There’s two seasons in the NBA come the middle of April: playoff season, where the league’s top 16 teams (or top 14, depending on how the standings play out and a winning team in the West gets shafted for a losing team in the East) duke it out for a championship and draft season, where the league’s worst 14 teams prepare to find their next gem - or, if you’re the Brooklyn Nets, hope the Celtics will call and offer to return their first-round pick.
As with every draft, there’s some really intriguing stories set for June - who will take Lonzo Ball knowing his dad will have to be baggage? Will Markelle Fultz go first overall? - but what we don’t know yet is who’s picking first overall. Will it be those Celtics? How about the Phoenix Suns? The Los Angeles Lakers?
Let’s take today to look at 16 of the NBA’s 30 teams to gauge whether or not they’ll be contenders for the number one overall pick over the next three seasons. This may sound easy - Cleveland and Golden State won’t, while the Nets and Kings will - but let’s really think about this from everything to this past season to what their core is looking like.
Also, this is not a list to gauge which of the 14 teams that have a lottery pick this year will be in what order, nor is this ranking the 14 worst teams in the NBA. This is looking at a wide variety of teams and evaluating? Ready? Let’s talk the NBA Draft...
16 Will: Phoenix Suns
As we saw this past season with Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns, they’ve mastered the art of tanking and what it’s supposed to look like: a team that plays competitive enough for it not to seem like they’re throwing games (looking at you, Sixers) and a team that has some talent but needs more in the youth department for them to really compete. If the Philadelphia 76ers could win the first overall pick by tanking in the wrong way, who’s to say the Suns can’t win it by tanking the right way?
Oh, and they’re a legitimately bad team that should be preparing for a major fire sale in the coming months. Even with Booker leading the way, the Suns won’t be sniffing the playoffs anytime soon, though that could very well be for the best in a Western Conference that remains dangerous.
15 Won’t: Philadelphia 76ers
In four years of tanking, all that the Sixers really came away with for their long-term plans was Justin Anderson (acquired in the February trade with Dallas for Nerlens Noel), Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, potentially Jahlil Okafor (?), and the still-to-be-seen Ben Simmons. When we talk about dangerous young cores in the NBA, that has to be up there - and that’s even with the fact that Embiid is injury-prone and Okafor could be traded at any moment.
With the Knicks and Nets each in rebuilds and many of the Eastern Conference’s former ‘top dogs’ being reduced to near .500 teams, next year should be the moment when the Sixers break out as a playoff team. Having the top pick in 2016 and top three picks in 2014 and 2015 may have been nice, but those days are long gone for Simmons and friends.
14 Will: Boston Celtics
This is the fun of trading with Billy King, folks: by all means, the Boston Celtics could win this year’s NBA Finals and win the number one overall pick in June’s draft. Imagine adding Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball to a roster that is coming off a championship - and who is likely to try for a big move in free agency again! We all expected Boston to be in the final stages of their rebuild come April 2017, especially after they didn’t seem to really acquire much on paper in the Rajon Rondo trade with Dallas, but now they’re title contenders!
As for earning the number one pick ‘legitimately’ without the help of another team, Boston is too good in a lesser conference to fall back into the lottery. Though the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls have both faced that problem in recent years, they also lacked the depth to step up when a star - or, at the very least, an impact starter - was out; the Celtics are far away from running into that problem.
13 Won’t: Orlando Magic
Did you see that the Orlando Magic recently fired their general manager? After years of being caught in the tanking purgatory that includes drafting Aaron Gordon to be a big man of the future but constantly playing him out of position and trading a first-round pick for Serge Ibaka (????), Rob Hennigan was given his walking papers as the Magic try to prepare for June’s draft and a chance at a marquee free agent.
Money talks and I’m sure there will be a free agent who buys their shtick, but the teams that land in rebuilding purgatory never wind up with the number one overall pick. Why did the New York Knicks, especially in the Isiah Thomas years, never land the top pick? How about the Sacramento Kings? Orlando will find themselves with a top five pick here or there, but the top pick? No chance.
