After three years of embarrassing tanking, GM Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder have returned to relevance. They came into the NBA Lottery with the sixth-best odds at the top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft and ended up with the second pick in the draft. The Orlando Magic won the first pick and will have first dibs to add one of the top four prospects to their impressive core, including Franz and Mo Wagner, Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba, Wendall Carter Jr., and Markelle Fultz. The Houston Rockets will pick third, the Sacramento Kings at fourth, and the Detroit Pistons round out the top five.
But the real story in the top five is the Thunder. Since breaking up the Chris Paul-led overachieving 2020 team, Presti’s tank job has been blatantly perverse. In back-to-back seasons he’s benched his stars to improve his odds at Lottery luck, coming up with phantom injuries as excuses. To be frank, it’s been despicable. Not since Sam Hinkie’s “Process” rebuild has there been such a gross undertaking at Lottery desperation.
All that being said, Presti has amassed the largest war chest of future picks and built one of the best young cores in the process. Now he will choose from the top three best players in this year’s top-heavy draft, all big men: forward Jabari Smith of Auburn, center Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga, and forward Paolo Banchero of Duke. All three fill the Thunder’s biggest need, an inside/outside big man capable of defending multiple positions and keeping defenders honest from the perimeter. Whoever they choose will join Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, and last year’s draft gem Josh Giddey. Any of these three players will be a welcome front court addition to an already budding team. The crowd’s reaction at the team’s Down to Dunk party in Oklahoma City showed the rabid enthusiasm of the small-market Thunder. By adding one of these studs to the Thunder’s elite culture-building and player development, damn, a playoff berth could come as soon as next season.
Best of all, the tank should be officially DOA.
Looking at the Magic’s roster, Chet Holmgren makes the most sense. He would see lots of crisp passes and accurate lobs during his rookie season. The Magic have an exciting collection of perimeter shooters who have just needed a big with Holmgren’s unique skill set, a skinnier version of what Nikola Jokić brings in terms of a bag of tricks. Plus, he can nail the three. He shot 39 percent in his one-and-done college season. Holmgren could be the “unicorn” Kristaps Porzingus was promised to be if he wasn’t a bum.
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Smith seems to be the perfect fit for the Thunder, who have the length on the perimeter to play small. For example, Smith could play as a small-ball center or slot in at the four if the Thunder go after Deandre Ayton. Such a trade makes too much sense on paper, considering the bevy of draft picks the Thunder own for the next decade. However, adding an athletic, switchable big like Smith would complete Presti’s vision of positionless basketball better than any other prospect envisioned to go in the Lottery. Smith shot 42 percent from three in his lone college season.
Paolo Banchero would give the Houston Rockets a bucket-getter on the perimeter to complete Jalen Green and Aperen Şengün, two of Houston’s excellent picks last year. The Rockets are thin on big perimeter talent. Banchero would slot in perfectly. They also are in a weird transitional space while veterans Eric Gordon, Christin Wood, and John Wall still occupy roster spots, for now. Adding Banchero would pivot the Rockets’ trajectory firmly in rebuild mode and allow him to feast on the minutes upfront once Wood is moved in a trade.
Purdue guard Jaden Ivey has been grouped with the other three top prospects as interchangeable in the top-four selection for the last few weeks. That is until today. ESPN had him ranked sixth in their mock draft immediately after the Lottery was announced. This is partly because we know where teams will pick. But, after the top three, things get interesting. Every team picking between first and seventh is set at point guard.
A team like Detroit could decide to go small at the shooting guard spot and pair Ivey with Cade Cunningham. However, if Ivey falls on draft night, you can bet he won’t go past New Orleans at eight. Under GM David Griffin, the Pelicans have elite talent at every position but point guard and could even try to move up to secure Ivey’s services. They have the second most future draft picks after the Thunder, and trade assets galore. Perhaps Zion Williamson is enticed to commit to the Pelicans if Ivey is running the show.
The Pacers at sixth and Trail Blazers at seventh are both non-committal to a full rebuild. Either could trade their pick for an established veteran or hold on to it and take someone who could help them now. Teams at the bottom, like the New York Knicks or Washington Wizards, could look to trade for Ivey, as both teams are desperate for a lead guard.
As aforementioned, this draft is top-heavy, and many of the players projected to go in the bottom half of the draft have little intel or inconsistent resumes. The talent level is nowhere near the excellence of last year’s class, and we could see a flurry of Draft night trades, shaking up the pecking order we have only come to know.
One thing is for sure, the teams who will be picking in the top five, the Magic, Thunder, Rockets, Kings, and Pistons, have all developed nice young cores in the past few drafts. Each of them will be adding a solid young prospect this summer. Each of them will draw closer to escaping Lottery poverty and entering the relevance of the Play-In competition. For die-hard fans of these small-market teams, that’s something to look forward to. Just as Adam Silver intended when he changed the Lottery odds to discourage purposeful losing, tanks aren’t meant to last forever.
Here’s the draft order from 1-14:
- Orlando Magic
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Houston Rockets
- Sacramento Kings
- Detroit Pistons
- Indiana Pacers
- Portland Trail Blazers
- New Orleans Pelicans (via Lakers)
- San Antonio Spurs
- Washington Wizards
- New York Knicks
- Oklahoma City Thunder (via Clippers)
- Charlotte Hornets
- Cleveland Cavaliers