Thursday, May 25, 2017

2017 Lottery and All-NBA Implications

The Summer of George has already started with last Tuesday's Lottery drawing and Thursday's announcements of the All-NBA teams impacting the future of Paul George, with Gordon Hayward affected to a certain extent, as well. I want to flesh out certain ideas about all of the possibilities the Celtics might do with the top pick now that they've been eliminated from the playoffs, but first, here are some of my thoughts on the implications of the ping pong ball results:
  • This is now the third straight year that the team with the best lottery combinations has won the #1 pick, ending a previous streak of never ending up with the top pick in the current format that started in 2005. Thanks to their trade with Brooklyn in 2013, Boston won this pick the night after making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, and although a top team getting their choice of top prospects for unfair reinforcements might seem crazy, the 1979, 1980, and 1982 #1 picks also went to the Lakers and Celtics due to previous deals. 
  • Before you get started with conspiracy theories that favor two of the league's most storied franchises, take a look at the actual drawings below and try to figure out how the results might be (illegally) rigged. Because a 1 kept getting drawn, the Celtics, whose 250 combinations make up the majority of the 286 results that include 1, remarkably won the first three drawings before the 14-5-3-12 drawing gave the Lakers the #2 pick, and none of those numbers matched the initial winning combo of 7-1-9-10. New GM Rob Pelinka would also give his doppelganger Rob Lowe a run for his money with his acting chops if that wasn't genuine relief that he showed around the 12:49 mark here:

  • Just because I don't believe in any rigged conspiracies doesn't mean that there wasn't an initial "of course the Lakers are keeping their top-3 protected pickfeeling when the Suns logo was pulled from the envelope for the #4 pick during the television reveal. New president of basketball operations Magic Johnson was there on the podium serving as an example himself of how much the Lakers get lucky since he was the 1979 #1 pick gifted to them that I just mentioned. It didn't matter that their improbable 5 game winning streak in April meant that they dropped to only a 46.9% chance of landing in the top-3, and one might even say the basketball gods rewarded them with good karma for it.
  • It is remarkable that like the #1 pick going to the most likely winner, this is the third straight year LA gets #2. With the top-5 and top-3 protections from previous years now expiring, that means the pick they owe Philadelphia will convey next year no matter what, which isn't the worse thing in the world for the 76ers since it will be unprotected and LA might continue to be a bottom-dweller. The real loser here is Orlando since in addition to dropping down from the 5th slot to the #6 pick, they were owed a future Lakers 1st round pick two years after a 1st goes to Philly, with 2019 being the last possible year. Thus, they'll have to settle for LA's 2nd round picks this year (#33) and next year.
  • This is the third time in the four years since "The Process" started that Philadelphia has ended up with the #3 pick, with last year's #1 pick (Ben Simmons) being the lucky exception, and getting this pick is the continued result of the groundwork former GM Sam Hinkie laid since it came from a pick swap with Sacramento. In addition to an unprotected 2019 1st coming from the Kings, the 76ers acquired the right to move up from the #5 pick that they would have ended up with to the #3 slot that the Kings moved up to from #8 thanks to Hinkie's 2015 deal that took on the salary dumps of Carl Landry and Jason Thompson with Nik Stauskas, who was just drafted 8th overall the year before. Josh Jackson will likely be the best player available for them in this spot, and although he's not as great of a fit on their roster next to Simmons as Markelle Fultz (viewed as the near-consensus top prospect) or Lonzo Ball (reportedly the apple of the Lakers' eye, as his father LaVar has hoped) would be, he would be a heck of an addition.
  • Outside of them and Philly both landing at the top of the board, the drawings played out about as well as Sacramento could have hoped since they were still able to move up three spots after the pick swap and New Orleans' 1.1% chance of keeping the top-3 protected pick they owe them didn't come through. When the Knicks logo showed up in the #8 slot, signalling them moving up, was probably the most exciting/confusing part of the night as everyone realized what was going on. The Lottery, man...there's nothing like it.

