2019 NBA Draft Lottery Winners and Losers: Pelicans, Tanking for the W; Bulls, Knicks take an L

2019 NBA Draft Lottery Winners and Losers: Pelicans, Tanking for the W; Bulls, Knicks take an L

And there you have it. The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, the most bizarre ritual in the four major American sports, has taken place and the New Orleans Pelicans have won the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.

But that’s not the only ramification from Tuesday night’s ping-pong grab. The entire NBA landscape shifted when the Pels came out on top. 

Here are the winners and losers from draft lottery night in Chicago:

WINNERS

New Orleans Pelicans

In early February, former Cavs general manager David Griffin tweeted that the Pelicans should drive a hard bargain in trade talks for Anthony Davis because the Pelicans, in Davis, “have a Top 3 most attractive trade asset in the league.” At the time, Griffin was an NBATV analyst and SiriusXM host, and was responding to an ESPN report that the Lakers had upped their offer to the Pelicans.

I bring this up because Griffin is now the decision-maker for the Pelicans and might have an even bigger asset on his hands. In addition to inheriting Davis, Griffin won the right to select uber-prospect Zion Williamson. Before Tuesday’s lottery prize went to the Pelicans, I asked another general manager how valuable drafting Williamson is for an NBA franchise. 

His response: “A top five asset from Day 1.” 

So, in a hypothetical world, if he was a free agent, he’d get the max, right? 

“Yes,” the GM told me. “Way, way more than the max … if allowed.”

In just two months, Griffin managed to land in a position where he controls two of the most prized assets in the NBA. Davis, as Griffin outlined, is one of the best players in the world and is just entering his prime. While Williamson isn’t at that level, the value on him is mind-boggling.

In addition to potentially being a better prospect than Davis was when he entered the league (as outlined on this week’s Big Number!), Williamson will be playing on a contract that can pay him $9.7 million next season, just about Matthew Dellavedova’s salary. For the next three seasons, Williamson is is set to make $30.4 million total, which is basically the same as Toronto bench wing Norman Powell’s contract. Considering the buzz, the eyeballs and the marketing value he brings to New Orleans, Williamson will be an absolute steal before he steps on the floor.

But will Davis ever step on the floor with Williamson as teammates? Executives around the league are skeptical. It may be hard for outsiders to understand, but established stars aren’t always thrilled at the prospect of co-starring with a rookie phenom. Not only is it not overly appealing to share the spotlight with a teenager, but they want to win now.

Griffin knows this first-hand. Shortly after Cleveland won the lottery in 2014, Griffin and the Cavs’ front office traded No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Why? LeBron James, who had just signed in Cleveland, wanted to win now.

In this case, the situation is flipped. Executives around the league expect the superstar veteran in Davis to be traded before next season, not No. 1 overall pick. The safe bet is that Davis won’t play a game with Williamson. 

Like the Wiggins situation with James, it’s not ideal that Davis and Williamson play the same position; again, stars typically aren’t fans of splitting roles. If Williamson was a star point guard or wing, maybe Davis thinks twice about his trade demand. But it’s unlikely that Williamson’s starpower and positional overlap will make Davis change his tune and want to sign a supermax extension in New Orleans. If anything, it might hurt the Pelicans’ chances of keeping Davis.

For the record, I love the idea of Williamson and Davis playing together. Williamson is a bruising big man with a high motor and can do just about anything on the floor athletically and skill-wise. Davis is similarly skilled but with longer limbs and a smoother touch. While at Duke, Williamson shot 44 percent on 3.3 3-point attempts per game in conference and tournament play. Put those two guys together and they could terrorize the league.

I just wouldn’t bank on it happening. So where will Davis end up, if not New Orleans? It’s too early to say. A lot depends on what happens with the rest of the playoffs. If the Warriors win the title, does Kevin Durant stay? And what does that do for Kyrie Irving? If the Toronto Raptors reach the NBA Finals, does that change Kawhi Leonard’s thinking? 

Don’t count out Boston. Their Memphis pick rolled over to 2020 and is top-six protected, but becomes fully unprotected in 2021 if it rolls over again. That pick became extra tasty on Tuesday night because the Grizzlies may be more motivated to trade Mike Conley and make room for expected No. 2 pick Ja Morant. In other words, an unprotected 2021 pick could be headed Boston’s way … or whomever they want to trade it to.

