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The NCAA Tournament starts this week shining the spotlight on, among other things, some of the best draft prospects in this year’s class. The consensus seems to be that this class offers both depth and potential star power at the top. NBA teams will have a lot to figure out over the next few months, scouting prospects, lining up potential deals and assessing their own strengths and weaknesses.
With the current standings, 22 teams hold rights to at least one first-round pick — the Celtics, Cavaliers, Clippers, Lakers, Pelicans, 76ers, Raptors and Suns have traded theirs away. But not all of those 22 teams have the same stakes riding on landing their picks. Between multiple picks, chances of winning the draft lottery, and the team’s current roster and trajectory, some have a lot more riding on their selections than others.
Here are the five teams with the most riding on the 2022 NBA Draft
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have some solid pieces already in place. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a borderline All-Star and still just 23 years old. Josh Giddey is still just 19 years old and already one of the more productive playmakers in the league. Almost everyone else on their roster is 22 or younger and they already have some budding role players in Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and more. The problem is, the team is still largely terrible (getting outscored by 7.8 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA) and doesn’t yet have that defining core that drives everything and slots everyone else into their optimized roles.
With the current standings, the Thunder hold the No. 15 and No. 30 picks in the first round as well as their own first-round pick with the fourth-best odds of landing at No. 1. If the Thunder land in the top three, they’d have a strong chance at landing a future frontcourt star who can help make things easier on Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey, and continue looking for depth with their other picks. If their own lottery pick gets push lower, they could look to package their picks (and potentially some other young players) to try and nab a young star or move back up into the top 3. The Thunder can go a lot of different directions and a lot will depend on how much they value players like Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero.
4. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers made a pair of big trades in February, adding an extra first-round pick for Caris LeVert and turning Domantas Sabonis into Tyrese Haliburton. The moves push their timeline towards the future but they still have a solid core with Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte and Malcolm Brogdon that could be competitive right away. The Pacers have the fifth-best odds at the No. 1 pick and hold the Cavs’ pick, which is currently slotted at No. 19. Sliding into the top four picks could let the Pacers add a future star to pair with Haliburton long-term and some more depth later in the first round. Or they could kick the can down the road, try to add some additional picks by trading Brogdon or Turner. A lot will depend on where that first pick falls in the lottery but the Pacers are in a good position to leverage a lot of different scenarios.
3. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are currently tied for the best odds at the No. 1 pick and also hold Brooklyn’s pick, which is currently slotted at No. 16. However, the Nets have struggled the past few weeks and currently have a 30 percent chance (per 538) of falling out of the playoffs completely. If that were to happen the Rockets would hold two lottery picks with a very good chance of at least one of them falling in the top four.
The Rockets are in an interesting position because their two major picks from last season — Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun — have both been very strong rookie performers. What the Rockets do in this draft won’t just be about adding talent but also helping build the future structure around Green and Sengun. Holmgren, Smith and Banchero all could be extremely interesting fits for the Rockets but in very different ways. The higher the Rockets pick is, the more control they have over which direction they take things, based on how they assess each of those three bigs.
2. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are headed for a big reset. Dejounte Murray is in the midst of a breakout season but their future foundation is still very much up in the air. They’ll need to make a decision on a potential extension for Lonnie Walker. Restricted free agency is coming for Keldon Johnson a year after that and Murray, Doug McDermott, Zach Collins’ non-guaranteed deal and team options for Devin Vassell and Josh Primo are the only contracts they have on the books beyond the end of next season.
The Spurs have three first-round picks — the Celtics’ (currently No. 21), the Raptors (currently No. 17) and their own, which currently has the seventh-best odds of landing at No. 1. The dream scenario for the Spurs would be landing a future star to help the rest of their roster take shape but there is so much depth and flexibility on the rest of their roster that even just hitting on one or two of their picks with players who look like solid long-term starters could help chase other avenues of star-acquisition and roll things towards their next era of dominance.
1. Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers added a second lottery pick in this year’s draft by trading CJ McCollum to the Pelicans but they have to hope New Orleans doesn’t make any headway in the standings over the last month of the season. Their current pair of picks would give them roughly a 10 percent chance of landing the top pick and a 40ish percent chance of having at least one of those picks land in the top 4. Basically, they’ll have a lot of draft capital but a lot of things to consider as they decide what to do with it.
If they were in a pure rebuilding situation, they could simply take the best players available and use the next few seasons to figure out how to build a competitive roster around those two new pieces. But with Damian Lillard’s prime ebbing away they may be forced to consider fit and NBA-readiness far more than they normally would in making those selections. And then, of course, they may also have to consider trading those picks for a win-now star to pair with Lillard but with their transparent lack of leverage, they may have to settle for a smaller return on those picks than they would get in a trade vacuum.
Other NBA stories:
Justin Carter is breaking down everything you need to know for the NCAA Women’s Tournament, including, favorites, Cinderellas, sleepers and more. On the men’s side, Mike Phillips has potential bracket busters and top seeds who could be primed to fall early. Also, make sure to check out some NBA Draft prospects who could boost their stock in the tournament.
One prospect to watch in the tournament is Jaden Ivey, a Purdue guard and likely top-five pick. At The Ringer, Jonathan Tjarks has an excellent deep dive on just what makes Ivey so special.
We’ve not seen a rookie as versatile as Evan Mobley in a long, long time.
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