What happens when you put NBA 2K’s AI in charge of all the teams and completely reset the NBA with a fantasy draft? You get some fascinating results.
For this simulation, we turned off injuries and trades, so the results are purely determined by how well the teams drafted. Here’s what happened.
It’s draft day. All the virtual players are sitting at tables inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They’re the video game versions of each other, so they can’t get sick with COVID-19. They’re sitting based on the teams they currently represent. They look around and see the faces of teammates they probably won’t be playing with anymore. Some look happier than others about this.
The live television feed cuts between the players talking and shots of various teams’ draft rooms. Sam Presti from the Thunder looks thrilled about having a chance to jumpstart the rebuild while keeping all the picks he acquired via trades. The Nets look furious. The Bucks look despondent since they may lose their superstar.
The NBA’s Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum comes to the podium and begins reading the draft order from No. 30 up to No. 1.
“The 30th pick belongs to… the Charlotte Hornets.”
Somewhere, owner Michael Jordan is taking this personally while Hornets fans wonder aloud what they’ve done to deserve this. The audience at the Barclays Center emits a mix between a groan and laughter.
“The 29th pick belongs to… the Los Angeles Lakers.”
The audience roars in disbelief. The draft war room of the Lakers stares at their screen in shock. They just won the title and have now been assured they won’t be able to keep either LeBron or AD. The draft continues until we reach the top pick: the Minnesota Timberwolves. Owner Glen Taylor’s grin is as wide as the Minnesota winter is cold. They’ve acquired four No. 1 draft picks over the past decade by trade or by just being bad—and now they have the first pick of the entire NBA.
After the order is officially announced, a timer appears counting down from one hour. After this hour passes, Adam Silver steps to the podium and announces that the draft has begun and that Minnesota is on the clock. He barely gets off the stage before doing a 180—Minnesota has already made their mind up.
“With the first pick of the 2020 All-NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select… Giannis Antetokounmpo.”
The Minnesota war room applauds while Giannis walks to the stage, shakes Adam Silver’s hand, and dons a Timberwolves cap. The analysts remark that he won’t have to move far and that he should keep all his winter coats. Giannis can’t escape the small markets. Next up, the Philadelphia 76ers.
“With the second pick of the 2020 All-NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select… LeBron James.”
This is a surprise, for sure. After toiling through “The Process” for years, the Sixers aren’t seeking another project and want to win now. Next up, the Miami Heat select Luka Doncic. Then, with the fourth pick, the Oklahoma City Thunder select Kevin Durant. Laughter and applause fill the Barclays Center as even KD can’t help but smirk—of course he goes back to the Thunder. His would-be Nets teammates in James Harden and Kyrie Irving end up on the Mavericks and Clippers, respectively.
The first round continues. Kawhi returns to Texas by way of Houston. Curry becomes a Chicago Bull. Anthony Davis heads north to Portland. Damian Lillard is a New York Knick. The first round ends with the Hornets announcing their first pick, Ben Simmons. Then, with the second round beginning, they announce their next pick, Brandon Ingram. That’s not so bad, Hornets fans. Spread across three days, the all-NBA draft runs through 14 rounds as new teams are created.
- The Timberwolves surround Giannis with more youth: Mikal Bridges, LaMelo Ball, and Ivica Zubac. Then they add a shooter in Buddy Hield and veterans in Bojan Bogdanovic and Ricky Rubio.
- The Sixers give LeBron a point guard in Kemba Walker, then bring back several familiar faces in Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, and Josh Richardson.
- Miami goes for a new big three with Luka, Pascal Siakam, and Mitchell Robinson.
- The Thunder look to win now with Durant, adding Jrue Holiday, DeAndre Jordan, and Javale McGee. But they’re also eyeing the future with De’Andre Hunter, Donte Divincenzo, and Gary Trent Jr.
