The final stretch of the most protracted draft cycle in NBA history begins in earnest with Thursday’s lottery, determining the fates of the league’s underachievers and letting the first major wave of offseason speculation commence in earnest.
Of course, the NBA’s decision to “smooth” the lottery odds and build more equal-opportunity into everyone’s favorite, random, franchise-altering system paid off immediately in 2019, with New Orleans and Memphis making surprise leaps into the No. 1 and No. 2 slots. It so happened that there were two legitimate cornerstone prospects in last year’s draft. Zion Williamson and Ja Morant injected instant life into their respective organizations and have already shifted trajectories for the Pelicans and Grizzlies. So while still improbable, it certainly won’t be shocking to see one or two teams currently slotted outside the top four move up again.
That being said—and by now, it’s been well-chronicled—the lack of a head-and-shoulders-above-the-field top prospect in this year’s draft makes for a much different dynamic. Georgia’s Anthony Edwards has been the top prospect on our big board all season, but a wide variance of opinions around the league would seem to place additional weight on the first pick being determined by who wins the lottery. Privately, you’ll find teams who would rather pick second or third than first, with the value of better optics and slightly less pressure outweighing the gap in talent between the first- and second- and third-best prospects in this draft class. So while this may not be a draft that shifts the NBA’s balance of power for the next decade, there’s certainly some real intrigue from a strategic perspective.
As Thursday night nears, here’s a glance at what’s at stake for all 14 lottery teams, listed in order of their odds at winning the top pick. We’ll follow up with a full mock draft after the lottery order is determined.
Golden State Warriors (15-50)
Odds to win: 14%
Odds of top-four finish: 52.1%
The dissonance between what a healthy Warriors team might be able to do next year and how much (or rather, how little) a rookie might be able to legitimately augment their rotation makes Golden State arguably the most interesting team in the lottery. They can finish no lower than fifth, and there are two ways of approaching the selection: the tried-and-true method of taking whoever they deem the highest-upside player on the board, or picking from among the top prospects with an emphasis on the here and now. The talent gap atop this draft is relatively minimal, and if there’s a lottery team in position to think outside the box, it’s the one that gets a healthy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson back next season.
This, of course, is assuming the Warriors even keep this pick, and if there’s a suitable deal to be made (be it adding a worthwhile veteran or picking up more assets), they almost certainly consider it. They can dangle Andrew Wiggins on his current contract and multiple valuable first-rounders for an all-star type player. But this is the type of draft where the optics of making a top pick are a bit less desirable, given the lack of an obvious, consensus No. 1 prospect. And so depending on how the lottery falls, the trade market at the very top could prove to be slow. Golden State might be justified prioritizing guys like Obi Toppin and Tyrese Haliburton, who are better prepared to help a contender than Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman or LaMelo Ball. The good news for the Warriors is that dropping to pick No. 4 or 5 behind teams that are truly rebuilding should still put them in good position to find someone who can help right now.
Cleveland Cavaliers (19-46)
Odds to win: 14%
Odds of top-four finish: 52.1%
Cleveland has yet to see meaningful returns from its recent top draft picks, all of whom have been guards, which puts the Cavs in an interesting spot near or at the top of the draft. How they prioritize will depends on how much they believe in Darius Garland and Collin Sexton (and there’s a discernible degree of skepticism in NBA circles about that long-term pairing), and to a lesser extent Kevin Porter Jr., who remains an intriguing wild card asset. But the Cavs have obvious long-term needs in the frontcourt, and the good news is that they may not need to win the lottery to address them.
A top-five pick should put the Cavs in position to walk away with one of the available bigs, be it Wiseman, Toppin or Onyeka Okongwu, who bring vastly different skill sets to the table. Anthony Edwards seems redundant, but could still be enticing, and the same goes for LaMelo Ball, given the presence of so many ball-dominant guards on the roster. To make the optimal pick, Cleveland will have to think particularly hard about what it already has on the roster, and given the marginal early returns on lottery picks Garland and Sexton, there’s some added pressure on GM Koby Altman to get this right. The Cavs aren’t likely to find the franchise savior in this draft class, and using this offseason to best optimize their personnel in the long run is imperative.
