Biggest Questions After 2021 NBA Draft: Lakers Better? Dubs Thinking Long-Term?
The NBA draft is the league's great clarifier. It replaces months of speculation, potential and possibility with a concrete reality. Whatever range of options existed for a team before the draft disappears the moment it makes its selection or pulls the trigger on a long-rumored trade.
Plans crystalize. Courses are charted. Chaos resolves itself into order.
For, like, five seconds.
Because now, even though we know where draftees will play and which stars or future assets changed teams, we've got to deal with the fresh set of questions those moves generated.
Which teams didn't swing the deal we were sure was imminent, and what happens now? What new issues will arise out of the high-profile decisions that did (or didn't) get made on draft night? In other words, what did the league's great clarifier make unclear?
Are the Lakers Better with Russell Westbrook?
The Los Angeles Lakers are certainly more interesting following their agreement to trade for Russell Westbrook on draft night, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. But are we sure they're any better?
Westbrook led the league in assists and averaged a triple-double for the fourth time in his career last year, achievements that might lead some to think that's not even a question worth asking. Westbrook is also replacing three outgoing role players in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell. In a league built on star power, Westbrook shines brighter than any of the other names in the transaction.
That said, Westbrook will severely damage the Lakers' offensive spacing. He is, without exaggeration, the worst high-volume three-point shooter in recent NBA history. For an L.A. team that finished 21st in three-point field-goal percentage and 25th in made threes per game last season, it's hard to argue Westbrook will do anything but drive both of those rankings down.
In the postseason, where individual weaknesses get ruthlessly exploited, Westbrook's inability to pose a threat on the perimeter will only become a bigger issue. And while it's true Russ can raise the Lakers' floor during the regular season by lightening LeBron James' playmaking load and keeping the second-unit offense functioning when James rests, the only thing that should matter to Los Angeles is its fitness for playoff competition.
Westbrook can help in other ways. But the former MVP, playing for his fourth team in four years and facing athletic decline ahead of his age-33 season, doesn't appear to make them more dangerous in that one critical regard.
Are Stephen Curry and the Warriors' Dynasty Holdovers Satisfied?
Just a week before draft night, The Athletic's Marcus Thompson II reported the Golden State Warriors' veteran core wasn't keen on the idea of another development-focused gap year like it endured in 2020-21.
Per Thompson: "The Warriors' trio of stars—Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson—have said to management they want the franchise to focus on the pursuit of a championship, even to consider using their two lottery picks to get someone who can help immediately."
That desire, coming from three championship-proven players in their 30s, didn't come as a surprise.
But then the Dubs grabbed tantalizing but painfully raw prospect Jonathan Kuminga with the seventh pick. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported shortly thereafter that the Warriors intend to keep Kuminga, who'll turn 19 a couple of weeks before the season opener. His upside was higher than anyone else's on the board, but the 6'9" forward almost certainly won't be ready to play a meaningful role on a contender this season. So much for pushing all the chips in on 2021-22.
It may be the case that no sensible win-now deal emerged. Golden State was right to reject an offer for Ben Simmons which, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, would have cost both lottery picks, Wiseman, Andrew Wiggins and two more future firsts. The Warriors might feel obligated to appease their vets, but not to the point of total irrationality.
The No. 14 selection of Moses Moody, a plug-and-play wing with a reliable three-point shot, should result in more short-term help. But Moody is also a teenager, and he's obviously not the high-priced veteran star Curry and Co. would have preferred.
For my money, cultivating something of a youth movement as a bridge to the post-Curry era makes more sense than anything else. But with their two-time MVP eligible for an extension this offseason ahead of possible 2022 free agency, the Warriors' failure to add immediate help might bring about a post-Curry era sooner than they'd like.
What's the Next Chapter in the Ben Simmons Saga?
The Warriors didn't bite, and reports from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe indicate no other Ben Simmons trade came close to completion on draft night. That may have something to do with the Philadelphia 76ers' exorbitant asking price.
But still: What happens now?
The Sixers weren't necessarily wrong to ask for the moon in their initial trade conversations, but the league called their bluff. With Simmons' return to Philadelphia seeming like an impossibility, it's worth wondering just how little the Sixers will have to settle for in exchange for their three-time All-Star forward.
The Sacramento Kings, who reportedly narrowly missed out on a deal to send Buddy Hield to the Lakers, should look to be opportunistic in what might soon become an extreme buy-low situation. Alongside speedster De'Aaron Fox, Simmons would give the Kings an instant identity as the league's premier transition team. He'd also provide much-needed defense and might benefit from playing for a franchise that—how to put this kindly?—doesn't often find itself in high-pressure playoff situations.
