The big lottery moves of Atlanta, Houston add another layer of offseason intrigue

CHICAGO — As each of the white pingpong balls, numbered 1 through 14, bounce into the SmartPlay device that facilitates the annual NBA Draft Lottery, the echo of 2.7 gram plastic spheres rattling inside glass serves as a stark reminder how the fate of $4 billion franchises quite literally hangs in the balance of sheer chance. Sunday afternoon, inside the sequestered drawing room at McCormick Place, the first three balls to determine the winner of the No. 1 pick in June’s draft came out of the machine 6-10-14, for example, leaving seven teams with the possibility of the top selection — or half the room.

The drawing occurs about an hour before the NBA’s television broadcast reveals these results publicly and why each league official, all of 12 media members — this reporter included — and each representative of the 14 potential lottery teams in attendance must surrender mobile devices into sealed, white envelopes. That assures the results remain secret until deputy commissioner Mark Tatum unveils on stage which team placard is tucked into each numbered envelope corresponding with each pick. Last year, there was palpable unrest inside the lottery bunker, as team executives waited to learn which lucky organization would land the right to select Victor Wembanyama. This time around, the lack of a consensus top prospect left these backstage quarters with a general air of curiosity.

If a “1” came out of the hopper last, Washington would have secured the top pick. The Wizards were in that exact position a year ago, finding themselves just a single ball away from bringing Wembanyama from France to the nation's capital. Portland needed a “2,” San Antonio required a “3,” and the same went for Toronto with “4,” Memphis with “5” and then Houston with “9.” Alas, the final ball was “13,” and that meant the Atlanta Hawks, who entered Sunday with the 10th-best odds and just a 3% chance at the No. 1 pick, emerged victorious.

Atlanta Hawks general manager Landry Fields, right, and NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum pose for photos after Tatum announced that the Hawks had won the first pick in the NBA draft, during the draft lottery in Chicago, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Atlanta Hawks general manager Landry Fields, right, and NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum pose after Tatum announced the Hawks had won the first pick in the NBA Draft in Chicago on Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Daniel Starkman, Atlanta’s vice president of player personnel, knew his team had a chance once the third ball spit out a high number. Starkman’s brother owns a sock company, and the Hawks executive wore fire-engine red socks with the team’s Pacman logo to help coax their good fortune. “I can’t wait to look at our Slack channels and see what our group is thinking,” Starkman told Yahoo Sports after the drawing. With many decision-makers around the league suggesting this draft holds the type of uncertainty up top that could present dangerous repercussions for the team choosing first, Starkman emphatically rejected the principle that the possibility of failure finding the right needle in this haystack of prospects is some sort of death sentence for a front office. “Having the ability to select any of these top prospects presents a lot of optionality for any team that’s looking to improve,” Starkman said. “Who wouldn’t want that?”

You could see the same enthusiasm on general manager Landry Fields’ face as he sat on the dais, a wide grin stretching across his face when Atlanta first jumped into the top-four during the broadcast and again once the Hawks were declared the last team standing. Team brass on hand in the broadcast room relished their congratulatory handshakes, asking one another gleefully, “Who would you take if you could pick any player in the draft?”

Their choice, and the Hawks’ ascent to No. 1, immediately casts a further uncertainty about this unsettled class of players. Atlanta was already widely anticipated to be one of the more active teams of the offseason, having explored the trade market for All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray prior to February’s trade deadline, league sources told Yahoo Sports. And there's a growing belief among rival teams that this summer will also put All-Star Trae Young on the league’s trade block. Perhaps Atlanta will look to attach the top pick to one of those players in their upcoming trade conversations. Entering the lottery, league personnel were already pegging this draft to possess the greatest likelihood in years that the No. 1 pick could be traded — that has not happened since 2017, when Boston moved down to No. 3 with Philadelphia, allowing the Sixers to take Markelle Fultz while the Celtics happily scooped Jayson Tatum. Atlanta’s outcome certainly puts that possibility back on the board this June, particularly as the Hawks have already identified third-year forward Jalen Johnson as a critical building block moving forward, regardless of what happens with their expected backcourt maneuvering.

