The countdown has officially begun for the 2017 NBA Draft. This year stands to be one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, with solid players throughout the lottery and deep into the first round.
It’s also one of the most consequential.
The Boston Celtics — not listed here because they weren’t a lottery team — have a chance to add the superstar they need to contend with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Los Angeles Lakers have a chance to recreate Showtime. The Philadelphia 76ers can move The Process another step along and the Minnesota Timberwolves can complete a starting five they hope will contend for a championship.
You can say this about every draft, but it’s especially true this year: this draft will chart the course of the NBA’s future.
Unlike last season when the draft was full of question marks and the top pick didn’t even play due to injury, there seem to be five or six sure-fire All-Stars in this draft. On top of that, the entire first round is packed with starters and rotation players. There are very few question marks and a bevy of choices for every team that needs something.
Here are the biggest needs of every team in the lottery.
Brooklyn Nets: Everything
No team is in worse long-term shape than the Brooklyn Nets. Other than Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, there’s nobody on the roster you’d bet on being there three years from now. Moreover, they don’t have their first-round pick this year — which happens to be the No. 1 overall pick — or next year, thanks to a poorly thought out 2013 trade with the Boston Celtics which cost them their future in exchange for three playoff seasons.
The Nets do still have two first-round picks this year — No. 22 overall, which they landed in the Bojan Bogdanovic trade to Washington, and No. 27 overall, which they have as part of the pick swap that gave the Celtics the first overall pick. In a draft as deep as this one, there are worse situations to be in. Sean Marks has made a habit of nabbing picks in the 20s and hoping to hit on one. The likes of Duke’s Harry Giles or Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo could be available at 22, and SMU’s Semi Ojeleye or Michigan’s D.J. Wilson at 27.
Giles has the highest upside of any of those guys. He was a top high school recruit before suffering ACL, MCL and meniscus tears in his knee. The Nets are in a position to take a risk. If Giles is slated to be off the board a few picks before 22, they should consider packaging one of their first rounders and a second to trade up. He’s one of the most volatile players in the draft, but the Nets are staring down the barrel of another abysmal season without a top pick as a reward. If there’s a 10-percent chance Giles could be a star, that’s enough.
Los Angeles Lakers: Center
The Lakers won’t take a center with the second overall pick. Between point guards Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz and De’Aaron Fox and small forward Josh Jackson, there’s too much talent for Los Angeles not to grab whoever tickles their fancy (recent reports on the rumors Los Angeles may pass on Ball say that’s just noise). President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka will take a positional jam if it means grabbing a sure-fire star, and potentially opening the door to a D’Angelo Russell trade.
Los Angeles probably thought it solved the center position last summer, when it drafted Ivica Zubac in the second round and signed Timofey Mozgov to a monster four-year, $64 million deal in the wee hours of July 1 last season. Zubac exceeded expectations, putting up an impressive performance in Summer League and nearly averaging a double-double per 36 minutes. If things keep going well, he could turn into a legitimate bench player.
Mozgov, on the other hand, was what we thought he was. Which is to say he’s not worth $64 million, or even the veterans’ minimum. His -3.10 real plus-minus was 67th out of 70 qualified centers.
That’s not a problem the Lakers will solve with the second pick, but expect them to go with a big man at 28, a pick they acquired from the Houston Rockets for Lou Williams at the trade deadline. D.J. Wilson and California center Ivan Rabb have been the subject of rumors around that pick. Don’t overlook the L.A.’s ability to draft late in the first round either — remember, they took Larry Nance Jr. at 27 overall.
Philadelphia 76ers: Wing
The Sixers are in a weird spot right now, not just because nobody knows what position last year’s No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons will play. Nobody knows whether Simmons (or Joel Embiid) can stay healthy. If Simmons ends up at point forward as it seems he will, the Sixers will need to surround him with shooting. It was a major issue for Simmons at LSU, which makes small forward Josh Jackson a perfect fit at the third overall pick.
Jackson was a 37.8 percent 3-point shooter at Kansas with a 55.2 effective field goal percentage to boot. The idea of Jackson and Embiid as primary scorers with Simmons running the offense is enough to make your mouth water. Jackson’s perimeter defense and Embiid’s rim protection will give Philly a better defense than most young teams as well.
Things will get dicey for them if the Lakers take Jackson second, but if Los Angeles sticks to the script, Jackson should be a clear choice for Bryan Colangelo.
