Which NBA Lottery Team Could Become a Playoff Contender in 2018 With a Top-3 Pick?
Sometimes, good favor is all you need to turn something around. Whether it's your day, week or life, one unexpected thing could change a person's entire outlook.
The same thing goes for NBA teams.
Outside of the Brooklyn Nets (sorry, Nets fans), each of the 14 non-playoff teams are hoping for that one element of luck to play out in their favor in this May's draft lottery. Some teams with greater statistical odds require less luck than others, but for some teams at the back of the lottery, the odds aren't in their favor. So, all they have to hope for is good fortune.
Those teams are: the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat (at this point in time). Based on win percentage and corresponding draft odds, those six teams make up picks 9 through 14 and not one of them has better than a 6.1% chance of landing a top-three pick, per Tankathon.
However, if there's a perfect storm and one of them is to overcome the odds, which of these six teams is most likely to make the leap to playoff team next year?
The Heat are the obvious choice because they're still in the playoff hunt right now. That doesn't seem fair, though, considering they are already a playoff-caliber team who has played most of their season without Justise Winslow, who has missed 64 games due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Add to that the fact that Dion Waiters has missed 36 games and you get a good idea about where the Heat will be next year under the leadership of head coach Erik Spoelstra.
By this year's performance, the Nuggets would be next in line. They're going to finish just a couple games short of the 8 seed in the West and have developed a star in Nikola Jokic. The issue is they don't really need another player.
They have a stacked young nucleus that looks poised to make a run at the playoffs again next year.
You can't say the same for the Pistons -- after winning 44 games and making the playoffs a season ago, they will finish roughly four games short of that goal in 2016-17. The future seems up for debate at this time, too. There have already been trade rumors around Reggie Jackson and grumblings about Andre Drummond's fit in Detroit have now begun.
Even with a top pick, there's no way to say the Pistons will be as good as they were this year, let alone a playoff team in the ever-improving East.
The Hornets are much more of a realistic beneficiary. Led by Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum, they have a proven group of players. With everyone contractually wrapped up, though, there's no room for a youngster to come in and play more than 20 or so minutes per game.
It doesn't look like the Hornets are ready to admit defeat with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and they have a logjam of talent down low, so how much would a higher pick really matter?
The Mavericks still have Dirk Nowitzki, and some young talent in Yogi Ferrell and Harrison Barnes, but their mark will probably be made in free agency. According to The Vertical, the Mavericks will enter the offseason with just over $59 million in guaranteed salaries.
Therefore, the team's outlook will be dependent upon what moves they make to surround Nowitzki and Barnes.
New Orleans Pelicans
Despite a projected 34-48 finish, the Pelicans make a lot of sense. Since trading for DeMarcus Cousins in late February, they have gone just 10-13, but according to NBA.com, their net rating of 3.1 in the last 15 games is 5.4 higher than their mark of -2.3 before the trade. That's a difference of 13 spots (from 22nd to 9th) in the NBA ranks. And we don't have to dive too deep into the talent level of Cousins and Anthony Davis.
All this being said, the Pelicans appear to be the best match for an elite, young talent.
In returning to the Cousins trade, the Pelicans' package contained their 2017 first-round pick. Where many people thought the deal went overboard was in the protection attached to that pick. In exchange for a player of Cousins' elite level, there probably should not have been any protection on it at all, but general manager Dell Demps managed a top-three protection for this summer's upcoming draft. So, if the ping pong balls play out just right, the Pelicans will avoid surrendering their top pick until at least 2018.
Again, if this situation were to play out, it would greatly benefit the franchise. Chief among any and all motives is to increase the firepower around Cousins and Davis, something New Orleans is in desperate need of after a season like this.
By nERD (our in-house metric that tells us how many games a league-average team would be above or below .500 with that player as one of their starters), here's a look at the breakdown of the Pelicans' individual performances in 2016-17.
Outside of the big two, there isn't much to positively speak about.
In his short time with the team, Jordan Crawford, with averages of 14.2 points and 2.7 assists per game, has been a welcome sight for a team ranked 26th in offensive rating. Then, there's Jrue Holiday, who has performed well when considering he missed the team's first 12 games to tend to his wife's health complications. With Holiday, though, he becomes a free agent at the end of this season, so he could be headed elsewhere.
The majority of the Pelicans roster has performed at a below-average efficiency and are in need of help in any form they can get it. Thankfully, they have a long shot of landing a sizable upgrade from this year's draft class.
Fultz and Ball are both combo-guard prospects. This year, Fultz showed off elite scoring (23.4 points per 36 minutes) coupled with peripheral production of 6.0 assists and 5.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. In contrast, Ball was an above-average scorer (14.9 points per 36), but he was excellent as a distributor (7.8 assists per 36) and showcased his size in rebounding the ball at a rate of 6.2 rebounds.
Jackson and Tatum are both 6'8" and of similar build. They're more naturally going to fit as small forwards, but they could certainly be a more versatile four, a la Draymond Green. Either way, both were very productive in college.
While Jackson put up 19.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per 36, Tatum averaged 18.2 points and 7.9 rebounds. Each of them also tacked on at least 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks in 36 minutes of action.
With or without Cousins, the Pelicans have been terrible on the offensive boards and great on the defensive boards this season -- they rank 29th and 4th, respectively, on a per-game basis. Whereas they don't need much help on the defensive glass, assistance in securing a few more offensive boards per game could be key from a guard or small forward. This time next year, they could be a truly elite rebounding team.
Their biggest area of need has to be three-point shooting -- they are 19th in both three-point percentage (35.0%) and effective field goal percentage (50.4%) this season, which has to play a factor in the league's fifth-most inefficient offense.
Any of the four above players could be key to improving the Pelicans' offensive efficiency with their three-point capability. At 34.2% from three, Tatum is the least proven player as a shooter. Of the remaining three, Jackson shoots 37.8%, Ball's at 41.2% and Fultz leads with 41.3% from range. All four averaged over 1.0 three-pointer per contest on effective field goal percentages of 50.7% or higher.
But even if they're scared off by Tatum's lower shooting percentage, one other player of the four would be left at the three spot if New Orleans were to land it. And if they somehow get a top-two pick, they have an even better selection at their disposal.
No matter where it is, if the basketball gods bless the Pelicans with a top pick, it will likely make them a serious playoff contender in April of 2018. After all, an elite rebounding team with improved three-point shooting and a trio of offensive weapons sounds like a team to be reckoned with in today's NBA.