Western Conference Preview: Warriors in five and other first-round predictions

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NBC Sports

Western Conference Preview: Warriors in five and other first-round predictions

The playoffs are here. Another dominant regular season by the Western Conference is in the books. 

In case you haven’t read the Eastern Conference playoff preview, go here.

Onto the West.

No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers (Schedule)

How does Steph look?

The Warriors’ opponent was up in the air through Wednesday night, but this was probably the biggest question no matter whom the Warriors faced first on their three-peat quest. Steph Curry tweaked his right ankle on a move against the Pelicans on Tuesday night and sent a shiver down every spine in the Bay Area. The Warriors didn’t seem too concerned even with his long history of ankle issues, but the team rested him in the regular-season finale anyway.

Steve Kerr said he wasn’t worried. But I am. It’s still unnerving anytime an injury report pops up with “Stephen Curry” and “ankle,” especially when it came in a meaningless game against a tanking team in April. Did Steph really need to play his third game in four nights in Game 81? Apparently so.

The good news for the Warriors is that Curry essentially got the night off from a load standpoint, playing only nine minutes against New Orleans. When the series kicks off on Saturday against the Clippers, Curry will have three full days of rest to get treatment and protect against aggravation with new director of sports medicine and performance Rick Celebrini.

The goal is a sweep. That would carve out an extended layoff before taking on the winner of the Rockets-Jazz series, a bloodbath that figures to go long. A sweep is doable. The Warriors have six All-Stars on the roster; the Clippers have none. They blasted L.A. in their last two matchups by an average of 22.5 points, notably with DeMarcus Cousins in uniform. Golden State’s only loss in the season series was largely due to Curry’s absence with a groin injury back in November.

There’s a notion that the Clippers are armed with a Curry stopper in Patrick Beverley. The evidence says otherwise. Against all teams, Curry scored 37.4 points every 100 team possessions this season, per NBA.com tracking data. Dating back to last season, Beverley has “limited” Curry to 21 points in 44 team possessions, equating to a rate of 47.7 points -- and no turnovers. 

If anything, this is Curry’s ideal matchup and the Warriors should make quick work of the Clippers. Golden State has swept its opponent four times in eight series during the Durant era. This could be five if Curry is 100 percent healthy. 

However, I’m baking in a Clippers win powered by their dominant bench anchored by Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

Can Nikola Jokic still be a superstar in a chess match?

You won’t find a bigger Jokic fan than Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Back in December, Popovich was asked whether Jokic is revolutionizing the game, which elicited a very Pop response, via ESPN: “When I think of revolution, I think of people like Che Guevara, Ivan Illich, Lenin. I don’t really think of Jokic as quite a revolutionary. So I think you’re a bit hyperbolic there. But he is one heck of a player. When you look at him … he won’t take it wrong. He’s a good guy. We were in Belgrade together. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s a tad pudgy, you know? And he doesn’t jump out of the gym. He doesn’t run that fast. But he might be one of the smartest players in the league. He’s got skills, and he knows how to use them.”

With Jokic in hand, the Nuggets split the season series against the Spurs and outscored Popovich’s squad by 22 points in the process. Although he carries a reputation as a soft defender that can be exposed, the Nuggets held the Spurs to a measly 100.7 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court in the regular-season series. Fun fact: Jokic limited the Spurs to that number without blocking a single shot in 135 minutes. So very Jokic.

Elite offenses like Houston, Golden State and Milwaukee pulverized Jokic lineups, but the Spurs have yet to crack the code. However, there is evidence that an offensive turnaround could be coming for San Antonio. Denver's defense allowed the lowest 3-point field goal percentage in the league, but I'm skeptical they can keep that up in this series. They give up the most corner 3-pointers in the NBA and the Spurs have the best 3-point percentage in the league, especially in the corners where Davis Bertans shot a blistering 62 percent. 

