Every Tanking Team's Biggest Need in 2021 NBA Draft
Any team picking early in the 2021 NBA draft will have more than one need to address. Except in cases where successful teams land in the lottery via trade, good draft position is often the result of a lot of losing.
Teams way down the league hierarchy generally also shouldn't draft for specific need. The best approach? Best player available.
Still, every cellar-dweller has at least one obvious, hit-you-over-the-head weakness that it should try to address in the draft. We'll highlight those here—whether it be a positional void, a statistical shortcoming or a broader realignment of its roster makeup.
In some cases, we'll suggest a specific draft prospect. In others, we'll focus more on the issue that any number of potential picks could address.
As for the "tanking team" field, we'll focus on clubs that aren't intent on making the playoffs or are so far out of the race as to make no difference. An easy rule of thumb establishes the cutoff: If you're at least five games back of the last play-in spot in the standings, you belong here.
Here's where these squads should direct their draft focus so they don't end up here again next year.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A Two-Way Wing
Every NBA team—good, bad and in between—needs another two-way wing. There are no exceptions to this rule because it's impossible to have too many 6'8" players who can pass, shoot, dribble and defend across multiple positions.
It's just that the Cleveland Cavaliers have such an obvious rotational hole to fill at that exact spot.
Cade Cunningham should be the first player off the board, and his playmaking and size would slot perfectly into a Cavs starting unit that has two small guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, a rim-rolling big in Jarrett Allen and an exciting smaller wing in Isaac Okoro.
Okoro has real defensive potential, and he's shown improving skill off the dribble during his rookie season. But he isn't in the same physical tier as premier wings like Paul George, Jayson Tatum, Kawhi Leonard or anyone of that ilk. Even a sturdy 2-guard like Devin Booker has a size and strength advantage over him.
Okoro will fill out and may very well hold his own as he gets more reps, but Cunningham already has the frame NBA teams want in a player who might be tasked with wrangling elite opposing 3s.
Better still, Cunningham's playmaking skills would allow for Sexton and Garland to split time on the ball and leverage their off-ball value (Sexton is at 38.7 percent from deep for his career; Garland is at 37.6 percent but has been even better than that this year) to create better spacing for Allen's rolls and Okoro's attacks against closeouts.
Cunningham fits everywhere, but he really fits here. Cleveland won't get him if it misses out on the No. 1 pick, though.
Detroit Pistons: Shot Creation at the 2
The Detroit Pistons have several good secondary options on the wings.
Jerami Grant proved this year he could shoulder a heavier scoring load. Rookie Saddiq Bey can stripe it from deep and came prepackaged with that unique Villanova grit and know-how. Even reclamation project Josh Jackson has shown some flashes of utility.
But none of those guys are true "get your own" offense generators. Grant deserves credit for coming close, but added volume has knocked his true shooting percentage down below the league average. With point guard Killian Hayes' rookie season derailed by injury, he can't be expected to successfully keep all his setup-dependent teammates fed next year.
It's rare for a rookie to come in and score efficiently under any circumstance, and it'd be an even bigger reach to say one of them will hit the NBA with an efficient bucket-getting game if asked to save broken plays and score in isolation. Kevin Durant might be the most gifted wing scorer of all time, and he had a ghastly 51.9 true shooting percentage in his first season.
Still, the Pistons are early in their rebuild. They should target a player who, two or three years down the line, can become a high-usage scoring wing. Ideally, such a talent would ease the burden on Hayes and slot players like Grant and Bey into the more dependent roles for which they're best suited.
Houston Rockets: Shooting
With only a few weeks left in the 2020-21 regular season, it's now safe to say the Houston Rockets were the league's worst-shooting team.
They've been awful at just about everything but layups. Even at that range, they were barely average. The Rockets rank dead last in mid-range field-goal percentage but (bright side!) jumped all the way up to 29th in three-point accuracy after their 143-point offensive explosion against the Milwaukee Bucks on April 29.
Generally speaking, if a Houston player shot a jumper this year, it didn't work out.
Of the 10 Rockets who have taken at least 100 threes, only two—Christian Wood and Sterling Brown—are shooting better than the league average of 36.6 percent.
The good news is that Houston will have three first-round opportunities to improve its accuracy. Incoming selections from the Portland Trail Blazers and Bucks, which won't be in the lottery unless something goes very wrong with the former, absolutely have to be spent on shooters. The bad news is that if Houston's own pick falls outside the top four, it will send it to the Oklahoma City Thunder and instead the Miami Heat's first-rounder.
John Wall isn't a player the Rockets should be building around, but if the goal is to pump up his value to the point where he can be dealt without future draft compensation attached (which it should be), surrounding him with more shooters and better spacing will help.
Also, it's just nice to see shots fall once in a while.
Minnesota Timberwolves: A Frontcourt Buddy for Karl-Anthony Towns
In theory, it should be easy to find the right frontcourt running mate for Karl-Anthony Towns. He's a true center who can spread the floor like few others, score on the block and defend the rim when in good position.
Among their many failures during the KAT era, that the Minnesota Timberwolves haven't found him an ideal long-term comrade up front stands out as one of the biggest.