Minnesota Timberwolves (19-45)
Odds to win: 14%
Odds of top-four finish: 52.1%
Minnesota boss Gersson Rosas has been aggressive tinkering with the roster in his first year at the helm, and so the Timberwolves enter this draft without a glaring positional need. At some point, they may need to jump-start the process toward playoff contention around Karl-Anthony Towns, but right now, they’re in the process of accumulating and developing talent. Other than the fact they don’t need a center, Minnesota can be flexible, but there’s a definite need for defensive identity as they continue searching for the right frontcourt piece to pair with Towns.
That being said, the Timberwolves appear heavily committed to D’Angelo Russell after dealing their 2021 first (with light protections) to the Warriors to get him, making the likelihood they opt for one of the top point guards in this draft a bit harder to envision. If they win the lottery, Anthony Edwards best combines risk with reward in a way that fits their roster, even with the wing trio of Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie in the fold. Toppin and Okongwu could conceivably share the floor with Towns, but whether Minnesota wants to commit to playing two bigs is unclear. Depending where the pick falls, this should be an intriguing decision. And with the Nets’ first-round pick (No. 17) also in hand, they might have the ammunition to move up if they choose.
Atlanta Hawks (20-47)
Odds to win: 12.5%
Odds of top-four finish: 48.1%
Having made trades in the lottery in consecutive drafts under Travis Schlenk, at this point it’s sensible to view the Hawks’ pick as movable and fluid, regardless of where it lands. If Atlanta wins the No. 1 pick, it’s hard to see it passing on a potential hometown star in Anthony Edwards (who was personally scouted by Schlenk and owner Tony Ressler on at least one occasion this season). But the Hawks love to pick up draft assets and maximize flexibility, and with a young star in Trae Young and developing talent at every position, could be open to moving around in the lottery. Young’s presence makes it tough to see them ending up with one of the available guards, but it’s unclear whether their trade for Clint Capela (intended to bolster their defense and accelerate a playoff push) would preclude them from taking a younger big like Wiseman or Okongwu.
Detroit Pistons (20-46)
Odds to win: 10.5%
Odds of top-four finish: 42.1%
This is the first draft for new Pistons GM Troy Weaver, who faces a tall task in rejuvenating one of the league’s most asset-barren franchises. Moving into the top four would be a boon for Detroit, which is in position to hand their lottery pick meaningful minutes as a rookie, could use a potentially dynamic perimeter threat like Edwards or Ball, and would be fully justified in taking a big swing. Weaver comes to Detroit from Oklahoma City, where he was part of a braintrust that’s had success drafting in the lottery as well as uncovering talent around the margins. Given his immediate job security and a roster in need of a makeover, this pick is shaping up as more of a straightforward, best-available situation.
New York Knicks (21-45)
Odds to win: 9%
Odds of top-four finish: 37.2%
Per usual, the Knicks need all the lottery luck they can get, but they have some ammunition to move around regardless. New York also has the No. 27 pick (courtesy of the Clippers) and two of Dallas’s future firsts as potential trade ballast to move up if compelled. There’s been clamor about the Knicks and Ball, as New York sorely needs a playmaker and there’s a level of familiarity given new team president Leon Rose briefly repped Lonzo Ball at CAA. Whether Ball has the makeup to thrive playing for the notoriously hard-driving Tom Thibodeau is a different question. Players like Toppin or Haliburton might also be fits. Regardless, after losing out on their top odds and falling down to third last year, the Knicks will hope for good fortune.
Chicago Bulls (22-43)
Odds to win: 7.5%
Odds of top-four finish: 32%
Having finally decided to part with Jim Boylen, the Bulls can move on to remaking the roster as Arturas Karnisovas enters his first offseason as GM. The Bulls’ primary need is a lead playmaker, which they may be able to find with this pick. Chicago would be an interesting fit for Ball (though that may require moving into the top four) or Killian Hayes (who should be on the board if they stay at No. 7). If Karnisovas’s history with Denver is any indication, expect Chicago to go best-available here, bet on talent and figure it out later. It’s probably too soon to bail on any of the young talent before seeing how everything fits with a fresh start and a new coach.
