2021 NBA Draft Lottery Preview: What's at Stake for Each Team

Here’s a guide to what’s hanging in the balance for all 14 teams as Tuesday night nears.
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It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tuesday’s draft lottery promises to be one of the most consequential in recent memory. In the NBA, rebuilds are often only as successful as the bounces you get on lottery night. As we’ve learned in recent years, there’s more than enough randomness with the flattened lottery odds giving more teams a real crack at the top four selections. Things get scarier when picks are traded and front offices are forced to wait and place their faith in the lottery process. This year, there are three early selections that could change hands and alter the fates of different franchises. Some teams could wind up with multiple lottery picks, and others with none. And the presence of an impressive group of top prospects raises the stakes even further.

Five prospects separated themselves early in the season and have more or less ridden out the wave as a consensus top group. There’s presumptive No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, who’s viewed as a potential franchise-changer with his well-rounded perimeter skills, calm demeanor and winning acumen. Behind him is Evan Mobley, the most impressive shot-blocking prospect since Anthony Davis with an expanding offensive game. Tough-minded Jalen Suggs and explosive scorer Jalen Green are strong backcourt options, and Jonathan Kuminga may have the best physical tools in the draft. While winning the lottery is an obvious coup, simply moving up is a real windfall this time around.

We’ll have a mock draft coming following the lottery results, and much more draft coverage on the way over the next five weeks. For now, here’s a guide to what’s hanging in the balance for all 14 teams as Tuesday night nears.

Cade Cunningham of the Oklahoma State Cowboys

Houston Rockets (17–55)

Chance to win: 14%

Chance of top-four pick: 52.1%

What’s at stake: A lot. The Rockets share the best possible odds atop the draft, but lose their lottery pick to the Thunder if it drops to No. 5, as part of the fallout from the Chris Paul/Russell Westbrook trade. So while they have a better than 50% chance of drafting in the top four, there’s still a 47.9% chance the Rockets don’t pick in the lottery at all, in which case they’ll receive Miami’s No. 18 pick instead via swap. Houston also owns the 23rd and 24th picks, which might offer them some added flexibility to move around in the draft, but those things are a small consolation, or none at all. Keeping this pick is the only thing that really matters, and there’s no future obligation or protection on the selection. Houston either gets to use it, or lose it (and instead, draft 18th).

There’s not much pressure or expectation that these post–James Harden Rockets will be good anytime soon. This draft will enable them to get younger and diversify their roster one way or another. But the chance to walk away with a premium prospect in the fold versus … not doing that? These are weighty circumstances. Houston doesn’t need to win the lottery to feel great about the outcome—it just has to stay an optimal course. This is a huge juncture for the franchise. Love it or hate it, the draft lottery can give birth to real drama.

Detroit Pistons (20–52)

Chance to win: 14%

Chance of top-four pick: 52.1%

What’s at stake: The Pistons share top odds with the Rockets and Magic, and can draft no lower than sixth, which means this will be the highest Detroit has picked since 2002’s ill-fated selection of Darko Miličić at No. 2. And while Detroit would obviously prefer to draft as high as possible, there’s a 79.1% chance they pick in the top five, which would guarantee them access to one of the draft’s elite prospects. The only truly disastrous outcome here would be falling down to No. 6 and missing out.

Detroit is in the early stages of a long-term plan and successfully hit on last year’s selections of Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey in the top 20. They are expected to be patient with point guard Killian Hayes, who sources have indicated was a personal favorite of GM Troy Weaver going into last year’s draft. But current personnel shouldn’t be an impediment to the Pistons’ decision process, or preclude them from taking another guard if they see fit. They do need scoring, and would be a particularly good fit for Jalen Green if he’s on the board.

Orlando Magic (21–51)

Chance to win: 14%

Chance of top-four pick: 52.1%

What’s at stake: Orlando shares the best possible lottery odds, but its pick has a wider range of outcomes than Houston and Detroit: There’s a 14.8% chance the Magic pick fifth, a 26% chance they pick sixth and a 7.1% chance they fall to seventh. The Magic are also likely to receive the Bulls’ selection, but that pick will likely land eighth or ninth, and Chicago gets to keep it if it falls inside the top four. If the Bulls’ pick doesn’t convey, it becomes top-three protected in 2022—and with Chicago pushing to be a playoff team, Orlando might prefer to receive that pick this year. But while picking twice in the lottery would be nice, the more consequential item for the Magic is simply drafting as high as possible, giving them a chance at Cunningham or Mobley. Conversely, the nightmare would be falling outside the top five, while also being leapfrogged by the Bulls.

The Magic have important work to do on their roster regardless, with a glut of young players who haven’t quite separated themselves, but who all need minutes next season. Jonathan Isaac is set to return from injury next season and is viewed as Orlando’s only untouchable piece. Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba have been underwhelming and should compete for minutes at center. Starting point guard Markelle Fultz is still just 22 and will also return from injury, with 2020 first-rounders Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton potentially fighting for minutes behind him and Gary Harris. Promising forward Chuma Okeke also needs playing time. Don’t expect the Magic to be strongly concerned with positional fit in the draft: They need star power above all else. Considering the circumstances, my read on the situation is that Orlando could move on from one or more of its current young players, particularly if it picks twice in the lottery and takes another guard.

