The NBA’s new odds format did the job of scrambling the draft order. Four teams played especially horrendous basketball last season, and of those four teams, three were bounced out of the draft’s top four selections. This was satisfying. The Cavaliers, represented by Nick Gilbert, dropped to fifth, where their prize will be one of Duke’s trumped-up non-Zions. The Suns, represented by a very bored-looking DeAndre Ayton, dropped to sixth, which frankly is as close as they should ever get to another opportunity to bring blue-chip talent into their circus act.
In combination with the presence of a generational talent to juice the top pick, the relatively flattened odds produced a surprisingly dramatic lottery show. The first oh damn moment came early enough to be disorienting, when the Timberwolves were announced with the 11th pick, indicating the Lakers, who had the 11th best lottery odds, had jumped into the top four. This volatility of the order—three teams defied their odds and jumped into the top four—gave the event a kind of unpredictable thrill, as lightly contemplated ramifications and trajectories suddenly had to be reconsidered or imagined on the fly. Everyone had sort of guessed how the top of the draft might shake out in June with the worst teams in the primo spots, but suddenly the possibility of the Lakers scoring the top pick had to be factored into their pursuit of Anthony Davis. And then the possibility of the Pelicans scoring the top pick had to be factored into their mandate to trade Anthony Davis! This was, for a moment, lots of fun.
It was also possible at the commercial break, when picks five through 14 had been laid out, to suspect the long arm of the NBA had broken into the lotto ball machine and screwed with the order. The Lakers jumping into the lottery the year after they’d scored LeBron James in free agency felt almost too perfect; the hard-luck Knicks being the only team of the top four to survive the odds upheaval seemed like the kind of thing that fate alone would never produce, but would suit the NBA’s business interests just fine. Even the Pelicans seemed conspicuous, with the 2018–19 regular season blighted by Davis’s trade demand and New Orleans desperately in search of something positive for its jilted market to grab onto. Only the Grizzlies wouldn’t seem to fit very neatly into any obvious fix scenario, on their own. But if you accept the premise that the lottery is rigged, it’s possible to explain the Grizzlies as, essentially, window dressing—the NBA can’t be rigging the lottery, because they’d never put Memphis at the top.
But then, the bad news. Of the four finalists to score Zion Williamson, an indifferent universe reached down and selected the Pelicans, who suck, and who, by winning the lottery, have put the NBA immediately into a suckier condition. If Zion goes there, he’ll spend the first four years of his career working for the half-assed sideline operation of a football team. No one who is not a New Orleans Pelicans fan should be at all enthusiastic about this arrangement. This clip should churn your guts!
Zion to the Pelicans doesn’t even especially advance the league’s emphasis on parity, which incidentally is the only vaguely defensible argument in favor of even having a player draft. Instead of Williamson finding his way onto a rebuilding team prepared to remake itself in his image, he goes to a dysfunctional also-ran in the NBA’s deep and merciless Western Conference, where he instantly becomes the cheap replacement for the generational talent the franchise just spent seven years chasing off. Instead of pulling a long-suffering fanbase out of the hell of irrelevance, or giving a fresh identity to a team that did an admirable job squeezing all the juice out of the last one, his arrival in New Orleans signals, in the most realistic scenario, the beginning of a team teardown.
Pelicans fans have barely tasted the kind of misery that can only be relieved by the hope that comes from a player of Zion’s talents. That team deserves to spend half a decade wandering in the NBA’s hinterlands, churning out grueling 22-win seasons. The organization is as crummy as the Knicks, but without the pathos. They’re as small-time as the Grizzlies, but without the diehards. They’re as doomed as the Kings, but without the pluck. They’re as irrelevant as the Hawks, but with a fraction of the promise. Zion will be fun wherever he goes, but he deserves better than the Pelicans, and the league would’ve been in better shape if just about any other team had landed at the top of the lottery. Whoever’s in charge of rigging the NBA needs to rig harder, dammit.