Zion Williamson is going to be the first overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft. What follows is a reasoned and near-scientific ranking of all NBA teams in order of how cool it would be if they had Williamson as a rookie. Only 14 teams are actually in the running to win the draft lottery for the right to select Zion, but there’s nothing that says those are the 14 most interesting or best places he could land, and anyway it’s my damn blog. So this ranking has all 30 NBA teams. Deal with it!
It’s been a long time since the Nets have had and used their own first-round draft pick. Since 2013 (the last time they used their own first-round pick), Brooklyn’s first-rounders have fallen 17th, 15th, 3rd, 1st, and 8th in the draft order, but each has been used by some other NBA team. There’s an argument to be made that those picks were cursed—they’ve been used to select, in order, James Young, Kelly Oubre Jr., Jaylen Brown, Markelle Fultz, and Collin Sexton. If you put all five of those players in the transporter from The Fly at the same time, the player that walked out of the pod would be Iman Shumpert. Still, that’s a long time to go without your own draft pick.
The team’s current leadership has done a pretty incredible job working around that deficit to build a respectable basketball program. What they’re missing is a superstar. Now that Brooklyn is back to having its own draft pick, lo and behold, there’s a genuinely rare and perhaps unprecedented physical marvel headed for the 2019 draft class. Great timing!
Except this is also the year Brooklyn’s long and creative and disciplined grind back to relevance finally paid off in the standings, with a feisty and cohesive roster playing smart and winning basketball. The Nets are one of the handful of best-coached and best-run basketball operations in the league, and their players look like they are having a blast playing an extremely fun brand of basketball. Those characteristics make them really fun to imagine as a home for Zion, where he could run terrifying pick-and-rolls with Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAngelo Russell, and grab loose balls off emphatic Jarrett Allen blocks and run unstoppable fast breaks, and immediately be a part of a perennial playoff team. Alas, those characteristics also earned the Nets a playoff berth, and so they will not have a lottery pick. Womp womp.
Masai Ujiri and the razor-sharp Toronto Raptors turned Pascal Siakam into a solidly middle class man’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s legitimately frightening to think of what they could do with a player of Zion’s athletic and physical gifts. The Raptors haven’t missed the playoffs since 2013, though, and barring catastrophe will not miss the playoffs again while any four of their current players remain on the team. (Side note: Literally any four current Raptors would make for a better core than what the Wizards have today. Dammit.) Absent a blockbuster trade, the Raptors have no chance of securing the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have needed another legitimate star-type player to push them into championship contention ever since LaMarcus Aldridge left, and maybe even earlier. They are not likely to land one while Damian Lillard is still on the team, in part because they will never be bad enough to hit the top of the lottery, and in part because apparently no one who does not already play for the Blazers has any interest in doing so. Zion would be amazing as an interior wrecking ball playing alongside Lillard and C.J. McCollum, on a very good team coached by a true genius, and would give Lillard reason to hope for a real shot at a championship in Portland. Darn.
Zion Williamson is already fun enough without acclimatizing him to high altitude, giving him a tiny bit less gravity to fight against, and putting him on a team with the best passing big man in the history of basketball. Imagine replacing Paul Millsap with this guy:
Too bad the Nuggets are out of the lottery.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are The Bully and The Favorite and The Team That Currently Employs Kevin Durant. This would very much be the rich getting richer, and would very likely extend this period of virtually irrelevant regular seasons indefinitely. But the fact is, Zion would spend the first part of his career doing amazing shit next to at least one of the, oh, seven basketball players on earth capable of matching him as a pure spectacle. He would be a ridiculous, downright unfair replacement for an aging and possibly departing Draymond Green.
He would play for an excellent coach, and win several championships, and have a tremendous time doing it. It would hurt quite a lot for the rest of us. But we would also get the satisfaction of knowing we’d seen Peak Zion. Thankfully, there’s zero chance of this actually happening.
