We are down to the Final Four of the playoffs after two legendary Game 7’s on Sunday. Before we dive into those two heavyweight clashes, a quick palate cleanser might be nice, so let’s have some fun today.
My family and I recently attended a wedding in Richmond, Virginia, and along the way, we passed a town called Zion Crossroads. I found it appropriate because, much like myself, the NBA is approaching its own Zion Crossroads, in the form of the NBA Draft Lottery (Tuesday, 8:30 PM ET, ESPN). The league’s next generational superstar is set to find out where he is likely to spend the first seven-to-nine years of his career, so the stakes couldn’t be higher for all the lottery teams. [Now is a good time to note that neither of the participants in the Eastern Conference Finals have a single lottery pick in their respective rotations, so it’s possible I’m overstating things a bit. But I digress.] The goal today is to rank the most fun and compelling destinations for Zion Williamson, in terms of basketball fit and potency, entertainment value, the ancillary ripple effects, and the drama/unintentional comedy which would ensue. I’ll give a brief rationale for each choice, but remember this is all in good fun, and it expires promptly at 9 PM tonight, so let’s not read too much into it.
Without further ado…
[Odds of landing the no. 1 pick in parentheses.]
1.DALLAS MAVERICKS (6.0%): There is no basketball fit which could remotely match this one, so I have to give it top billing. Combining Zion with presumptive Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic and the presumably-healthy-and-not-incarcerated Kristaps Porzingis would amount to throwing the next great NBA team into an incubator and watching it slowly grow into an unstoppable menace. Rick Carlisle is the perfect coach to leverage the full breadth of different lineup and tactical permutations this three-headed monster would enable. From a big picture/historical perspective, we would likely look back at it as the crown jewel in one of the greatest twelve-month spans of talent acquisition ever. The Mavs owe their first rounder to the Hawks (as part of the Doncic/Trae Young swap), but it is top-5 protected, and with all due respect to Trae and the good people of Atlanta, it would be another fly in the ointment for the Hawks and their fans, and could end up being the genesis of a new NBA rivalry. It would also bump up the timeline on the “Boy, that Jalen Brunson sure is an underrated role player” takes by at least 2-3 years, and I’m here for all of it. Speaking of the Hawks…
2. ATLANTA HAWKS (10.5%): I harbor no ill will toward the Hawks or their fans. Not simply snagging Luka when they had the chance probably isn’t going to end up looking great, but overall, they’ve tanked gracefully and made thoughtful personnel decisions. Their budding core of Young/John Collins/Kevin Huerter is promising, and adding Zion would propel it into proto-Warriors territory. The shooting/playmaking/athleticism combination of that group would make for a dangerous, dynamic offense. Factor in what would be a sieve-like defense and you have a recipe for League Pass darlings from Day One. Zion and Collins catching lobs from Trae at the league’s fastest pace? Sign me up.
3. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (1.0%, VIA SACRAMENTO/BOSTON): There is only a 1.0 percent chance of this coming to pass, but if by some miracle it did, the resulting NBA Twitter meltdown would be like nothing we’ve ever seen. It would only be fitting if this pick conveyed in the most insane, disastrous manner possible. Philly originally acquired it from Sacramento as part of a shortsighted salary dump by the Kings back in 2015. [Seriously, look at this trade. The fact they ended up burning the cap space it created on Rajon Rondo, who in no way improved their team, makes it even more of a calamity for Sacramento. Just a dumpster fire of a trade.] Philly then traded the pick to Boston in the equally disastrous decision to move up to no. 1 overall in 2017 to draft Markelle Fultz. The only potential saving grace is they put top-1 protection on the pick, so while Sacramento is already resigned to the pick being lit on fire from their end, many (but not me of course) would delight in the schadenfreude of seeing Boston go from a 99% chance of a free lottery pick to absolutely nothing in the blink of an eye. [The drama of it would be intensified because everyone would know the pick was top-4 as soon as the first envelope was opened, so not seeing their logo in the 2-4 envelopes would be an all-time stomach punch for Celtics’ fans.] Zion would be yet another talented but ill-fitting piece on an already talented but ill-fitting Sixers’ roster, and would make GM Elton Brand’s decision-making process (note the lower case) this summer both more flexible and more fraught at once. Zion’s presence is going to be league-altering no matter what, but the reverberations of this unlikely outcome would shake the Association to its core.
4. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (6.0%): Another outcome which would have wide-ranging effects. It is perhaps cruel to plop another generational talent into the organizational dysfunction in New Orleans, but could the promise of Zion — or whatever massive trade haul they could get for his rights — change the calculus surrounding Anthony Davis’ presumed exit? The two could make an interesting basketball marriage, but even if AD is still intent on an exodus from the Bayou, a core of Zion plus Jrue Holiday plus whatever they get for Davis instantly turns a rebuild into a reboot, and perhaps even saves basketball in New Orleans entirely. There’s nothing weird about leaving the fate of an entire franchise and fan base to the random caroms of a bunch of ping-pong balls. Nope, nothing at all.
5. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (9.0%): Seems high, I know, but hear me out. Finally free of the crippling regime of former GM Ernie Grunfeld, but still saddled with the millstone contract of John Wall for the foreseeable future, the Wiz offer a low-stakes incubator for Zion’s talents for the next few years, in an underrated basketball town, and with the ability to develop alongside All-Star Bradley Beal. No team needs an infusion of frontcourt talent more than Washington, and the Beal-Zion one-two punch could be surprisingly competitive in a diluted East, so long as the new front office can approach something like basic competence in building out the roster. It might be grasping at straws, but Wizards’ fans are pretty beaten down right now and could use something to give them hope for the future.
6. NEW YORK KNICKS (14.0%): I kinda wanted to put the Knicks lower on the list, but the drama surrounding how this would play out is just too juicy to ignore. They don’t particularly deserve to be rewarded for decades of gross organizational malpractice with one of the best prospects the league has ever seen, but their return to relevance and the ways in which Zion could potentially tip the balance of free agency power this summer would certainly create reams of content for folks like myself. If KD-to-NY is a fait accompli (as league people in the know seem to think it is), the addition of Zion — or whatever they would get for the pick, assuming the front office could competently execute such a transaction — instantly transforms the Knicks from “raging dumpster fire” to “one of the most interesting teams in the league.” The conspiracy theories would grow exhausting — paging Dr. Ewing — but they might be fun for a little while.
7. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (6.0%): Memphis tried really hard at the end of the season to actually win ball games, primarily so they would convey their top-8 protected pick to Boston this year, rather than it gradually becoming less-protected in future seasons. Lucking into the top pick would be karmic justice for non-tanking — even if the motivations were not exactly pure — in addition to an intriguing basketball fit with young center Jaren Jackson, Jr. A full-on youth movement would probably also compel them to finally move on from Mike Conley, and perhaps he could go to a franchise where the back end of his prime wouldn’t be wasted on a rebuild. A young superstar would also go a long way towards revitalizing a moribund franchise still searching for an identity in a post-Grit ‘n’ Grind world. It’s a win for everyone, is what I’m saying.
8. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (3.0%): Another team which probably doesn’t deserve any more lottery luck, this choice basically comes down to how devastating a frontcourt pairing of Karl-Anthony Towns and Zion could be. Not much else to add here; it would just be a helluva lot of fun to watch those two play together.
9. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (2.0%): Ugh. I mean, they’re totally going to get this pick because we can’t have nice things, right?
10. CHICAGO BULLS (12.5%): This is something of a schadenfreude/dysfunction pick because it would be hilarious to watch the comically inept GarPax duo attempt to navigate how to balance a young frontcourt of Zion, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter, Jr., and/or try to extract commensurate value in a trade for one of them when every other GM in the league smells the blood in the water. I wouldn’t wish such a fate on a player as talented as Zion, but it sure would be amusing.
11. PHOENIX SUNS (14.0%): The fit with Devin Booker is intriguing (with DeAndre Ayton, perhaps less so), but it feels super-wrong to reward this goat-shit organization with the no. 1 pick two years in a row. I really don’t want owner Robert Sarver’s penny-pinching and inability to hire the right people to waste the first decade of Zion’s career. No thanks.
12. CHARLOTTE HORNETS (1.0%): I guess there’s a semi-interesting “hometown kid” narrative here (Zion went to high school in Spartanburg, SC, which is about 75 miles from Charlotte), and his presence might have an impact on Kemba Walker’s free agency thinking. But overall, pretty ‘meh.’
13. MIAMI HEAT (1.0%): The case for the Heat rests on the idea that their roster is made up of a bunch of competent role players simply lacking an organizing principle, so maybe Zion would bring the whole thing together. Also, from a purely aesthetic perspective, he would look killer in their uniforms. It’s tough to muster much enthusiasm for them beating the odds, however, since it’s not like they’ve exactly been a hard-luck franchise over the last couple decades. [Side note: I will never begrudge Pat Riley and the Heat for bringing the Big Three together, as it was all done above-board. I will forever judge them for the tacky, classless welcome party (“…not five, not six, not seven…”) and for inexcusably choking away the 2011 title.]
14. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (14.0%): No, no, a thousand times, no. I don’t want to see billionaire dipshit Dan Gilbert get any more undeserved luck. I don’t want to see his annoying son briefly turn into a minor celebrity again. I really don’t want to listen to announcers turn every Cavs’ game into a rhetorical quest to compare Zion to LeBron. And most of all, I don’t want to see Cleveland fans experience heartbreak deja vu when the organization fails to surround him with the necessary talent and he leaves for greener pastures in free agency or demands a trade. The Cavs got their title; let them toil in relative anonymity for a few years while the city pins its hopes on the emerging Browns.
Enjoy the insanity, everybody!
Top Photo Credit: Getty Images