The season began on Dec. 1. The Toronto Raptors beat the New Orleans Pelicans behind 37 points from Devin Booker and a surprising 27 from Shabazz Napier. Trae Young did his best with 39. Later that day, the Lakers beat the Clippers by 20 with the surprising duo of John Wall and Eric Bledsoe combining for 60. After one month, LeBron and the Sixers lead the East with an 11-3 record, while Curry and the Bulls are at the bottom at 2-12. In the West, the Kings hold a slim grasp on the top spot with a 9-4 record behind the duo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Porzingis. Giannis’ Wolves and AD’s Blazers are right behind them.
Fast forward to March and the All-Star break. We get our first re-signing in January with Patty Mills and the Nets reaching an agreement for three more years at $28.4 million. Good for him. The Jazz fire coach Quin Snyder. That’s not so good for him, but they were at the bottom of the West. Jokic and Oladipo can’t get it figured out in Utah.
Harden and LeBron are the All-Star captains. Both Zach Lavine and Zion Williamson make the All-Star team for the first time, respectively on the Spurs and Wizards. The All-Star Game is held in Indiana, where the Pacers are barely holding on to the eighth seed with KAT, Mike Conley, and Collin Sexton. Heading into the break, Damian Lillard is an MVP front runner with the Knicks, averaging over 37 PPG and over 10 assists. Dame Time was meant to thrive in the Garden. The Wolves’ LaMelo Ball leads all rookies with 19.5 PPG and 6.6 assists.
The Knicks are also in second place on the shoulders of Lillard, but a few games behind LeBron and the Sixers. Jamal Murray actually got re-drafted by the Nuggets, and he and Jimmy Butler have them in first place in the West.
At last, we reach the end of the season. Dame doesn’t win the MVP award, though. Giannis does (his third straight), while also winning DPOY. LaMelo wins Rookie of the Year, Serge Ibaka is the Sixth Man of the Year with the Lakers, and the Nuggets’ Chris Boucher wins Most Improved. Doc Rivers wins Coach of the Year while coaching LeBron.
Dame led the league in scoring with 37.1 PPG and tied Michael Jordan for the third-highest point total in a season with 3,041, behind Wilt twice. Luka Doncic finished with 33.4 points per game and was also first in assists with 10.5 and 12th in rebounds with 10.7, averaging a triple-double. Dame, Luka, Trae, Steph, and Harden all broke Steph’s 2016 record for most threes in a season—Dame had the most with 462. Zion had the second-highest field goal percentage ever at 71.5 percent, also behind Wilt.
Joel Embiid and the Bucks didn’t make the playoffs. Neither did Donovan Mitchell and the Magic or Klay Thompson and the Hawks—and definitely not the Jazz.
In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, Giannis and the Wolves need seven games to beat Kyrie and the Clippers. Anthony Davis and Malcolm Brogdon each drop 30 to propel the Blazers over the Nuggets in game seven. KD drops 50 on Kawhi and the Rockets in game seven to push the Thunder through. The Bledsoe-Wall duo for the Lakers earned them the third seed, but they fall to Harden and the Mavs in six.
In the East, LeBron and the Sixers make quick work of the Paul George-led Pistons, while Luka and Siakam’s Miami Heat sweep Devin Booker’s Raptors. The Charlotte Hornets, who had the last pick of the fantasy draft, beat Zion and RJ Barrett’s Wizards in six. And despite Herculean efforts from Dame, the Knicks are upset by the Nets in game seven behind 50 points from Bradley Beal.
Luka and the Heat deliver a second round stunner, sweeping LeBron and Philadelphia out of the playoffs. Beal again carries the Nets, defeating the Hornets in six. Over in the West, Giannis survives another seven-game series, this time against AD and Portland. And James Harden gets revenge on OKC, beating KD and company in six to send the Mavs to the Western Conference Finals. Luka is averaging an even more impressive triple-double in the playoffs: 36.5 points, 12 assists, and 11 rebounds. How did he not win MVP?
