With the 2022 NBA Finals, the Warriors’ championship parade, and Klay Thompson’s, shall we say, exuberant maneuvering through the streets of San Francisco now in the rearview mirror, we turn our attention to Brooklyn. No, not because Kyrie Irving and the Nets have reportedly reached an impasse in contract negotiations—well, not entirely because of that, anyway—but because the NBA will descend upon the borough Thursday for the 2022 NBA draft, featuring highly touted prospects at the top and plenty of trade-related intrigue throughout.
Before Adam Silver officially puts the lottery-winning Orlando Magic on the clock, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams entering the draft, given the state of their current rosters, the draft capital at their disposal, the franchise-shaping questions they’re facing, and all of the possibilities that their answers could unlock. As always, these are the most interesting teams to me; there’s no accounting for taste, after all.
We begin, appropriately enough, with a team whose name evokes a brewing storm:
Oklahoma City Thunder
No franchise in the NBA has more flexibility to pursue whatever path tickles its fancy than Oklahoma City, which controls a total of 19 first-round picks over the next seven years—an overflowing cupboard that includes the nos. 2, 12, and 34 selections in this year’s draft. The Thunder also hold the draft rights to star Serbian guard Vasilije Micic, whom Marc Stein reports might finally be looking to make the leap to the U.S. after back-to-back EuroLeague Final Four MVP campaigns. Plus, they have $31.8 million in salary cap space burning a hole in their pocket with which to facilitate trades … before July 1, when rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie-scale maximum salary contract extension kicks in and that flexibility goes bye-bye.
The questions on the lips of NBA observers everywhere: Will GM Sam Presti decide to cash some of those chips in? And, if so, what kind of team does Presti—who crafted a perennial contender by drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden in a three-year span, but who arguably hasn’t really nailed a draft pick since Steven Adams in 2013 (and even then, Giannis Antetokounmpo went three spots later)—really want to build?
Gilgeous-Alexander (who averaged more than 30 points and seven assists after the All-Star break) and Josh Giddey (a preternaturally poised playmaker who started to thrive before a late-season injury) give Oklahoma City a pair of bona fide building blocks in the backcourt. The no. 2 pick in this draft seems likely to deliver one up front: In his latest mock draft, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor has OKC selecting Gonzaga 7-footer Chet Holmgren, a swizzle-stick shot-swatter who could protect the rim and clear the glass for a young team that had a near-top-10 defense before firing up the tank in earnest for the last six weeks of the season. Head coach Mark Daigneault doesn’t yet have a difference-maker on the wing, though; it’ll be interesting to see how (or if) Presti uses his spending power and draft capital to fill in the blanks between those bookends.
ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported last week that Oklahoma City was “aggressively pursuing” an additional mid-lottery pick in exchange for the no. 12 pick and future assets or current OKC players. Such a deal could enable them to select another top backcourt prospect, like Jaden Ivey or Shaedon Sharpe. If Presti wants to import some veteran help, he could go back to the Chris Paul/Al Horford/Kemba Walker playbook by using all that cap space to absorb a talented but high-priced and out-of-favor player—maybe Tobias Harris?—who might benefit from a rehab stint in Oklahoma City and help foster the development of the team’s burgeoning young core.
With a slew of intriguing youngsters—from curious projects like Aleksej Pokusevski and Darius Bazley to ready-made role players like Lu Dort and Kenrich Williams—plus make-weight salaries like Derrick Favors’s $10.2 million player option and that bushel of picks, the Thunder enter the 2022 offseason teeming with possibility. A veritable multiverse stretches out from Presti’s Bricktown war room; all that’s left now is to pick a timeline.
Maybe it’s mere coincidence that, hours after bringing Paolo Banchero to Houston for a pre-draft visit, the Rockets traded incumbent starting big man Christian Wood to Dallas. Then again, maybe it’s not: The 6-foot-10, 250-pound Duke product (whom KOC has slated for Houston with the third pick) was one of the most impressive offensive players in college basketball last season. A scorer and playmaker with his kind of size, touch, and feel seems like an awfully snug fit alongside 2021’s no. 2 pick Jalen Green as the Rockets continue the rebuild that began when James Harden side-eyed his way out of Texas.
Houston’s post-Harden pivot has produced stockpiles in the frontcourt (2021 first-rounders Alperen Sengun and Usman Garuba, plus whichever top big falls to no. 3) and the backcourt (Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Josh Christopher). Like Oklahoma City and so many other teams around the NBA, though, the Rockets need help on the wing; and like those teams, it’s very much an open question how Houston might go about getting it. Might Rockets GM Rafael Stone look to package the team’s two non-lottery firsts—nos. 17 and 26—to try to jump up and take a swing at a late-lottery swingman?
