Wearing a shiny purple blazer, second-year Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma stood on a stage inside a hotel ballroom Tuesday night in front of television cameras alongside representatives from the New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans.
The NBA draft lottery, which began with 14 teams hoping to land the No. 1 overall pick in the June 20 draft, was down to four. The Lakers had already overcome long odds to move up from their most likely position, 11th, into this position. But with likely No. 1 pick Zion Williamson of Duke watching from the crowd at the Hilton Chicago, Kuzma wasn’t confident his team was about to shock the NBA, upend the math and grab the top pick.
“The league don’t like the Lakers,” Kuzma said. “They weren’t going to give us that. They weren’t going to give us that one.”
In the end, New Orleans overcame its own long odds to land the top pick in what had been described as the most anticipated lottery since 2003, when LeBron James was part of the draft class. Memphis will pick second and New York third.
By moving up and grabbing the fourth overall selection, the Lakers still wound up one of the night’s big winners. They had entered with a 2% chance of landing the top pick and a 9.4% chance of getting in the top four.
Though the broadcast of the lottery counted down to the top pick for suspense, the NBA’s actual drawing of the draft order, which took place beforehand in a separate room full of sequestered media members and team representatives, started by revealing the top pick. By the time the Knicks were shown to have received the third pick, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said he had almost lost hope his team could still reach the top four.
“That’s a powerful asset for us, and we’re going to be really methodical,” Pelinka said. “Is it a player that’s going to help us win next year? Or could we use it to get a player? We owe it to our fans to look at every possible use of that. We want to be good next year. We want to be really good.”
Using an emoji of two eyeballs, James, the team’s star, tweeted: “#4. Beautiful.”
New Orleans had a 6% chance of getting the first pick. The unexpected outcome left Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry hugging New Orleans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin.
Immediately after New Orleans was announced as the lottery’s winner, talk in the ballroom switched from the Pelicans adding one star to the possibility of keeping around a second.
All-Star forward Anthony Davis demanded a trade through his agent, Rich Paul, in January and can become a free agent in the summer of 2020. The Lakers aggressively pursued a trade for Davis at February’s trade deadline to no avail, and multiple teams are expected to dangle trade offers to the Pelicans this summer too. Yet the Pelicans “have every reason to believe that we can build something that is attractive” to keeping Davis, Griffin said.
“If I’m Anthony Davis, I’m skeptical obviously,” Griffin said. “He’s wanted to win this whole time, and he felt compelled to try to win elsewhere. I think if you look at the totality of where this organization is and where we’re going, we feel very strongly that we’re going be the environment he wants to be part of.
“And if not, that’s fine. We can deal with it from there. But I’m looking at this believing that there’s no reason he wouldn’t want to win with us, because that’s what we do.”
Pelinka said the Lakers will explore options of trading their selection.
“Our biggest commitment is to the Lakers’ fan base to have a really, really strong and winning year next year,” he said. “If that means picking a player there, we’ll do it, but if it means using it as an asset in a trade, we’ll look at that too.”
New York, Cleveland and Phoenix each had the best odds of getting the top pick because of a new lottery format that gave the league’s three worst teams the same 14% chance of landing the No. 1 selection. But the Cavaliers fell to fifth and the Suns slid to sixth. Cleveland was hoping to land the top pick for the fifth time since 2003.
Whereas in past years the team with the worst record owned by far the best odds — 25% — to claim the top pick, the NBA tweaked the format to remove the incentive of “tanking,” the practice of losing as much as possible to ensure the most advantageous draft odds.
The Clippers own two second-round picks but don’t have one in the first round. That pick went to Boston by virtue of the Clippers advancing to the playoffs.
Representing the Lakers on television was “nerve-racking,” Kuzma said, but he felt better afterward.
“We were picked 11th and went fourth,” Kuzma said. “Must have been my purple jacket.”