Towns' offense is beyond reproach. He's a knockdown high-volume shooter with the ability to blow by closeouts and punish switches down low. Of the 76 players who've attempted at least 1,500 threes since 2015-16, the year Towns entered the league, only 11 have been more accurate from deep. It shouldn't surprise you to learn none of those 11 players is a center.
It's on D where Towns could use help, and that's where USC big man Evan Mobley comes in.
Forget the on-ball skill, interior scoring and surprising passing feel the 7'0" center showed in college. Those are luxuries. Mobley's real impact is on D, where he's demonstrated the ability to reject shots at the rim but, more importantly, harass ball-handling guards on switches. It's a big ask for a collegiate center to step into a role where he has to guard positions 1-4 more often than 5, but Mobley might be able to do it.
Mobile, instinctive and rangy, he is exactly the kind of matchup-proof, defensive big man Minnesota needs. Just watch him patrol all quarters of the floor, get down in a stance against smalls and stand tall inside.
Towns can bang with the heftier centers; Mobley may not be strong enough for that job just yet. But otherwise, he could clean up the mistakes made by D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards while also allowing Towns to take the less taxing frontcourt defensive assignment.
The Wolves had better knock off all this winning (they downed the Utah Jazz twice last week) if they want a chance at getting KAT some support. If their pick falls outside the top three, it goes to the Golden State Warriors.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Scorer at the 2 or 3
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander proved this season that he could thrive as a high-usage primary ball-handler, but the Oklahoma City Thunder shouldn't just assume he can carry four other dependent scorers whenever he's on the floor.
With Luguentz Dort slotted into a starting role on the wing, OKC's need for shot creation and secondary scoring is even greater. Dort is a cannonball attacking the rim and has improved his three-point shot to the point opponents can no longer ignore him beyond the arc, but he isn't a playmaker. Ideally, he should spend all his energy bodying up the other team's most dangerous wing on D. Whatever juice he has left should only be expended on offense in the form of catch-and-shoot threes and straight-line drives.
The team that plays in Oklahoma will obviously have its eyes on Cunningham, the Oklahoma State product. We already discussed how he belongs atop everyone's draft board, and he'd fit OKC's needs perfectly.
If the Thunder slide further down the draft order, they should be thinking about upside and embrace some risk. That's the luxury of having (carries the two, multiplies by five) roughly a million incoming first-round picks over the next seven years. OKC can afford to miss on a big swing or two.
Jonathan Kuminga is exactly the kind of rangy, raw, athletic mystery box Oklahoma City tends to target on the wing, and he's only 18, the youngest player likely to go in the top five or six picks.
Jalen Green is more established and projectable, which is hilarious to say about a 19-year-old who didn't play in college, and he'd give the Thunder another scoring option.
Orlando Magic: A Guard Without Limitations
Markelle Fultz's season ended with a torn ACL, but even before adding the uncertainty of his recovery from injury, he didn't project as a true "answer" at the point. His limitations as a shooter mean he'll ultimately be best used as a facilitating backup.
Cole Anthony, whom the Magic grabbed in last year's draft, is undersized and has posted a microscopic steal rate that doesn't augur well for his future as a disruptor on D. He's also shot only 31.5 percent from deep on the year and has been worse in that regard since the All-Star break. He could be another potentially useful rotation player as he matures but, like Fultz, we're talking about a reserve on a decent team.
Jalen Suggs doesn't have any of those limitations. He has the strength to absorb contact inside, the handle and vision to facilitate and the size to defend either backcourt spot. There's nothing wrong with his stroke, and his greatest quality, leadership, is undeniable.
It's an easy comp because of the shared size and poise, but Brandon Roy comes to mind.
Suggs looks like the foundational piece, the cultural tone-setter, the two-way, "this is my team, but I won't be in-your-face about it" alpha guard the Magic need to get their rebuild rolling.
Sacramento Kings: A Modern Center Who Can Defend
Richaun Holmes is about to get paid as potentially the best unrestricted free-agent 5 on the market. He's been great for the Sacramento Kings, a real find at a bargain price.
But the Kings can't be in the business of paying market rates for a center who, for all his energy and inability to miss a floater, is still mostly an old-school interior big without any range or versatility.
The Kings have already signed De'Aaron Fox to a max contract extension. They've also overpaid Buddy Hield and locked up the very solid Harrison Barnes. With Tyrese Haliburton looking like the kind of talent who'll require his own big extension down the line, Sacramento has to fill its center spot in the draft.
If Mobley is available when the Kings are on the clock, he'll be the no-brainer move. Texas' Kai Jones has some of the same multi-position defensive potential, and he's already a dangerous lob threat who even has some sneaky perimeter shot-making potential. He isn't Mobley, but he could be the next-best bet if the Kings want to shore up their defense.
It should go without saying that Sacramento, owner of the league's worst defensive rating (and that was true long before the Utah Jazz hung an easy, breezy 154 points on them Wednesday), absolutely must prioritize improvement on that end.
There's only so much one player can do, and most rookies are going to be net-negative contributors. But Sacramento has to make this pick with an eye toward fielding a respectable defense sometime within the next two or three years.
A mobile, hopefully switchable 5 could go a long way toward achieving that goal.