CHICAGO — We have one month until the draft, everyone is here for an event geared to prepare for the draft … and nobody is talking about the draft.
Now that Victor Wembanyama’s fate has been determined, the eyes of execs, staffers and coaches here for the NBA Draft Combine are already fast-forwarding to a long, interesting offseason.
Among the hot topics:
- Five — count ’em, five — coach openings, and desirable ones at that: Milwaukee, Phoenix and Philadelphia all offer the prospect of immediate contention; Toronto has money and isn’t tanking; and, um, Detroit. The Pistons might have been able to fish in the elite Nick Nurse/Monty Williams/Mike Budenholzer waters if they won the Wembanyama lottery; landing fifth likely puts them in first-time coach territory. Will the other plum jobs be musical chairs among those three names?
- Whether the Clippers’ Tyronn Lue will extend that list of coach openings to six or come to terms on a rich extension with LA. Lue only has one guaranteed year left on his deal but has most of the leverage here, as he is quite popular in rival front offices. The smart money seems to be on him staying.
- Washington’s slow-motion GM search, with news leaking so slowly that even the term “leak” implies far too much velocity; this is, at best, an “ooze.” Will the Wizards have a GM by the draft? By free agency? By November?
- The Ja Morant situation and how that might impact what other decisions the Grizzlies make. If the league suspends him, what justification will it use, and how long will he be sidelined? If it’s a big chunk of the season, how does that impact the Grizzlies’ other offseason decisions?
- And, not least of all, the potential for a wild offseason of wheeling and dealing after so many teams pushed their chips in only to fall miles short of expectations in 2022-23. This comes just as the league’s free spenders are greeted with a new CBA that includes fairly draconian penalties for profligacy.
Relative to the draft, that last bullet point is perhaps the most relevant. Several disappointed lottery teams are now in position to potentially trade their pick, but a vexing question remains: Trade it for what? Which teams are looking to throttle down and convert a star-caliber veteran into a draft pick? Even teams that might get hammered by the new luxury-tax rules, such as the Clippers and Warriors, don’t seem to be of a mind to just start shedding talent.
One can argue there are teams that should be doing this, mind you, but sorry: There does not appear to be any willpower for this type of step back in places like, say, Chicago or Portland or Washington. Zach LaVine, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal aren’t walking through that door. Toronto seems like the only team that might — might — entertain dealing elite wings for draft capital. As we’ll see in a minute, this state of affairs puts one lottery team in particular in a quandary.
Actual NBA Draft, and trade, talk
Speaking of which: Before we stick our heads too far into July, however, let’s shift gears back to June 22. We can speculate all we want about various maybes in free agency and trades, but I guarantee you there will be a draft on June 22 and that 58 players will be selected. Since the draft happens before free agency, some of the plentiful thorny issues waiting on draft night could have considerable domino effects on other teams’ summers.
Only one thing is in no doubt at all: The Spurs are taking Wembanyama with the top pick. You can go ahead and tell the engraver to get started on that one.
How the Spurs won the NBA Lottery: Inside the room where San Antonio’s fortunes changed
After that, things quickly get interesting. Among the scuttlebutt this week:
• The draft starts with Charlotte and the second pick, where the Hornets are likely choosing between point guard Scoot Henderson of G League Ignite and small forward Brandon Miller of Alabama. While Henderson is in my judgment the superior talent, playing him and LaMelo Ball in the same backcourt could give the Hornets pause. Charlotte isn’t tipping its hand, nor should it; a trade down to No. 3 is another possibility, but only sellable if the team at No. 3 isn’t sure which player the Hornets want.
• Note that I said “the team at No. 3” because of widespread speculation the Trail Blazers, who currently own the pick, will seek to trade out of the third position rather than select another young player. With Portland in “win it for Dame” mode and the Blazers desperate for playable wings (even presuming they re-sign Jerami Grant), speculation is already widespread that a package of the third pick and Anfernee Simons might be used to snag an elite small forward.