Now, I mentioned that the #1 pick in 1980 went to the Celtics team that had just won 61 games in Larry Bird's rookie year after only having 29 the year before (what a Legend), but they didn't actually use that pick as they traded it along with the #13 pick to the Warriors for an emerging Robert Parish and the #3 pick, which they used to draft Kevin McHale. After winning the title that season and twice more in the next five years, you might wonder if Danny Ainge, who played on those latter two teams and is now the mastermind behind their front office, might try to repeat history. The Ringer's Bill Simmons has already suggested his beloved Celtics do a similar move down to #3 while Kevin O'Connor took a deep dive into the current and present Boston outlook and broke down the financial implications of possible targets Hayward and George not making the All-NBA teams. In full disclosure, I wrote the above section a week ago after O'Connor's first piece but didn't finish this post before the other two items were released due to personal matters and wanting to see how this year's squad did, so bear with me if I sound repetitive thinking out loud about the team's options.

The common first reaction to the Lottery is that they can trade the top pick for an established star to try and compete for a title now like the Cavaliers did when swapping Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love in that incredible summer of 2014 with LeBron James coming home. However, it might be wiser to keep the bigger picture in mind. Much like the powerhouses of Westeros battling for the Iron Throne instead of focusing on the looming threat beyond the Wall, Ainge trying to supplement this pseudo-contender might be shortsighted despite them somehow earning the top seed in the East with just 53 wins. Trading a cost-controlled potential star for PG13 is too risky since he is all but certain to opt out of his $20,703,384 player option next summer as he is due a max contract starting at $30,600,000 based on a $102 million salary cap and is rumored to be set on returning to his Southern California roots. Making a move for Jimmy Butler could be a different story since he came into the league a year later and can't opt out until 2019 as a result. Chicago's star wing is arguably just as good or better than George but is also 8 months older, prone to more nagging injuries, and likely to cost more given that contract status. Would a trade for Butler that costs the top pick and other key players such as his former Marquette teammate Jae Crowder really turn this Boston team into a contender that could challenge Cleveland in the East or Golden State in the Finals? Probably not, based on how they did against the Cavs just now.

The reason George might be more easily available is that he is not eligible for the Designated Veteran Extension since he missed out on an All-NBA team. Normally, a player like him who will have 8 years of experience when he hits free agency next summer is eligible for a starting salary of 30% of the salary cap (and it is the actual cap number under the new CBA rather than a percentage of it as in the old CBA) while a player with 10+ years of experience can start at 35% of the cap. If he had qualified for this extension, he could have signed for the 35% amount, which would have meant a salary of $35,700,00 next year with 8% raises after that. A total of $207,060,000 for 2018-2023 based on the current projections would have been the carrot to keep him with his original franchise, but now the money he can sign elsewhere is comparable enough for him to leave, as it would be $96,390,000 over the first three years before opting out again compared to $99,144,000.

This is where the chart O'Connor had for Hayward comes into play since the Jazz wing also missed out on an All-NBA spot that could have allowed for the bigger extension. He entered the league at the same time and age as George, but he had to go out and get a 4 year max offer sheet from Charlotte in 2014 after not getting the same 5 year Designated Player Extension in the fall of 2013 that PG13 received. Thus, he got less money at the time but is now able to opt out for the bigger bucks now, and there is a feeling that he might have some resentment towards Utah for not ponying up the cash right away, despite it being a previous regime that may not have fully appreciated him. Meanwhile, there is an obvious connection to Boston since coach Brad Stevens was his college coach at Butler, where he stayed committed even after he hit his growth spurt and the big schools came calling because he was loyal to the coach who first believed in him. As O'Connor described, Hayward would be smart to sign another 4 year deal that allows an early opt out since he would then have 10 years of experience in the summer of 2020 and be able to sign a contract at 35% of the cap, which means the money he could get in Boston is just $2,727,000 less over these first three years than the money in Utah.

