Murphy’s Law suggests “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”, and such was the case for many teams that have had their eye on Zion Williamson all year long. The Knicks, Suns, and Cavs all did everything they could for a 14% chance at turning their franchise around, but it proved to be a lost cause. While these teams were busy trying to lose, the Grizzlies, Pelicans, and Lakers all had different goals in mind, but ended up in a better spot. The results of this years lottery draft could have lasting effects on how teams approach a season when winning isn’t a viable option.
Here’s how we got here.
On January 1st, 2019 the Memphis Grizzlies were 18-18, which was the 15th best record in the league. A winning percentage that would have been good enough to keep them out of the lottery if they kept it up. Instead they went 1-5 over the next two weeks and dropped down to the second worst record in the West. Although Memphis’ ownership hoped for 50 wins this year, it was clear this was not their season, so they looked ahead. They shipped out Marc Gasol, questionable held on to Conley, and decided to see what they had moving forward to surround Jaren Jackson Jr. with. Over the coming months they held onto the second worst record in the West while still ending the season with a respectable 33 wins. About twice as many as the New York Knicks, who phoned it in for the entire season.
The Pelicans problems didn’t begin January 1st, but on January 28th, when the news broke that Anthony Davis wanted out of New Orleans. This news sent shockwaves through the league and gave us plenty of lengthy conversations about where we were so confident he would land. The trade deadline came and went and Davis was still a Pelican, but clearly wasn’t fully invested. The Pelicans saw this and put him on a minutes restriction, which would undeniable put the team in a worse position to win. Before the demand Davis was averaging over 37 minutes per game, while after the demand those minutes fell to just 22 minutes per game. The Pelicans finished the season 11-21 after the demand and positioned themselves in a spot to be eligible for the Zion sweepstakes.
New Orleans wasn’t the only team to put their superstar on a minutes restriction at the end of the season. The Lakers finished their season 7-14 once the month of March arrived. LeBron James, who has been a model for playing heavy minutes, only played around 400 minutes during the last 21 games, coming out to about 20 minutes per game. That includes 9 games where LeBron wasn’t activated at all. LeBron knew their season was over and so did their front office, so they looked to the future. On March 1st, the Lakers had the 15th best record in the league, and it wasn’t a sure thing that they would be in the conversation for Zion. And while they didn’t get Zion, they got the next best thing, the final trade chip in the form of the number 4 overall pick, that was used in one of the most historic trades in NBA history.
So how will teams change their thinking moving forward?
We could very well see more teams in the league give an honest effort at winning, even when they know their roster isn’t the most competitive. There is something to be said about teaching your team how to win, close out games, and strategize in meaningful minutes. Then, when it appears all hope is lost in the race for the playoffs, turn your focus to the future and let your young assets develop as much as possible. We learned this year that losing in the first few months of the season doesn’t give you any more chance at a high pick, but just gets the fan base disappointed, and possibly tarnishes your perception as a free agent destination.
We could also see unprotected draft pick become a thing of the past. Gone are the days of a coin flip between the worst team in the West and the worst team in the East. Now, the top 4 draft picks belong to teams that had 6% and 2% chances. Knowing that there is some chance to strike gold more than ever before, it feels more necessary to throw on a protection on the pick. Weather that’s a top 3 protection, top 5, or even a number 1 protection, the value of a lottery pick goes up.
The 2019 NBA Draft will give us one of the most exciting prospects out of college that we have seen in a long time, who will surely change at least one franchise, but more importantly, we could see teams model the path that the teams took to get to the top of the lottery. Win while you can, trade veterans for draft picks, and rest your veterans once your eliminated. In the storied history of the NBA, this draft lottery while surely be an exciting chapter to look back at and see how things were changed.