While the playoffs may be raging on — there are 14 teams sitting at home with nothing to do than spin the wheel and sim the lottery on tankathon.
With them and their fans in mind, I wanted to trickle in some draft talk up until the lottery unfolds for real in a few weeks. And of course, the biggest storyline to come out of that night will be: who landed the # 1 pick? A.K.A. Who landed Zion Williamson?
On the other end, you have to presume Zion Williamson is wondering that himself. Some teams and destinations are more appealing than others. So with that in mind, I wanted to gauge and rank the best landing spots for Williamson. To do that, we’re going to rely on three separate criteria:
MARKET. The idea of chasing “big markets!” feels a little outdated, but there’s some underlying truth there. Advertisers will still pay you more, and that matters to your bank account. So given that, we’ll grade these markets on a 1-3 scale. We could factor in preferred cities and lifestyles for extra bonus points, but we simply don’t know Williamson’s taste there. Some people like big cities — some prefer quieter towns.
ORGANIZATION. Talent trumps everything in the NBA, but there’s no doubt that certain organizations and cultures can aid or inhibit that process (especially for younger players.) Here, we’re factoring in the coaching staff and the front office / ownership groups. Let’s make this a 1-5 scale.
ROSTER FIT. Every team would find a place for a talent like Zion Williamson, but some would be able to maximize him more than others. Here, we can also use a 1-5 scale. So all in all, we have a max score of 13 (3+5+5).
At first, we will run through each team (based on most likely odds to land the # 1 pick) and then can rank those after we have determined our total score.
N.Y. KNICKS (14% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. There’s a difference between a city’s specific population and the total population of their surrounding area and urban centers, but no matter what metric you cite, New York City is still the most populated place in these ol’ United States. score: 3 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. The Knicks have been a trainwreck of a franchise over the last decade or so, but may have turned the corner and settled into normalcy. GM Scott Perry is a pro, and coach David Fizdale is well liked by (most of) his players. And while James Dolan is a little bit of a clown, he doesn’t interfere with operations as much as other bad owners may. score: 2 (of 5)
ROSTER. Before we talk about Zion Williamson’s best basketball “fit,” we should articulate his own basketball skills first. Obviously, he’s an athletic freak with a frame (6’6″, 280) that we haven’t seen before. He’s a power dunker, but also has an underrated ball handling and passing ability. His shot is below average now, with the potential to improve. Offensively, Blake Griffin feels like a fair “comp.”
Defensively, Williamson utilizes his athleticism more than Griffin did and acts as a disruptive force. He racked up 1.8 blocks and 2.1 steals, which are especially deadly given how good he is in transition. In terms of position, he may be able to guard some small forwards and smallball centers, but he feels like a clear power forward to me. The height isn’t ideal for the 4, but he makes up for it with his strength.
How does that fit on the Knicks? It’s hard to say right now, because we don’t know who the “Knicks” are. If it’s the younger version of the team (with Dennis Smith, Kevin Knox, and Mitchell Robinson), the fit should be fine. Knox may get squeezed some, but Robinson’s length and shot blocking should fit in well with Williamson on defense.
As is, the Knicks would be a decent fit, but if they pull off a coup de grace and land Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? It’d be like entering basketball nirvana. Williamson doesn’t have the skill set to score at will as a go-to player yet, so working alongside two studs would make his life easy. Moreover, Durant and Irving are excellent shooters/spacers that would allow him more room to work. The three would be a “5” out of 5 fit. Of course, it may not happen, so let’s hedge our bets. score: 4 (of 5)
CLEVELAND (14% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. With an urban area population of around 1.5 million, Cleveland is on the mid-to-low end of sports markets. Given that, we’re going to split the difference and grade them in between a “1” and “2”. score: 1.5 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. Like James Dolan, Dan Gilbert probably gets too much shit as an owner. Sure, he has his own clownish moments (like the petty and tantruming letter to LeBron), but he dips into his pocket to spend what’s necessary to win. GM Koby Altman is still an unproven entity, and the coach is even more so (since there is none.) The Cavs appear likely to hire a younger player-development coach, which would be the right move for this rebuilding team. score: 2 (of 5)
ROSTER. The survivors from the LeBron James era have shown as much life as the bodies floating in the ice after the Titanic sank. Right now, it’s a lot of dead weight. Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, and Matthew Dellavedova will combine to make an astounding $72M next season.