Would the Celtics trade Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart for Davis if it knew they could pair him with Kyrie Irving? Would New Orleans bite if the Memphis pick isn’t tossed in? After Irving’s disappointing finish to the season, would Boston fans revolt or rejoice at the prospect of an Irving-Davis pairing?

The Knicks remain an intriguing suitor for Davis, despite not winning the lottery. Would the Knicks’ No. 3 pick in 2019, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and the Dallas 2021 first-rounder get it done? The Pelicans would likely want an established young player with star potential. Knox has a long way to go before he’s considered that, but Robinson is intriguing and wildly productive.

Another team to watch is the L.A. Clippers. With the Miami 2021 unprotected pick, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Montrezl Harrell in tow, the Clippers are a real contender for Davis’ services. Remember, teams in glamour markets are more likely to fork over appetizing assets for Davis because they have an inside track to signing him long term. The Clippers have generated a lot of buzz around the league. Wouldn’t that be something if the Pelicans traded Davis to the other L.A. team? Oh, this is going to be a fun summer.

Los Angeles Lakers

Be honest: you thought about LeBron and Zion in purple and gold, didn’t you? That was quite the commercial break on Tuesday night heading into the final reveal. The most important thing about this pick might be its impact on potential Davis talks.

The Lakers may think they have the missing piece after jumping up to the No. 4 pick in the draft on Tuesday. But from what I’m told, the Pelicans’ brass still feels icy toward the Lakers after what went down last season. And more importantly, holding the No. 4 pick in a two-, maybe three-player draft is not some golden ticket. If this was 2003 and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were sitting there, it would be a different story. But this isn’t the draft to be in the No. 4 slot. Still, it’s a huge win for the Lakers to jump from No. 11 all the way to the top-four, the biggest leap of the night by sheer distance.

Memphis Grizzlies

I love Morant for the Grizzlies. He’s a sensational talent that would be a worthy No. 1 prospect in a non-Zion draft. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., is a tremendous building block for a franchise. Now, they just have to figure out who will be the head coach to lead that tandem.

There’s also the Conley factor. I expected the Indiana Pacers to get in on Conley last year at the deadline, but I still think they could be suitors for the former Mr. Indiana Basketball. The Pacers will have loads of cap space this summer and will have the ability to absorb his contract. If not Indiana, keep an eye on Detroit and Utah, two other teams that may be looking to make a splash after first-round exits this postseason.

The Sneaky Tankers

There's a lot of talk out there that Tuesday's lottery results have effectively killed tanking. Team sources say such talk is premature. If anything, Tuesday confirmed what I wrote back in January: There's going to be tanking, just not at the very bottom. When the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis, I said that the Pelicans could really get Williamson, but only if they were serious about tanking to get from the 11th spot down to the sixth spot. Right around there is the sweet spot, where odds of getting the No. 1 pick had just about doubled from the previous system.
 
The team didn't shut down Davis outright. That would be a blatant violation of league rules. But the New Orleans star sat the bench for 77 percent of the team's minutes after that post on Jan. 31, thanks mostly to some timely load management (he didn't play a single fourth quarter after the All-Star break) and late-season "back spasms" that caused the team to list the disgruntled big man as "probable" for each of the team's final seven games; he didn't play in any of them. I'm sure the betting markets loved that.
 
With Jrue Holiday (abdominal surgery) and Davis effectively out since early March, the Pelicans went 3-13 in their final 16 games and earned the No. 7 slot in the draft lottery. That late-season slide tripled their odds of getting the No. 1 pick and tripled their odds of landing in the top four spots. Memphis, who landed the coveted No. 2 overall pick from the eighth slot, sat its star Mike Conley for the final six games with an ankle sprain and started a glorified G League team down the stretch. The Lakers, who jumped from the 11th slot to the fourth pick, shut down LeBron on March 30 once the playoffs were out of reach.
 
To recap, the teams that jumped in the lottery -- Memphis, New Orleans and the Lakers -- didn't play their stars in April and ended up with big rewards. If the league doesn't want teams to rest its stars at the end of the season, Tuesday's draft lottery results did nothing to dissuade them.

LOSERS 

Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns

Hey, you got John Beilein and Monty Williams. That’s … not nothing.