Can they find any traction on a deal for Eric Gordon, who remains eminently available and would seem like a great fit for a playoff hopeful in need of a veteran combo guard, albeit at the steep and widely reported asking price of a first-round pick? Maybe some young legs sweeten the pot: Intriguing young forward Kenyon Martin Jr., perhaps sensing his opportunities dwindling in a crowded frontcourt, recently approached Rockets brass about a trade, according to Kelly Iko of The Athletic. There’s also the still-lingering question of what to do with John Wall, who didn’t play last season and who just picked up his $47.4 million player option for 2022-23; barring something dramatic and unforeseen, it seems exceedingly unlikely he’ll be dealt by Thursday, which means buyout talks might soon resume for the 31-year-old former All-Star.
The Rockets don’t have to hit the gas here; Wall’s mammoth deal comes off the books after this season, whether they buy him out or not; if they can move Gordon in addition to Wood, their salary structure will be devoid of long-term commitments and looking pretty pristine for the next few years. (Music, we’re sure, to Tilman Fertitta’s ears.) But if they believe Green is ready to build on the eye-popping flashes he showed in the second half, and that Banchero (or Jabari Smith Jr. or Holmgren) is ready to hit the ground running, this could be an opportunity for them to accelerate their rebuild, aiming to explode out of their post-Harden dip and chart a new course back toward the top of the West fueled by a boatload of young offensive talent.
If the draft unfolds as most mockers and prognosticators project—Smith, Holmgren, and Banchero going to Orlando, OKC, and Houston in some permutation—then the draft, in a sense, might not really start until the Kings are on the clock at no. 4. In another sense, though, the draft started back before Game 6 of Warriors-Celtics, when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the fourth pick was very much available in trade discussions, thanks to widespread interest in Ivey, the electric guard out of Purdue:
If you’re wondering why there’s so much interest in Ivey, who averaged 17.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game for the Boilermakers as a sophomore last season … well, take a look at this shit:
Put a dude with that kind of burst on an NBA floor where he doesn’t have a big man (or two) clogging the lane at all times, and it’s easy to understand why the Ja Morant comps have come fast and furious. (The hair probably doesn’t hurt, either.)
Problem no. 1: The Kings already have De’Aaron Fox on a max contract, they drafted Davion Mitchell in the lottery last season, and they just traded Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield to Indiana in part to better balance a roster laden with guards. Problem no. 2: Givony reported last week that “the Kings aren’t Ivey’s preferred destination,” which wouldn’t seem like a particularly auspicious start to a relationship. Problem no. 3: Sacramento famously hasn’t made the playoffs in 16 years, the longest postseason drought in league history, and desperately wants to break that streak. This would seem to make the idea of auctioning the pick off to a suitor willing to furnish Vivek Ranadivé and Co. with established players a much more enticing proposition for the Kings than just taking yet another guard (even if he is, as he appears to be, quite rad).
As you’d expect, then, KOC reported that “a large number of teams have inquired about trading up to the fourth pick,” including the Pacers, Knicks, Thunder, and Hawks. Other reports have suggested the Pistons, Wizards, Spurs, and Grizzlies have also shown interest in getting in the mix, presumably for Ivey. (Sidenote: If more than a quarter of the league wants to trade up to take the guy they think is going to fall to your spot, because they think he rules, maybe you just take that guy and figure the rest out later? But I digress.)
Those discussions come in the context of a broad swirl of chatter surrounding the Kings, including their reported interest in Iowa forward Keegan Murray, and rumblings connecting them to Hawks power forward John Collins—an undeniably gifted offensive 4/5, though one who seems like an odd fit next to Domantas Sabonis. That’s especially true on the defensive end, which you’d imagine will matter a great deal under new head coach Mike Brown, who’s been tasked with tightening up a team that hasn’t even broken league-average in points allowed per possession since the year It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia premiered; that show is now the longest-running live-action sitcom in television history.
That’s an awful lot of shouts and murmurs surrounding no. 4, Sacramento’s intentions with it, and GM Monte McNair’s plan for continuing to retool his roster. Kings fans can only hope that Thursday represents a significant step toward all that noise finally signifying something.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have an All-Star two-way force in point guard Dejounte Murray, flanked by a bunch of young perimeter players—Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Lonnie Walker IV, Joshua Primo, Tre Jones—who took developmental steps late in the season after the Derrick White trade opened up more minutes and opportunities. San Antonio has four picks in the top 38 in Thursday’s draft, including no. 9 overall; it also has 12 players under contract for next season, though, and the sheer number of young bodies in San Antonio suggests that some consolidation might be in order.
Add all that to the nearly $23 million in cap space they could be working with, depending on how they handle the restricted free agency of Walker, and the Spurs feel like a team poised to take a big swing. Could that come in the form of rolling up picks and players to take a shot at a blue-chip talent? Like, say, Suns center Deandre Ayton, a player Givony reported rival teams might see as a potential San Antonio target in a sign-and-trade built around center Jakob Poeltl and the no. 9 pick?