De’Aaron Fox is tempting, but it would be tough to play him and Simmons together from a spacing perspective. Fox was a 24.9 percent 3-point shooter in college, Simmons only tried three 3-pointers in a whole year at LSU. Jackson can help mitigate the negative effects of Simmons’ shooting and be a star scorer.
Phoenix Suns: Small forward
Unless Jackson falls to them, it’s unlikely the Suns draft a small forward. Duke’s Jayson Tatum will be available. But if we look at the draft in tiers, he’s slipped below the Fox-Jackson pair, for now at least. Phoenix, of course, has a point guard in Eric Bledsoe. But that’s not good enough reason to pass on the younger Fox, who can complete an electric backcourt pairing with Devin Booker.
Assuming the Suns take Fox fourth — maybe not be a safe assumption this early given how things change — trading Bledsoe is probably the best path to getting a small forward. The five-year, $70 million deal Bledsoe signed back in 2014 seems like a bargain now that the salary cap has spiked, especially given that the deal expires after his age 28 season. Nobody noticed because Phoenix was abysmal, but Bledsoe averaged 23 points, 6.9 assists and 5.3 rebounds per 36 last season without much help. He can help a team like New York, Atlanta or Utah if George Hill’s asking price in free agency is too high.
If Chris Paul leaves Los Angeles and the Clippers want to keep contending, a reunion between it and Bledsoe makes sense.
There are countless permutations here depending on what happens over the next six weeks, but the end calculation remains the same. The Suns can end up with Fox and Booker in their backcourt and fulfill their need at small forward if they play their cards right.
Sacramento Kings: Everything
In trading DeMarcus Cousins last February, the Kings tore down in a big way. They can hope Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson and Skal Labassierre — all drafted in 2015 or ’16 — become rotation players. But expecting more than that, or calling Hield the next Steph Curry, is a bit much.
The Kings may have blown a shot at the No. 3 pick and given up their 2019 first rounder in an ill-fated trade with Sam Hinkie’s Sixers, but they do hold the fifth and tenth picks this season. Remember, this draft is deep. Sacramento can build their backcourt of the future with Malik Monk and Dennis Smith, they can solve the forward position with Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac or Lauri Markkanen, or do some combination.
In this draft, the Kings are like Ebenezer Scrooge with a chance to avoid becoming the Ghost of Christmas Future. They can start to build a contender, but they have to get it right.
The best way not to do that would be trading up, which the Kings are rumored to be considering. The beauty of this draft is its depth. Dennis Smith would have been a sure-fire top-3 pick last season and Sacramento may have a better option at landing him with No. 10 this season.
Sacramento doesn’t need to get Fox, Ball or Jackson for this to be a success. It has to start putting together a competitive basketball team, something Kings fans haven’t seen in over a decade. If any front office can screw that up in this draft, however, it’s Vivek Ranadive, Vlade Divac and Co.
Orlando Magic: Small forward
Two years into his career, it’s safe to call Mario Hezonja a bust. Three years into his career, it’s safe to call Aaron Gordon a power forward. If the Magic want to keep Gordon — a 28.8 percent 3-point shooter last season — on the floor with a traditional center like Nikola Vucevic, they have to add shooting everywhere else.
You could make a good argument Orlando should focus on point guard in the draft instead of forward with Elfrid Payton struggling. But it will be easier to address the former position in free agency. The Magic can look at George Hill, Jeff Teague and Jrue Holiday in free agency and throw their hat in the ring should Eric Bledsoe become available. Moreover, the best point guards in the draft — Markelle Fultz, Ball and Fox — will be gone by the time they pick. Jayson Tatum and Jonathan Isaac, two of the three best small forwards, will likely be on the board.
The Magic shot themselves in the foot last offseason by trading for Serge Ibaka, then signing Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green in free agency. It forced Gordon to play small forward and forced Frank Vogel to trot out lineups with Evan Fournier as the only capable shooter. That can’t happen again this year.
New general manager John Hammond has to draft with shooting in mind, lest he repeat the mistakes of his predecessor.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Power forward
With the jury still out on Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine at the guard positions, this draft is a logical place for Minnesota to take a stretch four. Even better, Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen seems likely to fall right into its lap.