New York Knicks

The Knicks held the top odds to land the top pick of the NBA draft, but as I pointed out on Twitter, 14 percent is not a lot when you consider that it’s … the same percentage as Ben Wallace’s career 3-point rate. Putting it that way, it’s a wonder Knicks fans got their hopes up at all. 

The Knicks could have had it much, much worse. You could be Cleveland or Phoenix. Landing at No. 3 isn’t a horrible outcome if you’re an R.J. Barrett fan (I’m not). As I mentioned up top, falling to No. 3 likely won’t preclude them from getting into the AD sweepstakes this summer. If that pick dropped to No. 4 or No. 5, that might be a deal-breaker. That’s how top-heavy this draft class is. 

Big picture, nothing that happened on Tuesday night hurt their chances of getting a top free agent or two this summer. That’s something to rest your flat-brimmed hat on.

Chicago Bulls

Well, that’s unfortunate. The Bulls had dreams of landing No. 1 overall just like they did in 2008 when they turned a 1.7 percent chance into Derrick Rose. Instead, they fell to No. 7. Again, it could be worse. You could be the Cavs and the Suns.

A lost season for the Bulls didn’t lead to the reward that many would have liked. You have three ways to build a contender in this league: Through the draft, through free agency or through the trade market. The Bulls may be striking out in the first two, but they did get Otto Porter Jr., last February, and he showed out in the 15 games he was in uniform. Not all is lost. 

With their hole at point guard, there might be some motivation to target someone like Coby White to fill a need. But this far down the draft, there’s no sense in drafting for position. Just pick the best player available. For them, I really like Brandon Clarke out of Gonzaga. He fits head coach Jim Boylen’s defensive-minded system and has the maturity to step in right away.

Washington Wizards

A list for bummed-out Wizards fans: Dirk Nowitzki. Tracy McGrady. Shawn Marion. Kemba Walker. Amar’e Stoudemire. Gordon Hayward. DeMar DeRozan. Andre Iguodala. Andre Drummond. Joakim Noah. All former No. 9 overall picks.

The Wizards should be targeting a high-upside player like Bol Bol or Kevin Porter Jr., here. Evidenced by the names above, this is the sweet spot for top-five talents that have question marks related to NBA-ready skills and immaturity. 

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Are we getting worse at the NBA draft?

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USA Today

Are we getting worse at the NBA draft?

The Toronto Raptors just won an NBA championship without a single lottery pick on the roster. It’s true. Kawhi Leonard, the Finals MVP, was picked 15th. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka were all picked at the back of the first round. Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw were second-rounders. Fred VanVleet and Jeremy Lin weren’t even drafted. 

Not a single top-10 pick on the team. When asked about this stunner of a fact ahead of the NBA Finals, Gasol told reporters the draft was so important to him that he was actually asleep when he found out he was selected 48th in 2007. And now he’s a champion and NBA Defensive Player of the Year.  

Said Gasol: “I don’t know what it says about the draft.”

On the topic, Lowry, who was picked 24th by Memphis in 2006, told the Toronto Sun: “Picks don’t mean anything.”

It certainly seems that way, to an extent. Not only was the Finals MVP drafted outside the lottery, but so was the presumptive regular-season MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was drafted 15th overall in 2013. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, was drafted 27th by Denver and traded for the 46th pick and cash. The DPOY before him, Draymond Green, was a second-rounder himself.

On the other side of the equation, we’ve had two massive misfires at the No.1 pick in the last six drafts. Just 20 months after being the top pick in 2017, Markelle Fultz was traded for Jonathon Simmons and what will likely be a few second-rounders. Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013, is out of the league.

Lottery teams prepare countless reports, stay up ungodly hours and talk to hundreds of people to help identify the next star. Teams have more data than ever and, with social media, more insight into a player’s mindset and personality traits. And yet, the draft seems as much of a crapshoot as ever and lottery teams continue to miss on stars. Just look at the NBA champions.

As we’re getting ready for Thursday night, we have to ask ourselves: Are we getting worse at the draft?

* * *

The NBA draft has always been a difficult enterprise. Clifton McNeely, the very first pick of the very first draft back in 1947 (when it was called the Basketball Association of America/BAA) never actually played a single game in the NBA. Instead, he decided to coach high school basketball. (Imagine if Zion Williamson did that).

There have been busts and always will be busts. That’s the nature of trying to look into the crystal ball. 

But are teams actually getting worse at looking into the crystal ball? 