• My favorite fake trade, however, kills two birds with one stone by resolving the Magic’s backcourt issue. Orlando holds pick Nos. 6 and 11 and would likely be tempted to trade up and take Henderson if the Hornets select Miller at No. 2. Could some combination of the sixth and 11th picks and another asset allow the Magic to move up to No. 3?
The other half of this trade is that it would allow the Blazers to hedge their bets by splitting their lottery pick in two. Imagine, for instance, a scenario where the Blazers do this trade with Orlando, then deal the sixth pick for immediate wing help but hang on to No. 11 and use it on Duke big man Dereck Lively II. Of course, this still requires such a player to actually be available, and parlaying the sixth pick into that player in particular could prove problematic given that Houston and Detroit may want to do the same thing at No. 4 and No. 5.
• Complicating the logic for Portland at No. 3 is that Houston at No. 4 is likely pursuing the same alternative. In fact, the Rockets are arguably even more in “win-now” mode than the Blazers, despite a young roster coming off a 22-win season. This is because the Rockets owe a top-four protected first-round pick to the Thunder as a result of the Chris Paul–Russell Westbrook trade and thus have little incentive to take their lumps for another season: It’s time to win. (Houston also owes a top-four protected first from this deal in 2026, as well as a top-20 protected pick swap in 2025. Yikes.)
The fourth pick (not to mention their other pick at No. 20) is unlikely to advance that objective on a roster that already has seven first-round picks still on their rookie contracts, plus a 23-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. and a 22-year-old Kenyon Martin Jr. It would seem there isn’t room on the roster to add two more young players if the Rockets are serious about taking a step forward. Houston’s dreams of repatriating James Harden are well-chronicled, and the Rockets will want the rest of their $60 million in cap room and room exception to sign some veteran help.
Of all the teams in the high lottery, Houston is the one that seemingly needs to make a deal most urgently. The Rockets’ quandary, as noted above, is whether there’s a player available who would justify such a high price, and if so, whether the Blazers’ pick at No. 3 would trump them.
• Picking fifth, Detroit is hoping to make a move up this season, but is that realistic? The Pistons might be better off trying to add another piece to the Jaden Ivey–Cade Cunningham–Jalen Duren core and seeing what they have after a 17-win season a year ago. This isn’t a great season to tank it, per se, with a blah 2024 class waiting, but it’s not clear how Detroit would move up even if it went all-in on the idea. The Pistons’ core players need to get better before that’s a realistic strategy.
Yes, Detroit could theoretically trade its pick at No. 5, but look at the landscape. News flash: The picks at No. 3 and No. 4 are more desirable than the one at No. 5. With Portland and Houston likely looking to deal, it means the Pistons will be third at the trough when it comes to lottery-pick-for-star type trades; it’s tough to come up with one star player who could fit the bill for a trade like this right now, let alone three. The Pistons’ best move is likely another year of quiet building, and perhaps hearing teams out on deals for Alec Burks and Bogdan Bogdanović.
Trade proposals for the Pistons’ fifth pick in the 2023 NBA Draft
• On a related front, I have some terrible news for fans generating fake Mikal Bridges trades: The Nets don’t seem to have much incentive to play ball here. Brooklyn owes unprotected picks to Houston in 2024 and 2026 and unprotected swaps in 2025 and 2027. Thus, Brooklyn trading its good players and tanking would do a lot more for the Rockets than the Nets. Brooklyn’s likely best path forward is to muddle along with a Bridges-centric team, especially since he’s signed through 2026 to one of the league’s best contracts.
• Two other picks insiders expect to be in play: Dallas’ selection at No. 10 — likely paired with either or both of Dāvis Bertāns and JaVale McGee to bring in more immediate help — and the Thunder’s pick at No. 12. In Oklahoma City’s case, it’s still a long-term play, but the idea is that the Thunder would use their surfeit of future picks to move up in this lottery; they somehow have only one pick this year but are likely to have four firsts in 2024 and still have four future firsts from other teams in 2025 and beyond.
(Top photo of Scoot Henderson: Ned Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images)