Biggest Winners and Losers from 2021 NBA Draft Lottery
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
The ping-pong balls have spoken.
The Detroit Pistons are on the clock.
After a dismal 20-52 season, Detroit was rewarded with its first No. 1 pick since the franchise pulled Hall of Famer Bob Lanier from the top of the 1970 NBA draft.
It’s a night worth celebrating in the Motor City, but the Pistons weren’t the only winners at the lottery. We’ll examine them and the others, plus a few teams who left the lottery on the wrong side of the ledger.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Troy Weaver did a lot with a little in his first season as the Pistons’ general manager. From the home-run signing of Jerami Grant to the draft-night haul of Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey, Weaver made a habit out of maximizing value.
Now, the executive gets a blue-chip talent to build the rest of his roster around.
Maybe Detroit will surprise, but odds are the Pistons will snag Cade Cunningham and give him face-of-the-franchise status as soon as he’s ready. As a 6’8″ shape-shifter who can run point, space the floor, find his own shots and defend just about anywhere, his flexibility gives Detroit almost endless options to construct the supporting cast.
If the Pistons ace their prospect development, they should be plenty feisty as soon as next season and could be challenging for a playoff spot sooner than later.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
There’s a reason Oklahoma City Thunder general Sam Presti has opted to acquire every draft pick under the sun. As anyone who follows the talent grab can attest, things don’t always go according to plan.
No team felt that reality more than OKC.
There was a non-zero chance the Thunder could walk away from the lottery with a pair of top-five picks in hand: their own, which had a 52.4 percent chance of landing there, and the Houston Rockets’, which belonged to OKC on the 47.9 percent chance it fell to No. 5.
The Thunder instead collected only the No. 6 selection, which is an especially big blow if you share the popular belief this draft class has a clear-cut, five-player tier at the top: Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga. Barring a move up or an unexpected pick from a team in the top five, OKC won’t have access to any of those potential franchise-changers.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Two teams climbed into the top four on Tuesday.
One was the Cleveland Cavaliers, because, duh—it wouldn’t be the lottery without some Cavaliers luck, would it? The other was the Toronto Raptors, who landed at No. 4 despite having only an 8.5 percent chance of getting there and a 68.1 percent chance of selecting at No. 7 or later.
Maybe this was the basketball gods throwing Toronto a bone for having to spend last season in Tampa Bay. It certainly adds to the intrigue of what was already going to be a fascinating offseason for the Raptors.
Franchise icon Kyle Lowry is entering free agency. So is president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri. Could the lottery luck sway either situation? Probably not, but it at least gives the organization options.
If the Raptors want to compete next season—they were a 53-win, No. 2 seed in 2019-20—they could bring back Lowry and add an elite prospect to what’s already a talented roster. But if they’re ready for life after Lowry, they can use that same prospect to share spotlight duties with Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.
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Thomas Shea/Associated Press
The odds were working against the Wolves, so they weren’t exactly blindsided by losing their top-three protected pick to the Golden State Warriors. The fact the pick moved at No. 7 and not, say No. 4, should cushion the blow. And perhaps Minnesota escapes some uncomfortable questions since it won’t play next season under the cloud of owing the Dubs an unprotected pick upon its completion.
But next season’s Wolves should be better than this year’s version. The pick they keep in 2022 should be less valuable than the one they lost Tuesday night.
Things were trending up in the Gopher State. They executed better after the midseason coaching move from Ryan Saunders to Chris Finch. They saw some incredibly encouraging moments down the stretch from top pick and Rookie of the Year runner-up Anthony Edwards. They had a winning record (13-11) and positive net rating (plus-2.1) when Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell played together.
But this roster needs more, and lottery luck offered the cleanest path to it. A pick inside the top four would’ve been a top-shelf asset for a franchise that needs more of them.
Without it, Minnesota has few areas for improvement beyond internal development. The Wolves need to win sooner than later—Russell is a free agent in 2023, Towns will get there in 2024—and having access to a blue-chip prospect would’ve made that a much easier task.
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Darren Abate/Associated Press
The woosh of air that swept across the hoops world Tuesday night emanated from Space City. It was the collective sigh of relief from the Houston Rockets and their fans, who learned they’ll have at least something to show for one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
No, it probably won’t be Cunningham, but it could Mobley, Green or Suggs. Each has centerpiece potential. Houston could not have dreamed of finding that if this pick was swapped out to OKC for No. 18.
The Rockets have a few intriguing, youngish players in their core, but they need more to build their post-James Harden foundation. This pick could net Christian Wood’s costar, if not an outright face of the franchise.
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Brody Schmidt/Associated Press
Assuming Cunningham is locked in at No. 1, that mean’s he’s headed to the Motor City.
There were certainly worse places to start his pro career. The Pistons have guessed right more often than not during Weaver’s brief tenure. They smartly extended the contract of head coach Dwane Casey in May, so there should be stability in the leadership positions. Plus, this team wants to be competitive already next season.
“It’s not a rebuild, as Troy always says,” Jerami Grant said, per Omari Sankofa II of the Detroit Free Press. “It’s not three or four years into the future. We’re looking forward to doing something big next year.”
That’s (super) optimistic, obviously, but you like the ambition.
Still, this roster needs work—more of it than other potential landing spots for Cunningham. This season, the Pistons ranked 26th in offensive efficiency and 22nd in both three-point makes and percentage. They don’t have enough scoring or shooting to maximize his playmaking, and they might need to reshuffle a big chunk of this roster to put optimize his development.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.
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