The Spurs are a sexy upset pick because this Nuggets squad has never been to the playoffs and San Antonio played them even during the regular season. With playoff experience and maybe the greatest coach in the history of the sport on their side, the Spurs may finally solve the Jokic riddle. He certainly is talented enough to make me look dumb, but I see the Nuggets exiting in the first round for the 11th time in the franchise’s last 12 playoff appearances.

No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder (Schedule)

Can Enes Kanter stay afloat against his former team?

The Thunder know how hard it is to play Kanter in a playoff scenario when scouting reports and film sessions can exploit his clumsy footwork. In the 2017 playoff series against the Rockets, the Thunder basically didn’t play Kanter as the Rockets pick-and-rolled him off the floor. 

With Russell Westbrook on hand, the Thunder figure to do the same to Kanter in this series. In 60 minutes with Kanter on the floor this season, the Thunder scored 121.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com tracking data. In their March 7 matchup, Jusuf Nurkic was ejected just before overtime, forcing Terry Stotts to stick with Kanter. It did not go well. The Thunder ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll right at Kanter, who fouled the ball-handler three times. With Nurkic unavailable, OKC scored 16 points in five minutes. 

The good news for Portland is that Westbrook has been sneaky inefficient this season in the pick-and-roll, ranking dead-last in the category among 28 players with at least 400 pick-and-roll plays to their name, per Synergy tracking. Westbrook can be especially turnover-prone when he hits a wall and tries to jump-pass his way out of it, but it’s hard to envision Kanter providing that resistance consistently.

The Thunder won all four of their regular-season matchups against the Trail Blazers, but Portland won’t go down without a fight. Yes, they’ve been swept the past two first rounds and that burden won’t be easy to shake off, but this Portland team has shown the perseverance of the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” They went 8-2 in McCollum’s 10-game absence, with five of those wins coming without Nurkic. Portland has no choice but to go full-throttle as an offensive juggernaut in this series. The Thunder are a horrible matchup for the Blazers, but with McCollum back and Lillard elevating his playmaking abilities, I think the Blazers avoid the brooms but can’t avoid the upset. 

No. 4 Houston Rockets and No. 5 Utah Jazz

Does great offense beat great defense?

Buckle up, this might be the strongest 4-versus-5 matchup we’ve seen in a long time. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and Basketball-Reference’s SRS analytical measuring sticks, the Rockets and the Jazz are both top-five teams in all of the NBA. And since the All-Star break, no teams have been better by point differential.

This is a headache to gauge. If you’re looking to the regular-season series for some answers, good luck. Chris Paul only played in two of the matchups, but the Rockets struggled to maximize the James Harden and Paul tandem. In 53 minutes with the two stars on the floor against the Jazz, the Rockets were outscored by 14 points, mustering a pitiful 93.9 points per 100 possessions scoring rate. In that sample, yes, great defense bested great offense, but that was back in December before the Rockets began ripping teams apart.

To make things tougher, the Jazz and Rockets haven’t faced off since the All-Star break. In the Feb. 2 matchup, Harden was electric, tallying 43 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, six steals and four blocks in a 125-98 victory. Both Paul and Clint Capela didn’t play, and Rudy Gobert barely played in the Dec. 6 matchup because he was ejected for swatting a cup off the announcers’ table in the first three minutes. With Gobert on the floor, the Jazz have kept the Rockets’ high-powered offense in check.

If you zoom out to last season for more intel, the Rockets swept the Jazz in the regular season when they had better defensive wings to throw at Donovan Mitchell, who has been an inferno lately. In this series, Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers will have to pick up that assignment. Harden only defended Mitchell on 37-of-294 possessions this season. It’ll be interesting to see how the Jazz can keep Harden from hiding on the defensive end. 

In the end, I’m going to the medical reports to decide this one. Ricky Rubio, Raul Neto and Kyle Korver have been sidelined basically all of April while Dante Exum is out for the season with a knee injury. With Utah’s banged-up backcourt and Paul healthy, I’m siding with Houston to win what will surely be a battle of attrition. 

