The year 2021 has been big for Ben Wallace. First, he was named to the Hall of Fame. Then, Tuesday night, he was the good-luck charm for his former franchise, the Detroit Pistons, in the NBA’s annual draft lottery.
Detroit, after taking three players in the first round of last year’s draft — Killian Hayes (seventh), Isaiah Stewart (16th) and Saddiq Bey (19th) — will now get a chance to add a high-end talent to its mix. It will be the Pistons’ first top-five selection since they took Darko Milicic second overall in 2003, and their third in the past 40 years. They also took Grant Hill third overall in 1994.
Detroit has the top overall pick for the first time since drafting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in 1970.
“Obviously we get to add another wing player to the restoration process,” said Pistons general manager Troy Weaver, who was hired to run Detroit’s basketball operations last year. “We’re excited to be in this position. But it means that we’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’re going to be diligent about it. But it always helps to be able to add the No. 1 pick.”
Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham is projected by many to the be No. 1 overall pick. Sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Tuesday night that the plan for Cunningham will be to visit only one team before the draft: the Pistons.
The Rockets, after making the playoffs the past eight seasons, saw things go in an entirely different direction this season after trading James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets for a bevy of draft picks in January. But after finishing with the NBA’s worst record, Houston got a bit of luck Tuesday, allowing it a chance to immediately begin to restock its coffers around center Christian Wood with an elite young talent.
Cleveland, after picking fifth the past two seasons, got a dose of lottery luck this time around. The Cavaliers hope to break back into the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference next season around whomever they pick to join young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, forward Isaac Okoro and center Jarrett Allen.
Cavs general manager Koby Altman said he feels this draft has more quality at the top than in previous years, saying, “Even beyond the top five, there could be potential All-Stars.”
It was a miserable season for the Raptors, who saw what easily was the most successful stretch in franchise history — seven straight playoff appearances, including the 2019 NBA title — come to a screeching halt. Playing in Tampa, Florida, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Raptors endured a stretch of close losses to begin the season, then a massive bout of COVID cases among players and coaches just as the team got itself back to .500 midway through, sinking its chances at a return to the postseason.
Tuesday night, however, the Raptors got some reward for that ugly season as they leaped into the top four for a chance to add a premium young player to a team that is ready to win right now around its core of guard Fred VanVleet and forwards Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.
The Magic shifted into rebuilding mode this year, trading Nikola Vucevic to Chicago, Evan Fournier to Boston and Aaron Gordon to Denver. Now, they will get two cracks at adding young talent to their core thanks to their own pick, the fifth overall selection, and that of the Bulls, which they got as a result of the Vucevic trade when it didn’t jump into the top four selections.
No team had more to gain in this draft than Oklahoma City. The Thunder were the only team that had a chance to land two top-five selections if they received Houston’s pick, which would have happened if the Rockets didn’t move up in the draft.
Ultimately, Houston got lucky, leaving the Thunder with their own pick — sixth overall — in addition to Boston’s 16th overall selection, which they picked up in last week’s trade that sent Al Horford back to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, and Miami‘s 18th overall selection, as they continue to rebuild around emerging star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Timberwolves knew they would be giving up their pick either this year — if they stayed outside the top three picks — or an unprotected pick next season if they did not.
They wound up paying that debt this season, meaning Golden State will have two lottery picks this year — the seventh overall selection from Minnesota, plus its own pick at 14th overall. Along with center James Wiseman, last year’s second overall selection, the Warriors will hope they can either get a couple of players to help build a long-term bridge to a future beyond Golden State’s Big Three of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, or potentially give them the ammunition to make immediate upgrades after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers said he believes Curry, Thompson and Green would be comfortable with the possibility of adding two rookies to the roster, citing former Warriors forward Harrison Barnes‘ contributions as a rookie after being the team’s seventh pick in 2012.
“I hope they trust that we have a sense of what we are doing. … We’ll look at it. They will be involved. They will, I’m sure, weigh in on their thoughts and we’ll welcome those, we always do, and if there’s something that makes sense for them and for us, we’ll do it,” Myers said. “But again, it depends. You don’t really know what those picks are worth, at least trade-wise, until it gets probably at least a week out, maybe two from the draft, and if we can do so, we will, and hopefully those guys will help us whoever we end up with.”
Every year, the teams that jump into the top four feel lucky on lottery night. This year, however, that feeling will only be intensified by the top-end talent available in this draft. With just over a month before the July 29 draft, the consensus top four players available, in some order, are Cunningham, Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, USC big man Evan Mobley and guard Jalen Green, who was an inaugural member of the NBA’s G League Ignite program.
The combination of that talent, as well as the fact that three picks within the top eight were up for grabs due to prior trades, made this year’s lottery one of the most anticipated in years.
“We’ll look at everything,” Weaver said when asked how many options Detroit will look at for the top pick. “We’ll uncover every stone and exhaust it and put ourselves in the best position to make the right choice for the Pistons.”
Twenty percent of the league found itself on pins and needles entering Tuesday night’s festivities as a result of those prior deals. The Rockets, because of the Russell Westbrook trade with Oklahoma City two years ago, would either keep their pick if it fell within the top four or send the fifth pick in the draft to the Thunder. The Bulls, meanwhile, either would keep their pick if it fell in the top four or give up a mid-lottery pick to the Orlando Magic after trading for center Vucevic at this year’s trade deadline. And the Timberwolves would either keep their pick if it landed in the top three — or an unprotected pick next year — because of the Russell trade.
Ultimately, it was Houston, Orlando and Golden State that managed to have things break their way Tuesday night. As a result, six teams — Oklahoma City (3), Houston (3), Golden State (2), Orlando (2) and New York (2) — have control over 12 of the 30 first-round picks in this year’s draft.