On the bright side, they’re off the books in 2020, at which point the team will eyeing a cleaner future. However, the “good” pieces left on the team don’t jump out as an obvious fit for Zion Williamson. Kevin Love and Larry Nance are both PF/Cs without much length themselves. PG Collin Sexton can shoot and score, but he hasn’t shown much vision as a passer at all. He averaged 3.0 assists in 31.8 minutes a night. Williamson doesn’t exactly need a point guard to get his spots, but it wouldn’t hurt. And defensively, Sexton has also shown some real deficiencies. Suffice to say, I would not be jumping up and down to play with these guys if I was Zion Williamson. Score: 1.5 (of 5)
PHOENIX (14% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. Phoenix’s total market is growing and threatening to crack the top 10 soon. score: 2 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. One of the best pieces of sports journalism this year was Kevin Arnovitz’s inside look into the shit show (literally) that is the Phoenix Suns front office. We don’t need to beat a dead horse/goats here: they’re lucky we don’t allow negative points. score: 1 (of 5)
ROSTER. If Zion Williamson can plug his ears and ignore the distractions of the organization around him, then this team looks appealing on paper. The primary reason would be SG Devin Booker, who would provide spacing for Williamson on offense. Booker gets a world of criticism, but this kid is scoring 26 points per game at age 22. We can work with that. DeAndre Ayton and Williamson may clash some on offense, but defensively Williamson can help protect Ayton and Booker.
The Suns have other holes on their roster — such as PG — but that doesn’t have to be permanent. The team will have cap space this summer, and can easily sign a decent guard like Malcolm Brogdon or Tyus Jones to hold the fort. This may be a bad team, but it’s a young team that can grow along with Williamson. score: 2.5 (of 5)
CHICAGO (12.5% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. While Chicago is famous for its “Second City” moniker, it’s decidedly the third most populated urban center in the U.S. behind New York and L.A. That said, it’s about half the size of its rivals, so we can’t go a full “3” here. score: 2.5 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf gets his share of flak, but he’s more MIA than SOB; he’s won his titles (in basketball and baseball) and is enjoying life on the golf course somewhere. In the meantime, he’s allowed the duo of John Paxson and Gar Forman to fumble around in the dark in hopes they may stumble upon a plan. They’ve gone back to drill sergeant mode with Jim Boylen, but there’s no telling if he’s the permanent solution past this next year. As a rookie, I wouldn’t love to start my career with a front office and staff on the rocks like this. score: 1.5 (of 5)
ROSTER. Immediately, we see some logjam here with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. playing heavy minutes at PF and C. That said, I wouldn’t claim it’s as mucky of a situation as you may suspect. Williamson should be able to fit with either Markannen or Carter, and those two can play in combination with each other. So if you slice up that evenly, you’d have 16 minutes of Zion+Lauri, 16 minutes of Zion+Carter, and 16 minutes of Lauri+Carter. All three bigs would play 32 minutes, which is about the range you’d want to target anyway.
While it’s theoretically possible, we still can’t claim that it’s ideal. Adding more complications is the fact that newly acquired Otto Porter Jr. should be playing some minutes as a smallball 4 as well. At the end of the day, the Bulls would most likely make some trades and clear up some space in the frontcourt. So while the talent and youth of this team is strong, the “fit” is less so. grade: 2.5 (of 5)
ATLANTA (10.5% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. Atlanta currently ranks # 9 in terms of urban centers, providing a nice platform for sports stars to shine. score: 2 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. This is a fresh-faced and modern front office, all the way down from new owner Anthony Ressler (arrived in 2015) to new GM Travis Schlenk (arrived in 2017) to new coach Lloyd Pierce (arrived in 2018). They don’t have a long track record, but early signs have been encouraging. grade: 3 (of 5)
ROSTER. If you were going to draw up a perfect pairing for a young star like Zion Williamson, you may come up with Trae Young. He’s an excellent spacer and passer who can thrive with Williamson on the offensive end. Fellow rookie Kevin Huerter also flashed promise as an additional spacer, which is exactly what you’d want around those two young cornerstones.
If there’s any hesitation here, it’d be whether or not Zion Williamson and PF John Collins clash in terms of skill set. As high fliers, Collins and Williamson would be an exciting tandem to watch, of course, but they may end up being too similar. Collins doesn’t have ideal length (6’11”) or shot blocking ability (0.6 per game) to hold down the center spot, and Williamson would be undersized for that as well. That said, if you value “position-less” basketball, you may want interchangeable pieces like that. score: 4 (of 5)
WASHINGTON (9.0% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. As mentioned, there’s a difference between a city population and a surrounding area. Washington, D.C. doesn’t have a huge population itself, but the DMV is a healthy market as a whole. score: 2 (of 3.)
ORGANIZATION. Owner Ted Leonsis finally snuffed out GM Ernie Grunfeld’s flame after a 15+ shaky years at the helm. You can certainly blame Leonsis for not acting sooner, although that type of long leash may appeal to potential execs. That new GM will have a tough decision of his own to make. Coach Scottie Brooks hasn’t shown much improvement at all in three years on the job; the clock is ticking there louder than the croc in Neverland. score: 2 (of 5)
ROSTER. If John Wall never got hurt, this would be an amazing fit across the board. Wall and Bradley Beal represent one of the best guard duos in the league, but have been let down by limited talent down low. With Zion Williamson acting as a third scorer and help defender, the Wizards would immediately vault back into the playoff picture.
Unfortunately, Wall is hurt, and due for an extravagant amount of money that will limit this team’s flexibility going forward. We have to ding them for that. That said, Bradley Beal is such a dynamic talent (averaging 25-5-5 at age 25) and such a great fit next to Zion Williamson that we can’t dismiss this destination as a solid one. grade: 3 (of 5)
NEW ORLEANS (6.0% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. New Orleans is an amazing city — one of the most unique and vibrant in the entire U.S. But if you’re selling a basketball star, it’s quite limited in terms of visibility and marketability. The population and wealth is on the low end of sports cities. score: 1 (of 3.)
ORGANIZATION. If we had to grade this a few months ago, the Pelicans may have landed dead last. Embattled GM Dell Demps failed to take advantage of Anthony Davis’ transcendent talent and lost the faith of his star in the process. But in his place, the team found a steadying influence in David Griffin; he may not be able to keep AD, but he can give the fans some hope of competence. score: 2 (of 5)
ROSTER. You have to wonder if a Hail Mary lottery win may cause Anthony Davis to change his mind about his leaving town. Davis and Zion Williamson would fit together on the court and provide one of the most athletic and dynamic frontcourts of all time. Along with Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore, the Pelicans could get back into the playoff groove again.
Even if Davis follows through on his trade demand, all won’t be lost. The team would presumably receive an influx of young talent that they could tailor around Williamson’s talent. Still, it won’t be easy to execute that plan. The team will be embracing a youth movement but will still have Jrue Holiday (28) and E’Twaun Moore (30) as competent vets. Moreover, Julius Randle (who has a player option but may return) doesn’t quite mesh with Williamson himself. He’s an undersized big himself who — while underrated as a passer — is basically Williamson with dead legs. There would be a lot of shuffling here that doesn’t make for a seamless fit. score: 2 (of 5)
MEMPHIS (6.0% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. In terms of NBA markets, Memphis is among the smallest and poorest in the league. score: 1 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. The Memphis Grizzlies finally made a sea change, demoting long-time GM Chris Wallace and dismissing short-time coach J.B. Bickerstaff. The process of finding their replacements is ongoing, so it’s hard to write this grade down in ink yet. Alas, that’s the exercise. score: 2 (of 5)
ROSTER. The most exciting element of a potential Zion Williamson walk down to Memphis would be the marriage with Jaren Jackson Jr. Jackson has more length and natural shooting ability, while Williamson has more of a natural attack dog in him. Together, they’d be an excellent fit.
Aside from Jackson, there’s not a huge amount of synchronicity here. Veteran PG Mike Conley may stick around, but this team won’t be good enough to make a playoff push (even with Williamson.) There’s not a ton of young talent around for a full born rebuild either aside from Jackson. But hey, a 1-2 punch like that is a nice starting place. score: 2.5 (of 5)
DALLAS (6.0% chance at # 1 pick), pick protected 1-5
MARKET. Dallas (Ft. Worth/Arlington) ranks 6th in terms of market size and could rise up to crack the top 5 soon. score: 2 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. The Dallas Mavericks have experienced a few embarrassing ethics scandals behind the scenes, but those don’t affect the players’ side of the building. And from that end, all is well. Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league, and Mark Cuban invests in the team. score: 4 (of 5)
ROSTER. Break up the Mavs! If Dallas defies the lottery odds and somehow lands Zion Williamson (age 19) to join with their other young stars Luka Doncic (age 20) and Kristaps Porzingis (23), then we could be seeing the start of a new dynasty brewing.