 

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Three questions Blazers must answer this summer

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USA Today

Three questions Blazers must answer this summer

For the third straight year, the Portland Trail Blazers’ season ended in demoralizing fashion. Another sweep, with the Golden State Warriors once again holding the broom just as they did in 2017. The Blazers did manage to steal one game against the Warriors in 2016, but that playoff victory comes with an important footnote: Stephen Curry sat out with a knee injury. 

That’s been the story for the Blazers. After falling to 0-10 against the Warriors in the playoffs with Curry in uniform, it’s clear Portland hasn’t figured out this team. 

Well, guess what? No one else has either. 

Since Steve Kerr took over in 2015, the Warriors have won an astounding 17 of 18 playoff series. The one team that beat them -- the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers -- needed LeBron James, a Draymond Green suspension, and last-second heroics in Game 7 to pull off the upset in the NBA Finals.

Just when the Cavs thought they may have solved the riddle, the Warriors added Kevin Durant and dismantled the Cavs over the next two Finals. Following a 2017 sweep, James packed his bags for Hollywood. 

Should the Blazers try going in a different direction just like LeBron did? 

Let’s get into that and two other big questions the Blazers offseason.

1. Do the Blazers blow it up?

Under contract for two more seasons, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum won’t be partaking in the free-agent frenzy this summer. But even if they did have the ability to leave Portland, they’d have little reason to flee like Durant in 2016 or James in 2018. The Warriors have that effect on people.

It may not feel like it now, but this was the best realistic outcome for the Blazers. Vegas preseason projections saw a 42-win team, not enough to even make the playoffs. Multiple media outlets agreed with that grim outlook, envisioning a team that would take a huge step back after a 49-33 season in 2017-18. 

Led by Logo Lillard’s attack, the Blazers didn’t just make the playoffs, they improved to 52-30 and became one of the last two West teams standing. 

That they managed to fight this far should be the legacy of this team. The owner, Paul Allen, died two days before the season opener. McCollum missed nearly a month at the end of the season with a knee injury. Jusuf Nurkic, the starting center and a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player honors, broke his leg three weeks before the playoffs. 

The Blazers could have huddled up, put their hands together and chanted “1-2-3, Cancun!” and it would be an understandable reaction given their recent history of consecutive first-round sweeps. Instead, the Blazers changed the narrative of the franchise, marched to the Western Conference finals and took down three superstars in Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Nikola Jokic along the way.

Nurkic’s injury was devastating for the Blazers’ hopes, but on one level, it may be a blessing in disguise for this group. Clearly overmatched against the Warriors, the absence of Nurkic gives them fuel for redemption next season. Maybe Nurkic doesn’t stop the Draymond Green show in this series, but the Warriors clearly didn’t think much of the Blazers’ depleted frontcourt, choosing to swarm the backcourt and dare everyone else to beat them.

If Nurkic is healthy, that plan may not have been as wise. The Bosnian center is Portland’s best passing big man, averaging 3.2 assists per game and providing a release valve in the event that Lillard and McCollum are blanketed up top. Though Meyers Leonard did the best he could in a pinch, the playoff stage at this juncture demands two-way players and Nurkic provides a much stiffer presence on the defensive end and on the boards, where the Warriors can be exploited. 

The expectation around the league is that the Blazers will run it back and give it another go. With Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic back for at least two more seasons, this core will likely have another crack at the Warriors in postseasons to come. As we saw in this series, Durant’s potential departure may not matter for the Blazers’ prospects, but Nurkic’s return should at least give them a fighting chance.

The future is brighter than it seemed a year ago. This is a small-market team with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic all under 30 years old entering next season, which can’t be said for the starry cores in Houston and OKC. Denver is on the rise, but the Blazers just beat them. Both L.A. teams have uncertain futures. Utah and Minnesota didn’t take the step forward that many envisioned.

