We can sit here right now and pretend we know exactly which teams hit home runs in the draft Thursday night, or we can be honest and admit all of this is a guessing game. It will be years before anybody really knows who “won” or “lost” the 2021 NBA draft. (Did anyone have the Bucks as the clear victors when they drafted Giannis with the 15th pick in '13?) Of course, the decisions teams made Thursday will still have a major effect on the landscape of the league moving forward. So let’s run through some winners and losers around the NBA based on how the draft shook out.
Winner: Brooklyn Nets
The Nets scooped up a couple of players late in the first round who could end up in the rotation and maybe even see some playoff minutes in Day’Ron Sharpe and Cam Thomas. More important, Brooklyn has to be happy with how it's stacking up against fellow contenders ahead of free agency. Nobody in the East made a significant move to upgrade their roster via trade, which means Brooklyn is probably the favorite to make it out of the conference, even in the wake of the Bucks’ championship run. And on the other side of the coast, does the Russell Westbrook trade really strike any fear in Kevin Durant or James Harden? Obviously, with free agency still to come and the trade deadline/buyout market still many moons away, no contender is near its final form. Still, early returns are promising for the Nets, who still own the most top-end talent in the league.
Loser: Stephen Curry
While the Warriors may have added two great prospects in Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, it’s more than fair to question how much both players can impact the team this upcoming season. Stephen Curry showed in 2021 he remains very much in MVP form even after the toll five straight Finals trips took on everyone’s body in Golden State. The Dubs simply can’t afford to waste any more of his career. The front office was undoubtedly trying to shop its two lottery picks for an impact veteran, and perhaps a move is still out there, but for now it has to be a little frustrating for Curry (plus Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) that the team can’t find a way to fill out the rotation like it did during Golden State’s championship heyday. Last year it was clear Steve Kerr struggled trying to balance chasing wins while also developing No. 2 pick James Wiseman. It’s not out of the question the Warriors still swing a big trade, or maybe even Wiseman takes a leap. For now, it’s going to be an uphill climb for Steph, Dray and Klay to get back to the Finals with all the youth on the roster.
Bradley Beal seems legitimately interested in sticking things out in D.C., and GM Tommy Sheppard somehow turned the allegedly radioactive contracts of John Wall and Russell Westbrook into Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Holiday. Even if that’s not a magical haul that will transform the franchise, those are respectable players who will add depth around Beal. Kuzma, Harrell and KCP are all guys who can be in the rotation on a genuinely good team. Washington is still a ways away from resembling anything close to a contender. At least now they have some interesting pieces and flexibility to play with moving forward.
There is almost no reason to watch the draft conventionally anymore. Not only are picks being tipped well ahead of time, the flurry of trades makes for awkward viewing when Adam Silver hugs a player wearing a hat of a team everyone outside the arena knows he will never play for. If the NBA can figure out its super complicated schedule or how to shoehorn a play-in tournament into the middle of the season, surely somebody in the league office can come up with a fix for the draft experience.
Winner: G League
Two players in the top seven (Kuminga and Jalen Green) skipped playing college hoops and instead signed up for the G League Ignite, the NBA’s experimental team that allows potential lottery picks to gain professional experience before being drafted (and more important, get paid for playing.) With NIL deals sweeping the NCAA, I’m curious to see how the Ignite team is impacted moving forward, with the platform of college athletics maybe tipping the financial scales back in favor of the standard route to the pros. For Year 1 at least, the Ignite team proved to be a viable option for players who have hopes of going near the top of the draft.
Losers: Ben Simmons and the Sixers
Ben Simmons and the Sixers are clearly headed for a breakup. Except it seems Philly is struggling to find a trade partner for Simmons, an undeniable talent coming off the worst postseason performance of his career. It’s going to be incredibly awkward for both parties the longer this saga drags out. Can Simmons really be expected to play any minutes for the Sixers this season? But can Philly manage to trade him for a good return without Simmons building back up his value on the court? It makes sense why nobody is sending Daryl Morey their best assets when he appears desperate to move Simmons, and when his playoff performance was legitimate cause for concern. It also makes sense why Morey isn’t simply dumping Simmons when he’s made three All-Star teams and earned an All-NBA nod all before turning 25. The longer nobody budges, though, the closer everyone involved gets to Simmons's actually having to suit up for Philly after a summer practically dedicated to his trade rumors.
Winner: Russell Westbrook
The biggest winner of the draft was Russell Westbrook, who will play for his fourth team in four seasons when he takes the floor for the Lakers this fall. Westbrook has a string of failed partnerships in his past and he’s an awful floor spacer, and yet the offensively challenged Lakers still used almost all of their valuable trade capital to acquire him. However messy the fit is, this move doesn’t happen without blessings from LeBron and Anthony Davis. For all of Westbrook’s warts, he’s clearly still respected by many of his peers. How he’ll help the Lakers, particularly in a playoff series, remains a mystery. After years of bouncing around, however, Westbrook couldn’t have ended up in a better situation for himself.
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