The Finnish forward averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds as a Wildcat on 42.3 percent shooting from 3. If the Timberwolves draft him, they’ll have shooting from both big man positions and one of the most explosive young offenses in the league. Markkanen’s defense is another story, but that’s the case with most young players. If he goes to Minnesota, he’ll be well-equipped to develop on that end with Tom Thibodeau coaching him.
If Markkanen comes of the board before Minnesota picks at seven, that means either Tatum or Isaac will fall. Minnesota doesn’t need another small forward with Andrew Wiggins, but Isaac could eventually move up to power forward. That scenario also opens the door to trading down, which could be lucrative and enticing after a Kris Dunn-for-Jimmy Butler trade came close to happening last year on draft day. Either way, Minnesota has a golden opportunity to round out their starting five.
New York Knicks: Guard
After Derrick Rose fell flat on his face in his lone year under contract and Sasha Vujacic continued to get minutes at shooting guard, the Knicks have to overhaul their entire backcourt. This draft gives them a great chance to start.
With the eighth overall pick, the Knicks will have a nice group to choose between. There’s no guarantee Malik Monk, Dennis Smith, Frank Ntilikina, Luke Kennard and Donovan Mitchell will all be available, but at least three of the five almost certainly will, if not more. New York doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to the draft. Outside of Kristaps Porzingis, in fact, they arguably have the worst track record in the league when it comes to the draft.
If Phil Jackson is ever going to turn this failed experiment around, it has to start with this draft. New York has to nail this offseason after spending last summer giving ridiculous contracts to Rose and Joakim Noah.
With such a stacked draft, they should look at trading Carmelo Anthony for another lottery pick so they can fill out their entire backcourt instead of only half. Whatever they do, the Knicks have to start building around Porzingis for the future instead of trying to put together a contender in one summer as they did a year ago. Jackson has to acknowledge the reality of the situation and start from there.
Dallas Mavericks: Point guard
The Mavericks made do with Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell last season — two low-cost players who ended up giving Dallas more than they bargained for. But they can’t contend for the postseason without getting better at the position. Both Curry and Ferrell exceeded expectations last season, but it’s important to remember that the bar was set low. The duo still struggles defensively, though Ferrell’s effort can make up for what he lacks inside, and there are lingering kinks offensively.
Both will be rotation players in the long term, and it’s tough to imagine either in the starting lineup on a playoff team.
If Ntilikina or Smith are still available when the ninth pick rolls around, the Mavericks should be picking between them. With Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes both locked up for the long term, Dallas has two-fifths of its post-Dirk Nowitzki future planned out. With Nerlens Noel hitting restricted free agency this summer, they’ve probably already made a decision as to whether he’s part of that future or not as well.
Point guard, however, isn’t a position they’ve started to address, and there will be players available in this year’s draft. Curry and Ferrell are both serviceable and should have a place in the Mavs’ plans, but not in the starting lineup. That spot should be reserved for whomever they draft.
New Orleans Pelicans: Wing
Here’s everything we know about the Pelicans’ long term plans: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We don’t know if point guard Jrue Holiday — a free agent this summer — figures into things. We don’t know what they might do about Solomon Hill’s contract. We don’t know if Alvin Gentry is coaching for his job next season.
General manager Dell Demps’ plan seems to be “Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are very good and the rest will figure itself out.”
If that sounds flawed, you’re not alone in that line of thinking. The Pelicans don’t have their first-round pick this season, having dealt it to Sacramento in the Cousins deal, which looked like a steal at the time and has now morphed into a lingering question mark.
Why? The Pelicans didn’t seem to get better after they traded for Cousins. When the two stars shared the floor, New Orleans had a +2.8 net rating. When Davis played without Cousins after the trade was made, that number shot up to +7.9. It’s worth noting that before the trade, Davis’ net rating was negative, but much of that may have had to do with Jrue Holiday missing the first six weeks of the season.
In any case, New Orleans comes into this draft without a pick in the first round and seemingly without a plan. Whatever they come up with has to involve adding a wing scorer this offseason lest they waste a chance to build a contender around two of the league’s five best big men.
Charlotte Hornets: Small forward
The case for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a starter keeps growing tougher. As good as he is defensively, it is simply impossible in this era to start a player who took only nine three-pointers this season and hit 34.9 percent on jump shots, per NBA.com. That doesn’t mean Kidd-Gilchrist can’t be a contributor, but Charlotte is screwed if it ever has to give him serious playoff minutes.