The Heat are another team that could stand to land a bonafide star player, as a cosmic reward for doing really well without one in the years since LeBron left town. But the real juice comes from Miami’s conditioning program. Erik Spoelstra has a reputation for whipping his players (non-Hassan Whiteside division) into absolute peak physical form. In Zion’s case, that’s a scary thing to imagine. He’s already built like a Humvee; under Spoelstra, he might become a being of pure alien alloys. And now that Justise Winslow is coming around, the prospect of a Winslow-Zion-Josh Richardson core is tantalizing.
The Heat are currently just behind in tie-breakers for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff pack. Making the playoffs will mean a merciless clubbing at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks; missing the playoffs means an outside chance at landing a generational prospect. You know what to do, Pat Riley.
The Mavericks already have Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis, and nabbing Zion would give them a third exciting young core player. That trio would be unspeakably cool to watch on a nightly basis, assuming Porzingis recovers from the crab-meating of his knee and the stain of having played for the New York Knicks. Imagine Porzingis and Zion setting a humongous, Black Gate of Mordor-esque double screen for Dončić above the top of the key, and all the mind-boggling possibilities such a scenario would present. They were eliminated from the playoffs a while ago, and while they owe their 2019 first round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks, it’s protected for picks one through five. If they were to land the top pick, they’d get to keep it.
The Hawks are playing respectable basketball under Lloyd Pierce. They’re not yet good, but Trae Young is wildly entertaining, and John Collins does cool things, and Kevin Huerter is worth keeping an eye on. It’s easy to imagine Zion getting onto the end of one of these:
The downside here is the risk that Young’s ceiling might be more Devin Booker than Damian Lillard, and that Zion would thereafter be stuck on a perennially irrelevant franchise, playing in front of apathetic fans and without a clear path to contending. We have enough of those guys already, with Karl-Anthony Towns fading into obscurity in Minnesota and Anthony Davis desperately grasping for a lifeline out of New Orleans.
The Hawks will have a decent chance at getting the draft’s top pick. Of the teams about whom that can be said, they are by far the best option.
Memphis already has one building block for the future in Jaren Jackson Jr., who rules. He and Zion would make for an amazing young duo, especially so soon after the Grizzlies finally threw in the towel on competing for playoff spots in the loaded West. The Grizzlies would still be at least a couple years and many useful players away from being, you know, good, but they’d certainly be pointed in the right direction. And there’s always the chance that in Memphis Zion’s body would veer away from a Spoelstra-moulded pillar of rock and toward that of former Grizzlies great Zach Randolph, nurtured by a hearty Memphis diet. Possibly the only thing more impressive than Zion with three percent body fat would be Zion with 30 percent body fat. How heavy would Zion have to get before he became just an average athlete? 350 pounds? 400? The mind reels at the possibilities.
The Grizzlies are tied for the sixth-worst record in the NBA, and will have a small chance at securing the top pick in the draft.
Victor Oladipo, when healthy, is one of the most ferocious athletes in basketball. It’s cool to think of a recovered Oladipo sharing a lineup with a guy who is essentially a version of the player Oladipo was coming out of Indiana in 2013, only much, much larger. The dunks would be very good.
Giannis and Zion too would do many cool dunks together. Giannis might be the only basketball player on earth who can match Zion for just sheer athletic absurdity.
It’d be a weird pairing, spacing-wise, and would possibly muck up the unstoppable Giannis-plus-shooters offense Mike Budenholzer is running these days, which is most of what has made the Bucks into an absolute buzzsaw of a regular season team this year. It would still be worth it, if only to test the structural soundness of NBA hoop technology.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs went from having one of the most impressive athletes in basketball in Kawhi Leonard, to having a team oriented around DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay, three very good players who are just not at all interesting to watch in an NBA game. Of course the Spurs are still professional as hell and competitive each night, but it’s not much of a surprise that the local ratings for Spurs games have dropped by 34 percent this season. Zion would make them a whole lot more fun to watch, and he would be going to the most stable and well-run of franchises. The Spurs, in true Spurs fashion, have surged their way up the West standings, so they’re out.
