Winners, losers from the 2021 NBA Draft

2021 NBA Draft
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Let’s be upfront about this: We don’t know who the winners and losers in the 2021 NBA Draft are, and we won’t have a full picture for about three or four years.

Picks that leave us shaking our heads now could look brilliant in a few years. Case in point, the Spurs taking Joshua Primo at No. 12 — I’m not so sure about that pick, it’s higher than most mocks/experts had him going, but he’s the youngest guy in the draft and he can shoot the rock. He’s a development project. I may not get it, but how many times over the years have the Spurs drafted a guy, we all said “what?” and then in three years we all said, “that guy can flat-out play, what a find.” So how do I judge the Spurs on that?

With that caveat, here are my winners and losers from the 2021 NBA Draft. Just take this (and everyone’s analysis) with a grain of salt.

Winner: Detroit Pistons

They got the No. 1 pick and they took the consensus No. 1 guy in Cade Cunningham, a 6’8″ lead ball handler who looks like a future franchise cornerstone. If they graded Cunningham out the way most teams did, then this was the right pick. Plus Cunningham wants to be in the Motor City and said all the right things. Pair his playmaking with Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and they have the makings of a nice young core. I also liked grabbing a shooter in  Isaiah Livers at 42, he could become a rotation player. No team can ever have enough shooting.

Winner: Orlando Magic

Toronto taking Scottie Barnes at No. 4 was a head-scratcher for a lot of people, myself and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports included. It’s higher than I would want to take a guy without a jumper, but maybe he pans out. He shot up a lot of draft boards in the final weeks.

The winner out of Toronto’s move was Orlando — consensus top-four pick Jalen Suggs fell to them. The Gonzaga product has the tools to become an elite shot creator at the NBA level, he plays an attacking style, and while his game (and jumper) need more consistency, the potential is there. Pair him with Jonathan Isaac, R.J. Hampton, and this team gets interesting. Franz Wagner at No. 8 could pan out to be a good 3&D wing to go with all the other young talent on the roster.

More importantly, good on the Magic for not saying, “we already have Markelle Fultz and just drafted Cole Anthony last year, we don’t need a point guard” and taking the best player on the board. Suggs could/should be better than the guys already on the roster; you take the best player when building a team.

Loser: Fans expecting a lot of big trades during the draft

Ben Simmons is still a 76er and may be so for a while. Bradley Beal wants to stay a Wizard. While there was one big trade on draft day, with the Lakers landing Russell Westbrook, there was not the flurry of meaningful trades we expected. There were some small ones with the Knicks and Thunder moving out of the late teens for future first-rounders, plenty of second-rounders changing hands, but nothing shocking. It ended up being a pretty chalk night at the top of the draft board. Not exactly what fans were hoping for.

Winner: Houston Rockets

The rebuilding Rockets are getting very interesting. They drafted a bucket getter and potential franchise cornerstone in Jalen Green No. 2, but that was the obvious/easy part.

They traded up to 16 to draft Alperen Sengun, the Turkish big man who can score inside and is a strong passer, then used picks No. 23 and 24 to pick up Usman Garuba from Spain for defense, and Josh Christopher out of Arizona State to get buckets. Add all of that to the returning Christian Wood and, I don’t think the Rockets will be good next season, but they will be interesting. As Dan Feldman said on the PBT Podcast, they completely reshaped their roster in this draft. It’s going to be fun to see how it develops.

Loser: Sacramento Kings

I’ll admit, this is one of those “I don’t get it” so I put them in the loser category moves, and maybe in a few years I look the fool for it. Still…. I don’t get it.

With the No. 9 pick, the Kings drafted Davion Mitchell out of Baylor, a defensive first point guard who showed shooting improvement last season (although some teams/scouts were dubious he would sustain that). He did lead Baylor to a national title. That said… the Kings’ backcourt of the future is set with De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Halliburton. Why not take a highly regarded wing such as James Bouknight, who could step in and take over the role of Buddy Hield once he is traded (just not to the Lakers). I don’t get it, not sure what the grand plan is for the Kings, but it’s been a long time since I had an idea what that plan would be.

Winner: Phoenix Suns

This is more about the trade coming in than the draft, but we’re throwing it in. The Suns are a win-now team, and they used the No. 29 pick — where they were not going to draft a player that would help much the next couple of seasons — to get Landry Shamet, a floor-spacing shooter who can attack closeouts. The Suns got better, they added shooting — he hit 38.7% from 3 last season — something no team can ever have enough of. There is the long-term question of money — Shamet has one more year on his rookie deal then is going to get paid a league average salary, give or take, and the Suns are already flirting with the luxury tax — but this is an upgrade. Shamet will fit well in Monty Williams’ offense.

As part of that trade, Javon Carter goes to Brooklyn, and that is a good chance for Carter to use his defensive skills on a team that could use them off the bench. He can make life easier for Kyrie Irving and James Harden and find a regular spot in the rotation.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return


Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.