish tone for the rest of the franchise. Making Ayton a focal point in the middle would take pressure off of everyone else—of any player in the draft, he has the best chance of being a legitimate first option as a scorer. Having Tyson Chandler under contract for another season to help mentor Ayton is an added bonus, and the Suns can address other needs later in the draft at Nos. 16, 31 and 59. Phoenix has not drafted in the top three since 1987.

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