Let’s change the rules of basketball a bit. Let’s pretend that, instead of having a draft, every college player who declared themselves eligible for the NBA were treated as an unrestricted free agent, meaning they could sign with whatever team they wanted. And in reverse, what if NBA teams knew they could sign these top rookies as free agents, and prepared their cap sheets accordingly? Who would snag the top prospects in the draft?
Here are the logical destinations for 10 of the best prospects in the actual 2017 draft, keeping in mind that the max for players in their first through sixth seasons is 25 percent of the cap (projected at $102 million, so $25.5 million). Not all of these players are getting the max, but at the very least Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz are.
Lonzo Ball: New York Knicks
The Lakers are the obvious fit due to Ball’s Los Angeles connection. But, how much would they be willing to pay him? Intelligent or not, they seem rather fixated on veteran stars right now. And signing Ball for close to the max would make it significantly harder to clear the necessary cap space to sign Paul George, Russell Westbrook and/or DeMarcus Cousins in 2018. So the Lakers probably punt on adding a top prospect in 2017 if there’s no cost certainty.
But LaVar Ball’s influence sure would seem to steer Lonzo towards a bigger market, and there’s none bigger than New York. Ball would give the Knicks both a franchise point guard and center to build around, making them arguably the most talented young team in basketball. His flashy passing would fit like a glove at Madison Square Garden. It seems like an ideal fit.
The Knicks are already within a stone’s throw of the first bracket max. They’d only have to dump around $1 million to get there, and there are a multitude of ways they could do it. A Carmelo Anthony trade, for example. Or finding a taker for one of their bench guys. If the worst-case scenario is dumping Willy Hernangómez to get Ball, I think that’s a pill the Knicks are willing to swallow.
But if, for whatever reason, it didn’t work out in Manhattan? Ball makes just as much sense across the bridge in Brooklyn, where the Nets have more than enough cap space to sign him and could feasibly create enough to bring in another young stud as well.
Markelle Fultz: Miami Heat
There’s no ideal fit for Fultz as there is for Ball, so it becomes a process of elimination.
The following teams already have a long-term primary ball-handler: Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto, Milwaukee, Chicago, Charlotte, New York (with Ball), Golden State, Houston, Utah, Clippers, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Portland.
That’s half of the league. Let’s knock the Lakers out as well for lack of interest (same reasons as above), the Nets, Magic, Suns, Kings and Sixers for lack of recent success (why join a rebuilding effort when you have the freedom to join any team you want?), the Pacers, Pistons, Nuggets and Wolves for market and the Spurs for likely not having the cap space (though they could create it if they really wanted to).
That leaves Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans and Miami. New Orleans has two superstars, but their situation is so uncertain given Boogie’s contract status. And, they might just prefer to keep a veteran point guard in Jrue Holiday to win immediately and convince Cousins to stay.
Atlanta and Dallas don’t have any young, foundational pieces. Miami has one in Hassan Whiteside, and a couple nice supporting pieces in Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. If they traded Goran Dragić to make room for Fultz in the lineup, they’d also be creating some extra cap space to potentially chase another high-end rookie. And hey, there’s no better recruiter in the league than Pat Riley. If he really wanted Fultz, odds are he’d find a way to get him.
Josh Jackson: Denver Nuggets
Jackson isn’t a big enough prospect to have serious concerns about the market he ends up in. Instead, he should be looking for the best basketball fit. That would mean joining a team with excellent shooting and ball-handling to help him ease into the league offensively while he dives right in as a high-end defender.
Well, Denver has a foundational center in Nikola Jokić, who both shoots and passes at a very high level. And in Jamal Murray, they appear to have a long-term shooter on the wing. But with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler seemingly on the way out, they need a wing to build around long-term.
Atlanta would love Jackson, but they don’t appear to have any legitimate young players for him to grow with. Indiana would make sense if they moved Paul George, but that’s an entirely different discussion. Portland doesn’t have the space to get him. The Suns are just a less promising version of Denver. The Nuggets just feel like a perfect fit.
