How the NBA's Return Impacts the 2020 Draft

Here is what you need to know about the 2020 NBA draft once the NBA season resumes.
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With the NBA’s return tentatively in place—and the draft’s target date set for Oct. 15—the good news is, we have a timetable for the first time since the league halted operations in March. The bad news is we still have to wait four months, as opposed to the draft being nine days away (June 25) on a regular schedule. But with the pre-draft process now on slightly firmer ground, here’s a refresher on what you should know moving forward.

The draft order

The lottery is tentatively set for Aug. 25 at a location still to be determined. The eight teams that will not travel to Orlando to resume the season—Golden State, Cleveland, Minnesota, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Chicago and Charlotte—have their lottery odds locked in (in that order), with the Warriors, Cavaliers and Timberwolves each holding 14% odds of winning the No. 1 pick. The league’s decision to flatten the lottery odds made an immediate impact in last year’s lottery, with New Orleans and Memphis leaping into the top two spots (and walking away with franchise-altering players in Zion Williamson and Ja Morant). And while there’s likely not an instant-impact star in this year’s draft class, there’s still quite a bit at stake for these teams.

One key thing to note here is that the back end of the lottery and associated odds (picks nine through 14) will still be determined by teams’ regular-season records through March 11. As things stand, that means Washington, Phoenix, San Antonio, Sacramento and New Orleans (with a 12/13 tiebreaker on the table) and Portland, in that order. If any of those teams winds up making it into the playoffs at the conclusion of the final eight-game regular-season slate in Orlando, they’ll be replaced in the lottery by whichever team(s) fall out.

Brooklyn and Memphis currently hold the eighth playoff spot in each conference, and if they miss the post-season, they’d be placed in the lottery based on their record through March 11. A scenario along those lines would place those teams in the 13th and/or 14th lottery slot, with the others moving up accordingly. Additionally, Memphis’s pick is top-six protected and will otherwise convey to Boston. Brooklyn’s pick is lottery-protected, but if the Nets remain in playoff position, that pick will convey to Minnesota.

Also of note: Oklahoma City will keep its first-round pick rather than send it to Philadelphia if the Thunder end up picking inside the Top 20.

Also note that the rest of the draft order will be slotted based on the non-lottery teams’ winning percentages, inclusive of the eight seeding games each team will play in Orlando. For reference’s sake, the full first-round draft order, based on the chalk, would look like this. These records are through March 11, with potential tiebreaker situations for playoff teams still to be sorted out.

  1. Golden State (15-50)
  2. Cleveland (19-46)
  3. Minnesota (19-45)
  4. Atlanta (20-47)
  5. Detroit (20-46)
  6. New York (21-45)
  7. Chicago (22-43)
  8. Charlotte (23-42)
  9. Washington (24-40)
  10. Phoenix (26-39)
  11. San Antonio (27-36)
  12. Sacramento (28-36, tied)
  13. New Orleans (28-36, tied)
  14. Portland (29-39)
  15. Orlando (30-35)
  16. Brooklyn (30-34, to Minnesota)
  17. Memphis (32-33, to Boston)
  18. Dallas (40-27)
  19. Philadelphia (39-26, to Brooklyn)
  20. Indiana (39-26, to Milwaukee)
  21. Houston (40-24, to Denver)
  22. Oklahoma City (40-24, to Philadelphia)
  23. Miami (41-24)
  24. Utah (41-23)
  25. Denver (43-22, to Oklahoma City)
  26. Boston (43-21)
  27. LA Clippers (44-20, to New York)
  28. Toronto (46-18)
  29. LA Lakers (49-14)
  30. Milwaukee (53-12, to Boston)

The draft combine

Per league sources, there’s an ongoing push within the NBA to hold some iteration of the draft combine, which would take place after the Aug. 25 lottery, most likely some time in September. The event is held annually in Chicago, a convenient central location for teams and players, and could still take place there, pending shifting health and safety circumstances amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Nothing has been set in stone yet, with the league’s primary focus having centered on the initial return to play. Given how complicated it’s been for the NBA to set up and negotiate the logistics for the Orlando site, it’s kind of hard to see the combine taking place within that bubble. That situation is still evolving. But there are some feasible pathways to safely conducting a limited version of the combine, while minimizing close-quarters contact and still benefitting all parties.

The prevailing thought I’ve heard from teams in recent weeks is that the on-court portion, which typically includes individual drills and five-on-five play, seems likely (and, frankly, logically) to be limited, if it exists at all. The primary objective of a centralized combine would be to conduct player medicals and measurements, providing all 30 teams a common data set. It seems feasible that the league could safely allow players to participate in athletic testing and shooting drills, as well. All of the above could take place digitally in a relatively short time span. Teams can benefit from the information without needing to physically attend. And for what it’s worth, several executives I’ve spoken with see minimal value in having prospects play five-on-five after a six-month hiatus from competitive play.

If the combine is indeed able to take place, keep a close eye on which players choose to attend—agents use medical information as a tool to help steer their clients to teams every year. For what it’s worth, a combine format like this primarily aids teams in making better decisions. Offering up the wrong information to teams can actively harm players’ draft stock. And without five-on-five play as a proving ground for fringe first-rounders and prospects with things to prove, it will be curious to see what the NBA might do to incentivize all players to participate.

Teams have already done extensive amounts of interviews with prospects via Zoom, Skype and FaceTime, and it’s unclear if setting up in-person interviews with teams at a theoretical combine (and at a social distance) is a meaningful enough component to help with attendance. That being said, most teams would likely leap at an opportunity to get face time with players, particularly those they’ve been unable to schedule on their own time thus far. Combine interviews are traditionally a useful equalizer for teams to meet with players who may not hold individual on-site workouts for them, and given that none of that is taking place right now, even the possibility of regulated, digital meeting time with first-round prospects would be meaningful for front offices.

The NCAA deadline

The NCAA announced a deadline of Aug. 3 for early-entrant college players to withdraw from the draft and maintain their eligibility for the upcoming season. This deadline was offered with the caveat of “10 days after the draft combine,” an event that almost certainly won’t take place until after the Aug. 25 lottery. So Aug. 3 should be considered the end date for college prospects to make their decisions. And although it remains possible that teams may be able to watch live workouts at some point before the draft, with various states and cities beginning to ease COVID-19 restrictions, as of now it’s unlikely any of that happens prior to Aug. 3. Until the NBA allows teams to go see prospects, it can’t happen, and that type of contact seems more likely to take place in centralized locations than in team facilities, if it happens at all.

As a result, many players who remain on the fence about returning to college are wedged in a tough spot. Certainly, there’s not much incentive for most teams to offer early draft guarantees without knowing the final draft order, which won’t be set until after the first run of seeding games in Orlando. Most players are operating off a sense of their individual draft range, relative to their own expectations and situational preferences. At this point, it’s at least become relatively clear which players have real chances at the first round. By my count, none of the players listed on our most recent Top 80 have officially withdrawn from the draft.

The stay-or-go situation will crystallize over the next six weeks. But for prospects on the fringes, it’s also worth noting the risks of potentially waiting until the 2021 calendar year only to play in the G League, versus the possibility of returning to campus and (hopefully) resuming the college season on a close-to-normal timetable. Given that the NBA’s 2020-21 season won’t start until December at the earliest (and the G League after that), that’s a substantial amount of lost development time for rookies sitting at home until some type of fall league or training camps begin — at the very earliest.