Earlier this week, this writer made the point that the NBA is more wide open than ever before. After the 2021 NBA Draft lottery, that premise should hold true, and even be enhanced.
Which teams benefited from the lottery
The Detroit Pistons walked away with the number one overall pick, likely to be used on Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham in next month’s draft. The Pistons have not had a player of such high profile since Grant Hill, who they picked third overall back in 1994.
Even the organization’s title in 2004, led by the league’s most dominant defensive player Ben Wallace, didn’t have the raw star power of what Cunningham currently projects as having, if he doesn’t already.
This Pistons have missed the playoffs in 10 of the past 12 years, which is a far cry from the dominance they possessed in the 80’s and 00’s. For that team to once again rise up and into relevance will only underline the fact that most of the league’s teams have substantial talents at their disposal.
Similarly, the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers walked away with the second and third overall pick respectively, which will inject both teams with players that have All-Star upside in Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs or Jalen Green, depending on how the Top 3 shakes out.
While both squads have been relevant in years due to James Harden and LeBron James, neither market is considered wildly attractive to free agents, meaning these picks are welcomed additions and will provide these teams with an opportunity to get back into the swing of things.
Furthermore, the Orlando Magic are set to pick at both number five and number eight, as the Chicago pick from March’s Nikola Vucevic trade conveyed. The Magic have made the playoffs sporadically, but have not been a threat to do serious damage since they were starting a prime Dwight Howard.
The lottery provided these teams, as well as others who usually fly under the radar, with some opportunities that could turn them into much stronger versions than themselves, further establishing that the league isn’t all about the big market Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks.
Well, the Knicks do have two picks (number 19 and 21) in the first round, so maybe they shouldn’t be entirely sidelined. But rest assured, it’s not only the major markets that are now sitting on considerable assets for the future.
These young players who will get drafted onto the aforementioned teams is really only the first step in a larger process. It means the start of something bigger. Should Cunningham develop into a Tier 1 star, it stands to reason free agents will be willing to consider Detroit a premier destination to possibly win an NBA championship.
That same logic can be applied to whichever team that drafts a franchise-carrying player next month.
As is the case with most things in today’s world, it all comes down to cycles. The Lakers and Warriors can’t be relevant forever and will eventually be forced to step down from the podium so others can take their place. This is the way of US sports, where closed leagues and drafts can shift power somewhat effortlessly over a shorter period of time.
With the league constantly evolving in terms of playing styles, coaching styles, and roster strategies, it only makes sense that teams who haven’t made frequent visits to the NBA mountaintop will eventually get there, pending the right combination of players and system.
The NBA Draft Lottery is always Step 1 of that process, which is why teams are angling and pushing each other for the right to pick first. Drafting a proper superstar can turn a franchise that’s struggled for 50 years into a perennial title contender over the course of a decade, completely changing the perception of that team in the mind of the public.
That, in large part, is why the draft have so many fans and analysts. There’s a sense of fascination and romanticism hovering over the basic concept of how a few ping-pong balls can affect the emotional state of literally millions of fans all across the world.
Draft a player like LeBron James and with that selection comes championships, global celebrity status and fanbases who will live in euphoria for decades off the banners he’s brought to them.
Draft a player like Darko Milicic and it’s back to the drawing board after a period of ridicule from fans and media.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to hope. And for now, the Pistons especially have every reason to enter the July 29th draft with that in hand.