12 Will: Miami Heat
For what it’s worth, the Miami Heat did a fantastic job in the second half of the 2016-17 season, finishing with a .500 record and barely missing the playoffs after Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and a core of has-beens and should-have-beens - and the NBA’s rebounding leader, Hassan Whiteside, of course - helped the team win 30 of their final 41 games. But, to go into next year and expect Waiters to play at a career-high level again, to think that Justise Winslow will finally break out...I can’t see it.
Miami could very well land a marquee free agent or player this summer, especially if they have the assets to land Carmelo Anthony (which means player who would be all for playing in the Triangle) but as of right now, they have the makings of a team who could be at the top of the lottery before we know it.
11 Won’t: New York Knicks
And speaking of Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks, remember that whole tidbit about the Orlando Magic being in rebuilding purgatory? If you take that up to 11, then you have where the Knicks - and their disaster of a front office - stand right now, especially on the heels of Phil Jackson pretty much saying publicly that he wants the former NBA scoring champion gone.
The Knicks not being able to secure the top pick in the draft is nothing to do with karma (well, maybe slightly because of karma) because because as long as they have Kristaps Porzingis and some quality role players, they’re too decent to win less than 25 games again; add in that Anthony could very well stay because of his no-trade clause and the Knicks are going to be ‘stuck’ with first-round picks outside of the top three. Sorry, Phil.
10 Will: Detroit Pistons
I think at this point, we’re all waiting for the Detroit Pistons, a team with only one playoff appearance in the Andre Drummond era and a franchise which continues to disappoint, to blow it all up; trade Reggie Jackson, consider trading Andre Drummond for a package similar to what the Orlando Magic got for Dwight Howard, and embrace a rebuild. Will it happen soon? Probably not. Should it? Yes.
Once that happens, the Pistons will be the frontrunners for the top spot every year and will hope to accomplish the rebuild better than the Orlando Magic have. Acquiring a Michael Porter or DeAndre Ayton in the 2018 NBA Draft would surely help... They simply can't continue squeaking in to the playoffs, only to get bounced in the first round.
9 Won’t: Toronto Raptors
Don’t get me wrong: I do think the Toronto Raptors are going to be headed for a regression at some point sooner rather than later, but Drake’s favorite team and their older-than-you’d-think core isn’t going to be out of the playoffs anytime soon. Kyle Lowry has a few more years left in the tank, DeMar DeRozan is in the prime of his career, and the Raptors are building something special; for how long that will last, however, is the real question.
Some will argue that, like the Pistons who never seem to be able to break through, the Raptors should do the same because they’re likely to play second fiddle to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. If anything, that’s why the Raptors shouldn’t break up the roster yet - they’re so close and have proven they can be competitive against the James Gang.
8 Will: Sacramento Kings
After trading DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans and getting back...well, Buddy Hield and some role players, the Kings have fully embraced yet another rebuild. Will this one work? Probably not, especially with Vivek Ranadivé running the show with the same degree of success that Phil Jackson is in New York - or at a worse level, maybe.
Here, the question isn’t when the Kings will land the first pick, but how bad will they screw it up? Will they take a projected second-rounder, or will they write in the name of a player who went in the previous draft? Will the clock run out on their pick? In the same way that a monkey with a typewriter can eventually write Shakespeare, a Phil Jackson or a Vivek Ranadivé can eventually make a moderately smart NBA move.
7 Won’t: Brooklyn Nets
Technically, the Brooklyn Nets can get the first overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and likely will, but that pick will be going to Boston where the rich will become richer. Thanks, Billy King. As I’ve said in the past, though, the Nets’ rebuilding is going faster than people expected and, with the right development and the right acquisition in the offseason (Serge Ibaka?), they could be team contending for a playoff spot by the 2018-19 season.
Right now, for as bad as the Nets are, they’re going to enter next season a bit higher up on the power rankings - and a bit further away from the first overall pick. Net fans who are craving a franchise star that they think will come at the top will be disheartened to hear that, but with a first-rounder in the bottom of this year’s first round, they can still land one. Justin Jackson, maybe?
