On Tuesday night, in a room packed with representatives from the 14 NBA lottery teams and under conditions of absolute secrecy and solemnity, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will pull four small ping pong balls out of a drum.
Leaving the bizarre ritualism of that act aside, the combination of numbers written on those four balls will determine which NBA team receives the destiny-shaping honour of selecting with the number 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
It’s widely accepted (barring a meltdown of epic proportions by the Phoenix Suns) that Duke product Zion Williamson will be the first player off the board when the time for drafting rolls around in June.
Zion is a generational talent; the kind of athlete who could change the entire direction of a basketball city. The impact of his presence on the NBA from the get-go will be akin to that of Durant in Oklahoma City in that late 2000s; LeBron in Cleveland in the mid 2000s; or Shaq in Orlando in the early 1990s.
His rare amalgamation of outrageous talent, ferocious work-ethic and cheerful charisma have the potential to pull a struggling franchise out of the mid-level doldrums in to primary NBA relevancy.
Any team with Zion on it becomes instantly marketable as a commercial product for the next five years, whether or not his presence even translates to short-term success on the hardwood.
That said, as much as we’re all in favour of equalisation (in theory), the simple truth is that no one outside of Charlotte really wants Zion on the Hornets. The Cavaliers have had their chance with generational top picks. Memphis? More like Meh-mphis.
As a big-picture basketball fan, there are some NBA teams which it would just be more entertaining to see Zion end up on than others.
So, out of the 14 lottery teams, who should you be rooting for to get the number 1 overall pick in the draft? Let’s find out!
5. Chicago Bulls (14.0% chance)
There would be something oh-so-poetic about basketball’s next “all-time calibre” prospect going to Chicago, exactly 25 years after the Bulls took North Carolina’s Michael Jordan with pick 3 in the 1984 draft.
The Bulls, without quite having the sheer scale of the Laker and Knick franchises, certainly have a claim to be one of the most storied in the NBA. The ghosts of their juggernaut teams of the 1990s appear on cue whenever the “next dynasty” apparently begins, and the debate over the GOATness of Jordan/LeBron will never be resolved.
Which is why there’s something so tantalising about the chance of Williamson’s jersey one day joining names like Jordan, Pippen and Rose in the rafters of the United Centre.
It’s an intangible sensation more than anything rational, but something inside us means we prefer our stars on teams with “history”.
The Chicago Bulls fit that mandate perfectly, and their current roster actually has the chance to become highly-competitive quickly in the East if it stays together.
Kris Dunn, Lauri Markaanen and Wendell Carter Jr are all on team-friendly deals for next season; Otto Porter Jr and Zach LaVine both have massive contracts but have played at a level which indicates they deserve that money; and Chicago has always been an attractive free agent destination.
A starting 5 of Dunn, LaVine, Porter Jr, Markaanen and Zion, with Carter Jr, Denzel Valentine, Antonio Blakeney and Shaq Harrison coming off the bench is a legitimate playoff chance, regardless of who they manage to add in free agency.
If you like your drafted stars to slot straight in to young teams with oodles of potential, then Chicago might just be your perfect Zion destination.
4. Atlanta Hawks (10.5% chance)
In the space of less than 6 months the Atlanta Hawks have the chance to pull off what looked next-to impossible back in November; going from league-wide laughing stock to everyone’s second favourite team.
Sitting with a record of 5-18 at the start of December, it looked for all money like 2019 was going to be a disastrous season for the franchise.
Rookie Trae Young (20 years old), who had already become infamous for being traded on draft night for the absurdly transcendent talent of Luka Doncic, was shooting the ball at less than 40% from the floor and committing turnovers at an alarming rate.
Then something clicked. From the 1st of December onwards the Hawks went a respectable 27-35. Young began to hit his trademark logo-level deep balls. John Collins (21 years old) exploded, averaging 20.4 points and 10.7 rebounds over the last 5 months of the year. Kevin Huerter (21 years old), the unlikely looking shooting guard out of Maryland saw his minutes and output spike, shooting 38% from three-point land on nearly 5 attempts per game.
With that core three, the ageless Vince Carter, the promising Taurean Prince, the serviceable Kent Bazemore and a resurgent Alex Len, the Hawks suddenly have a bright future.