The Simmons-Sixers partnership didn't end on draft night. But it has to...eventually.
Will the Thunder's Great Pick-Hoarding Experiment Ever End?
The Oklahoma City Thunder produced one of the draft's big early surprises, taking Australian guard Josh Giddey with the No. 6 pick and leaving players like Jonathan Kuminga, Franz Wagner and James Bouknight on the board. They then quickly course corrected with what in hindsight feels like the most predictable decision of the evening.
Yep, OKC, which already had the most overstuffed war chest of draft assets, traded for more future first-rounders. Instead of using the No. 16 pick (acquired from the Boston Celtics in the Kemba Walker deal), the Thunder sent it to the Houston Rockets for reportedly two heavily protected firsts—a 2022 selection from the Detroit Pistons, and a 2023 pick via the Washington Wizards. As ESPN's Bobby Marks noted, the Thunder have 17 first-round picks coming their way...not including the ones they made on Thursday.
Update: Make that 18. The Thunder dealt for Derrick Favors with yet another first attached after the draft, per Wojnarowski. They just can't help themselves.
Oklahoma City was already beyond the outer limit of anything we'd ever seen in the pick-hoarding game, and its moves on draft night suggested it wants to venture even farther out into that unexplored frontier. It raises the question: Where will this end?
At some point, the Thunder will have to cash those selections in, converting them into an unbeatable offer for a disgruntled star or as part of a package to pry a top overall pick away from a team on some distant-future draft night. At least that seems like the endgame here.
Then again, when a team embraces a strategy this extreme, it's difficult to predict its plans. Maybe Oklahoma City, never a free-agency destination, is simply committing to building its roster exclusively through the draft. For a team that built a would-be dynasty including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka through the draft over a decade ago, there are worse approaches to take.
What Are the Cavs Up To?
Evan Mobley was a fine pick at No. 3, even if he's not quite a fit alongside Jarrett Allen, whom the team will presumably try to retain in restricted free agency. Though the 7'0" Mobley is most intriguing because of his perimeter skills, he's not yet a reliable shooter. Playing him with Allen, which Cleveland plans to do, according to Wojnarowski, would seriously cramp spacing.
Add notoriously shaky shooter Ricky Rubio, whom the Cavs added via trade just prior to the draft, and things figure to get even more congested.
The Cavaliers are early enough in their rebuild that drafting for position or fit would be a mistake. They should be in basic talent-accumulation mode. But something about their moves Thursday feels like a lead-up to something bigger.
Maybe "something bigger" is a surprise decision on Allen's future. Or perhaps Larry Nance Jr., who could help almost any team, will be on the move soon. Rubio's arrival could increase the odds of either Collin Sexton or Darius Garland leaving, but Rubio's steady leadership might instead be exactly what the two young guards need to speed up their development.
The current state of the Cavs is a great example of how certainty can beget uncertainty.
Do the Knicks Finally Deserve the Benefit of the Doubt?
For most of the last 20 years, skeptics of the New York Knicks' transactions wound up on the right side of history. The franchise was impatient, star-hungry to its own detriment and tended to botch most of its trades and draft picks.
There were a few hits in there, but four winning seasons in two decades made it clear there were a whole lot more misses.
New York finished fourth in the East last season and, better still, new management accomplished that without making a bevy of shortsighted moves. And now, after trading down more than once in the 2021 draft, the Knicks find themselves with six incoming first-rounders and nine seconds in the next four offseasons. Their commitment to patience and careful asset management is becoming a trend. In 2020, New York moved back in the first round and landed Immanuel Quickley at No. 25, and he went on to earn All-Rookie Second Team honors.
It might still be too early to proclaim them a high-functioning thought leader among NBA front offices, but the new Knicks sure haven't operated like the old ones of late.
What the Knicks do with their league-leading heap of cap space will ultimately determine the answer to the question above. This year's class is weak, particularly compared to the one taking shape for 2022. If New York can show some restraint by limiting its overpays to short-term deals (one year with a team option for 2022-23 would be ideal), it might finally be safe to harbor some real optimism about the franchise's decision-making process.
Did We Learn Anything About Zach LaVine's Future with the Bulls?
Zach LaVine is eligible for a four-year, $105 million extension once free agency begins, but that hypothetical is basically a nonstarter, as the 26-year-old guard is coming off a career season and could command max money in 2022 unrestricted free agency.
