For most of this season it’s been safe to assume the Hawks will have three first-round picks in the 2018 draft. Now, with the Timberwolves scuffling, that assumption seems shaky.
The Timberwolves have been comfortably in the West playoff mix since November — on Jan. 23 they stood in third place at 31-18 — and thus seemed likely to cede their lottery-protected pick to the Hawks. But then Minnesota lost four out of five games, including a defeat at the Hawks. Minnesota won its next two games before losing four of six, including a defeat at the Bulls.
During the last of those losses, star wing Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury that required surgery. He will be sidelined for at least another two weeks, and perhaps for the balance of the regular season. This week the Timberwolves signed Derrick Rose, a move that might actually hurt their chances.
The Timberwolves won their first two games without Butler (the opponents were the Bulls and Kings, but still). That raised the possibility that the Hawks could get their ideal situation: Minnesota still is good enough without Butler to make the playoffs, but not so good that its draft pick slides to late in the first round rather than near the middle.
But the Timberwolves have lost three consecutive games (including a meltdown at Utah) and now are tied for sixth in the West at 38-29. That’s just two games ahead of the eighth-place Clippers (34-29) and the Nuggets (35-30) and Jazz (35-30) are lurking, too. Minnesota’s next five games: home against the Warriors on Sunday, at the Wizards on Tuesday, back-to-backs next weekend at the Spurs and home against the Rockets, and then home against the Clippers on March 20. Yikes.
If the Timberwolves slide to the lottery, the Hawks still are all-but assured of having two first-round picks. Their own pick has been pretty much assured to be a lottery selection since mid-December. That’s the same time the Rockets shot to the top of the Western Conference (where they remain today), meaning the Hawks are all-but certain to acquire Houston’s top-three protected pick.
But now it doesn’t seem so certain that the Hawks will get Minnesota’s pick this year. The Hawks still will get that first-round pick if the Timberwolves make the playoffs in 2019 (when the Hawks also own Cleveland’s top-10 protected pick) or 2020.
But this was to be the year the Hawks theoretically could use Minnesota’s pick along with their other two selections to trade up in the draft. Or they could stay where they are and have three selections from what’s considered to be a good draft class, and add those rookies to their developmental core.
That still could happen if the Timberwolves stay afloat without Butler and qualify for the playoffs. But the Hawks probably are much less likely to get Minnesota’s third first-round pick than it seemed not long ago.