How different would the NBA landscape look if Lonzo Ball had fallen to the Denver Nuggets at No. 13 in the 2017 NBA Draft?
The FanSided NBA Network has been turning NBA history on its head with the 2017 NBA Re-Draft, giving teams their chance to redo that impactful draft over from scratch. While Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball went first and second in real life that year, in this alternate reality blessed with the gift of 20/20 hindsight, neither one was picked in the top 12 selections.
No. 13 is where Lonzo Ball lands in our 2017 NBA Re-Draft, going to the Denver Nuggets, who originally traded that pick (Donovan Mitchell) to the Utah Jazz for Trey Lyles and pick No. 24 (Tyler Lydon). Here’s the current re-draft order, 13 picks in:
- Jayson Tatum (Philadelphia 76ers)
- Donovan Mitchell (Los Angeles Lakers)
- De’Aaron Fox (Boston Celtics
- Bam Adebayo (Phoenix Suns)
- Lauri Markkanen (Sacramento Kings)
- Jonathan Isaac (Orlando Magic)
- John Collins (Minnesota Timberwolves)
- OG Anunoby (New York Knicks)
- Luke Kennard (Dallas Mavericks)
- Jarrett Allen (Sacramento Kings)
- Kyle Kuzma (Charlotte Hornets)
- Harry Giles (Detroit Pistons)
- Lonzo Ball (Denver Nuggets)
This begs the question: What if Denver had snagged Ball near the end of the lottery instead of trading away a future star like Mitchell?
Suffice it to say Nuggets fans might enjoy this parallel universe a bit more than reality.
Impact on the Nuggets
At the time, depth at the 4 was not one of Denver’s strong suits, but that changed after the summer of 2017. Aside from adding Lyles and Lydon in the draft, the Nuggets also signed Paul Millsap in free agency and had Juan Hernangomez coming off an okay rookie year.
They were totally stacked in the backcourt, with Jamal Murray coming off an inefficient but flash-filled rookie year; Gary Harris poised to make a leap to being an elite 3-and-D player; Emmanuel Mudiay bordering on draft bust territory; Will Barton soaking up minutes with the second unit; and Malik Beasley and 2017 second-round pick Monte Morris figuring to round out the third string.
Swapping Lonzo Ball for Lyles and Lydon in this scenario leaves Denver shorthanded at the 4 and overstocked at the guard positions, but a few natural developments make it easier to alleviate those concerns:
- Mudiay was traded to the New York Knicks midway through Ball’s rookie season anyway
- Lydon played one game as a rookie and 26 total over his two seasons with the Nuggets before they declined his third-year option, so it’s not like he was pushing for minutes at the 4 in the short- or long-term
- Monte Morris only played three games in 2017-18, so even if he somehow lasted until pick No. 51 again in our re-draft, he was nowhere near ready to challenge for rotation minutes
- Malik Beasley suited up for 62 games, but only averaged 9.4 minutes a night
- Devin Harris only played 27 games that season after being acquired in the Mudiay trade, and while he was a good veteran off the bench for a young team, giving him minutes wouldn’t have impacted playing time for core players like Murray, Lonzo or Gary Harris
- Gary Harris missed 15 games
Put all of this together and Ball would’ve had opportunities to earn minutes off the bench without the pressure of carrying a prestigious franchise from day one (as he had to do with the Los Angeles Lakers). With Jamal Murray breaking out to average 16.7 points per game on .451/.378/.905 shooting splits that season, Ball could’ve eased into his career rather than be thrust into the Lakers limelight his father was constantly shining upon him.
There would’ve been some caveats, obviously. Millsap missed 44 games due to injury, and Juan Hernangomez would’ve been ill-prepared to soak up those minutes as a starter (even though he looked pretty decent in expanded minutes the following season). Still, Wilson Chandler (who played 74 games that year) could’ve moved to the 4 in that scenario.
Trey Lyles’ breakout season in 2017-18, during which he averaged a career-best 9.9 points and 4.8 rebounds in 19.1 minutes per game while shooting 49.1 percent from the floor and 38.1 percent from 3 never would’ve happened, or at least not in Denver. But Lyles only lasted two seasons in the Mile High City before signing with the San Antonio Spurs anyway, so the short-term impact is all that really matters.
