1 Trade Every Lottery Team Should Consider If It Wins No. 1 Pick

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 21, 2021

1 Trade Every Lottery Team Should Consider If It Wins No. 1 Pick

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    Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

    The NBA draft lottery is a little like the Big Bang.

    A tiny, isolated point that is basically unknown potential incarnate explodes, resulting in a universe with clear physical rules and defined pathways forward. Total uncertainty takes orderly shape in a blink—or, as will probably be the case Tuesday, over the course of a 30-minute TV broadcast.

    Cade Cunningham is the prohibitive favorite to be taken by whoever lands at No. 1, with Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga and Jalen Suggs sharing infinitesimally small chances to come off the board first instead.

    If the lottery shakes out according to the probabilities, it will be difficult to imagine any of the teams with serious shots to draft first trading away the chance to take Cunningham. All of them are rebuilders without a clear cornerstone in place—with the possible exception of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

    So, for this exercise, we can't just concoct scenarios where the team that wins the lottery trades the pick. In almost every case, that'd be laughably unrealistic. Instead, we need to consider the possibilities securing the first selection opens up elsewhere on the roster.

    Maybe it creates an opportunity to clear space for Cunningham (or some other surprise at No. 1) by dealing a veteran. Or perhaps it allows a team to move on from a previous prospect who hasn't panned out but might still be valued by another team.

    Winning the draft lottery reshapes a team's offseason. Here, we'll explore how lucking out could also reshape its roster.

Houston Rockets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 14.1 percent

    Odds of top four: 52.1 percent

    The roster we'll see the Houston Rockets field in the first full year of the post-James Harden era has holes and unwanted commodities everywhere. Ideally, Houston should try to move both John Wall and Eric Gordon—both because of their inflated salaries and age. Neither is a sensible component of a rebuild.

    Maybe if the top of this draft looked more like the thin and uncertain 2020 class, Houston could justify dangling the top pick as a sweetener to dump Wall and the nearly $92 million he's owed over the next two seasons (player option for 2022-23). But there's no chance the Rockets would consider that with Cunningham available.

    The best move here is a smaller one. Danuel House Jr.'s three-point shooting has trended steadily down from its 41.6 percent peak in 2018-19, but he's only due $3.9 million in the final year of his deal next season. Having just turned 28, the three-and-D wing could provide real value to a contender in a limited role—especially if he bumps his long-range hit rate up toward 37.0 percent.

    Cunningham is an obvious plug-and-play starter at the 3. Moving House would further free up minutes and possibly return a younger piece or a second-rounder, both of which would be valuable for the Rockets' rebuild.

    *If the Rockets slide out of the top four, their pick conveys to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 14.1 percent

    Odds of top four: 52.1 percent

    I love everything about a potential Detroit Pistons starting five of Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Cunningham, Jerami Grant and Isaiah Stewart. So for the second straight time, it would be bonkers to suggest the lotto winner trade the prized top pick.

    Playmaking is among the hypothetical long-term strengths of the above unit, particularly if Hayes moves past his injury-hit rookie year and validates the hype that had him in fringe consideration for a top-three selection in 2020. Cunningham can get a lot done with the ball in his hands, and Grant proved doubters wrong with surprisingly serviceable playmaking and shot-creation chops this past season. Detroit could mix and match those three in a rotation that always kept at least two facilitators on the court.

    This makes Cory Joseph somewhat expendable, and considering only $2.4 million of the $12.6 million he's due in 2021-22 is guaranteed, he'd be highly attractive to a team looking to cut some salary.

    The Phoenix Suns need to pinch every penny they can with extensions coming to Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, to say nothing of a hefty new deal for Chris Paul if the veteran guard declines his player option. Maybe they'd consider taking Joseph and a heavily protected first-rounder for Jalen Smith, the No. 10 pick in 2020 who played a grand total of 156 minutes this year. Phoenix would need to add some filler to make the money match, or Detroit could start throwing in additions like Jahlil Okafor and aim for a costlier name from another team.

    Either way, Joseph makes more sense as a post-lottery trade chip than a rotation piece.

Orlando Magic

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 14.1 percent

    Odds of top four: 52.1 percent

    Cory Joseph and Danuel House Jr. trades not quite juicy enough for you? That's fair; both are devoid of juice.

    How about this then: Let's say the Rockets slip out of the top four, convey their first-rounder to the Thunder and OKC luckily jumps up to No. 2. Now armed with the second and fifth picks in the draft, Oklahoma City comes calling for the lottery-winning Orlando Magic's top overall selection.

    The Magic should pull the trigger, sending No. 1 to OKC for two shots in the top five.

    Yes, Cunningham is the presumptive best player in this class. But are we sure he's a guaranteed superstar? And are we sure one of Evan Mobley or Jalen Green won't have a better career?