It would stand to reason that scouting technology and the rise of analytics have raised the accuracy of front offices. Gadgets have certainly helped other industries. Short-term five-day forecasts, for example, are nearly as accurate as two-day projections were three decades ago. Netflix estimates that 75 percent of viewer activity is driven purely by its recommendation algorithms geared to predict what you’ll watch next

But the NBA draft, apparently, isn't getting any more predictive. If anything, it might be getting worse.

“It’s still a crapshoot,” said one prominent scout. “With all the available resources and new technology, we certainly haven’t gotten better.”

If the draft were perfectly predictive, the best player would always be picked first and the worst player available picked last. No undrafted players would ever step foot onto an NBA court.

Of course, that doesn’t happen. But the correlation of pick slot and win shares doesn’t seem to be getting stronger. That is, if we look into every draft since 1990, the best players -- as measured by prominent value metric win shares -- aren’t increasingly getting picked at the top, or near it. 

Let’s look at the trends. Over the last five drafts, pick slot and player production (as measured by win shares) has a correlation coefficient of -0.38, indicating a moderate negative relationship between the two variables. In less nerdy terms, as picks go down from 60 to 1, we’re seeing player win share totals going in the opposite direction -- up and up and up. It’s not a perfect minus-1.0 relationship where the closer you get to No. 1, the more value is produced. (Cash winnings at a pro golf event are a perfectly negative relationship; the lower the score, the more money won).

If drafting was completely random, we’d see a correlation coefficient of zero. If the best players were always selected 60th, we’d see a perfectly positive 1.0 relationship. As you go closer to No. 60, the better the players get. Days without shaving and beard length are a perfectly positive relationship; the more days you leave the razor on the shelf, the longer the whiskers.

Where does minus-0.38 compare? The five drafts before that (2009 to 2013), that same number was minus-.50, indicating a stronger association between draft slot and player production. The five years before that, it was minus-0.41. From 1994 to 1998, that number was minus-0.52, the strongest five-year sample in the bunch.

In sum: the last five years -- where intel on players on and off the court has skyrocketed -- haven’t been the sharpest work by NBA executives. If anything, the last half-decade of drafting seems to be more random than ever. 

To be fair, win shares may not be the most accurate metric to evaluate draft performance and even if it was, it tells only part of the story. Recent drafts may seem more inaccurate simply because players haven’t fully developed; Joel Embiid was considered a bust two years after getting drafted. And who knows, maybe Fultz becomes an All-Star in Orlando.

But even when there’s more information out there, it seems we’re not getting better at drafting. Executives have some theories as to why.

* * *

By now you’re probably wondering: Well, what about 2018? And you’re right. Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young (picks Nos. 1-5, respectively) had terrific rookie seasons. For the first time since the 1984-85 season, the top five picks in the previous NBA draft have all been selected to the NBA All-Rookie first team (there was no such thing as a All-Rookie second team that season.) 

But 2017 was horrible by comparison. The Philadelphia 76ers were so confident in Fultz that they traded a future first-round pick to the Boston Celtics in order to move up two slots to draft the University of Washington prospect No. 1 overall. The Sixers dumped him less than two years later after a bizarre string of events.

That same draft year, Donovan Mitchell, who has scored nearly 1,000 more points than the next-highest player in his class, was selected 13th overall. Kyle Kuzma, who is averaging 17.3 points per game in his NBA career, fell to pick No. 27 and was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers on draft night. 

If the 2017 draft was redone, it’s hard to imagine 18 teams passing on Atlanta Hawks big man John Collins. Denver’s Monte Morris, who averaged 24 minutes per game for the 54-win Nuggets this season, went 51st. In a do-over draft, does Morris go higher than Fultz? That it’s even a question shows how much of a gamble the draft is.

But in talking with executives (who all declined to go on the record so close to the draft), there’s something else going on here. One prevailing theory seemed to arise: They’re not getting dumber -- the players are just getting younger.

There’s something to that. I pulled up all the draft data from Basketball Reference since 1990, when Derrick Coleman was selected No. 1 overall, and analyzed the ages of the draftees. Turns out that the average age of the 2018 draft class was 20.7 years old. That’s the lowest number of all the 29 classes I studied.

