2021 NBA Draft Lottery: Which teams have the most at stake?

Which teams have the most at stake heading into the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery? 

With the Conference Finals officially underway, Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery brings into focus the other side of the league. This event is what some of the bottom-feeders strategically build towards amidst a season of losing and development. Others happen to fall back into the abyss – desperately hoping that it’s merely a one-year blip.

Let’s rank who has the most and least to gain from the grand unveiling:

(See the rankings from 2020 here)

1. Houston Rockets (14.0% odds for No. 1, 52.1% for the top 4):

On the surface, the Houston Rockets have positioned themselves nicely in the aftermath of the James Harden break-up. They’ve got exciting young players in Kenyon Martin Jr., Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate, and Christian Wood; a bevy of future picks and swaps; and the bloated contracts will expire by the time the team figures to compete.

But the situation is still highly combustible. It starts with this draft pick, which is a near coin-flip (47.9%) to convey to Oklahoma City. If deputy commissioner Mark Tatum is Two-Face in this scenario, then team owner Tilman Fertitta is the Joker – capable of going berserk at any moment. He’s publicly said all the right things thus far, but what if the tidy re-build doesn’t begin according to script?

2. Chicago Bulls (4.5% odds for No. 1, 20.3% for the top 4):

The Chicago Bulls finally chose a direction: over-paying for all-star Nikola Vucevic to compete in a weaker-than-expected Eastern Conference. (Here were the standings on Trade Deadline day). Unfortunately, the two months that followed were a complete disaster. Number one, the team didn’t win, as Zach LaVine dealt with an extended health and safety protocol absence and Nikola Vucevic struggled to integrate defensively. Secondarily, Coby White and Patrick Williams – the two remaining young pieces – stagnated (the former now needing shoulder surgery), while Wendell Carter Jr. (and Daniel Gafford) upped their games.

Now the Bulls are paying the piper for this all-in maneuver: little financial flexibility, and the likely (79.7%) forfeiture of this pick to Orlando. Perhaps their fortunes will turn around?

3. Minnesota Timberwolves (9.0% odds for No. 1, 37.2% for the top 4):

Where exactly do the Minnesota Timberwolves stand? The team went 13-11 when the two amigos Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell suited up – much of that without human-torch (no pun intended) Malik Beasley – and new coach Chris Finch revitalized the offense. Anthony Edwards may be destined for stardom, while Jaden McDaniels and Leandro Bolmaro loom as possible difference-makers.

The problem: this is the Timberwolves we’re talking about. Whether it’s injuries, bad luck in close games, or general dysfunction; things always seem to go off the rails. Heck, even the ownership sale has hit a roadblock. The Towns-Russell pairing likely tops out as a lower-rung playoff team in the loaded Western Conference, anyway. This pick jumping into the top-3 (27.6%) could be their one final life raft to escape this quagmire.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (11.5% odds for No. 1, 45.1% for the top 4):

The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be in the thick of a rebuild, at least at first glance. Their four youngest players (Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, and Collin Sexton) all started and played the most minutes. The “Sexland” back-court flashed early on, with each showing intriguing skill development as the year progressed.

That said, this team is about to get expensive, fast. Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, and Larry Nance Jr. combine to earn $55.3 million. Sexton is already extension-eligible, while Allen is a pending restricted free agent. Not exactly a masterclass in team building. The Cavs are exhibit A of the pitfalls to the lottery reform; picking #5 despite finishing with the second-worst record back-to-back years. Will they finally land the opportunity to draft a potential cornerstone?

5. Toronto Raptors (7.5% odds for No. 1, 31.9% for the top 4):

The future of the Toronto Raptors might be murkier than any other NBA franchise. A foundation of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet with Nick Nurse coaching leads to…45 wins? Masai Ujiri clearly has greater ambitions. They could technically open up max cap space, but would then lose Kyle Lowry in doing so.

The second-half plunge down the standings (much of it injury/health and safety protocol related) may have been the best thing for the Raptors in the long run. Should this pick leap-frog into the top-4, then suddenly the path back to contention becomes much more apparent.

6. Detroit Pistons (14.0% odds for No. 1, 52.1% for the top 4):

The outlook for the Detroit Pistons finally appears to be trending upwards, thanks to the work of Troy Weaver during his much-maligned maiden off-season. The Jerami Grant signing turned out to be a prescient move, as were the picks of Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart in the middle of the first round. The jury is still out (and will be for a while) on Killian Hayes.

Perched at second in the lottery, the Pistons have assured a top-6 selection – and thus a crack at a potential building block. The only question is how high they end up.