    The Magic have had a tough time finding a cornerstone. Jonathan Isaac couldn't stay healthy; Mo Bamba looked good late in the year but has disappointed overall. Markelle Fultz wasn't an Orlando draftee, but his torn ACL also removed him from serious contention as a franchise pillar.

    With luck (and dubious drafting acumen) like that, Orlando needs a volume approach. If the Thunder are sure Cunningham, an Oklahoma State product, is the only can't-miss guy in the 2021 class, the Magic should capitalize in a high-profile two-for-one deal.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 11.5 percent

    Odds of top four: 45.1 percent

    The Oklahoma City Thunder didn't wait for the lottery to execute a perfectly on-brand trade, swapping Al Horford's big contract for Kemba Walker's even bigger one, taking in an additional first-rounder from the Boston Celtics in the process.

    The result: an ever-expanding war chest that includes 18 first-rounders between now and 2027. Actually, how big are war chests, exactly? Maybe it's better to say OKC has a full-sized industrial war shipping container full of firsts.

    Anyway, if a team were in a position to turn down exactly the kind of quantity-for-quality exchange we cooked up for the Magic in the last section, it's the Thunder. They've already got more picks than they know what to do with. As will likely be the case in reality, the Thunder aren't passing on Cunningham in this hypothetical.

    If anything, they could deal some of their other future draft capital to move up and make two or three selections in the top five. Maybe that's been the plan all along—recreate the starry, decade-old youth movement of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.

    Oklahoma City has no other pricey contracts on its books after Walker's, so let's just suggest it flips Walker for a worse deal (maybe Kevin Love's or John Wall's), bring back another first-rounder and call it good.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 11.5 percent

    Odds of top four: 45.1 percent

    The Cleveland Cavaliers shouldn't be in a hurry to disband their undersized backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland until they have a clearly superior option.

    Winning the lottery would give them one.

    Cunningham—and either Suggs or Green—would give Cleveland a bigger playmaker, allowing it to replace one of its smallish guards with someone more equipped to defend wings. Sexton's scoring chops are real, and he could theoretically shine as an off-ball gunner. But he has so far seemed more inclined to hold the rock looking for his own offense; he led the Cavs in frontcourt touches per game and narrowly trailed Garland, a truer point guard, in dribbles per touch.

    Move Sexton and Taurean Prince's expiring deal to the New Orleans Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe and a future first-rounder, waive and stretch Bledsoe, slide Isaac Okoro to the 2 full time, trust Cunningham and Garland to run the show, and the Cavs look like a much more balanced and versatile team.

    Cleveland might be justified in wanting to keep Sexton's 24.3 points per game around, and Bledsoe plus a pick isn't the sexiest return. But the net gain of putting the ball in hands of players who will pass more often could be worth what's essentially a Sexton-for-future-first exchange. Plus, the Pelicans need guards and have picks to spare after hoarding them in deals that sent out Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 9.0 percent

    Odds of top four: 37.2 percent

    The Minnesota Timberwolves would do celebratory backflips if they won the lottery for the second straight year—not just because they'd get to add Cunningham to a core of Karl-Anthony Towns, 2020 No. 1 selection Anthony Edwards and D'Angelo Russell, but also because it would mean they wouldn't have to watch the pick fly out the window to the Golden State Warriors, who'll claim it if it falls outside the top three.

    Though it's highly unlikely to happen because of Russell's friendship with Towns, the Wolves' clear cornerstone, the move here would be to call up the Magic to gauge interest in swapping D-Lo for Jonathan Isaac.

    The risk of adding Isaac, who missed all of 2020-21 and played fewer than 35 games in two of the preceding three seasons, is obvious. There's no guarantee he will ever stay healthy enough to realize the clear DPOY potential he showed when fit.

    Russell's ball-dominant, offense-only pick-and-roll game would give the Magic a sorely needed maestro, but it becomes superfluous the moment Cunningham joins Minnesota's roster. That's without considering Edwards' much higher ceiling and likely demand for an increasingly significant role.

    The best version of Isaac is a five-position defensive menace, capable of swallowing up guards on the perimeter and materializing from out of nowhere for vicious help-side blocks. Towns has topped out as passable on D in his best years and has been much worse than that on balance. Isaac's skills don't overlap with anyone else's on the roster like Russell's would, and his defensive presence could cover for Towns' and others' shortcomings.

Toronto Raptors

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 7.5 percent

    Odds of top four: 31.9 percent

    Finally, a team that might consider trading the top pick for more immediate help!

    That's a fairly big "might," by the way. The Toronto Raptors could easily keep the pick, bring back Kyle Lowry and seek out vets for another deep playoff run alongside Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Cunningham or whomever the Raps like best atop the draft could thrive as a fourth or fifth option in the short term while also providing an easy bridge to the post-Lowry future.

    Personally, I wouldn't look to make a deal. But let's say Toronto decides not to trust a rookie in a major role and shops the top selection instead. In that scenario, the No. 1 pick could help the Raptors land a more established young player on a rookie-scale deal—all without losing one of their core four pieces.

    Toronto's first call should be to the New Orleans Pelicans to gauge just how dissatisfied Zion Williamson and his family are with the franchise. When the Pels laugh and hang up, the search should progress to Michael Porter Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and on down the list of 2018 draftees. Maybe one of those players' teams will be antsy about handing out a fat extension this offseason and would rather start fresh with the top pick on a rookie-scale contract.

Chicago Bulls

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 4.5 percent

    Odds of top four: 20.3 percent

    The Chicago Bulls lose this pick to the Orlando Magic if it falls outside the top four. That'd be a rough result for Chicago after dealing this selection and a top-four protected first in 2023 for Nikola Vucevic...and then missing the playoffs anyway.

    If the Bulls win the lottery, it's Cunningham all the way. There's a void on the roster at small forward, assuming Patrick Williams eventually profiles as a 4, and more capable playmaking could take some of the passing onus off turnover-prone Zach Lavine.

    Both LaVine and Vucevic are accustomed to high-usage offensive roles, which doesn't necessarily hurt Cunningham's chances of fitting in. Much of his appeal is in his ability to impact the game as a ball-mover when circumstances dictate. But why stop there? Let's get the Bulls another role-playing connector—one who also becomes a lights-out shooter on the catch.

    A sign-and-trade with the Pelicans for Lonzo Ball, with some combination of Coby White, Thaddeus Young and Lauri Markkanen heading out makes sense.

    Ball is a restricted free agent who could sign an offer sheet elsewhere, but perhaps the Pels would do him a solid and get him to a Chicago team that needs his services and could quickly climb the standings in the relatively weak East. Eric Bledsoe might have to serve as cap-balancing filler if the Bulls sent out all three of the above names, but he wouldn't be the worst option in a limited role. And there's always the stretch provision...

Sacramento Kings

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 4.5 percent

    Odds of top four: 20.3 percent

    De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton will run the Sacramento Kings' offensive show for the foreseeable future, making them one of the few teams that might not view Cunningham as a must-have at No. 1.

    It'd be a massive gamble in what's presumptively a five-player draft, but maybe the Kings would consider packaging Harrison Barnes and the No. 1 pick for Pascal Siakam and Toronto's first-rounder, most likely No. 7 overall.

    The Kings shouldn't be in the business of adding expensive in-prime talent, but you'll forgive their desperation in light of a playoff drought that now spans a league-high 15 seasons. 

    Toronto would trim about $10 million off its books in this deal, which could open up a heap of cap room if Kyle Lowry doesn't return. The Raptors would essentially get Cunningham and the opportunity to sign another real difference-maker in this exchange.

    Realistically, the Kings shouldn't do this. They need to be deliberate, not skip steps. But if their impatience reaches critical mass, Siakam would be an immediate upgrade that might finally help them snag the eighth spot in the West they've been chasing for so long.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 4.5 percent

    Odds of top four: 20.3 percent

    If the New Orleans Pelicans buck the odds and win the lottery, the wisest course would be to get Zion Williamson in a room, ask him what he'd like them to do...and then do whatever that is. If Zion's list of demands includes relocating the franchise to the moon because reduced gravity is easier on his knees, the Pels should start looking into space travel.

    When whispers emerge that a generational talent is frustrated with his team in just his second year, drastic measures might just be the right ones.

    Dealing the No. 1 pick would certainly qualify as drastic.

    New Orleans is among the teams best positioned to blow the Washington Wizards away with an offer for Bradley Beal. The first overall selection and Brandon Ingram (plus a little filler) might get it done—if the Pelicans were desperate enough and/or didn't like the top five players in the draft as much as everyone else seems to.

    Of course, if Williamson would rather give it a go with Cunningham, Suggs or any of the other options, the Pelicans should keep their selection and move forward with an increasingly exciting young core.

    The only scenario in which New Orleans shouldn't do everything possible to appease Zion is if it already believes he's set on working his way out of town sooner than later. And that's a possibility too bleak to consider.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 1.8 percent

    Odds of top four: 8.5 percent

    Under no circumstances should the Charlotte Hornets turn down the possibility of LaMelo Ball and Cade Cunningham making beautiful on-court music together for the next several years. They'd have the market cornered on collective basketball intuition and passing acumen.

    The better course would be to offload Devonte' Graham via sign-and-trade in hopes of addressing the organization's void in the middle. Graham is a fine playmaker and off-the-dribble three-point shooter whose limitations as a finisher inside the arc probably peg him as a third guard on most teams. But for the Orlando Magic, who desperately need backcourt shot creation, he'd be a clear starter—certainly until Markelle Fultz makes it back onto the floor, and perhaps alongside the former No. 1 pick thereafter.

    If the Magic were willing to part with either Mo Bamba or Wendell Carter Jr. (with the former seeming more likely), the Hornets could balance out a rotation that would need Graham's contributions less than ever.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 1.7 percent

    Odds of top four: 8.0 percent

    This is a big (wildly improbable) deal to unpack, so let's just get right to it.

    The San Antonio Spurs send the No. 1 pick and Dejounte Murray to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and all three of OKC's 2021 first-rounders (projected as most likely to be Nos. 4, 16 and 18).

    San Antonio gets the best established player in SGA and piles up three shots at adding another high-end prospect to a collection that already includes Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV and Devin Vassell. The caveat we've used several times would have to apply here, too: San Antonio only remotely considers this if it isn't convinced there's much difference between Cunningham and the other options in the top five.

    Meanwhile, Oklahoma City would have to be certain Cunningham is a superstar to part with one of the best young guards in the league in Gilgeous-Alexander and three hugely valuable picks. That OKC gets a quality young starter in Murray might make this more plausible, as would the fact that the Thunder have eleventy million future first-rounders coming their way.

    At some point, Oklahoma City will have to consolidate all those selections in a trade for a single high-value asset. Maybe the Thunder's pick accumulation strategy has been about targeting Cunningham all along.

Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 1.0 percent

    Odds of top four: 4.8 percent

    The Indiana Pacers have made just two top-10 selections (both No. 10) since 1989. So if they manage to convert their 1.0 percent odds at No. 1 into the actual first selection, they might just collectively keel over from shock.

    Given the infrequency with which Indy has picked in the high lottery and the roster's clear need for a wing with star potential, trading this pick seems highly unlikely. On the flip side, the addition of a first-option prospect could create an opportunity to move Domantas Sabonis at what feels like the top end of his market value.

    Sabonis needs the rock to be effective, but his lack of defense makes him a floor-raiser on balance. I'm not sure it makes sense for the Pacers to give a potential superstar wing's touches to a player like that. Some team, though, could view Sabonis as an offensive fulcrum capable of getting them into the playoff hunt.

    Let's send Sabonis to the Pistons for Jerami Grant, giving the Pacers a more modern starting five of Malcolm Brogdon, Cunningham, TJ Warren, Grant and Myles Turner. Caris LeVert would return to the bench in this scenario, where his low-efficiency bucket-getting is a better fit. Meanwhile, Detroit gets a two-time All-Star in the middle who could take playmaking pressure off Killian Hayes, who missed so much time last year that 2021-22 will basically be his rookie season all over again.

    I'm lower on Sabonis than most, but even his supporters have to admit Indy's path toward contention with an offense-first conventional center as the focal point is improbable. All postseason, we've been watching smaller, quicker, more versatile teams succeed. This updated version of the Pacers looks better suited to win in the modern game.

Golden State Warriors

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Odds of No. 1: 0.5 percent

    Odds of top four: 2.4 percent

    The Golden State Warriors have the worst chance at the No. 1 pick of any lottery team, though the selection Minnesota owes them does create the absolute best-case possibility of the Dubs having the first and fourth picks in the draft.

    If Golden State's own pick miraculously lands at No. 1, it'll be faced with a brutally tough decision. The urgency to win right now is immense; Stephen Curry is still in his prime, Klay Thompson will be back and Draymond Green isn't interested in merely being competitive. All three deserve a last shot at contention, and trading this pick would give the Warriors a chance to add veteran talent for a title-or-bust pursuit.

    But imagine the regret if the Warriors go that route, fall short and then watch Cunningham become a transformational superstar—someone who could have been a Kawhi Leonard to the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan, or a Duncan to David Robinson, if you want to go back even further. Big-time winners rarely get the chance to age out gracefully and give way to worthy successors.

    If Golden State feels it has no choice but to honor Curry and the remaining core of the dynasty, it could package the No. 1 pick, Andrew Wiggins and possibly James Wiseman for the absolute best available star. Bradley Beal is the obvious pick.

    Is the quartet of Curry, Beal, Thompson and Green enough to make the Warriors a true contender? Perhaps just barely. But few teams have greater motivation to take on those long odds than Golden State, which just watched one of Curry's best seasons go to waste. The Warriors don't know how many more of those they'll get. 


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders. Lottery Odds via Tankathon.


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