Last year was such a young draft. The top five picks were 19.9, 19.3, 19.3, 18.8 and 19.1 years old, respectively. That’s the first time in NBA history that the top five picks were teenagers. To put that in perspective, as recently as 2013 -- the Anthony Bennett year -- there were no teenagers in the top five; Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter Jr., Cody Zeller and Alex Len were all in their 20s. 

“The average age of drafted players is the lowest of all time,” noted one assistant GM. “That probably increases variance.”

That might be true, though the accuracy of the 2018 draft class figures to be an outlier. The age limit of 2005 has given rise to the one-and-done. The average age of top-five picks over the last five years is 19.3 compared to 21.9 in years 1990 to 1993. Heck, Dikembe Mutombo was the same age when he was drafted in 1991 as Bradley Beal is today (25). Michael Olowokandi was 23 when he was the No. 1 overall pick. Sure, Fultz might have been a mistake at No. 1, but at least there’s an excuse; he was barely 19 when he was drafted after a one-and-done season at Washington.

Another scout suggested one recent factor: the mock draft effect. The proliferation of mock drafts in recent years has created a false sense of general consensus. For example, NBA.com now publishes a Consensus Mock Draft that aggregates 10 different mock drafts with varying levels of intel. 

Some teams use mock drafts, especially early in the season, to outline which players they watch in tournaments and on tape. As a player moves up the mock drafts or big boards, personnel people may be trapped into confirmation bias. If a player is rising, there must be a reason why. You see what you want to see.

“A lot of guys get drafted because they’ve been on a mock draft board at certain positions for a while,” said the West scout. “It’s kind of a mob mentality. Web sites and agents are gassing it up.”

Mock drafts are supposed to be a reflection of the market, which would be a helpful resource of data. But what if the market is a mirage? With so little information on these youngsters, executives may be desperate to find clues, no matter how good or bad those clues are.

* * *

The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty launched a league-wide hunt for the next Draymond Green, who was famously picked 35th in the 2012 draft. This year, front offices will surely hear from powerful people with a task to identify the next Fred VanVleet, the undrafted Wichita State product who played so well that he got a vote for NBA Finals MVP. 

You could probably say the same for Malcom Brogdon, a 2016 second-round pick, who won NBA Rookie of the Year and became a 50-40-90 club member this season for the best regular-season team in the NBA.

There is one characteristic that Green, VanVleet and Brogdon share beyond the fact that they weren’t first round picks: They played all four years at college. 

Perhaps we’ve invested so far in the one-and-done era that there may be what I’ll call a Diploma Bias -- guys who played all four years may be undervalued in the market. These prospects are usually labeled as “low upside” players, but VanVleet just proved his ceiling as one of the best players on a Finals team. Same with Draymond Green and Danny Green, the latter of whom went 46th after four years at North Carolina.

Sure, one-and-done players may be sexy because they did so well in just one year of experience, but it’s still, you know, one year of data. One executive sees the one-and-done problem having a compounding effect.

“Whoever plays in college next year won’t play against Zion Williamson,” said a front office executive. “That reduces their competitive environment.”

Which makes it tougher to evaluate, even with technology and analytics.

“Although there is more information, the signal in that information has dropped,” the executive said.

This isn’t to say that Cam Johnson, who is 23 years old after his senior year at UNC, should go No. 1 over Zion. But it might mean that he’s being unfairly punished for his age. For those who are looking at the next Draymond Green, it may be worth taking a look at Brandon Clarke, who is 22.8 years old but shares much of the same versatility and defensive acumen that we heard about Green. The same goes for Virginia’s defender, De’Andre Hunter, who is 21 and a half.

While everyone chases the next kid and bemoans how hard it is to draft in today’s environment, it might make more sense to zig when everyone zags. Old may be the new young.

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With Anthony Davis, Lakers should be heavy NBA title favorites

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USA Today Sports

With Anthony Davis, Lakers should be heavy NBA title favorites

The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t just pry open LeBron James’ championship window. They just blasted the window straight off the frame.

The NBA happens fast, doesn’t it? Five days ago, Kevin Durant was returning to the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and the two-time defending champs looked for a three-peat. In one of the most disastrous NBA weeks in recent history, Durant ruptured his Achilles and three days later, Klay Thompson tore his ACL. The Lakers didn’t even let the Raptors’ championship parade begin before they took back the frontpage.

After reportedly trading for Davis in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, three first-round picks (including this year’s No. 4 pick) and two unprotected pick swaps, the Lakers didn’t just catapult from a lottery team to championship contenders. They should be heavy favorites.

Davis is that good. As I detailed in the BIG Number in February, Davis becomes the best teammate James has ever had. The trade deadline soap opera and the Pelicans’ firesale obscure the fact that Davis had a monster season, posting a 30.3 player efficiency rating, which would be the highest for any James teammate, including Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Chris Bosh. Pick any metric from the pile and they all agree that Davis is one of the best players in today’s game -- and that was a down year.

We can debate all day whether Wade’s peak was or will be better than the Brow at his best, but James joined up when Wade was 28, entering the downside of his prime. Davis, who just turned 26 in March, is just entering his prime. We likely haven’t seen peak Brow. And now he gets to catch feeds from James and capitalize on the King’s gravitational pull. 

A core of James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma is already NBA Finals caliber, but the terrifying thing is that the Lakers will likely have a spot open for a third max-level player. Kuzma, who turns 24 next month, is too old to be a foundational prospect that a team like the Pelicans would covet in their rebuild. Ball and Ingram, on the other hand, are each 21 years old and will fit in nicely with Zion Williamson and whomever the Pelicans select at the No. 4 slot.

But for a team ready to win right now? Kuzma will be a really solid fourth option on the wing. Though he shot a disappointing 30.3 percent from 3-point land last season, he was far more efficient when he played next to James and still scored 19.5 points per 36 minutes in that alignment. With Davis in the paint, Kuzma should get some wide open looks next season, especially in the corner, where he’s a career 36.2 percent marksman.

So which free agent will the Lakers sign? If I’m Lakers president Rob Pelinka, I’m seeking a star that can shoot and defend at a high level. There’s no better candidate than, yup, the Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers desperately need some perimeter defense now that Ball was sent to the Big Easy. Leonard is a two-way monster who could shoot the lights out and lock down opposing stars like he did to Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs.

But it’s not clear that Leonard wants to even play alongside James. After winning a championship while being the unquestioned No. 1 option in a drama-free environment with the Toronto Raptors, joining the Lakers would be a night-and-day experience. Leonard was born in Los Angeles and was California’s Mr. Basketball in high school, but he may prefer playing for the Clippers rather than joining the more Hollywood Lakers.

If not Leonard, LeBron should immediately hit up Kyrie Irving, who becomes the best shooter among the stars in this free agency class now that Thompson will be rehabbing most, if not all, of next season with a torn ACL. Irving’s shot disappeared in the playoffs, but he shot 40.1 percent from deep in the regular season, which was third-highest among 20-point scorers behind Stephen Curry (43.7 percent), Buddy Hield (42.7 percent) and Thompson (40.2). 

We saw what an Irving-led team looks like in Boston. We have also seen what Irving as a second or third option looks like in Cleveland. It looks a lot like a "Larry OB," as Leonard would say.

Should the Lakers fail to bring in Leonard or Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker could be fine Plan B’s. Jimmy Buckets is intriguing as a Leonard Light -- a top-shelf defender and crunchtime assassin. But I’d worry about spacing next to James as he made less than a 3-pointer per game last season with the Philadelphia 76ers. In that same vein, Kemba Walker could be an appealing Irving consolation prize, but he’s two years older and more of a liability on defense with his diminutive size approaching his 30s.

Don’t count out the Lakers opting for splitting that max-level money to multiple players. For instance, what if they went out and snagged Malcolm Brogdon and JJ Redick to round out their supporting cast? Not only would they be bringing two of the game’s elite shooters into the fray; it would badly hurt two of their top championship threats in Milwaukee and Philadelphia. 

Prying away Brogdon will be tougher considering that he’s a restricted free agent, giving the Bucks the ability to match any offer. By matching offers for Brogdon and retaining free agents Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic, the Bucks could be a small-market team paying a luxury tax bill even before Antetokounmpo’s Designated Player Exception, or “supermax,” would kick in during the 2021-22 season. 

That is, if Antetokounmpo signs the extension. Don’t think for a second that Antetokounmpo isn’t closely watching how ownership handles this offseason. If they get stingy and let Brogdon or Middleton walk, that might send the wrong signal to Antetokounmpo, who could be a free agent in 2021. Remember what we just saw Davis go through last season? That might be Antetokounmpo in 2019-20, if the Bucks don’t handle this correctly.