With Ball on the roster and Murray breaking out, Monte Morris’ breakout year in 2018-19, where he established himself as one of the league’s most underrated backup point guards, may never have happened. Beasley would’ve had a harder time breaking out too, though it seems his true coming-of-age moment will be happening with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Without Lyles filling holes at the 4 for an injured Millsap, and with Ball being added to a crowded backcourt, maybe the 2017-18 Nuggets don’t quite reach 46 wins again, but they just missed the playoffs that season anyway, and they’d probably be better off for the long-term — especially if Ball’s 3-point shooting turned around in Year 3 like it has with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Impact on Lonzo Ball
As for Lonzo Ball himself, the mix-and-match options in the backcourt are tantalizing, especially when his playmaking would be paired with Nikola Jokic‘s passing. Alongside Ball, Murray would be freer to play off the ball as more of the shooting guard he really is. Defensively, Ball’s instincts and length would do well to fill in for Harris whenever he sat. Ball would also make life easier for Harris playing off the ball when Murray rests, and trying to score on that backcourt tandem would be a nightmare for opponents.
Ball missed 30 games due to injury as a rookie with the Lakers, but given that he was averaging 34.2 minutes per game over there, maybe a reduced workload in Denver might have kept him healthier. At the very least, he and Gary Harris may have amounted to one fully healthy guard over the next few seasons, since Ball missed 35 games in 2018-19 and Harris missed 25.
The drawback is Ball didn’t become a decent 3-point shooter until his third year in the league. He’s drained 38.3 percent of his 6.5 long-range attempts per game (both career highs) this season, but his first two seasons, he made just 30.5 percent and 32.9 percent of his triples. Having even league-average 3-point shooters like Murray (career 35.8 percent) and Harris (36 percent) surrounding Jokic helps make his passing even deadlier.
Still, there’d be too much basketball intelligence here for it not to work, even if shooting could be a problem from time to time. The saddest part is having to wait to see Monte Morris and Malik Beasley blossom elsewhere, but Ball is the better player and could’ve flourished sooner as part of an up-and-coming Nuggets squad that jumped from 46 wins in 2017-18 to to 54 the following year.
Maybe that would’ve been enough to quiet LaVar Ball’s constant tirades about the Lakers passing on his son and not wanting Lonzo to play for a Nuggets team with such terrible attendance. After discovering Denver is actually a Western contender on the rise, Big Baller Brand switches to Big Brewer Brand, giving the world a mediocre draft beer instead of crappy, overpriced sneakers.
However, Lonzo Ball falling to the Nuggets in our re-draft would have other ripple effects, most notably on the Jazz, Lakers and Pelicans.
Impact on the Jazz
Instead of trading up to No. 13 to draft their eventual franchise player, the Jazz stay at No. 24. In our 2017 NBA Re-Draft, the best players still available for picks 14-24 are, in some order: Markelle Fultz, Derrick White, Dillon Brooks, Thomas Bryant, Josh Hart, Zach Collins, Josh Jackson, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Monte Morris, Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk, Terrance Ferguson, Damyean Dotson, Semi Ojeleye, D.J. Wilson and Wesley Iwundu.
God bless all of those guys, but they’re not turning the Jazz into a playoff team in their first few years in the league like Mitchell did.
The Jazz, in turn, are completely debilitated when Gordon Hayward leaves in free agency without Mitchell to replace him. Rudy Gobert doesn’t build on his emergence in 2017, the Jazz are a lottery team in 2018 and Donovan Mitchell never gets COVID-19.
Impact on the Lakers
Lonzo Ball was far from a bust during his two seasons in L.A., but he wasn’t exactly living up to his billing as a No. 2 overall pick either. If he had been, he probably would’ve been off-limits in the Anthony Davis trade that shipped him to New Orleans in 2019.