Charlotte Hornets (23-42)
Odds to win: 6%
Odds of top-four finish: 26.3%
The Hornets haven’t picked in the top four since 2013 and have turned in checkered draft results for the better part of a decade. Still, the emergence of Devonte’ Graham and P.J. Washington as legitimate pieces has been encouraging, and Charlotte could certainly use some lottery luck and an injection of high-potential talent. The Hornets have favored established college talent in the lottery for much of Michael Jordan’s tenure as owner, which is a notable trend given the potential availability of international-based talent at Charlotte’s pick. The primary long-term need here is center, where James Wiseman or Onyeka Okongwu (who’s more likely to be on the board at No. 8) would be strong fits depending on where the Hornets fall.
Washington Wizards (25-47)
Odds to win: 4.5%
Odds of top-four finish: 20.3%
Barring a leap into the top four, Washington is likely to pick ninth for the second straight draft. The prevailing thought around the league is that the Wizards intend to make a return to the playoffs next season with a healthy John Wall and Bradley Beal. That may influence the directive with this pick to some extent, with the primary area of need being frontcourt defense. It’s also worth noting that GM Tommy Sheppard has a strong level of comfort with international talent. Expect the Wizards to be pragmatic with their pick while still keeping the long-term picture in mind.
Phoenix Suns (34-39)
Odds to win: 3%
Odds of top-four finish: 13.9%
After briefly becoming league darlings with an undefeated bubble run, it’s back to the lottery for Phoenix, who will enter next season with heightened expectations for the first time in quite a while. Whether or not they return to underachieving is one question, but the Suns have gotten good results out of recent draft picks Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson (the latter of whom, to their credit, was a much-maligned selection at No. 11 last year). Whether Phoenix opts to go for upside or continue the trend with more experienced college prospects closer to contributing remains to be seen, but moving into the top four would be another significant boost to their organizational momentum.
San Antonio Spurs (32-39)
Odds to win: 2%
Odds of top-four finish: 9.4%
The Spurs’ 22-year playoff streak is over, but San Antonio should feel fairly good about where things stand after the bubble, with a variety of young players emerging as contributors. The perimeter depth is sound here, with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker and now Keldon Johnson making individual strides. But at some point, the Spurs will need to shore up their frontcourt for the long haul, whether that’s via this draft or other means. But to emphasize how prolific the franchise’s run has been … San Antonio hasn’t drafted in the lottery since taking Tim Duncan in 1997.
Sacramento Kings (31-41)
Odds to win: 1.3%
Odds of top-four finish: 6.2%
Sacramento won the 12/13 tiebreak over New Orleans on Monday and will have slightly better lottery odds as a result. Vlade Divac’s exit from the front office won’t be what saves the Kings, who have assembled a decent group of players amid their various missteps and were on the cusp of the playoffs before the NBA shut down in March. It’ll be interesting to see what direction Joe Dumars takes here, but owner Vivek Ranadive has yet to shake his reputation for meddling in basketball operations, and Sacramento hasn’t had a winning season in 14 years. At this point, there should be pressure to right the ship, and nailing this pick to add to a younger core of talent matters.
New Orleans Pelicans (30-42)
Odds to win: 1.2%
Odds of top-four finish: 5.7%
New Orleans got a tough break in losing the 12/13 tiebreaker and will pick 13th barring shocking lottery results. In the long run, missing the playoffs won’t be a terrible outcome for the Pelicans, who did well drafting Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker in addition to Zion Williamson last year, and end up with another shot in the lottery here. With Williamson and Brandon Ingram likely to be fixtures as leading scorers for the foreseeable future, improving a leaky defense that was exposed in the Orlando bubble should be imperative.
Memphis Grizzlies (34-39)
Odds to win: 2.4%
Odds of top-four finish: 0.5%
The Grizzlies will keep their pick only with a highly improbable leap into the top four; it otherwise conveys to the Celtics. With a better 2021 draft on the horizon, Memphis might rather send this pick now than the alternative, where Boston would obtain it unprotected for next year. The Grizzlies are in a fairly stable place regardless, with Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. as long-term centerpieces. If the Celtics get this pick as expected, they’ll have three first-rounders and would likely have the trade ammo to move up in the lottery and target a specific player if they want. Boston has so many young players on the roster already that some type of consolidation might be inevitable.