I particularly like the fit of Williamson and Porzingis in the frontcourt. The two aspects that Williamson lacks — height/length and shooting — can be filled by the Zinger. And on the opposite end, Williamson is a raw ball of steel that can bully people away from the more fragile Porzingis.
The fit with Luka Doncic would be good as well, and potentially great once Doncic solidifies his shooting touch. Doncic’s form looks good, but he’s still inconsistent in terms of results (he slumped from 34.8% to 26.4% after the All-Star break from beyond the arc.) Still, he is a gifted passer and prodigy of a player that any young forward would be happy to play along side. score: 4.5 (of 5)
MINNESOTA (3.0% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. It’s a good thing that Zion Williamson is 280 pounds because he may need that thickness to survive up north. Again, we’re not ranking lifestyles because that’s subjective (Minnesota is cold but the people are sweet as hell). In terms of pure market size, Minneapolis + St. Paul is about average. score: 2 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. Turns out, the Tom Thibodeau experiment did not end well. But let’s be honest — at the time, it felt like a great move for the franchise. They landed a veteran and defensive-minded coach to help develop their young kids. I can’t really fault owner Glen Taylor for signing off on that. In response, the team looks likely to vacillate the other direction and keep uber-young Ryan Saunders. The team likes him, but the resume is admittedly thin. score: 2 (of 5)
ROSTER. Somehow, some way, we have a # 1 pick putting up obscene stats (24-12 with a 62% true shooting mark) that may be slipping under the radar. But make no mistake: Karl-Anthony Towns is a phenomenal talent who still has All-NBA potential if the supporting cast improves. Obviously, Zion Williamson would help in that endeavor quite a bit. Williamson’s ability to recover and help on defense would be ideal for KAT, while KAT’s shooting ability would serve Williamson well on the offensive end. It’s a potential fearsome combo.
As always, the other # 1 pick is long going to be a source of contention for this club, and potentially an expensive albatross hanging around their neck. You have to worry that Andrew Wiggins (the rare no 3 no D wing) would clog up the court for their two studs down low. As a result, he dings what would be a higher score otherwise. score: 3 (of 5)
L.A. LAKERS (2.0% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. Again, we’re not weighing in lifestyle, so Zion Williamson’s desire to play in Los Angeles may depend on how much he likes pretty weather, pretty girls, and pretty gnarly traffic. But in terms of market size and marketing potential? This is a (vegan) cash cow. score: 3 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. Historically the Los Angeles Lakers have a luster that only the Boston Celtics can rival, but this isn’t the 1980s. This isn’t the early 2000s. The current Lakers are, quite frankly, a mess. There are warring camps — leaks to the press — and a superstar who is filling the space in that power vacuum. It’s a situation filled with all sorts of land mines. score: 1 (of 5)
ROSTER. LeBron James got plenty of flak this season for some lapses on defense and a perceived decline on the court. After all, he didn’t average his signature 27-7-7. He averaged 27-8–8 instead. At age 34. The man is a superhuman, and still one of the top 5 players in the game (conservatively.) He will certainly lose a step or two as he ages, but that may suit a rising talent like Zion Williamson. James can take some pressure off Williamson now, before handing the baton to him down the road (in theory.)
Do LeBron James and Zion Williamson actually fit together on the court? They have enough talent to make it work, although it’s not an ideal match. Both are power (emphasis on power) forwards with average shooting abilities. Defensively, you’d worry about one of the two having to chase wings around the perimeter too often. They may be better off embracing a true position-less style and shedding a traditional center. If they do that, they would have extra space to work and could let the alley-oops fly.