The safe bet is that the ownership group in Milwaukee pays up to keep the core, but man, would Brogdon be a perfect fit next to James. He was a card-carrying member of the 50-40-90 club, shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the line. As a sharp ball-handler and elite defender, he would be a star version of what Matthew Dellavedova was in Cleveland.

Redick would be an obvious candidate to play the Ray Allen and Kyle Korver role next to James. Redick turns 35 later this month, but he just averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game and takes care of his body as well as any veteran in the league. Though I wouldn’t expect him to leave a great situation in Philadelphia, don’t count out a return to L.A. for Redick, who has remarkably made the playoffs every season of his career but still doesn’t have a championship.

Frank Vogel, in his first season with the Lakers, will have a tough job ahead of him if the Lakers can’t find elite shooters. If they can’t reel in Brogdon or Redick, look for the Lakers to target sharpshooters like Seth Curry, Wayne Ellington or Rudy Gay. Let’s not do the whole load-up-on-bad-shooters thing again, OK Lakers?

By the way, a round of applause for Davis’ agent, Rich Paul. He has certainly taken his lumps in the press for the way he handled the trade demand last season, but he got his wish, or I should say, his client’s wish, by forcing his way to LakerLand. Paul has done well for his star clientele. Davis is now in Los Angeles. John Wall got his supermax. Eric Bledsoe signed a $70 million extension two months before averaging 10.2 points in the Eastern Conference Finals. No agent has a perfect track record, but Paul has pulled out a big win here for his two top clients in James and Davis.

The Pelicans will be fascinating. I’ve always seen Lonzo Ball as a younger Jrue Holiday with the way he plays menacing defense. Ball has better vision and nifty handle, but he’ll need to improve his jump shot and strength if he wants to vault into Holiday’s All-Star status. I also like Hart’s skillset in that rebuild.

Ingram’s blood clots are concerning on some level, but medically, this isn’t a Chris Bosh situation; Ingram’s condition was a structural issue, not a genetic one. Obviously, the Pelicans did their homework and felt it checked out. I’m not as high on him as a prospect as others, but he could thrive next to Williamson. With Holiday, Ball, Hart, Ingram and Williamson as a defensive core, this could be the best defense for years to come. The shooting will be ugly next season, but it will sort itself out with the right pieces. David Griffin, the Pelicans’ head of basketball operations, was brilliant in Cleveland filling out the roster.

It’s a bit of a surprise that Griffin wasn’t able to snag a better player in the deal, but Griffin is basically making a bet that the Lakers will screw this up somehow. 

The pick structure is reminiscent of the heist that the Boston Celtics netted from the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. According to ESPN, the Pelicans will receive the No. 4 pick in 2019 draft, a top-eight protected pick in 2021 (which becomes unprotected in 2022), a 2023 unprotected pick swap, a 2024 unprotected first-round pick and a 2025 unprotected pick swap. 

What this boils down to is that the Pelicans have control of the Lakers’ first-rounders through LeBron’s 40th birthday. 

Griffin, who sources say wasn’t contacted to possibly replace Magic Johnson as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, likely sees the future draft picks as the gem of this deal. The Lakers could be great next season, but James turns 35 in December and Davis will be a free agent next summer. Davis seems like a lock to re-sign long term in L.A., but a lot can change in a year. In related news, the Raptors just won the championship with Kawhi Leonard.

As for the outside teams looking in, this is a crushing blow to the Boston Celtics, who might lose Irving now that Davis is heading West. The Celtics have long believed that trading for Davis would be the best chance in keeping Irving long term, sources say. But now they’re looking at a revamped 2018 playoff redux with Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way with Gordon Hayward back in the driver’s seat.

Next time someone tells you the NBA is rigged or too predictable, just end that conversation right then and there. Put the group chat on mute. Turn around and walk away. Hang up the phone. This time last year, the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics were destined to be battling it out for league supremacy for the foreseeable future. A year later, neither Boston nor Golden State look like bonafide contenders, for a variety of reasons.

With the Lakers, there’s surely more drama to be on the way. They may be title favorites now, but there are no guarantees in the NBA. I mean, the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs last season. And neither did Davis. But this league runs on superstars. A James-Davis partnership alone is powerful enough to give them the inside edge to the NBA Finals. Life comes at you fast in the NBA. 

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