How Projected No. 1 Draft Pick Cade Cunningham Fits with NBA's Worst Teams
Averaging 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 threes and 1.4 steals, the 6'8", 220-pound ball-handler fits the mold of a Luka Doncic-like mismatch from different positions.
Check out how Cunningham will fit with struggling NBA teams and others who seem like long shots to make the playoffs.
Could the Charlotte Hornets add another ball-handler if they win the 2021 draft lottery? It's a question that would stir up debate in the front office after it drafted LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft, especially with USC's Evan Mobley also available to address the team's need at center.
But Cunningham will be the draft's presumptive No. 1 prospect, which will make him difficult to pass up, even for a team that already has Ball, Devonte' Graham and Terry Rozier.
A Cunningham and Ball backcourt could be one of the most unique of all time. They're both point guards with wing size and special passing skills, and it would be fascinating to see how an offense ran with two jumbo playmakers initiating each possession.
In Charlotte, Cunningham would operate as more of a scorer the way he currently is at Oklahoma State. Ball would continue to focus on facilitating and setting up teammates.
Graham would move into a sixth-man role that's likely best suited for his streak shot-making. And Rozier, who'll be on an expiring contract next season, would likely be used as a trade chip.
If the Hornets don't see a difference between Cunningham and Mobley as prospects in a vacuum, they'd probably go with Mobley, who's a cleaner fit to anchor the 5 spot. But if they see Cunningham as the superior player, they shouldn't go in a different direction based on their current roster.
With Cunningham and Ball, the Hornets would have a one-of-a-kind engine to power their offense and create open shots.
The Chicago Bulls chose not to address the point guard position during the offseason. They've been riding with Coby White and Zach LaVine while relying on Tomas Satoransky, who's now out with COVID-19, for playmaking off the bench.
That mix of guards can help the Bulls win games, but their ceiling remains limited without a lead playmaker who can make offense easier for others and create his own scoring chances.
Cue Cunningham, an ideal target for Chicago's current roster. He'd take over decision-making duties and give LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Patrick Williams and Wendell Carter Jr. the passer they're missing.
White would serve as the Bulls' sixth man. He's a potent enough scorer to start, but not for this lineup. Cunningham can help optimize Chicago's talent, generate offense in a more efficient way and give the Bulls another go-to option late in shot clocks and fourth quarters.
Conversely, Chicago could try to trade LaVine and rebuild around Cunningham, Williams, White and Markkanen.
The 4-3 Cleveland Cavaliers are off to a good start and could be on a climb up the standings. But reaching the playoffs this year sounds like a stretch.
Even with the encouraging progress, the Cavaliers could wind up with a shot to draft Cunningham. The question is how they'd use him with Darius Garland's arrow pointing back up.
The Cavaliers could use Cunningham as a playmaking 4 and play Kevin Love at the 5, depending on what happens with Andre Drummond, who'll be entering free agency this summer.
Cunningham could otherwise take over at point with Collin Sexton scoring from the 2-guard spot, which would send Garland into a sixth-man role. He could also work as a do-it-all forward at the 3 next to Isaac Okoro, a defensive ace who struggles to create.
The Cavaliers would have to deal with a logjam somewhere, but it would be a good problem to have given Cunningham's special offense, versatility and ability to operate from different spots.
The Detroit Pistons spent the offseason stockpiling talent both young and old. They'll worry about how it all fits together later in the rebuilding process when they have a better idea of who they have, especially 2020 lottery pick Killian Hayes, who's struggled early in the season.
Hayes won't keep them from drafting another ball-handler, particularly one as special as Cunningham.
The 6'8" freshman is far more advanced creating for himself and scoring in the half court (89th percentile isolation) than Hayes. The Pistons should value that trait, as they've been using Jerami Grant as their No. 1 offensive option with Blake Griffin on the decline.
Hayes could even benefit from Cunningham taking pressure off of him. And head coach Dwane Casey might enjoy using multiple playmakers on the floor at the same time.
Regardless of how effective Grant is in his new role or if Hayes starts to figure things out, Detroit's offense would primarily run through Cunningham and his ability to control games at the point of attack.
The Minnesota Timberwolves lose their first-round pick to the Golden State Warriors if it's outside the top three. But they'll keep it if they miss the playoffs and luck out in the lottery, which could potentially lead them to a new head decision-maker.
Minnesota's offense would start running through Cunningham. He'd force D'Angelo Russell into more of an off-ball scoring role.