Jayson Tatum: Atlanta Hawks
Here’s where Atlanta finds their wing. What they really need long-term is a potential No. 1 scorer. They haven’t had the kind of guy who could be that on a championship team since Dominique Wilkins. And with Mike Budenholzer as the coach, you can bet the Hawks would figure out how to maximize Tatum’s talents.
Brooklyn and Orlando are obvious candidates with the same long-term need, but are just less promising in a basketball sense. Oklahoma City is a great basketball fit, but won’t have the money. Philly would get in on Tatum if they couldn’t get a point guard. But that would be their first priority, and they likely wouldn’t be able to fully recruit Tatum with that in mind.
Dennis Smith Jr.: Dallas Mavericks
Just imagine an athlete like Smith playing for a coach like Rick Carlisle. It’s a match made in heaven, especially since the Mavericks really don’t have any players to build around long-term. Smith could spend a year learning under Dirk Nowitzki before taking over as the face of the franchise.
Many of the same old faces would be in on Smith: Philly, Brooklyn and Orlando. But Philly’s first target would be Malik Monk as they’d need his shooting. Moreover, Brooklyn and Orlando just aren’t as promising in basketball terms.
Malik Monk: Chicago Bulls
This is a heart-breaker for Philly, as Monk is the perfect point guard to play with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. But there’s so much uncertainty surrounding those two. If the Bulls would just openly commit to Jimmy Butler as the face of the franchise, that uncertainty wouldn’t exist in Chicago. It’s a bigger market with more of a history of success. And even if they paid Monk the max (which they likely wouldn’t) Chicago would still be looking at around $30 million in cap space. It’s just too great a fit for Monk to turn down.
Frank Ntilikina: Philadelphia 76ers
Philly just has to settle for the best point guard they can in France’s Ntilikina. He’s not the shooter that Monk is, but he projects as a great defensive point guard and can hopefully evolve into at least average from long distance. He’s going to be a really high-level passer at the next level, and having two players like that between him and Ben Simmons would just help the Sixers create even more spacing. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best Philadelphia can do given the circumstances.
Lauri Markkanen: Minnesota Timberwolves
Adding Markkanen serves two key purposes for the Timberwolves. First of all, it definitively moves Karl-Anthony Towns to center, where he should be anyway. No more of this Gorgui Dieng nonsense. But more importantly, with Towns and Markkanen as two good shooters in the front court, the Wolves would have more flexibility as far as having a non-shooting point guard. It’s much easier to get away with Ricky Rubio’s non-shooting with that front court, which would be extremely helpful as Rubio is both an elite passer and defender.
Milwaukee would love Markkanen, but won’t have the money to go after him. Chicago could feasibly chase both him and Monk, but what kind of message does it send to Butler to spend that kind of money on two rookies? Denver would be interested as a fallback if they couldn’t get a wing, but as it stands right now, Minnesota is the best bet.
Jonathan Isaac: Orlando Magic
Orlando simply isn’t in a position to be choosy. They aren’t going to attract the rookies of their choice, so their best bet would be to let the market settle and see who gets left without a chair. But all things considered, Isaac makes a fair bit of sense for Orlando at the right price. They don’t have anyone who’s even remotely shown the potential to be a franchise player. Isaac has that potential, even if he also has a very low floor.
Phoenix has more upside as a destination, but they also have more wings he’d need to fight for minutes. Orlando is his surest bet for immediate shots.
De’Aaron Fox: Indiana Pacers
Despite having the New York market and tons of cap space, Brooklyn misses out on the entire top 10. Their basketball situation is that bleak. Indiana’s is brighter, even with the specter of Paul George’s free agency hanging over their heads. Fox is a move in both directions for them. Either he helps replace George’s production if he leaves, or he gives Indiana another young stud to pair with Myles Turner as support pieces for PG-13.
Remember, Paul George is only 26. If Fox and Turner can get close to their peaks in three or four years, Paul might still be on the right side of 30. They’d have a window to contend with all three near their primes, but even if they miss that window, there are worse fates than having a high-end young point guard and center. Especially when your current point guard (Jeff Teague) has been generally terrible and is set to become a free agent this summer anyway.