May 25, 2024

Most uncertain NBA Draft in years had a lottery drawing befitting it


CHICAGO — Maybe it was just right that the NBA Draft Lottery drawing for what could be the most chaotic draft in years also had its own sense of uncertainty.

The lottery is, after all, a controlled mayhem, 14 ping-pong balls rattling around inside a clear drum, coming out in succession with assigned four-number combinations to determine the top-four picks. Sunday afternoon, seven teams still had a chance to land the top pick entering that final pull of the lottery ball. Already No. 6, No. 10 and No. 14 had shot out of the machine; they all just needed one more.

But when the No. 13 popped out, one of the most unlikely options became a reality. The Atlanta Hawks, with just a 3 percent chance to win the lottery, better than just three other teams, nabbed the right to make the No. 1 pick in next month’s draft.

Inside the lottery drawing room, the Hawks’ win was met with muted reaction. Daniel Starkman, the Hawks’ vice president of player personnel, hadn’t brought a collection of lucky trinkets, just Hawks socks made by his brother’s company, Rock ‘Em Socks. When the last number was announced, he stayed quiet, hiding the joy inside.

“I wasn’t sure what the protocol is,” Starkman said. “This isn’t the room to celebrate.”

Starkman wanted to know what the reaction would be in the team’s Slack workspace, but he could not check his phone or share his enthusiasm. Anyone who enters the lottery drawing room must forgo all electronics for roughly two hours. They are sequestered inside as the rest of the world waits to find out the results.

The first trickles of excitement came an hour or so later, as the lottery played out on national television. As Starkman watched the top-four selections broadcast on ESPN, he smiled broadly and clapped along with the reveal.

Now comes the hard part for the Hawks. They won the top pick in a draft perceived to be without a consensus top player. There is no Victor Wembanyama or Zion Williamson to slot at the top of mock drafts. It is not even considered to be as strong a draft as 2022 or 2021, when the Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero and the Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham, respectively, went first.

The top players in this draft — Alex Sarr, a 7-1 French center playing in Australia; Nikola Topić, a 6-6 Serbian guard; Zaccharie Risacher, a 6-8 French wing — all come with questions.

Still, the Hawks get the right to potentially add a player with talent and upside. They have had just one top-three pick in the last 15 years — they traded back from No. 3 to No. 5 in 2018 and took Trae Young.

“It’s how you build teams,” Hawks general manager Landry Fields told The Athletic. “You build through the draft, and to have an opportunity to swing as high as we are this year, that’s a really good thing.”

But as soon as the Hawks won the No. 1 pick, there was speculation among league sources contacted by The Athletic about whether Atlanta would keep it or trade it.

The top pick hasn’t been traded since 2017, when the Boston Celtics sent it to the Philadelphia 76ers and moved down to No. 3. It has only been traded two other times since 1990 — in 1993, when the Orlando Magic took Chris Webber and traded him immediately for No. 3 pick Penny Hardaway, and in 2014, when the Cleveland Cavaliers took Andrew Wiggins and traded him two months later for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Love.

Atlanta went 36-46 this season and finished 1oth in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks have two former All-Stars in their starting backcourt with Young and Dejounte Murray, but Murray was a popular name in trade rumors before February’s deadline. They have a promising forward in Jalen Johnson and still owe an unprotected 2027 first-round pick and a 2026 swap to the San Antonio Spurs as part of the deal that brought Murray to town two years ago.

The No. 1 pick gives the Hawks options. They could keep their top pick and add him to the current roster. They could trade No. 1 for a veteran, though at least one executive from another team wondered whether the Hawks were good enough to make that kind of short-term move. They could trade one of Young or Murray and build around the other, Johnson and the top pick.

Fields is unimpressed with the assumption that the 2024 class is weak; he believes there are All-Stars in it, and there are analogs to point to. The 2013 draft is one many experts see as poor at the top, but it still produced a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and a four-time Defensive Player of the Year (Rudy Gobert).

The Hawks may not have expected the top pick in this draft, but now they have it, and it gives them a chance to reset.

“We’ll see,” Fields said. “This is a new piece of data for us that now we take into consideration, and we’ll lean into our process.”

Leave it to chance

The Washington Wizards finally got a piece of good news after a dreary season. They landed the No. 2 pick after a 15-win season. They had come so close to winning the lottery last year — they had six numbers that could have swung Wembanyama their way if one had come up to finish off the four-number combination — but got No. 8 instead, trading up one spot to select Bilal Coulibaly.

“For a team like ours, it’ll provide another opportunity to add an additional developmental player,” Wizards general manager Will Dawkins said.

The Wizards had a 14 percent chance of winning the top pick but still stayed high. Maybe part of their luck came from Dawkins eschewing any lucky charms. He brought nothing into the draft room and was one of several drawing-room invitees to do so, along with Charlotte Hornets owner Rick Schnall and Golden State Warriors senior vice president of communications Raymond Ridder.

“We’ll let the basketball gods handle themselves,” Dawkins said.

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Surrounding Wemby

The Spurs nearly won the lottery for the second straight year. They were a No. 3 instead of a No. 13 away. But they’ll have to settle for two lottery picks instead.

They own the No. 4 and No. 8 picks in the 2024 draft and will continue building around Wembanyama, the league’s Rookie of the Year. They needed some fortune to get the second lottery pick. The Toronto Raptors owed them a top-six protected pick this year and came into the lottery with the sixth-worst record. But Toronto fell two spots after being jumped by the Hawks and Rockets.

The Spurs enter uncharted territory with two top-eight picks in one draft. They’ve had just two top-eight picks in the last 34 drafts. Winning five NBA titles will do that.

Brandon Leibsohn, the Spurs’ senior manager of basketball strategy and legal affairs, represented the franchise in the drawing room and wore his lucky belt. It was the same one — black strap and silver buckle — he wore to his interview with the Spurs when he was hired. He had spent six years trying to break into the NBA while working as an attorney specializing in family law before San Antonio brought him in.

“That was the day my life changed for the better,” he said.

The Spurs should have some good days ahead, too, if their two lottery selections find success.

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Up-and-down day

While many eyes will be on the Hawks, the Houston Rockets are also faced with an interesting choice. They shot up to No. 3 thanks to the Brooklyn Nets, who owed them this unprotected pick from the James Harden trade. But Houston also lost the No. 12 pick, its own, to Oklahoma City as remuneration for the Russell Westbrook deal.

Sam Strantz, the Rockets’ associate legal counsel, was Houston’s representative inside the lottery room, and he brought some good luck with him. He brought the beanie that his son, Sawyer, wore in the hospital when he was born two months ago.

Now, the Rockets must decide whether to keep their pick and add more young talent to the organization or trade it for veteran help for a team that won 41 games this season and finished 11th in the West. Some league sources expect the Rockets to make the pick available in a deal. Houston is on the ascent, and the Western Conference might get even more competitive next season.

(Photo of Atlanta GM Landry Fields: David Banks / USA Today)





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