Cunningham's passing, unselfishness and defensive upside would be better suited at the point guard position in Minnesota. But he's also averaging 19.3 points this season, showing scouts he's even more developed as a self-creator and scorer than initially advertised.
Cunningham joining the Wolves could make their front office contemplate shopping Russell, particularly if Anthony Edwards and Jarrett Culver appear on the verge of blowing up.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks have not been one of the NBA's worst teams through the first few weeks of the season. The oddsmakers still aren't buying them, though.
If Julius Randle and the Knicks hit a wall, it's worth looking into Cunningham's fit with building blocks like RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.
The Knicks will be scouting Cunningham all season, regardless of how well they're playing. And while Ja Morant, LaMelo Ball or Trae Young would have been great fits for them in recent drafts, 2021 would be an ideal year for them to win the lottery.
Cunningham would be perfect for the Knicks, a team that needs a new lead playmaker and decision-maker. Quickley looks like a keeper, but he can't create, facilitate and score like Cunningham, who currently ranks in the 88th percentile as a pick-and-roll operator.
Between Cunningham's passing, Quickley's shooting and Barrett's scoring, the Knicks could have a fitting trio of starters at positions 1-3, each of whom possess promising defensive traits.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Loaded with draft picks and young prospects, the Oklahoma City Thunder would jump toward the front of the rebuilding-team power rankings by winning the lottery and taking Cunningham.
Between the 6'8", 220-pound Cunningham and the 6'5" Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC's guard duo would overwhelm with size and length while unleashing a balanced mix of scoring and playmaking.
Projects like Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort and Aleksej Pokusevski would benefit from Cunningham's passing and knack for finding teammates in the right spots. Only three teams are averaging fewer assists per game than the Thunder thus far.
Aside from the matchup problems they'd create offensively, Cunningham and Gilgeous-Alexander could also form one of the league's longest, toughest defensive backcourts to shoot against.
The Sacramento Kings front office must feel good about rookie Tyrese Haliburton, but not the way the season is going otherwise. Unless something clicks, they could be lottery-bound again.
There would be a lot of questions about how the Kings would use Cunningham if they were lucky enough to draft him. De'Aaron Fox and Haliburton look cemented in as Sacramento's backcourt of the future. Cunningham would likely play forward, spending time on and off the ball and picking his spots as a scorer and passer.
He'd have to improve as a spot-up shooter in Sacramento. But he could also take ball-handling reps and pressure off of Fox, and Haliburton is relatively proven as a catch-and-shoot guard based on his early NBA success and accuracy as Iowa State.
Drafting Cunningham, who could work as a playmaking 4, would suddenly make Marvin Bagley III appear more expendable in trade talks.
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs could be back in the lottery with LaMarcus Aldridge breaking down and Derrick White now injured. Getting the No. 1 pick would jump-start a rebuild that the Spurs have seemed hesitant to go all-in on.
As promising as the team's young guards are, including White, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV, none can command an offense or take over games like Cunningham.
Though Murray is averaging a career-high 5.8 assists, Cunningham's passing is at another level, as is his scoring and shooting.
If the Spurs were to luck out and grab the No. 1 pick, they'd add Cunningham to take over lead ball-handling duties and use Murray as a spark and secondary playmaker. With Murray on the ball, Cunningham could move to positions 2-4, depending on whether White, Walker and Johnson were also on the floor.
Cunningham's versatility ultimately makes him easy to fit and build around. Head coach Gregg Popovich would find a way to mix and match his young, interchangeable guards and wings.
Even with the addition of Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards still seem stuck between competing and rebuilding. Realistically, Westbrook and Bradley Beal can only carry this current roster so far.
Unless they're able to trade for a third star, the Wizards will need to luck out in the lottery and grab a prospect like Cunningham to escape no-man's land.
Assuming Westbrook is in Washington to stay, Cunningham would have to adjust to more of a playmaking-forward role. He'd still receive ball-handling touches in the half court, where he excels at creating quality looks in ball-screen situations, both for himself and teammates.
Beal is still the player Washington will want with the ball most often, but he's a versatile enough shot-maker to score from different off-ball actions.
Regardless, there would be sharing and adjusting between Washington's new Big Three. Figuring out the best way to use them wouldn't be a problem that head coach Scott Brooks would lose sleep over. Cunningham is too well-rounded offensively and mentally strong enough to adapt.
If Deni Avdija continues to impress at both ends, Rui Hachimura could be the odd man out of the starting lineup.