Oklahoma City Thunder (22–50)

Chance to win: 11.5%

Chance of top-four pick: 45.1%

What’s at stake: Although it requires some wishful thinking, the Thunder are the only team with a chance at landing two top-five picks, creating a range of fascinating scenarios that could alter the fate of the franchise. The best case for OKC requires two possible outcomes to hit simultaneously: the 45.1% chance the Thunder’s pick lands in the top four, and the 47.9% chance the Rockets’ pick falls all the way to No. 5, and conveys to OKC. (Author’s note: I briefly attempted to figure out the probability of those dependent events both occurring and was swiftly reminded why I’m a writer, not a mathematician.) Houston’s pick won’t convey past this season, and if Oklahoma City doesn’t receive it, it will instead get the No. 18 pick in addition to its own. But there’s huge upside here for the Thunder if things break favorably.

The Thunder already made their first move of what should be another active summer, acquiring Kemba Walker and the No. 16 pick in the draft from the Celtics last week for Al Horford and Moses Brown. Lost in the dialogue surrounding Sam Presti’s hoarding of future picks is that the Thunder actually haven’t selected in the top 10 since 2009. Of course, Presti was responsible for nailing three straight drafts, picking Kevin Durant at No. 2 in '07 (an obvious one), Russell Westbrook fourth in '08 (ahead of UCLA teammate Kevin Love) and James Harden third in '09 (which was not clear-cut at the time, either). His track record coupled with the quality of top talent in this year’s draft certainly bodes well for Oklahoma City’s future. The Thunder can dream, but there’s some downside here: Their pick’s most likely draft slot is No. 6 (27.1% chance), and they can fall as low as No. 7 or 8 depending on how the lottery falls. They could even wind up picking back-to-back at 5 and 6. Considering the state of their rebuild and the breadth of possibilities, the Thunder have quite a bit on the table.

Cleveland Cavaliers (22–50)

Chance to win: 11.5%

Chance of top-four pick: 45.1%

What’s at stake: The Cavs are set to pick in the top 10 for the fourth straight year, but are still in search of a true franchise centerpiece. Collin Sexton has tangibly improved, but is still more scorer than point guard, and it’s still a little early to make a final call on Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro, but none of those picks has been true home runs, and the sense around the NBA is that Koby Altman’s front office is feeling some pressure. Cleveland needs to show real signs of progress next season. The Cavs are more likely to draft sixth, seventh or eighth (52.3% chance) than move into the top four, with a tiny chance they fall to ninth. A favorable bounce could go a long way toward improving the circumstances here.

It remains to be seen whether the presence of Sexton and Garland will impact Cleveland’s willingness to draft a guard like Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs, should the Cavs move up in the draft. Certainly, the most pronounced need is at forward, with Okoro on the wing and Jarrett Allen looking like the long-term center. If they choose to stay the course with their core players, this becomes an obvious situational fit for Jonathan Kuminga or Scottie Barnes, although the lack of shooting in the frontcourt could just as easily dissuade Cleveland from either player. The Cavs’ narrower set of needs and wide range of lottery outcomes should make their selection an interesting juncture in the draft, regardless of where it lands.

Minnesota Timberwolves (23–49)

Chance to win: 9%

Chance of top-four pick: 27.6%*

What’s at stake: Quite a bit! Technically speaking, Minnesota’s pick has a 37.2% chance of going top four. But if the Wolves pick fourth or lower, the selection goes to the Warriors, as part of the fallout from the D’Angelo Russell trade. If Minnesota keeps the pick, it becomes unprotected in 2022, so it's going to lose one no matter what. The quality of the top prospects in this draft and the urgency for the Wolves to improve their roster emphasize the need for some immediate good fortune.

Minnesota can only draft in the top three, which makes speculating on their potential selection much easier: Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and to a lesser extent, Jalen Suggs would all be terrific additions. Jalen Green’s skill set is analogous enough to that of Anthony Edwards that he feels highly unlikely here. Suggs is a native of Minneapolis, and his toughness would be of real use. In the case of Cunningham and Mobley, you bet on the talent and versatility. Any of those guys would be a huge help to the Timberwolves, while not drafting in the lottery at all makes life much more complicated.

*Adjusted odds accounting for the traded pick

Toronto Raptors (27–45)

Chance to win: 7.5%

Chance of top-four pick: 31.9%

What’s at stake: After what amounted to a lost season playing home games in Tampa, the Raptors have an opportunity for some consolation via the draft, with a reasonable, if unlikely chance at drafting in the top four. Toronto has a 33.9% chance of picking eighth, and in all likelihood will pick no lower than ninth, barring a bizarre outcome. This is an aggressive franchise that will push for the playoffs again next season, but it’s not every year the Raptors have access to players with lottery-level upside. Philosophically, the basic question here is whether Toronto prefers to develop a long-term piece or select a more NBA-ready prospect with this selection. Some lottery luck will make that decision much simpler.