Portland is in a great spot in a league marked by uncertainty. That doesn’t mean they don’t have offseason questions. Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood and Al-Farouq Aminu will all be unrestricted free agents this summer. Of those names, the Blazers only have Bird Rights on Aminu, which means the Blazers, as an over-the-cap team, won’t be able to offer substantial raises to Curry, Hood and Kanter when they hit a seller’s market.

That doesn’t mean the supporting cast won’t return. If role players turn down more money from elsewhere, it’s because they appreciate Portland’s stable environment, escaping the very real stresses and expectations of a marquee franchise. With so much free-agent turnover around the league, the Blazers’ relative calm and order can be an appealing draw.

With that said, it would be a surprise if Curry, Hood and Kanter return on below-market deals. Curry will likely want to cash in after missing the 2017-18 season rehabbing his knee and proving this season he can still be helpful rotation player for a winner. Hood has put his playoff demons to rest with his strong play and hits a free-agent market light on shooting guards. Kanter also earned himself some coin after he averaged a double-double this postseason until Tuesday’s Game 4. 

The Blazers could re-sign one of them or Aminu using the taxpayer’s mid-level exception of three years and $18 million, but they might opt to spread it out on multiple players. Names like Wayne Ellington, Mario Hezonja and Quincy Pondexter could eye Portland to revitalize their careers like Curry, Hood and Kanter did.

You can also bet that front offices around the league will use the 2018-19 Blazers team as an example of why owners should pay up to keep your core and build around it. The Blazers have caught a lot of heat for their spending sprees. After inking Lillard to a five-year max in 2015, the Blazers doubled down in 2016 and signed McCollum to a four-year, $107 million extension while inking big deals with Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli and Allen Crabbe. 

The Blazers made a $220 million bet that Lillard and McCollum’s talents and leadership abilities would make them a perennial playoff team who could, at its peak, contend for the Finals. It’s hard to argue with that thinking now. A little over a year after trading for Nurkic at the ’16-17 trade deadline, the Blazers locked him into a four-year, $48 million extension in 2018, which now looks like a steal, even with his horrific injury.

For years, GMs pointed to the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks as “Exhibit A” for preaching patience and waiting for the cracks to break open. While Portland hasn’t won a championship yet, but the ‘18-19 Blazers run may be cited just as much going forward. They may not ever topple the Warriors, but there’s no shame in trying.

2. What did we learn about Zach Collins?

For many, if the Blazers made the playoffs and saw development from the 21-year-old Collins, this season would be seen as a success. 

The first item on that list? Check. The second one? Another check.

Collins showed enough promise this season to make the Blazers feel OK about selecting him 10th overall in the 2018 draft over other big men like Bam Adebayo (14th), John Collins (19th) and Jarrett Allen (22nd). Though he didn’t flash quite the same All-Star potential as those other names, Zach Collins undoubtedly took a step forward this season, becoming a much better shot-blocker and more reliable shooter on open jumpers. 

Collins’ youth was exposed a bit this postseason, biting on the slightest of pump fakes and leading all postseason players in fouls per minute (minimum 100 minutes played). But he should get better with that as he gains more experience and understands player tendencies. He’s certainly not JaVale McGee in that department.

Collins isn’t close to taking Nurkic’s job any time soon and he isn’t ready to be slotted in as the starting power forward quite yet. While Stotts has used Kanter and Collins together a bunch in the frontcourt, the coach has shown little interest in the Collins-Nurkic look as the tandem shared the court for only 65 of Collins’ 1,356 total minutes in the regular season. 

Collins will likely enter 2019-20 as Nurkic’s backup center again alongside Leonard until Collins shows the ability to stretch the floor a bit better. Collins shot just 29.8 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy Sports tracking.

Some executives feared that the Gonzaga product was a local reach at No. 10, but Collins has made himself into a useful NBA player. He still has a ways to go before locking in a big extension next summer. If he doesn’t take a big stride next season, the Blazers should be nervous about bailing on the 21-year-old so soon. That’s how Nurkic landed in their lap in the first place. 