Despite being one ball away, Washington didn’t fall very far. The Wizards entered the day with the second-most four-ball combinations of the possible 1,001 that can emerge from the lottery machine. And once 7-6-1-5 determined the second drawing, Washington general manager Will Dawkins learned his club was holding firm with the No. 2 pick. Dawkins brought no lucky charm with him into the private room. His Wizards might be the furthest team from competing for the playoffs, without a clear-cut franchise centerpiece like Wembanyama in San Antonio or even Cade Cunningham in Detroit. Dawkins expressed confidence Washington’s scouting department can find such a player at the top of this board, even with the unknowns that abound.

“There are multiple All-Stars in this class,” Dawkins told Yahoo Sports. “We’ll just likely have to wait a few years to see which ones really pop.”

Then, 6-7-11-9 spit out of the machine, and that awarded the No. 3 pick to Houston, by way of Brooklyn, thanks to the draft capital the Nets sent to the Rockets for James Harden. That slot held the ninth-best odds at jumping to the top selection entering Sunday’s drawing, so the Rockets marked another massive leap in the lottery that will have ripple effects throughout the offseason landscape. Houston, sources said, was planning to consider trade optionality if the Rockets had stayed within their expected range at the bottom of the top 10. Houston has clear goals of competing for the postseason after picking in the top-four during each of the past three drafts, which has left rival personnel already pinning the Rockets as the second team in this June’s top three that will evaluate trading out of their selection. With such a change in circumstance, both Atlanta and Houston will have to completely reconsider their paths forward before coming to any type of decision.

The Rockets sent Sam Strantz, the team’s associate legal counsel, into the drawing room. To conjure Houston’s outcome, he tucked the white baby beanie with pink and blue stripes his newborn son, Sawyer, wore in the hospital not more than two months ago into his jacket’s breast pocket.

The fourth and final drawing produced the combination 3-10-6-5, meaning San Antonio found luck again after the Spurs soared into position for Wembanyama last May. Brandon Leibsohn, the Spurs’ senior manager of basketball strategy and legal affairs, wore the belt that he’d strapped on for his initial interview to join San Antonio. “I wanted to make sure I had something from my first day until today,” Leibsohn told Yahoo Sports. The seismic jumps from Atlanta and Houston also pushed Toronto’s pick out of the top six, which meant the Raptors’ No. 8 choice now conveyed to San Antonio as well, a vestige of the Jakob Poeltl deal from the 2023 trade deadline. The Spurs suddenly inherit two swings in the first eight selections at landing impactful pieces to grow alongside their blossoming Frenchman. “All the pillars of team building, for us, are really just about finding players who can help us grow something sustainable for a very long time,” Leibsohn said.

Detroit fell to the fifth pick, remarkably, for the second straight year after entering the lottery with the highest possible chance at the top prize. This will mark the third consecutive season Detroit holds the No. 5 pick after the Pistons chose Cunningham with the first selection in 2021. The Pistons also could be a trade possibility at this slot. However, there’s as much uncertainty about which executive will have final say over such a major decision as there is about this class’ premier talent. Detroit has already announced the Pistons are looking to bring in a new president of basketball operations above general manager Troy Weaver, utilizing search firm Turnkey, where former Nets and Sixers executive Billy King plays an integral role in all basketball advisory services.

Potential candidates for the position have been informed they will have the agency to dismiss Weaver from his post, league sources told Yahoo Sports. But the early returns of Detroit’s search have not seemed to net much forward progress for the Pistons. While Detroit hoped to interview Milwaukee lead executive Jon Horst, the Bucks blocked those advances and did not allow Horst permission to do so, sources said. Other names, like former Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey, sources said, declined the Pistons’ outreach to interview for the role as well.

Many of the league’s decision-makers are still descending upon Chicago, where the NBA Draft combine will continue throughout the week. There will be countless clandestine meetings between the NBA’s power brokers, leaving plenty of trade chatter and early free agency talk to buzz about the stands at Wintrust Arena. The Lakers have left coaching industry figures under the impression Los Angeles plans to conduct interviews for the franchise’s head coach this week as well. The league’s silly season is well underway.