Chicago Bulls: (31–41)

Chance to win: 4.5%

Chance of top-four pick: 20.3%

What’s at stake: The Bulls lose their pick to Orlando unless they move up, so it’s top four or nothing. If Chicago gets lucky and keeps the pick, it rolls over and becomes top-three protected in 2022, as part of the deadline deal for Nikola Vučević. So this situation is pretty simple. Any of the top prospects would be a strong addition here, and there’s a definite need at point guard, with Coby White a natural scorer who’s likely best suited as a sixth man. The presence of Zach LaVine, who the Bulls may now hope to keep long-term, makes Jalen Green a poor fit, but any of the other top four prospects would fit nicely.

Sacramento Kings (31–41)

Chance to win: 4.5%

Chance of top-four pick: 20.3%

What’s at stake: The Kings will most likely draft ninth (46.4% chance) or 10th (29.4%), unless they get extremely lucky, or if one of the teams picking after them gets even luckier. Sacramento nailed last year’s selection of Tyrese Haliburton, but the front office was also fortunate enough to have him fall into their laps at No. 12. This draft promises to be a bit more challenging, with less delineation in quality after the top players are off the board. There’s a potential hole at center depending on whether the team can maneuver to keep Richaun Holmes, as well as need for a long-term wing. Sacramento may not be able to directly address anything immediate with this pick, but the duo of De’Aaron Fox and Haliburton should place the emphasis on building a better frontcourt, particularly with Marvin Bagley still a bit of an enigma.

New Orleans Pelicans (31–41)

Chance to win: 4.5%

Chance of top-four pick: 20.3%

What’s at stake: The Pelicans have the same top-four odds as the Bulls and Kings, but came out on the wrong end of the tiebreaker and have a 60.6% chance of drafting 10th. New Orleans has several crucial decisions to make this summer, with a head coaching vacancy to address, and Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart becoming restricted free agents. The Pelicans have drafted fairly well the past two years, but are still in search of a playoff berth as they build the roster around Zion Williamson. A surprise lottery result could be a game-changer; picking 10th will still allow them to add to their young core, with a clear need for more defensive toughness and three-point shooting. It’s tough to assume this roster looks the same a few months from now, but the priority will remain finding players that complement Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

Charlotte Hornets (33–39)

Chance to win: 1.8%

Chance of top-four pick: 8.5%

What’s at stake: Barring something crazy happening, the Hornets will draft 11th, with last year’s lottery luck unlikely to repeat itself. LaMelo Ball, the newly minted rookie of the year, will be the central roster element to consider here, with an obvious need at center, which has been something of a black hole for the organization in recent years. Charlotte also has decisions to make on Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk, and could look to add to its perimeter group while addressing the five-spot in free agency. If they nail this draft and Ball continues to emerge, they could be one of the more intriguing young teams in the league a year from now.

San Antonio Spurs (33–39)

Chance to win: 1.7%

Chance of top-four pick: 8%

What’s at stake: The Spurs will most likely draft 12th, and have a glut of young guards and wings on the roster, plus DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay hitting free agency. It stands to reason that this will be a spot for a frontcourt player, with San Antonio likely to have options available in that respect. There will be minutes to go around next season as the Spurs determine which of their prospects will separate themselves moving forward. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White seem to be most entrenched right now. Drafting in the late lottery may actually be a better value proposition than in the 6–9 range this year, and given what San Antonio needs, it’s not a bad spot at all.

Indiana Pacers (34–38)

Chance to win: 1%

Chance of top-four pick: 4.8%

What’s at stake: The Pacers will pick 13th, barring a miracle. They need a new coach, but Indiana seems likely to push for the playoffs given the amount of returning talent, and that could ostensibly influence how it decides to draft. The recent draft track record here is somewhat mixed, most notably Myles Turner (who emerges in trade rumors seemingly every year) and reserves Goga Bitadze and Aaron Holiday. With bench stalwarts Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell hitting free agency, Indiana could look to plug those holes through the draft.

Golden State Warriors (39–33)

Chance to win: 0.5%

Chance of top-four pick: 12%*

What’s at stake: The Warriors’ odds of drafting in the top four are slightly heightened by way of the Timberwolves’ pick, which has a 9.6% chance of landing at No. 4, and which Golden State will receive as long as it lands outside the top three. The most likely outcome is that the Warriors pick twice in the lottery, with the fate of Minnesota’s pick (most likely to land seventh or eighth) up in the air, and their own selection all but certain to be 14th. If the Wolves’ pick doesn’t convey, Golden State receives it unprotected next year, so there’s upside for the Warriors no matter what. Given the urgency to return to the playoffs as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green near the final stage of their careers, the Warriors certainly won’t complain if they luck out here, but the other question is how many young guys they really want to roster next season, with James Wiseman still very much in a nascent stage of development. Golden State’s roster is somewhat stuck between eras, and it may take some offseason creativity to actually improve the team.

*Adjusted odds accounting for the traded pick

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