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2021 NBA Draft Lottery winners and losers

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June 23rd, 2021

The 2021 NBA Playoffs have been all about the league's next generation, with the defining performances coming from the likes of Devin Booker, Trae Young, and Luka Doncic. It’s a reminder that fortunes can change fast in the NBA - provided you draft the right talent.

So while fans of playoff-bound teams have been living in the present, the rest of the NBA have their eyes fixed squarely on the future. And with the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery now over, one of the biggest pieces of that murky future has now come into focus.

DETROIT’S INSTANT REBUILD

The defining image of the 2021 NBA Lottery was Hall of Fame inductee Ben Wallace, rocking in his chair, rubbing his enormous hands together, and smiling from ear-to-ear as it became clear that the Detroit Pistons had won the draft lottery.

When asked if he’d brought any good luck charms to the proceedings, Wallace smiled and said "I'm the good luck charm". And so he was.

The Detroit Pistons have been in the doldrums for many years, really since former general manager, Joe Dumars put together one of the most unlikely championship rosters of all time with the beloved 2003-04 Pistons squad. After making shortsighted win-now moves, the Pistons pivoted before last season to new general manager Troy Weaver, who committed to a full rebuild. And that pivot was just rewarded, as the Pistons captured the No. 1 pick at the lottery. In all likelihood, that means they will draft Cade Cunningham.

Cunningham is in the mold of the NBA’s favored archetype. He’s a big, playmaking wing that can shoot and also takes pride on the defensive end. He is the kind of player that changes a franchise’s fortunes instantly, and should be headed toward All-NBA level production in a few short years. While there are other winners and losers from the lottery, the Pistons’ triumph belongs in a tier of its own.

THE HOUSTON ROCKETS SKIRT DISASTER

The Houston Rockets came into the lottery with higher stakes than any other team. That’s because due to the Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul trade, the Rockets would have lost their pick to the Thunder if it was not in the top four selections. After a season from hell for first-year head coach Stephen Silas that included their franchise icon James Harden demanding a trade, Houston fans finally caught a break. 

The Rockets will pick second, giving them the ability to draft Evan Mobley of USC. Mobley is a foundational defensive piece, long and switchable, and capable of becoming a hub on offense à la Bam Adebayo. And he has the potential to become a go-to scorer down the line.

The Rockets' only foundational piece though, recently signed Christian Wood, is also a center. The Rockets could instead take one of the two guards in Jalen Suggs or Jalen Green, but many teams in the past have been burned by not taking the best player available, and a team as deep in the depths of a rebuild as the Rockets cannot afford such a mistake. Houston will have to make big decisions about the future of their roster in short order, but for now, they can celebrate.

THE TORONTO RAPTORS JUMP TO FOUR

The Raptors famously won the 2019 title without a single player drafted in the lottery on their roster. But that’s not a replicable strategy, even with the best general manager in the NBA, Masai Ujiri, at the helm. 

The Raptors, after a desultory season trapped in Tampa Bay, at least have something to show for it. Whoever Toronto drafts will be coming into an enviable situation. Strong surrounding talent, an elite coach, a defensive identity, and a track record of significant player development. Toronto is a good organization that got dealt a brutal hand this season, and so it’s fitting the Raptors benefited from good karma here.

THE THUNDER’S DASHED DREAMS

The Thunder entered the draft lottery with a realistic path to two top-five picks. They had a 45% chance to leap into the top four with their own selection, and threatened to collect Houston's if the Rockets dropped to five. Neither came to pass, and the Thunder will instead pick sixth in what is widely believed to be a five-player draft. The Rockets will keep their pick at two and the Thunder will keep searching for a big lottery win. The good news for them is that thanks to Sam Presti they’ll have plenty of chances at it.

Minnesota got stung 

The Minnesota Timberwolves won 23 games this year and will not have a pick in this year’s lottery. That sounds like a disaster, and it is, but it could have been even worse.

The Wolves owed a top-three protected pick to the Warriors from the D'Angelo Russell trade, and so entered the evening with a 27.6% chance of holding onto it. Instead, they fell to seven.

The Wolves will be thinking it would have been better to keep their pick, get a top-three talent and become good enough that losing next year’s pick wouldn’t hurt so much. The Warriors meanwhile are probably thinking they’re unlucky not to get to fourth, nor to get a chance at the unprotected pick next season when the Wolves are likely still a lottery team. In the end, neither team is as happy as they might be, but it certainly stings more for Minnesota.

THE CHICAGO BULLS PAY THE PIPER

The Bulls are the last loser of lottery night. They made a win-now move acquiring All-Star center Nikola Vucevic from the Orlando Magic, assuming that combining his talents with Zach LaVine’s would lead to a playoff berth, or at the very least, a play-in tournament appearance. Sadly Chicago did neither, and part of the cost of that trade is now coming due. 

Chicago had a 20.3% chance of leaping into the top four and keeping their pick, but they stayed at eight and the Magic now own their pick this year. Chicago will have to hope internal improvement and improved chemistry will get them over the top next season, because the draft will not.

ONE POSSIBLE DRAFT-DAY TRADE

The Cleveland Cavaliers jumped two spots to the third position in the draft. That is obviously a cause for celebration for any team, but it might not make for an obvious pick for the Cavaliers. The likely two first picks are the aforementioned Cunningham and Mobley, both of whom the Cavaliers could desperately use on their unbalanced roster. 

But the two most frequently mentioned players at the third spot are Jalen Suggs and Jalen Green, who are both guards. Cleveland currently has two guards made in that same mold with the SEXLAND backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. 

Cleveland should consider trading down and there’s an obvious dance partner to be had. While the Magic did well in acquiring Chicago’s pick, they also fell to five with their own, leaving them with the fifth and eighth picks in the draft. If the Cavaliers aren’t taken with either Green or Suggs, they could swap with Orlando, take Jonathan Kuminga at five and another better-fitting player at eight. The Magic, meanwhile, get their pick of potential franchise guards at three.

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