The New Orleans Pelicans went into last season intending to make the playoffs, go on a postseason run to the second round and beyond as they had the season before, and showing Anthony Davis they were a serious organization that he would want to re-sign with.
It didn’t work out anywhere close to that. The Pelicans hung around .500 until mid-December, yet despite strong seasons out of Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle, the team’s defense was a disaster, and they stagnated in the standings. The Pelicans could not string together enough wins. Then came the Davis trade request and from there things spiraled downward.
Eventually, the Pelicans reached a decision: Play Davis as little as we can and tank. Go into the lottery and get the best odds we can, then see where the chips fall.
Tuesday night, with a six percent chance, the New Orleans Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery, which means they won the rights to Zion Williamson. A guy with the potential to be the next Anthony Davis and lift up a franchise.
That the Pelicans won the lottery while the teams with the three worst records fell down the board — the Knicks will draft third, Cleveland fifth, and Phoenix sixth — led to multiple reactions like this one from Utah’s Rudy Gobert.
It depends on how one chooses to define tanking. If tanking means only a hard and fast race to the bottom to ensure the worst record and rebuild just through the draft — or to do that for multiple years in a row, like “the process” Sixers — then yes, we will see less of it. The NBA’s flattened out lottery odds were aimed at exactly that. There is no advantage to making sure a team has the worst record by far.
However, what those flattened out lottery odds really did was just change the inflection point.
Because a team can have the eighth worst record (like the Pelicans) yet have an improved chance of winning the lottery, some teams will do what New Orleans did — reach a mid-season point where they will decide getting improved lottery odds is a better call than making a push for the eight seed. Not all teams will do that, the lure of playoff money for franchises and experience for players will have plenty of teams making a push for the postseason. But not every one. Some will choose to tank.
In a sport and system where landing a Zion Williamson can set a team up for a decade, there will always be some level of tanking. That will never go away.
One other thought from Tuesday night’s lottery results: Look for a lot of trades around this draft. Or at least teams trying to make trades.
The Pelicans will still end up having to trade Anthony Davis, winning this lottery just softens the blow. It also informs the kinds of players they will want back in a trade because with Williamson the Pelicans will continue to play fast, like Alvin Gentry wants.
The Knicks and Lakers at three and four both are big game hunting this summer and would throw their pick in a trade for Davis or another star player.
This is a down draft — there are quality future role players in it, but after Williamson (and maybe Morant, depending on who you ask) the talent level drops off. With that, a lot of GMs would be happy to trade their pick for a more reliable veteran role player. Thing is, there’s not a lot of value for the picks. A lot of teams will talk trade but find a soft market.