As NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced that the Phoenix Suns would have the fourth pick in the 2017 NBA draft — meaning the Los Angeles Lakers would again defy the odds and keep their top-three protected draft pick for a third straight season — ESPN’s television cameras immediately cut to Magic Johnson sitting on the dais. Johnson, understandably, was in a good mood. He flashed his trademark smile, pumped his fist, and even did a little shimmy in his seat.
He looked like a man who knew he still owns the NBA, even after all these years.
— Offensive Foul (@_OffensiveFoul) May 17, 2017
There will be plenty of talk about the Boston Celtics winning the first overall pick in the NBA’s draft lottery, particularly after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals with a Game 7 victory over the Washington Wizards on Monday night. But make no mistake: This night was all about the Lakers, once again dodging what would have been a crippling blow to one of the league’s flagship franchises.
By landing the No. 2 pick for a third season in a row, the Lakers not only will keep their pick in what is a talent-laden draft, but also will keep what would have been an unprotected first-round pick in 2019 — the last vestiges of the Dwight Howard trade in 2012.
This was the high-wire act Johnson and the Lakers were walking Tuesday night: keep two draft picks, and gain a player to add to the team’s struggling rebuilding effort for next season, or lose two and go into the offseason with only a late first-round pick to try to improve a young core that Los Angeles is hoping can lure Paul George or some other big-name free agent in 2018.
Tuesday night’s events just made that sales pitch demonstrably easier. While Brandon Ingram still has the potential to develop into a game-changing player for the Lakers, both Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell — the two other lottery picks already wearing the purple and gold — look like they’ll be solid players, but not the kind of difference-makers the Lakers are accustomed to having. Even the bright lights of Los Angeles and playing for one of the league’s iconic franchises won’t be enough to convince a star like George or DeMarcus Cousins to come to Los Angeles this summer if the team isn’t any good and showing no progress of becoming good.
Keeping the second pick in the draft, however, changes everything. The Lakers will likely be able to use it to select UCLA star Lonzo Ball, a 6-foot-6 point guard with fantastic passing vision who should be able to allow the team to return to the kind of run-and-gun playing style that Johnson employed during the Showtime Era. He also gives the Lakers their highest-ceiling player yet to keep filling out their young core, which should make them that much more attractive to star players.
Some will cry collusion or trickery, given the Lakers have had such unbelievable luck three years in a row, but that won’t matter to Johnson. He’ll just keep smiling and pumping his fist all the way to the bank.
Other observations from Tuesday’s festivities:
● Between advancing to the Eastern Conference finals and being awarded the top pick in next month’s draft, it’s been a pretty good 24 hours for the Celtics.
Now, no matter how Boston fares against the Cleveland Cavaliers over the next week or two, the Celtics have arguably the brightest future in the league. They’ll have the top pick in this year’s draft, which they’ll likely use to draft Washington star Markelle Fultz, as well as oodles of cap space to chase a potential star free agent this summer, such as Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward.
The Celtics will then still have the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected first-round pick next season, giving them further potential trade ammunition — or the ability to add another young piece to go with Jaylen Brown, last year’s No. 3 overall pick, and the top pick in this year’s draft.
Not bad for a team that’s still one of the four left in the playoffs.
● The Sacramento Kings picked a fine time to move up in the lottery for the first time in franchise history. Because of the ridiculous cap-clearing trade that the Kings made with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2015 (a deal that only cleared a few million more than Sacramento could have simply by waiving the players it dealt away), the Kings had to swap the third pick, which they would’ve gotten otherwise, to the Sixers for the fifth pick.
It’s not a terrible trade-off, given the Kings were supposed to have the eighth pick, but it is another embarrassing moment for a franchise that can’t stop having them. One piece of good news, though: The Kings did keep the No. 10 pick in the draft, which it receives from the New Orleans Pelicans as part of February’s blockbuster trade for Cousins.
● The fact the NBA’s annual parade of losers is turned into a half-hour television spectacle makes for a lot of wonderful made-for-TV moments that lead to plenty of hilarity.
Some of them include:
● Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the Knicks legend representing the franchise on the dais in one of his typically resplendent suits, looking like a kid who had been told he wasn’t getting any Christmas presents this year when he saw the Knicks come up with the eighth pick — meaning they had not only failed to move up a spot in the lottery, but had actually moved back a spot.
● ESPN announcer Mark Jones, in the interest of trying to fill time, throwing to analyst Tom Penn with this question about the Lakers: “What do you think of their chances, Tom?” There obviously was no way for Penn to know what the Lakers’ chances were of keeping a pick that had already been determined under lock-and-key over an hour before.
● When it was shown that the Pelicans were giving their draft pick to the Kings, the camera flashed to Coach Alvin Gentry, who looked like he just ate a lemon. Gentry was presumably happier Monday, when the Pelicans announced he and General Manager Dell Demps would be back with the team next season.
● Not surprisingly, though, the star of the show was Sixers center Joel Embiid. Sitting next to Johnson — and who was hoping to take the Lakers’ pick — Embiid didn’t pull any punches.
“I think we have a good chance of taking that pick,” he said, leading Johnson to turn and exclaim, “Wait, what?”
Embiid then doubled down: “Hopefully we take that pick.”
It turned out they didn’t, but Embiid still stole the show. When it was announced that the Kings had moved up, the camera cut to Embiid nodding with a knowing smile. Then, when it was announced the Kings would have the fifth pick, Embiid clearly was trying to work through exactly what that meant.
— Alan Ly (@theAlanLy) May 17, 2017
It was the latest captivating performance from a player who delivered so many of them this season for the Sixers, and who will hopefully be back on the court healthy next season after missing his first two seasons in the NBA and playing just 31 games this season, in his third year in the league.
Here are the lottery results, followed by the full first-round order:
1. Boston (From Brooklyn)
2. Los Angeles Lakers
3. Philadelphia (from Sacramento)
5. Sacramento (from Philadelphia)
8. New York
10. Sacramento (From New Orleans)
20. Portland (From Memphis via Denver and Cleveland)
21. Oklahoma City
22. Brooklyn (From Washington)
23. Toronto (From LA Clippers via Milwaukee)
25. Orlando (From Toronto)
26. Portland (From Cleveland)
27. Brooklyn (From Boston)
28. Los Angeles Lakers (From Houston)
29. San Antonio
30. Utah (From Golden State)