7. Sacramento Kings (4.5% odds for No. 1, 20.3% for the top 4):

The Sacramento Kings are sneakily in a really difficult spot. They’ve got the backcourt of the future lined up in De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, but everything else is in flux. The veterans (Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, Delon Wright) are expensive and don’t really fit either timeline. Richaun Holmes – an essential player in 2020-21 – is about to get expensive. Marvin Bagley III is a bust. Luke Walton apparently has a stranglehold on the organization

So now what? Since the team inexplicably performed well in close games, this pick will likely fall towards the back-end of the top-10. The Kings can only hope for the ping-pong balls to unexpectedly bounce their way.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder (11.5% odds for No. 1, 45.1% for the top 4):

This is Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s moment. Ever since the summer of 2019, the organization has morphed into a halfway house for toxic (or thought to be) contracts, with future assets as currency.

The question is: can you have too many draft picks? At some point, assets have to become players, and right now it’s currently Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – with a max contract on the horizon –  surrounded by a bunch of unknowns. Oklahoma City could hit the jackpot, but the reality is: this team is going to remain a cellar-dweller – “the Process with better PR” –  for the time being regardless.

9. Orlando Magic (14.0% odds for No. 1, 52.1% for the top 4):

At long last, the Orlando Magic cut the chord on the Nikola Vucevic-Aaron Gordon-Evan Fournier era and pivoted into a rebuild. The good news is that they’ve got a solid head start – with several interesting prospects in both the back-court (Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz, R.J. Hampton) and the front-court (Wendell Carter Jr., Jonathan Isaac, Chuma Okeke).

Now the franchise is reliant on the lottery gods, which haven’t been too kind to them in the post-Dwight era. On the bright side, they’ll have multiple bites at the apple – thanks to the generosity of the Chicago Bulls.

10. Golden State Warriors (0.5% odds for No. 1, 2.4% for the top 4):

In this league, it’s impossible to chase wins and develop prospects at the same time. The Golden State Warriors learned that lesson the hard way in 2020-21 – effectively wasting a throwback Stephen Curry season in the process.

So now what? The Curry-Draymond Green-Klay Thompson trio deserves another shot, even if the latter can’t be counted on to return to his old self. That means anything else should be on the table – including their own pick (likely #14 overall) and the Minnesota pick, should it fall outside the top-3 (72.4%) – to use as trade ammunition for roster upgrades. Is the front office willing to make some tough decisions?

11. New Orleans Pelicans (4.5% odds for No. 1, 20.3% for the top 4):

Not sure how it’s possible to bungle such a promising situation this quickly, but here are the New Orleans Pelicans. Zion Williamson – about to play for his 3rd coach in as many seasons – is reportedly experiencing angst behind the scenes. Two dead-weights (Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe) are soaking up nearly 30% of the cap between them, while Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart figure to secure the bag in restricted free agency this summer. Brandon Ingram didn’t really take the next step from his 2019-20 all-star campaign and is even rumored to be unhappy as well.

Not that this franchise deserves more lottery help, but climbing into the top-4 could do wonders to alleviate all the messiness. The clock is already ticking…

12. San Antonio Spurs (1.7% odds for No. 1, 8.0% for the top 4):

This is the long-shot portion of the lottery. With the entire San Antonio Spurs organization on hold until Gregg Popovich retires, they are somewhat drifting in no-mans land. He’ll work his magic on a lousy roster and guide them to respectability; but what exactly does that accomplish?

None of the young guys project to be more than a fourth/fifth starter  – DeMar DeRozan, at 32 and up for a pay-day, is still the team’s most reliable shot-creator. This franchise desperately needs an infusion of talent, what better way than a draft lottery miracle?

13. Charlotte Hornets (1.8% odds for No. 1, 8.5% for the top 4):

The additions of Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball (by moving up in the order) revved up the rebuild of the Charlotte Hornets into high gear – outperforming their preseason over/under by 10 wins and qualifying for the play-in. At the same time, you wonder if this taste of success will fool the organization – one with a history of chasing mediocrity – into thinking they are close.

This team should still be seeking young core pieces to compliment Ball going forward. As unlikely as it is, another stroke of lottery luck would set them up to be a potential Eastern Conference superpower.

14. Indiana Pacers (1.0% odds for No. 1, 4.8% for the top 4):

For only the second time in the past decade, the Indiana Pacers find themselves sitting in the lottery; the team is simply not accustomed to being here. Last year went completely off the rails, but with nearly every rotation player under contract, a bounce-back can be expected.

The ultimate ceiling of this group is a different story. Unfortunately, the chances of this pick winding up at anything other than #13 are quite remote.