The Kings have been eliminated from the playoffs, which means they will have a very tiny chance of landing the top overall pick. If they beat the odds and score the pick, it will go to the 76ers. So the Kings will not be drafting Zion Williamson.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have some cool young players, in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac. And they’ve been pretty damn good in this post-Chris Paul, post-Blake Griffin, post-DeAndre Jordan, post-Tobias Harris, post-Boban Marjanović period. Zion and Harrell would be a hoot on the court together, provided they could get out of each other’s way around the basket.
It’s actually not at all fun to imagine Zion Williamson standing around in the dunker spot with a thousand-yard stare while James Harden spends 14 seconds at a time dribbling into 15 step-back three-pointers a night. Anyway, the Rockets will not have a chance to draft Zion.
Oklahoma City Thunder
No team in the NBA has less need for and less of a clue how to handle another physically gifted interior player with idiosyncrasies in his offensive game than the Magic. More than anything, Orlando needs a point guard who can play some damn basketball. They traded for Markelle Fultz, so that problem is very much not solved. The Magic are locked in a race for the final spot in the East playoff field. In the unlikely event that they land the top pick, they’d need to do some huge roster shuffling in order to make any sense at all out of their roster. This paragraph has already spent more words on the Magic than they deserve in a year.
Last season the Timberwolves won 47 games and made the playoffs out of the West. This season they will be lucky to win 37 games, and they’ve already been eliminated from playoff contention. It’s amazing that a team with Karl-Anthony Towns on it can feel so completely irrelevant, but then you remember that last season was the first time they’d made the playoffs in 14 years. The Timberwolves were born in irrelevance, moulded by it. To them their brief brush with relevance was nothing but blinding.
The Hornets have a cheapskate owner, have squandered the career of their one star player, and it’s impossible to imagine them ever dragging themselves to NBA relevance. On top of that, Zion going here would involve him staying in North Carolina, which would no doubt be thrilling for the many disgusting Duke fans that already root for the guy. Unacceptable. The Hornets are on the brink of playoff elimination, so there’s a very slim chance of this.
Los Angeles Lakers
For one, the Lakers have poisoned almost every one of the prized young players who’d made up their promising core as recently as last season. It seems incredible now, but those guys once looked pretty good! Now they look like soggy potato chips. Secondly, as great as LeBron James is and has been, what exactly would be Zion Williamson’s job on a court with LeBron? Would he be Tristan Thompson? Would his bricky jump shot muck up LeBron’s spacing? Would the pressure of playing alongside LeBron—of being positioned as LeBron’s heir apparent—turn him into a head case? LeBron has a way of exiling players who don’t fit his style of play, and the Lakers have a way of turning promising young dudes into mud. An awful combination.
The current 76ers work best as villains. Zion is entirely too likable for them. Besides, Joel Embiid would never again set foot in the paint on offense if he had to share the court with both Ben Simmons and Zion Williamson.
Philadelphia’s chances of landing Zion are extremely remote, and require that the Kings jump 12 or 13 other teams to snag the top pick, which would then go to Philadelphia.
A hideously mismanaged organization that also already has its front court of the future, in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., plus an authoritarian shit-bag of a head coach. No thank you!
A hideously mismanaged organization that would have no idea what to do with this incredible bounty, and would immediately turn around and trade him and a future second-round pick for Doug McDermott.
New York Knicks
There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe this would go differently in any way from the way things went down with their last transformative talent. And in a worst-case scenario, Zion would arrive in town just as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant join the team, adding strong notes of cheesebutt to the stench of the organization’s usual dysfunction. The Knicks are a toxic bog.
The NBA should make it impossible for the Cavs to snag another number one overall draft pick for at least the next five years.
The Suns are on a four-year run of futility that would be incredible if it weren’t so endlessly depressing. They’ve had plenty of chances in the draft to get their team pointed in anything resembling the right direction, and what they’ve got to show for it is hope that once again next year will be the year they maybe approach league average in any metric of team success. The last thing they deserve is Zion Williamson.
Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens would have Zion taking eight to 14 shots on exactly 26 minutes of run a night, and he would stop developing as a player exactly at the final buzzer of his 90th NBA game, and from that point forward he would become a Trade Asset. No thank you.
Getting hit by a car
New Orleans Pelicans