Chicago could also renegotiate and extend LaVine this summer, potentially adding four additional years and up to $195 million, but it would need cap space to do so. If the Bulls had intended to go that route—which, really, is the only way to lock LaVine down because he's not going to sign the smaller extension we mentioned first—the draft would have given them an opportunity to move in that direction.
Though they had to convey their No. 8 pick to the Orlando Magic as part of the Nikola Vucevic trade, the Bulls had a handful of assets and salaries to package in an effort to clear cap space. But, as The Athletic's Darnell Mayberry reported, "when a flurry of late first-round picks began swapping hands, the Bulls generated zero buzz among the teams looking to barter."
The Bulls remain over the cap and without the option to make LaVine a legitimate offer.
This might all be fine. The Bulls could still swing deals during free agency if they want to. And if LaVine repeats or improves on his 2020-21 season, Chicago can happily max him out in 2022. But it's still true that one opportunity to help secure the future presence of the franchise's best player came and went, which will likely keep LaVine and his expiring 2021-22 contract in trade chatter all year.
Are the Raptors Keeping Kyle Lowry?
Had the Toronto Raptors gone chalk and snagged Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs with the fourth pick, it would have seemed like a signal that franchise icon/free agent Kyle Lowry's days were numbered. But Toronto produced the draft's first significant surprise by grabbing Florida State wing Scottie Barnes instead.
Does that mean Lowry might return to the team he helped guide to the 2018-19 championship?
Barnes, a rangy 6'8" ball-handler who also happens to be a defensive menace, wasn't a reach at No. 4—despite his total lack of a jumper. His point guard skills were one of the main reasons he was always projected to go in the high lottery. Perhaps Toronto still intends to let Lowry walk and will trust Barnes to share the playmaking load with Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.
Toronto's preference for Barnes over Suggs could have no bearing at all on Lowry's future. Do-everything forwards are all the rage now, and it's undeniably intriguing to imagine Barnes, Siakam and OG Anunoby playing positionless basketball together for several years.
Still, the Raptors' decision to leave Suggs on the board could be a tiny hint that Lowry will be back. For those of us who refuse to give up on one more run with this Toronto core, let's hope that's the case.
How Much Will All This Penny-Pinching Cost the Jazz?
The deal that sent Derrick Favors away from the Utah Jazz after the draft felt inevitable, but it was no less disheartening. And that feeling has very little to do with what Favors offered on the floor.
The now two-time ex-Jazz center was a curious signing last offseason at three years and $29.2 million, seemingly ticketed for no more than a bit role behind Rudy Gobert. But Utah's decision to essentially give him away with a future first-rounder attached as a sweetener, as reported by ESPN's Wojnarowski, signaled the franchise's money-saving priorities.
Keeping Mike Conley on a new deal without going deep into the luxury tax was going to be impossible—unless the Jazz moved on from some combination of Favors, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson. Utah at least picked the most expendable player to jettison, and it's worth noting that its other draft transaction, trading down from No. 30 to No. 40, netted a potential steal in Jared Butler—whom they can sign for the minimum, rather than first-round money.
Part of the reason the Jazz flamed out against the downsized Los Angeles Clippers in the 2021 postseason was lack of depth and versatility. Moving Favors, a conventional center, doesn't make those concerns any worse. It does, though, reveal how difficult it will be for Utah to address those issues if it's so concerned with minimizing its tax penalties. Utah finished first in the West last season, and its title window is as open as it's going to get.
Is this really the time to be cutting costs?
How Happy Is Zion Williamson?
The New Orleans Pelicans got the best player in the predraft trade that brought Jonas Valanciunas over from the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams.
Though Valanciunas is a low-volume three-point shooter, he owns a 35.8 percent conversion rate and one of the game's most deceptive slow-motion pump fakes. That skill, along with his comfort operating from the elbows, makes him a better fit alongside Zion Williamson, who needs maximum space to thrive.
Zion thriving is critical in the wake of June reports that his family was frustrated with the situation in New Orleans.
New Orleans also moved back in the draft with that deal, the price it had to pay for Memphis to take on Bledsoe's and Adams' onerous salaries. Picking 17th instead of 10th, the Pels grabbed knockdown shooter Trey Murphy III from Virginia—another shrewd move that makes sense in their spacing-over-everything plans.
The Pelicans cleared cap room as well, which might allow them to snag Kyle Lowry while also possibly retaining restricted free agent Lonzo Ball. Even if New Orleans needed to make these efforts largely to undo the damage of the 2020 offseason, they were still impressive and part of a plan geared toward giving Zion what he needs.
But will they be enough?
If not, Williamson might begin angling for an exit in earnest while still early in his rookie deal, setting a new standard for young-player empowerment.