3. Does Damian Lillard deserve the supermax?

When Lillard toed the free-throw line midway through the second quarter, the Moda Center gave him a hearty “M-V-P” chant. It was probably one of a dozen rallying cries this season. But this time, it felt more like a pick-me-up than a declaration. The star point guard had a woeful first three games of the series, shooting just 5-of-20 inside the arc and struggling mightily to pierce the Warriors’ onslaught of double-teams.

Lillard looked spent. And understandably so. Entering Game 4, he had played a league-leading 3,444 minutes this season including the playoffs, which was 153 minutes more than the next-highest player (James Harden). He played 44 minutes in Game 4, extending his lead to nearly 200 minutes. Throw in the fact that Lillard just wrapped up a seven-game series at Denver altitude that included a four-overtime game AND that he suffered a separated rib in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, it’s a wonder the guy was able to be effective at all.

After the series concluded, Lillard sat hunched over on the podium and indicated that fatigue affected him more than the rib injury. He finished with 28 points and 12 assists in the game.

“I’ve played through worse things,” Lillard said. “I think just fatigue, just all the attention after 82 games, this being the deepest we’ve played … Teams are coming after you. That takes energy to deal with that.”

The Warriors treated Lillard like a superstar and he will likely be compensated as one soon. Lillard is expected to sign a supermax extension that could tack on an additional four years and about $190 million to his existing two years and $60 million remaining on his contract, according to a Yahoo! Sports report.

A quarter-billion for a player who’s never won a conference finals game, you might ask? 

Welcome to the new NBA. While polling some NBA general managers recently, the consensus among them was that Lillard will be offered the supermax by the Blazers -- and deservedly so.

“Compared to other supermaxes,” said one rival general manager, “he’s earned it.”

Lillard was a top-five player in the NBA this season by multiple advanced measuring sticks. After leading his team to the No. 3 seed out West, he will likely finish on one of the All-NBA teams this year, locking in his eligibility for the designated veteran extension that is reserved for only the best of the best. To date, Stephen Curry, John Wall, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the only players to have netted the supermax. 

Lillard’s extension wouldn’t kick in until 2021-12 and would take him through his age-35 season, if they come to such an agreement. Lillard has been as consistent as they come, averaging between 25 and 27 points per game in each of the last four seasons and never missing more than nine games in any of his seven seasons in the league.

Lillard’s extension comes at a somewhat troubling time in Portland. Following Allen’s death in October, the Blazers are expected to be up for sale in the coming years. In February, the Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish indicated to The Oregonian that the expectation is that it will take five or six years for Allen’s estate to be settled.

“We expect the team will be on the market,” Fish told The Oregonian. 

A Lillard supermax extension won’t be a deterrent for bidders. In league circles, the feeling is that a Lillard commitment would only make the franchise more valuable.

“Have to preserve assets to maximize sale,” said one executive involved in an NBA franchise acquisition. 

Beyond Lillard’s presence, there’s plenty to excited about for potential bidders. For one, it’s an NBA franchise; there are only 30 of those. They fill their arena on a regular basis (my ears are still ringing from fans cheering during the highs of Game 4). The Blazers have reached the playoffs for six straight seasons. With Dwyane Wade retired, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook may be the only veterans as beloved by their home city as Lillard is in Rip City. 

Of course, the core comes at a steep cost. With Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic locked in for the long haul, this team has over $200 million of outlays on their cap sheet even before Lillard’s supermax kicks in. But take it from one former Blazer in Kerr: This is a team worth keeping together. And that includes Lillard.

“I have so much respect and admiration for Terry (Stotts) and his staff and the players,” Kerr said. “What Damian (Lillard) and CJ (McCollum) do as leaders and as a backcourt together, it’s amazing to watch. I know this city loves its team and they should love this version of this team, as much as any of them, because they are a great group.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

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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