Every year, there are a handful of teams that have the potential to send the draft spiraling in a few different directions. In 2013, a surprise pick at No. 1 by Cleveland in Anthony Bennett helped Nerlens Noel slide all the way to No. 6, which in turn saw a franchise-defining trade by the 76ers to acquire him and a future pick for Jrue Holiday.
Which teams’ picks will shape the draft this season? We take a look at some possible candidates.
Los Angels Lakers (2nd pick)
While Minnesota seems to at least be doing diligence on D’Angelo Russell (and subsequently dealing Ricky Rubio), it seems much more likely that the Lakers could break from most projections and take Russell over either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns fits the most cleanly for the Lakers, as questions would loom about the defensive liabilities of a Julius Randle-Okafor pairing and Russell would supplant one of the Lakers’ few assets in Jordan Clarkson. But if the Lakers believe Russell is the best talent, the team will worry about fit later.
This is the nightmare scenario for the 76ers, who pick third and need good shooting and a playmaking point guard. Russell fits that perfectly, and the 76ers would have a tough decision to make if he’s off the board. Would the team go with Emmanuel Mudiay, who could be special but will exacerbate spacing issues, or would the team take the big who slides (most likely Okafor) and figure out the stacked frontcourt issues later?
This would also be the most-likely scenario for a team to trade up and take Mudiay or one of the bigs. Without a perfect fit, perhaps the 76ers could acquire another pick to move down a few spots. If Denver or Detroit fall in love with Okafor or Mudiay, Philadelphia could be willing to move down and gain another asset.
Basically, if the Lakers (and Timberwolves before them) select a big, the first three picks are going to be rather predictable. If Los Angeles takes Russell, however, the whole draft could be thrown into chaos. Speaking of chaos…
New York Knicks (4th pick)
If another team had this roster and pick, this wouldn’t seem like a hard pick to nail down. There are four players who are thought to be a tier above in this draft, and all four align just fine with the Knicks’ needs.
But these are Phil Jackson’s Knicks, so anything is possible! This ranges from the reasonable (falling in love with Kristaps Porzingis, Justise Winslow or Willie Cauley-Stein) to the insane (trading the pick for Pau Gasol).
If the top three picks go Towns-Okafor-Russell in some order, and the Knicks pass on Mudiay, things could get very interesting.
Mudiay doesn’t fit the Magic at all, who don’t need a point guard or another non-shooter. If Orlando keeps the pick and passes, Sacramento could definitely use Mudiay, but also is a perfect fit for Willie Cauley-Stein beside DeMarcus Cousins. If the Kings value the rim protection more, it’s reasonable to see them passing as well.
Denver has explored Ty Lawson deals, so the slide would probably end there. But it’s still possible Denver sticks with Lawson and goes in a different direction. Detroit just traded for Reggie Jackson and still has Brandon Jennings.
The scenario of Mudiay falling a few picks is highly unlikely, but possible if the Knicks pass on him at No. 4. And Mudiay going anywhere out of the top four would open up a world of trading opportunities for teams who desire him. If the Knicks go off script, what happens to Mudiay might be the most interesting thing in the draft.
Charlotte Hornets (9th pick)
The Hornets are in an interesting spot because there’s a good chance the best players available won’t match the team’s needs. But trading the pick might not be wise, either, since the team really needs young assets.
Charlotte needs a shooter, but there aren’t too many high-upside shooters in the draft outside of Russell, Winslow and Mario Hezonja, who might all be gone when the Hornets pick.
That leaves Charlotte with the choice of taking a shooter with limited upside in Devin Booker, or taking a higher-upside player who doesn’t exactly fit the needs of the team, like Stanley Johnson or Cameron Payne.
Charlotte is in a position to alter the draft because the teams immediately following the Hornets only have a couple of players who really fit their needs. If Charlotte decides to take Johnson, Miami would be forced to make the same tough decision as Charlotte since the player who fits the Heat best would be off the board. If the Hornets wound up with Payne, one of the few players who makes sense for the Pacers and Thunder would be off the board.
There are eight players teams picking at the end of the lottery can be fairly certain will be gone when they pick. If those eight players all go with the first eight picks, Charlotte would be the first pick that has ripple effects throughout the middle of the first round.