While he, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart got shipped off, Kyle Kuzma remained behind to enjoy playing for the best team in the West this season. But if the Lakers had never drafted Lonzo, Kuzma or Hart in 2017, and if they had taken Donovan Mitchell second overall instead as they did in our parallel re-draft universe, how would that have affected the AD trade?
There are two different ways this could’ve gone down:
- The Lakers include Mitchell in their trade for the Brow, attempting to keep one of the extra draft picks they included in the real AD trade
- The Lakers refuse to include Mitchell, but without Ball or Kuzma (drafted by the Pistons in our re-draft) to include in the deal, the Pelicans don’t bite on their offer
In Scenario 1, the Lakers find a way to make the finances work, passing up on Mitchell’s potential to give LeBron James another top-10 star for a teammate in Anthony Davis. The 2019-20 season more or less plays out the same, only without Kuzma around to constantly disappoint as the third banana.
In Scenario 2, the Lakers miss out on giving the King the superstar he needs to contend, having to turn to free agency to find one.
Maybe they’re able to convince Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant to join James and Mitchell in L.A. without the Brow already on board, but if they couldn’t secure any of their services with Anthony-Freaking-Davis, it feels like a long shot Mitchell would somehow improve their pitch. The Lakers are a playoff team with a bright future thanks to Mitchell’s youth, but they’re still a tier below the LA Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks in the contender category.
The Lakers still have a great free agency pitch for Anthony Davis in 2020, but waiting until then delays LeBron’s window for title contention another year, pushing it back to his age-36 season.
Impact on the Pelicans and the rest of the NBA
In Scenario 1, the Pelicans receive Mitchell and Ingram, two first-year All-Stars this season, as well as a couple of picks, but the Lakers would try to keep one of the following four selections New Orleans received in the original deal:
- 2019 first-round pick
- 2021 first-round pick (protected 8-30, turns unprotected in 2022)
- Right to swap first-round picks in 2023
- 2024 first-round pick (Pelicans have right to receive in 2025 rather than 2024)
The ripple effects go even deeper when you remember that in the 2019 NBA Draft, David Griffin turned that first-round selection from the Lakers (No. 4 overall) into the following assets thanks to his draft-day trade with the Atlanta Hawks:
- No. 8 pick (Jaxson Hayes)
- No. 17 pick (Nickeil Alexander-Walker)
- 2020 first-round pick (top-10 protected, from Cleveland Cavaliers, turns into two second-rounders if not conveyed)
Would the Lakers have had to include their 2019 first-rounder if they had sent Mitchell and Ingram to the Big Easy for AD? Maybe they could’ve weaseled their way out of it, but the Pelicans would’ve pushed hard to keep that No. 4 selection on the table, so most likely, Hayes, Alexander-Walker and that 2020 first-rounder from Cleveland would all still be in New Orleans.
In Scenario 2, however, things get more complicated. If the Pelicans don’t reach a deal with the Lakers, Ingram’s All-Star season never happens and we don’t get a tantalizing Mitchell-Ingram-Zion Williamson trio for the future.
The Pelicans, facing the grim certainty of Davis leaving in 2020 free agency, are forced to take a lesser offer from the New York Knicks or the Boston Celtics. Maybe that leads to Jaylen Brown enjoying the All-Star season in NOLA that Ingram had, or maybe the Pelicans engage in a slower rebuild built on younger players and Knicks draft picks, rather than try to hit the ground running like they did with the Lakers trade.
With AD on board, maybe the Knicks land Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in free agency instead of the Brooklyn Nets. Maybe the Celtics re-sign Kyrie Irving with AD joining Tatum in Beantown to form an Eastern contender. Or maybe he still leaves for the Big Apple, but Kemba Walker, AD and Tatum form a new Boston Three-Party.
As you can see, Lonzo Ball falling to the Nuggets at No. 13, rather than going to the Lakers at No. 2, would’ve had some incredible ripple effects on both those teams, as well as the Pelicans, Jazz and potentially even the Celtics, Knicks, Nets and the entire league at large. It’s quite a rabbit hole to journey down, but from Denver’s perspective, it certainly would’ve been better for the long-term than trading Donovan Mitchell for two seasons of Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon.