Although there's a consensus No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft with Oklahoma State guard/forward Cade Cunningham, a trade out of the top spot doesn't seem to be entirely off the table.
This speaks to the Detroit Pistons' willingness to cover all their bases and the amount of potential elite talent (Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs) immediately behind Cunningham.
As ESPN's Jonathan Givony wrote:
"Cunningham is not any kind of lock at No. 1 from everything I've gathered. Detroit is continuing to conduct due diligence on a group that also includes Jalen Green and especially Evan Mobley, while also exploring several trade opportunities that have emerged.
"… Teams including Cleveland, Houston, New Orleans and Oklahoma City are among those making overtures to evaluate what it would take to move up to the No. 1 slot, sources say, but those talks are at an early stage, and any trade is unlikely to be consummated until much closer to the draft, if at all."
Trading out of the No. 1 spot in the draft is rare, but has been done before and with great success.
The Boston Celtics moved back two spots in 2017 (while collecting a future first-round pick), selecting Jayson Tatum while the Philadelphia 76ers took Markelle Fultz, a deal that drastically altered the future of both franchises.
With teams naturally interested in moving up to No. 1, would the Pistons really consider giving up their shot at Cunningham? According to The Athletic's James L. Edwards III, general manager Troy Weaver is at least willing to pick up the phone:
"Even though Cunningham seems to be the clear frontrunner, a bulletproof piece to build a franchise around, Weaver and Co. are going to listen to pitches for one of the best recurring assets in the NBA: the No. 1 pick."
When looking at the Fultz-Tatum trade, and even the Luka Doncic-Trae Young deal in 2018 (with the Atlanta Hawks moving back from No. 3 to No. 5 overall), all it took was a future first-round pick to move a few spots. Given the NBA's desire for big, playmaking wings, however, teams may have to give up far more for Cunningham now.
For five teams who should be coveting Cunningham, here's what potential trade packages may look like.
Houston Rockets Receive: No. 1 overall pick in 2021
Detroit Pistons Receive: No 2 overall pick in 2021, 2022 first-round pick (top-5 protected, unprotected in 2023)
Houston wouldn't have to offer as much as other teams for the No. 1 pick, given they select just a single spot behind Detroit.
While Jalen Green or Evan Mobley would be terrific picks for Houston as well, The Athletic's Kelly Iko noted that Cunningham would be the best fit for the roster as currently constructed:
"Everyone knows the Rockets were praying for the first pick in the draft after the season they went through and Cunningham might fit them better than Green or Suggs right now. He would instantly slot into a lineup with Wall and Porter Jr., giving Houston similar diversity to what Green would give them."
The Rockets have plenty of future picks to bargain with in order to move up a spot, including the Nos. 23 and 24 overall in the 2021 draft. The Pistons should prefer to bet on Houston's rebuild keeping them in the bottom half of the league, however, and ask for the Rockets' first-rounder next season instead.
Giving up an unprotected pick in 2022 seems too risky for a Houston team that should once again be one of the NBA's worst, so putting a top-five protection on for at least a year gives the Rockets some protection and the ability to grow the core of Cunningham, Kevin Porter Jr., Christian Wood and Jae'Sean Tate for at least one more season.
There's a good chance this trade ends up looking like the Doncic-Young deal, where both teams get an All-Star in a win-win move.
Of all the potential trades, this is the one Cunningham would likely prefer. A native of Arlington, Texas, Cunningham's parents and two-year-old daughter both reside in the state. The four-hour drive between Houston and Arlington is about the same distance as Arlington and Stillwater, Oklahoma, where Cunningham spent the past year.
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: No. 1 overall pick in 2021
Detroit Pistons Receive: No. 3 overall pick in 2021, PG Ben Simmons
Philadelphia 76ers Receive: G Collin Sexton, PG Cory Joseph, C Mason Plumlee, 2023 first-round pick (lottery-protected, via Cavaliers)
After the Houston Rockets, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the easiest path to trading up to No. 1.
Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com notes that the Cavs are "definitely looking into" trading up for Cunningham, even checking around the league to see what the move would cost.
"It would be similar to what Boston and Philly did a few years ago," a league executive told Fedor. "Probably No. 3 and an unprotected future first, maybe even one of the young guys (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland or Isaac Okoro) drafted recently."
Sexton, 22, is currently the best of Cleveland's young core, posting averages of 24.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.0 steals on 47.5 percent shooting. While he fits the Pistons rebuild, Detroit may not want to face giving him a max or near-max deal next year in free agency.
This is where the Sixers come in.
Sexton would be perfect for Philly, a scoring guard who can do some distributing as needed. He still has plenty of room to grow, and adding a few useful veterans in Joseph and Plumlee (along with a future pick) should convince the Sixers to move on from Simmons.
The Pistons move back to the No. 3 spot where they're guaranteed to either draft Jalen Green or Evan Mobley while also picking up Simmons. Detroit would be adding a 24-year-old three-time All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year candidate and talented ball-handler and distributor, just for moving back two spots.
Cleveland comes away with the No. 1 pick and Cunningham, who slides into Sexton's starting spot in the backcourt. A core of Cunningham, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro and Jarrett Allen would give the Cavs one of the best young teams in the NBA.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: No. 1 overall pick in 2021
Detroit Pistons Receive: No. 6 overall pick in 2021, PG Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Asking the Pistons to drop all the way to six in the draft puts them out of the range of getting Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs and possibly even Jonathan Kuminga, so there's got to be a pretty hefty sweetener to go with this.
Gilgeous-Alexander qualifies as such, as the third-year guard is coming off a season where he averaged 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists on 62.3 percent true shooting. About to turn 23, he and Killian Hayes would make for a supersized backcourt in Detroit. The Pistons could offer him a five-year, $168 million extension that would keep him under contract until 2026.
With the No. 6 overall pick, Detroit would likely get to choose between Scottie Barnes and Keon Johnson, players who still have extremely high ceilings.
For the Thunder, this is a chance to keep Cunningham in the state.
There's no shortage of assets for OKC to give up. They own six picks in the 2021 draft (Nos. 6, 16, 18, 34, 36, 55) and have five first-rounders (and a pick swap) in the 2024 and 2025 drafts combined.
Moving Gilgeous-Alexander is probably a last resort for the Thunder, but getting a potential superstar in Cunningham may be worth it.
Orlando Magic Receive: No. 1 overall pick in 2021, PG Cory Joseph
Detroit Pistons Receive: Nos. 5 and 8 overall picks in 2021, 2023 first-round pick (top-4 protected, via Chicago Bulls), PF Jonathan Isaac
The rebuild in Orlando features plenty of good prospects, yet no All-Star level talent to gravitate around.
Getting Cunningham would change that, even if it means giving up a significant package of picks and players in return.
The Magic could use the 6'8" Cunningham as the team's starting small forward and need his outside shooting ability to help make up for the lack of spacing on the rest of this roster. With Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony starting in the backcourt and Cunningham, Chuma Okeke and Wendell Carter Jr. up front, Orlando suddenly has a whole new ceiling.
For Detroit, moving back to five likely means drafting Jonathan Kuminga, a potential two-way star who consistently defended the best opposing player with the G-League Ignite. Lots of talent would still be available at No. 8, including players like Keon Johnson, Davion Mitchell, Franz Wagner or Moses Moody.
Getting the Bulls' first-round pick with such a light protection in 2023 could turn into a really good player or serve as a major trade asset, and Isaac may be the best player left on the Magic when healthy.
Expected to return for the start of the season following surgery to fix a torn ACL, Isaac is an all-world defender under contract until 2025 who's still only 23 years old.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers Receive: No. 1 overall pick in 2021, C Jaxson Hayes, PG Cory Joseph
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: PG Damian Lillard
Detroit Pistons Receive: SF Brandon Ingram, No. 10 overall pick in 2021
If the Lillard era in Portland is going to end, what better way to replace him than with the No. 1 overall pick in a loaded draft?
While Lillard going to a rebuilding Pistons team wouldn't make any sense, the Pelicans would likely move heaven and earth in order to get the six-time All-Star point guard.
New Orleans could pair Lillard and Zion Williamson together, making for one of the most unstoppable duos in the NBA. They'd still have a roster featuring Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe and Kira Lewis Jr. with Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart as restricted free agents, with future first-round picks coming from the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks as well.
The rebuild would officially be over in New Orleans, although there would still be plenty of young talent remaining on the roster.
If the Pistons are going to move all the way back to No. 10, getting an All-Star wing like Ingram is a must. Ingram, 23, averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists and shot 38.1 percent from three this season. He's under contract until 2025, meaning Detroit would have him for at least the next four years.
For Portland, the pain of losing Lillard would be accompanied by the excitement of gaining a talent like Cunningham. A starting five of Cunningham, C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic would still be in the playoff hunt in the West, or the Blazers could continue to tear things down and give more opportunity to Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little.
Hayes, the No. 8 overall pick in 2019, could be the Blazers franchise center in waiting now that Nurkic has just one year left on his deal, and Joseph gives Cunningham a veteran to learn from at point guard.