In terms of “fit,” Zion Williamson seems like a solid fit for the Lakers’ younger core. He can run and gun with Lonzo Ball, and help provide some muscle for Brandon Ingram. Overall, this is a pretty good match, with some spacing concerns to monitor if the young bucks can’t improve in that regard. score: 3.5 (of 5)
CHARLOTTE (1.0% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. In terms of market size, Charlotte is on the lower end of sports cities, ranking in the 30s among the U.S. overall. In fact, there are a handful of larger markets that don’t have teams. score: 1 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. In my mind, Michael Jordan = greatest basketball player of all-time. Unfortunately, those skills don’t always translate to team building or ownership traits. The franchise has struggled to find its footing, with current GM Mitch Kupchak and the team caught in basketball purgatory. score: 1.5 (of 5)
ROSTER. As mentioned, the Charlotte Hornets find themselves stuck in the muck and mire and unable to dig themselves out or pick a “lane” (contend or rebuild.) If they land Zion Williamson, does that tilt the scales in either direction? Probably — but it’s hard to tell which. The Hornets could utilize the marketabilty of Williamson to justify re-signing Kemba Walker. Still, Kemba Walker + rookie Zion most likely would still not be enough to make playoff waves. Remember, it’s hard for rookies (even Williamson) to be hugely positive players right out of the gate.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s not a ton of young talent here to jumpstart the rebuild either. In theory, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges could fit with Williamson, but neither have flashed star talent in the NBA yet. If they let Walker go, Williamson may be caught in a long-haul rebuild in Charlotte. score: 2 (of 5)
MIAMI (1.0% chance at # 1 pick)
MARKET. Miami — like Washington, D.C. — boosts its value with surrounding areas as much as the population of the city limits itself. Judged through that lens, it’s about average in terms of market size. score: 2 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. Pat Riley made a rare miscalculation when he overpaid to lock in this current core, but overall we cannot argue with the track record. He is one of the better execs in the game, and Erik Spoelstra is one of the best coaches. The current roster may not be able to take advantage of that, but they have established a top notch culture here. score: 4 (of 5)
ROSTER. The Miami Heat are passing the mantle from the Goran Dragic – Hassan Whiteside group over to the younger players like Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Bam Adebayo. Winslow in particular appears to be a nice fit with Zion Williamson. Both are athletic ball-movers who can play rugged defense. Neither are elite shooters, but a wing like Richardson can help provide additional spacing there (on an awesome contract.)
If there’s a question mark here, it would be the “upside” of that group. It’s doubtful that Winslow, Richardson, or Adebayo will be All-NBA performers down the road, which makes you wonder whether Williamson would be able to help lead this team to deep playoff contention. He may need a second star to truly thrive. score: 2 (of 5)
PHILADELPHIA (1.0% chance at # 1 pick via SAC)
To clarify, this pick would come via Sacramento. The Kings will most likely send their pick to Boston, but if it happens to land at # 1, then it switches over to Philadelphia.
MARKET. With a population in the top 10 among U.S. urban areas, Philadelphia represents a solid market for a pro athlete. score: 2 (of 3)
ORGANIZATION. Behind the scenes, the “Process” has been like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, with two general managers getting ousted for quite different circumstances. Brett Brown has been the constant, although he may also be on the rocks himself if the team underachieves this playoff season. Presuming he sticks around, the tandem of Brown and GM Elton Brand is a decent infrastructure. Still, a rookie would love to play for a coach who hasn’t heard his name floated in rumors (even poorly reported ones.) score: 2 (of 5)
ROSTER. When you consider the idea of a # 1 talent heading to a 51 win team, you automatically figure it would lead to a talent overload and a potential dynasty. It may, but this particular pairing would be a little more complicated than that. As mentioned, Williamson is not a good shooter yet, which could further clog an already clogged up half-court offense.
Of course, there are plenty of positives as well. Ben Simmons and Zion Williamson would be a terror in transition. Williamson would also offer the team some flexibility in terms of their roster construction. Right now, they may feel obligated to pay huge money to retain their newly acquired stars Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. If you could pencil in Williamson as a starter at PF, then the team has the luxury of keeping whichever they view as the best long-term fit. And if you keep all three, then it helps improve a team depth that has been tested by those trades. The shooting would still be a huge issue, but athleticism and raw talent cures a lot of sins. score: 3.5 (of 5)
After that process, we have the following rankings (with several ties, listed in alphabetical order)
(1) Dallas Mavericks: 10.5 points
(t2) Atlanta Hawks: 9.0 points
(t2) New York Knicks: 9.0 points
(4) Miami Heat: 8.0 points
(t5) L.A. Lakers: 7.5 points
(t5) Minnesota Timberwolves: 7.5 points
(t5) Philadelphia 76ers: 7.5 points
(8) Washington Wizards: 7.0 points
(9) Chicago Bulls: 6.5 points
(t10) Phoenix Suns: 5.5 points
(t10) Memphis Grizzlies: 5.5 points
(t12) Cleveland Cavaliers: 5.0 points
(t12) New Orleans Pelicans: 5.0 points
(14) Charlotte Hornets: 4.5 points
I tried not to tinker around with those rankings after that fact and allow the “method” to stand on its own. At first blush, Miami may seem a little high and perhaps New Orleans is too low if indeed they can convince Anthony Davis to stick around (or bring in a huge haul for him.) And of course, some of the organization and roster grades would change based on how the offseason shakes out.