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NBA postpones draft lottery, leaving rebuilding teams in limbo

But Friday brought another major calendar casualty when the NBA indefinitely delayed its draft lottery drawing and combine, which were slated for this month in Chicago. While the delay was no surprise — the lottery order cannot be set until the rest of the regular season is completed or canceled — it was a reminder that many teams already have shifted focus to offseason planning during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“It definitely feels like the season is done for us,” Steve Kerr said this past week, with his Golden State Warriors owning the worst record in the suspended standings. Indeed, in a time when every person, place and thing has been deemed “essential” or “nonessential,” a month’s worth of meaningless games for a cellar-dweller such as the Warriors is among the least essential activities imaginable.

For the Warriors and 10 other teams that have less than a 5 percent chance of making the playoffs according to major projection models, the draft lottery was a day that promised much-needed direction. There is no Doncic or Zion Williamson in the 2020 draft class, which is widely regarded as weaker than usual at the top, but hope springs eternal at the lottery even in a down year.

The Washington Wizards understand the transformational power of the lottery as well as anyone. Ten years ago, the franchise won the right to the top pick — a twist of fate that ushered out Gilbert Arenas and installed John Wall as the centerpiece. Those ping-pong balls eventually turned into all-star selections, playoff appearances and max contracts for Wall — developments that continue to shape Washington’s moves even though the injured point guard hasn’t played since December 2018. By the same token, the Wizards were one ball shy of landing Williamson, the ultimate franchise-changer, last year, and their future remains cloudy as a result.

This year’s lottery drawing will unlock plenty of intriguing scenarios whenever it is held. The Warriors could use the top pick to address their wing depth or their hole at center, or they could attempt to package it in a win-now trade to land veteran help for Stephen Curry.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, the Western Conference’s second-worst team, would face a similar decision if they landed the top spot. After pairing Karl-Anthony Towns with D’Angelo Russell at the trade deadline, the Timberwolves might weigh trade options in hopes of forming a “Big Three” core. And the Chicago Bulls, who smartly used the shutdown to overhaul their stale front office, would have a powerful chip to aid their long-running search for a decent point guard.

If the Atlanta Hawks land the top pick, they could pair Trae Young with Georgia’s Anthony Edwards to form a dynamic scoring combination in the backcourt. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have selected guards in the past two lotteries, center James Wiseman would offer positional balance and long-term upside.

The downtrodden New York Knicks might become infatuated with the marketing potential of LaMelo Ball, but they shouldn’t be choosy. Their top priority right now is landing any teenager with a pulse and some potential to make rookie forward RJ Barrett’s life slightly less miserable. Ditto for the Detroit Pistons, who pulled the plug on Andre Drummond and need help across the board.

Those decisions — and the big-picture strategies they bring about — must wait. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver remains committed publicly to restarting play if possible, and James, the league’s loudest and most influential player, is standing firm. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Lakers forward said a CNBC report that team executives and agents want the season to be canceled was “absolutely not true.”

“Nobody I know [is] saying anything like that,” James wrote on Twitter. “As soon as it’s safe we would like to finish our season. I’m ready and our team is ready. Nobody should be canceling anything.”

That sentiment clearly doesn’t reflect the feelings of all stakeholders. Of course, the Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA office and the league’s television partners want to crown a champion by any means necessary. When Kerr bluntly laid out the Warriors’ situation, though, he voiced feelings that many executives on non-contenders have harbored privately since the shutdown began in mid-March. The risk-reward calculus is slanted far differently for teams whose seasons would already be over if the coronavirus hadn’t intervened.

“Life [for our team] is easier if we’re shut down [until training camp],” a high-ranking executive for a lottery team told The Washington Post this week. “Player safety is a hard problem, and it’s even harder on a tight timeline. We can avoid worst-case scenarios [by shutting down until training camp].”

The NBA has yet to reschedule the draft lottery or formally postpone the draft itself, which is slated for June 25 but can’t take place until the playoffs are completed or canceled. Until then, lottery teams are stuck in limbo. They wait not to resolve the present but to have the chance to get on with their futures.

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