6 Will: Dallas Mavericks
Another team that has fully embraced the fact that they’re going to have to rebuild from the ground up, the Dallas Mavericks at least took steps forward this past season with the play of Yogi Ferrell, Harrison Barnes, and Nerlens Noel; that’s their young core right now, but they’re going to be contenders for the first overall pick for a few years. That's not to say they’ll be the absolute worst team in the league - in fact, they’re probably the 11th best team in the West right now ahead of Phoenix, Sacramento, the Lakers, and New Orleans (seriously) - but that’s now.
Personally, Dallas is my sleeper pick for the team that jumps higher than people expect in the 2017 NBA Draft and, with Dirk Nowitzki still around, maybe the balls land in a spot that put Dallas at the top. We’ve certainly seen stranger things happen...
5 Won’t: New Orleans Pelicans
Yet another team stuck in rebuilding purgatory, there’s plenty of reasons why the Pelicans will not be in a position over the next few years to have the top pick - and it all starts with the dynamic duo (on paper) of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Even if Cousins sticks around for the future, this team is too good with the two of them to hit number one pick level; let’s also not pretend that the NBA is going to enable the Pelicans, with two superstars, to land a top pick and add one of college basketball’s best players to the mix.
The irony is that when New Orleans didn’t really need the top overall pick, they got it and landed Davis. Now, with Davis in need of someone he can succeed alongside, the team isn’t in a position to get it. Well done, NBA.
4 Will: Charlotte Hornets
I like the Charlotte Hornets and I like Kemba Walker, but I can’t help but worry if this year’s down season - which saw the team unable to respond and succeed with so many injuries - is a sign of things to come. Like with Dallas, this may be the year that the Hornets slide into the top overall pick which, even as some might think it’d be best to trade down, would be the first thing for this franchise.
Charlotte has tried to build a big three by looking at marquee free agents - anyone remember Lance Stephenson’s time in North Carolina? - to partner up with Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but that may instead come at the top of the NBA Draft. I’m not necessarily advising them to tank, but how dangerous would a big three of Walker, Josh Jackson, and Kidd-Gilchrist look?
3 Won’t: Milwaukee Bucks
Sticking with teams in the Eastern Conference, this jump that we saw from the Milwaukee Bucks is not going to be a fluke like the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns were. We know that Giannis Antetokounmpo is a stud, we know that Jabari Parker has shown flashes of brilliance when healthy, and Khris Middleton is still pretty good. With that said, why would the Bucks collapse back to the first overall pick?
Now, if the Greek Freak were to miss a season, they’d definitely be among the league’s worst teams, but bad enough to win the top pick? Not a chance. That’s not a diss against Antetokounmpo as a player - far from it, in fact - but there’s enough depth to go around to the point where the Bucks wouldn’t see a 2014-15 New York Knicks collapse without their star player.
2 Will: Indiana Pacers
If you’ve paid any attention to a TV lately, you’d know that the Pacers fighting pretty hard with the Cavaliers in the playoffs, right? How much longer are those ‘glory days’ in Indiana going to last, especially with Paul George a likely candidate to be traded this summer? How long, I ask, will the Pacers remain relevant - even in the Eastern Conference - without PG13 leading the way?
The Pacers could have the top pick as soon as the 2018 NBA Draft if they trade George this summer. How surreal is that to believe? And yet...with all due respect to growing star center Myles Turner, it makes sense. This team has shown in the past that they’re lost without George, so what will happen when the All-Star is playing for the Lakers?
1 Won’t: Minnesota Timberwolves
Everyone expected the Minnesota Timberwolves to make the playoffs this year, but they didn’t. Now, everyone expects the Minnesota Timberwolves to make the playoffs next year, especially after the jump that Andrew Wiggins took in his third season, and it’s hard to blame them. The talent is there, the coaching is there, and the Timberwolves are going to kiss the days of the NBA lottery away come next season.
It’s almost as if doubting the Timberwolves, who landed Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in consecutive drafts (technically, it was the Cleveland Cavaliers who landed Wiggins, but who’s counting?) is going to become a trend, but don’t buy into it. These Wolves are here to stay and, much to the joy of these tortured fans, next year will be the greatest season the city of Minnesota has seen since Brett Favre was under center for the Vikings.