Would they look to move one or both of their late firsts—nos. 20 and 25, respectively—for a lower-wattage but more established helper to raise the floor of a team that’s now finished below .500 for three straight seasons? Or, conversely, might they try to package those picks with a young player and look to move up in the draft for an undervalued prospect that they think they can develop into an All-Star? (You might remember that this approach worked out pretty well for the franchise once before.) And if they stay put at no. 9, who might San Antonio target to add to its young core? A bouncy center like Memphis’s Jalen Duren or Duke’s Mark Williams? A rock-solid swingman like Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis? A multi-positional defensive ace like Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan? A potential home-run swing like Ousmane Dieng?
Whichever path they choose, the Spurs need to operate with the understanding that—with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and so many other stars hopefully back in good health—the West is not going to get any less crowded. For years, the Spurs have been the NBA’s metronome, a slow and steady franchise whose movements, scouting, and development you could set your watch to. But after being drummed out of the play-in tournament by the Pelicans—extending their streak without a playoff berth to three years, the longest streak in franchise history—it might be time for San Antonio to look to pick up the tempo.
Like the Spurs, the Hornets made the play-in behind a scintillating young All-Star point guard, but fell just short of a return to the postseason proper; like the Spurs, they enter the offseason with multiple first-round picks and an opportunity to take a step toward contention. But while San Antonio can still draw stability from the presence of Gregg Popovich on the sideline, Charlotte hits the draft with its leadership and overall organizational direction in … well, if not “total upheaval,” then at least a state of pretty significant flux.
A week and a half ago, we thought the Hornets were tossing the keys to Kenny Atkinson, the former Nets head coach and Warriors assistant whose reputation as a player development guru seemed to make him a perfect fit for Charlotte’s young roster. But then, two days after the Warriors finished off the Celtics, Atkinson pulled an about-face, deciding he’d rather stay put in the Bay than take the top job in Charlotte.
Maybe Atkinson demurred out of a reluctance to uproot his family. Maybe he calculated that staying on as the lead assistant for a championship franchise would only further burnish his résumé, making him an even hotter commodity should a more attractive job open up. (Though one suspects the whole “taking a job and then backing out of it” thing might stick in the minds of the folks who do the hiring.) Maybe the bloom came off the rose the more Atkinson heard from Charlotte’s brass; according to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, the divide might’ve come down to how much decision-making flexibility and financial wherewithal the Hornets were willing to provide Atkinson in hiring assistants. Maybe it’s a bit of all of the above. Either way, while Charlotte scrambles and turns its attention back to Mike D’Antoni, the Hornets head into the draft without a head coach … and that’s just the start of the questions.
If they want to make a leap in the East, the Hornets have to find a better answer at center than the triumvirate of Mason Plumlee, Montrezl Harrell, and Nick Richards. Depending on how the mid-lottery shakes out, a prospect like Memphis’s Duren or Duke’s Williams—both of whom would look awfully good catching lobs from LaMelo Ball—might be available at 13. Or maybe the dire need to fortify a laughable defense that has ranked in the bottom third in efficiency for four straight seasons spurs Charlotte to pursue a sturdy wing like Sochan, Kansas wing Ochai Agbaji, or LSU’s Tari Eason. Or maybe the need for another dynamic scoring/playmaking threat—the Hornets scored at a near-top-five rate when LaMelo was on the floor and a bottom-eight rate when he wasn’t—pushes Charlotte toward something aggressive, like offering both picks to a team in the mid-lottery to try to nab someone like Sharpe.
Or, y’know, maybe they punt; ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported Tuesday that some league sources think Charlotte might trade out of both of its first-round picks. The Hornets could look to kick can down the road, swapping today’s first-rounders for future picks—like, for example, recouping the protected 2023 first that they sent the Knicks last year and that New York flipped to Atlanta for Cam Reddish—with an eye toward opening up more playing time for youngsters like James Bouknight and Kai Jones. Charlotte might not be all that committed to its established vets, anyway: Fischer reports that Mitch Kupchak and Co. are gauging interest in a slew of rotation players, including Plumlee, the just-extended Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., and P.J. Washington. Then again, as Windhorst suggests, the plan might be to use those picks as sweeteners to convince a team with cap space—hey there, OKC and San Antonio—to take on the $61.6 million due to the oft-injured Gordon Hayward over the next two seasons, with intention of wincing and matching what’s expected to be a max or near-max offer sheet for restricted free agent forward Miles Bridges.
To be clear, Charlotte doesn’t need to create cap space to re-sign Bridges, or fellow RFA Cody Martin; they’re free to go over the cap to do so. Owner Michael Jordan, however, might not be all that keen on flirting with the luxury tax to retain and augment the core of a 43-win team. That, in turn, could inform a whole lot of Charlotte’s decisions over the next few days and weeks, as we try to suss out of what Kupchak sees as the best way to nurture and build around his sensational young point guard … and whether he’s got the tools he needs to do it.