It’s unlikely the Hornets address this need directly in the draft, but they can do it indirectly. At No. 11 overall, the Hornets will be picking from a thicket of guards unless they want to reach with someone like Justin Jackson or OG Anunoby. If they decide to take (and start) someone like Duke shooting guard Luke Kennard, however, they could push Nicolas Batum to small forward, where he played 89 percent of his minutes in 2015-16 while Kidd-Gilchrist was hurt.
Adding spacing, moving Batum back to three and putting Kidd-Gilchrist on the bench is a logical progression if Charlotte wants to get back in the postseason next year. Batum thrived when Steve Clifford surrounded him with shooting two years ago, but his play took a dive this season. Someone like Kennard, who doesn’t project as a star, would best develop as a secondary option in an offense with space to work with and Kidd-Gilchrist would best function as a stopper off the bench. In short, this makes sense from all angles.
Detroit Pistons: Point guard
Detroit likely thought it had a long-term point guard when it signed Reggie Jackson to a five-year, $80 million deal in the summer of 2015. After last season, however, that has changed dramatically. Jackson’s numbers took a dive across the board. He shot only 41.9 percent from the field, had a below-average 14.9 PER and went from the 77th to 70th percentile in NBA.com’s pick and roll tracking. Toss in his continual struggles on the defensive end and there’s now real doubt as to whether Jackson is a starting point guard, let alone a franchise player.
The Pistons should be praying that Smith or Ntilikina falls to them at 12. Either could turn into the cornerstone they thought Jackson was, though it should be noted that neither are sure things. If that doesn’t happen, Stan Van Gundy should go with the best player available and try to address the point guard problem another way.
There are no shortage of capable point guards available this summer in free agency — the problem will be paying two of them top dollar, or shipping out Jackson’s albatross of a contract. If owner Tom Gores doesn’t want to shell out that kind of money, Detroit is probably stuck with Jackson unless it can convince a team to take him and likely give up a pick as part of a potential deal.
Between Jackson and Andre Drummond, whose contract is also looking a bit large, Van Gundy is becoming the latest piece of living proof that a great coach doesn’t make a good general manager.
Denver Nuggets: Power forward
The Nuggets could justifiably go with either forward position here given that Danilo Gallinari hitting free agency this summer (more on that here). It seems unlikely the Nuggets will give him the same money he can get on the open market. The Italian has dealt with too many injuries and may be slightly too old, heading into his age-29 season, for Denver to offer him a long-term deal given they’re building for three years from now.
However, Wilson Chandler is under contract for next season and has a player option for 2018-19. This means the Nuggets probably have their starter at the three if he can stay healthy. Power forward is dicier who starts there depends on a number of factors: whether they can keep Mason Plumlee this summer, whether they trade Kenneth Faried and Juan Hernangomez’s development.
Given point guard Emmanuel Mudiay’s struggles, it wouldn’t be shocking if they felt the need to address that position this summer as well.
All this is to say that the Nuggets will probably go with the best player available.
If shooting guard Donovan Mitchell or another one of the guards projected to go in that seven-to-14 range falls to them, Denver should pounce and make do. After all, Jamal Murray had some good minutes running point last year. If not, the Nuggets should pick whoever is at the top of their board.
Taking a big man like Zach Collins or Ike Anigbogu could solve the Plumlee dilemma for them and give Nikola Jokic a frontcourt partner at a low cost. There really isn’t a bad approach Denver can take coming into this draft.
Miami Heat: Power forward
With James Johnson hitting free agency (and being due for a raise) while Chris Bosh’s career is officially over, the Heat have a clear hole to fill at power forward, and this draft is their shot to do it. Next year, their first-round pick goes to Phoenix unless it lands in the top-seven, which seems unlikely given how well they finished out this year.
Luckily, they’re in a good spot to grab a power forward. At least one of Zach Collins, OG Anunoby or John Collins will be available at 14. Though it would be frustrating if two of the three are off the board and the decision is essentially made for them, it would be surprising to see Miami stray outside that group.
The problem is that none of those guys will be instantly worthy of starting.
Zach Collins may have the most raw, two-way talent of the three, but there are questions about physicality and some developing to do on both ends. Anunoby may struggle shooting the ball and there are medical questions. John Collins will struggle badly on defense.
The Heat may end up starting Josh McRoberts at the beginning of next year whether they draft one of these guys or not, but that isn’t a mark against any of the three. They’ll still be taking a player who can help them in the long-term, regardless of who it is.