Zion would be the perfect dollop of unmitigated stardom on top. His addition would give Atlanta the luxury of experimenting with a variety of line-up options – do they go small ball with he and Collins? Or bully-ball with those two + Len and Young and Huerter on the outside?
There are so many possibilities, all of them more intriguing than the last.
If you like long-range threes and unbridled athleticism around the rim, Atlanta is your perfect Zion destination.
3. New York Knicks (14.0% chance)
Kyrie. KD. Zion.
For long-suffering Knicks fans, three names have been pivoting on the edge of their collective consciousness for the last 8 months; so tantalising but so improbably spectacular that it feels crazy to even say all three in the same sentence.
There’s a distinct possibility that obtaining the first overall pick in the draft is the first domino in that wild dream becoming a reality.
The Knicks’ current roster does have a few bright sparks, but overall it’s pretty thin by NBA standards. Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr and Kevin Knox are all still on their rookie deals, they have a $3,551,100 team option on Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson (perhaps the best of the young bunch) is getting paid next to nothing and Henry Ellenson, Damyean Dotson and Lance Thomas will all likely return on small deals.
DeAndre Jordan’s expiring contract is a certainty to be let go, which will leave one of the biggest franchises in the league with well over $60 million in cap space.
The issue is that New York – more specifically any sports franchise owned by James Dolan – is not exactly an attractive free-agent destination. Winning the lottery would fundamentally change that.
What star in the league wouldn’t want an enormous amount of money, a life in one of the best cities in the world and the chance to team up with the most gifted prospect in a decade?
Old-school NBA fans know all too well that a Madison Square Garden populated by a competitive Knicks roster is one of the great sights in basketball. Love it or hate it, the success of basketball in New York will forever be intrinsically tied with the sport’s success worldwide.
Landing Zion might be the first major step in returning one of the most storied franchises in history to its rightful place at the top of the pantheon.
Or it could all implode in a screaming heap. Either way it’ll be entertaining.
2. Dallas Mavericks (6.0%)
If we could look in to a crystal ball and project one current NBA player whose gamestyle and skill-set would fit perfectly on the floor with Zion, it’d be Luka Doncic.
The second-best might just be Kristaps Porzingis.
Imagine Luka and Zion running pick and roll at the top of the key, with Porzingis dragging his opposing centre outside the paint by virtue of his lethal shooting ability from down-town.
That would be a unstoppable combination.
The Mavericks have over $30 million locked up in two atrocious Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jnr contracts for next season, but, even if those two can’t be traded, at least they offer decent outside shooting.
Zion with a clear runway through the paint is a terrifying thought for the entire NBA, and if he ends up in Dallas that’s exactly what might happen as soon as next year.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (2.0% chance)
If only there was a player in the NBA who’s experienced first-hand the unfathomable pressure and expectation that come with being heralded as “the best prospect since…”
If only there was a player in the league with mercurial athleticism, height and bulk, who’s progressively added an outside shot to go along with his elite natural passing and ability to finish at the rim.
If only there was a player in the league who, despite those freakish physical attributes, has paid so much attention to their body that they’ve almost never been injured in 18 years of professional basketball.
If only that player was coming in to the twilight of his career, still playing at an elite level and desperate for one more crack at a championship but also willing to impart his wisdom on to the next generation of talent.
Love him or hate him, there is (quite literally) no one on Earth more qualified to guide Zion through the limitless opportunities his natural talent has opened up for him than the greatest forward in the history of basketball.
LeBron Raymone James Sr.
Even leaving aside the possibilities that might eventuate long-term with a Zion/LeBron mentoring relationship, Zion would actually be a perfect basketball fit on this current Lakers roster.
Imagine a starting lineup of Lonzo Ball (or potentially Kyrie Irving…), LeBron, Brandon Ingram, Zion and a big man in the middle like JaVale McGee or Tyson Chandler, with Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma coming off the bench.
Exciting, right? A couple of handy free agent depth signings later, and that starts to look like a legitimate playoff squad rather than the rag-tag bunch of misfits we saw this season.
Written and produced for Sportstips.com by Eddie Dadds