I'm not convinced that the first time All-Star wants to move his family from the only place he's known, especially since they could conceivably compete for the 3rd or even 2nd seed in the West next year if they keep George Hill and stay healthy, but for the sake of this post, let's take a look at their current cap situation and what they have to do to sign him, likely a preferable route than trading the #1 pick for George or Butler. Remember though, that rookie will have a cap hold even before signing his contract, and they have two European big men, Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic, that they took 16th and 23rd in last year's draft who need to be accounted for, as well.

As shown in the second spreadsheet, even after renouncing all of their free agents and waiving the non-guaranteed contracts of Tyler Zeller and Jordan Mickey (Demetrius Jackson remains intriguing and has a $650,000 guarantee that essentially prevents any cap savings from a release), they would still be a few million short of Hayward's $30,300,000 starting salary, so they would have to trade someone while taking back minimal salary. Given that likely draft selection Markelle Fultz is a scoring guard, there is some credence to the idea that they could or even should trade fellow Washington guard Isaiah Thomas since his value will never be higher, he's going into the last year of his contract, and he'll be 29 when you have to re-sign him next summer. That's a tough sell given what he means to this team, and although he'll always be a defensive liability, the two of them could definitely play together since both can operate off the ball for stretches.

Since they would become even more perimeter oriented with these additions, Crowder, Jaylen Brown, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart would be more likely trade candidates, especially with the latter two also entering the last year of their contracts. It would be nice to keep Bradley since he is also a native of the Evergreen State and so close to Thomas as a result, but he's likely to be the most expensive to keep, making him the favorite to be dealt. They could try selling a package with three out of those four players, Terry Rozier, and next year's Brooklyn pick (which will likely be much less valuable as the Nets improved to 11-15 after the All-Star Break) for George or Butler, and then they could conceivably still be able to squeeze in Hayward's deal. If they went the route of trading the #1 pick for one of them, that would take away $11.5-12.5 million of space, but Hayward could still fit if Bradley and Crowder were included in the deal. It might be easier to clear the ~$3.5 million of cap space to sign Hayward first and then trade for the a second All-Star wing since they'd only have to send out $14.5 million in aggregate salary to match at that point -- basically Crowder and Bradley. At that point, though, it might make more sense to instead pursue signing a big man like Blake Griffin or Paul Millsap to join Al Horford up front rather than continuing to go small so much and relying on the two rookies along with whoever they could sign for the Room Mid-Level Exception and minimum contracts.

Hayward is likely the apple of Stevens' eye this summer.
If I had to guess, I would say that they only focus on getting Hayward and continue to keep their flexibility with the draft picks. Simmons' scenario of #3, Dario Saric, and next year's Lakers' 1st round pick is actually the type of deal I was thinking about for Philly since they have too many bigs and Fultz would be such an ideal fit as a shooting combo guard next to a point forward like Ben Simmons, although it might be giving up a bit too much. Maybe they could agree on it being the lower of either the Lakers' or 76ers' 1st or the Celtics sending something else back like when they included #13 along with #1 for Parish and #3. If it's just a trade for picks without Saric's salary coming back, then with moving down the two spots lowering the rookie's cap hold to $5,645,400, they'd only have to move Rozier somewhere in order to approach enough space for Hayward rather than someone who started for them this year (they'd even be able to hold onto Jordan Mickey if the cap comes in higher than $101 million). At that pick, I consider Josh Jackson the best available player, but Jayson Tatum's skill set might be more valuable to them as more of a pure scorer who could fill out into a stretch four. This dream scenario might not be likely, but a lineup of Thomas, Bradley, Hayward, Saric, and Horford with Smart, Brown, Crowder, Tatum, Yabusele, and Zizic off the bench would be fun. They could trade one of their perimeter guys for a more traditional big, and they'd still have the last Nets pick to add to the cavalry. I could also see the 76ers try and pursue D'Angelo Russell or the #2 pick from LA instead, but in any case, we're now another step closer to the offseason and know where everyone stands after this past week.

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