He’s clearly motivated, finally putting an end to Beal’s magical run when the Heat beat the Nets in five. Over in the West, Giannis’ run comes to an end when Harden and the Mavericks defeat the top-seeded Wolves in five. Ten years after the Mavs and Heat faced each other in the NBA Finals, they do so again but with very different rosters.
The Mavs stage a fourth-quarter comeback to take game one. In game two, Harden drops 35 and the Mavs pull away in the third quarter to take a 2-0 lead. Late in game three, Dennis Schroder hits a layup plus a foul to give the Heat a one-point lead with 20 seconds left. With Harden fouled out, Lou Williams takes the final shot at the buzzer, but it’s off the rim and the Heat avoid going down 3-0.
In game four, Harden hits rookie Devin Vassell for a go-ahead three (and Harden’s 15th assist) with 23 seconds left. Luka has fouled out for the Heat and Schroder’s layup doesn’t fall this time, so Dallas take a 3-1 lead. Looking to end the series at home, Harden posts 46 points but is outdone by a playoff record 68 points from Doncic, who keeps the Heat in it down 3-2. The Mavs stage a late comeback in game six to force overtime, but Siakam steps up for Miami to tie the series at three games apiece.
Fittingly, the series comes down to game seven. The final game is unfortunately not as exciting as the rest of the series, though. The Mavericks lead by 14 after the first quarter and hold on to win game seven and the NBA Finals, despite 43 points from Doncic. Harden is named the Finals MVP.
Following Dallas’ win, the Cleveland Cavaliers (yet again) win the NBA Draft Lottery. They’ll be able to add a No. 1 pick to pair with Jayson Tatum. They select Jalen Suggs, a point guard from Gonzaga. Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham goes to the Utah Jazz, while Cal’s Jalen Green goes to the Bucks.
Virtually no stars leave in free agency. The biggest name seen moving was Oladipo from the disastrous Utah Jazz to Zion, De’Aaron Fox, and RJ Barrett on the Wizards. Honestly, it’s an upgrade. Mike Conley joined the Raptors. With trades turned off, it’s possible teams couldn’t afford mega-stars so those stars just chose to re-sign. Good, we don’t want to see this experiment undone that quickly.
The second season begins with trades turned on, but there are no major deals made. Marcus Morris Sr. gets traded for Larry Nance Jr.—that’s funny. Taurean Prince gets traded back to the Nets—that’s also funny. Closer to the deadline, the Lakers trade DeMar DeRozan to the Clippers for Al Horford. The Nets actually trade Prince again, this time to the Pacers for Paul Millsap.
At the end of the second year, Luka finally wins his first MVP, averaging another triple-double. Cade Cunningham wins Rookie of the Year, the Warriors’ Devonte Graham wins Sixth Man, Anthony Davis is DPOY, and Anthony Edwards in his second year with the Cavs wins Most Improved.
The Mavs and the Heat are each the No. 1 seeds. LeBron and the Sixers miss the playoffs—they might be heading back to The Process. Oladipo goes from the bottom of the league with the Jazz last year to the second seed with the Wizards, but they still lose in seven in the first round to Bam and the Celtics. The Mavs and Heat meet in the NBA Finals again, but this time, Luka gets the upper hand to deliver Miami another title. He joins an elite list of players to win MVP and Finals MVP. The last player to do so was LeBron in 2012 and 2013 for, coincidentally, the Miami Heat.
After missing the playoffs, LeBron decides to retire at 37 years old prior to the third season of the fantasy experiment. His former teammate Kyrie joins the Thunder after KD leaves again, this time for the Lakers. Kyrie wins the MVP award (the second time an OKC point guard has done so after KD leaves) and beats the Knicks in the Finals to also join that elite list.
Were this simulation to continue, we’d likely see more MVPs and titles for players like Zion and Luka, while the top stars in the league today step aside as they get older. There will be superteams, mega-trades, draft busts, and all the things that excite basketball fans. And none of it is real. Or is it?