The NBA draft usually is a big deal, and this year’s draft will begin with the selection of the most acclaimed collegiate player of the 21st century. So: Bigger than ever, right?
Wrong. The NBA has spent the past 10 days going crazy, little of that having to do with the coming drafting of players. Zion Williamson going No. 1 to New Orleans? Knew that already. The Hawks holding three Round 1 picks? Wake me when they trade into the top five. (Even then, this appears a three-man draft.) What’s stunning is that June 2019 has seen the seismic palpitations reserved for Julys when LeBron James changes teams, and this time LeBron’s going nowhere. To recap:
• Kevin Durant, who was slated to be this year’s biggest-ticket free agent, tore his Achilles in the NBA finals.
• Three days later, Klay Thompson – also ticketed for free agency – tore his ACL in the NBA finals.
• That same night, Toronto won the NBA title, simultaneously triggering celebrations across The North and the abject fear that Kawhi Leonard, architect of said title, will take his talents Back South.
• Two days later, LeBron’s latest team – the Lakers, in case you’d lost track – traded nearly all its young talent plus the No. 4 overall pick to the Pelicans, soon to be Zion’s team, for Anthony Davis, who wrecked the Pelicans’ season after his agent suggested in February he wanted out of NOLA.
• Two days after that, ESPN reported that tension between Houston’s stars – James Harden, who shoots all the time, and Chris Paul, who would prefer that Harden shoot less – had reached the point where Paul lobbied coach Mike D’Antoni not to reinsert Harden on those few occasions Harden takes a rest, the bench being the one place from which The Beard cannot hoist a step-back 3. (Yahoo Sports deemed the guards’ relationship as “unsalvageable,” which is in fact a word.)
• One day after that (meaning Tuesday), ESPN reported that Al Horford, of whom you’ve heard, will decline his $30.1 million option and become a free agent. ESPN speculated that he won’t under any circumstances re-up with Boston, which faces the possibility-bordering-on-a-lock that Kyrie Irving will leave for a club based in the Five Boroughs, Brooklyn being the apparent destination of choice. This same Irving said in February: “I don’t owe anybody squat,” or sentiments to that effect.
For the better part of a decade, we knew who would represent the East in the NBA finals – the team with LeBron. For the past five years, we knew who would represent the West and probably win it all – the imperial Warriors. Today, again borrowing the timeless William Goldman line, nobody knows anything. Indeed, some bookmakers see the Lakers, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, as the favorite to be 2020 NBA champs.
It’s unclear if Durant/Thompson will play next season. It’s unclear if either will re-up with Golden State. It’s unclear if Boston, which last year made the Eastern Conference finals without the injured Leonard, is poised to become an heir apparent rendered hairless. Also unclear: if there’s a country – forget a city – big enough to accommodate Harden and Paul. Also unclear: whether the Rockets want D’Antoni to continue. Also unclear: whether LeBron or AD will be the best NBA player working for an L.A.-based team next year, rumors having long tagged the Clippers as a landing spot for Leonard.
It would be impossible for any draft to top such upheavals, and much of this draft is all but set. Zion to New Orleans. Then Ja Morant to Memphis, which is shipping incumbent Mike Conley to Utah. Then RJ Barrett to the Knicks, who reportedly rejected the Hawks’ package of picks No. 8 and 10. Only then will matters get moderately intriguing, and there’s a chance the Hawks will be first to dip into the pool of second-tier draftees.
Having just added Lonzo Ball (No. 2 pick in 2017), Brandon Ingram (No. 2 in 2016) and Josh Hart to go with Zion, the Pelicans mightn’t feel a need to keep ladling young upon young. They could make a match with the desperate-to-move Hawks, who are believed to like Jarrett Culver, the guard from Texas Tech, and De’Andre Hunter, the forward from Virginia, both last seen playing for the NCAA title.
Culver seems the better fit. He can play off the ball, on-the-ball duties being the province of Trae Young, and create off the dribble. Caveat: He’s not a great jump shooter – he made 30.4 percent of his treys last season -- and the Hawks of Travis Schlenk have prioritized that asset.
Hunter is a fine defender, which would be welcome on a team that by coach Lloyd Pierce’s admission played barely a lick of defense last season, but he bears the stamp of a 3-and-D guy, such as Taurean Prince, whom the Hawks off-loaded to Brooklyn for the No. 17 pick. Given your druthers, you’d prefer a more creative type at No. 4.
No. 4 is likewise too high to draft Duke’s Cam Reddish, who might be available at No. 8. The most intriguing names among Tier 2 types are Coby White of North Carolina and Darius Garland of Vanderbilt, one-and-done point guards. (Garland barely qualifies, having worked five college games before damaging a meniscus.) I’m fascinated by White – he’s a jet – but I’m unsure if you should spend the No. 4 pick on Young’s backup. I’m also unsure he’ll last until No. 8.
Apologies for repeating myself, but this isn’t the draft to be holding picks No. 8, 10 and 17. I understand the Hawks’ eagerness to parlay those into something better, but I don’t see unbridled joy awaiting if you can’t crack the top three. The Hawks took a huge stride in last year’s draft. I can’t envision a similar step this time.
That said, this is the NBA in June 2019, where all bets are off. Maybe the Hawks and Pelicans will do their deal and profit so outrageously that they meet in the 2020 finals. Maybe Kawhi and KD and Klay will walk through the door at the Emory Sports Medicine Complex come July. (The latter two might need crutches.) Maybe this draft is indeed the fuse that turns into the Hawks’ big bang. Maybe.