The 2021 NBA Draft Lottery Rankings: Karma Edition

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The NBA Draft Lottery is now less than a week away. Various combinations of numbers will now dictate the futures of several NBA franchises. Because of the out-sized importance one player can have on a team’s fortunes, a fluke win can pry open a competitive window thought nailed shut. A bad beat can extend a team’s long walk in the wilderness almost indefinitely.

Aside from the stretch run of a playoff game, the end of the NBA Draft Lottery is the most exciting five minutes in the league. Yes, it’s that important.

Still, importance and justice are often two words that are pushed far away from each other. So I’m here to bridge that gap. To let you good people know who deserves to win the 2021 NBA Draft lottery. Yes — deserves.

Through a mysterious alchemy that measures past performance, current management, quality of roster, market, and a host of important miscellany, I have measured exactly which teams most deserve to see their logo on the number one spot next Tuesday night.

Read on, and let the mystery be solved.

(NOTE: I was going to make that secret sauce alchemy public, but then realized that meant I’d have to do a lot of math and re-ranking, and gave it a pass.)

#14: Oklahoma City Thunder

22-50, T-27th, 11.5% chance of #1 pick

The Thunder are easy to slot. They already have a million picks, in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander they have their young star, they engaged in one of the most egregious tank jobs in recent memory (go home Horford!), and neither NBA fans at large, nor the league, has any compelling reason to want them to win the lottery and add Cade Cunningham to their coffer of riches.

#13: Chicago Bulls

31-41, T-23rd, 4.5% chance of #1 pick

The Bulls are kind of just there aren’t they? They’re relatively early in their rebuild — three top-ten picks in a row, but the only three since 2008 when they won the lottery and took Derrick Rose. They’ve been bad, but not aggressively so. They’ve been incompetent, but just brought in a new brain-trust that could yet prove to be the type of agile thinkers that could build a fun team. They’re a big enough market and have the Jordan history that the NBA could sell them, but aside from Jordan and a couple of Rose years, they’ve largely been blah.

The current Bulls are good enough with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic that a Cade Cunningham-type would give them a real shot of being frisky, but the roster isn’t so impressive that you can guarantee he’s not staring at a bunch of first-round exits. Yep, Chicago is just kind of there.

#12: San Antonio Spurs

33-49, 18th, 1.7% chance of #1 pick

The Spurs are a wonderful organization that has been run the right way since time began, but honestly, I’m just not feeling it. I know coach Gregg Popovich will take whoever they get and maximize his talents, so it’s just not interesting for the Spurs to get a star. The Spurs, for all their good young talent, still feel a ways away from being something… special, right?

Besides, the NBA wouldn’t exactly be doing back-flips about them landing a marquee talent, and I’m not sure if fans are clamouring for a return of the Spurs to prime-time. They’ve won a bunch and already have an all-time lottery win on their resume, so I’m not sure if the karma metre is exactly pointing at “earned it.”

#11: Orlando Magic

21-51, 28th, 14% chance of #1 pick

After a few years of being lost in the mediocre wilderness, the Magic have finally decided to tear it down. This is a franchise that has done some interesting business (chiefly the Markelle Fultz reclamation project), that suggests GM John Hammond might be able to do some funky stuff to bring the Magic back to being good.

Then again, the Magic have had five top-6 selections in the past eight years and couldn’t turn that into even one “cool team”, so what are we really talking about here? It’s mostly safe to say the NBA doesn’t care about the “other” Florida team, fans aren’t exactly pining for throwback Magic T-Mac jerseys, and Orlando hasn’t been hit with the sort of karmic misfortune that would move them higher up this list. (Unless you count “Dwight Howard” as karmic misfortune after the fact.)

#10: Indiana Pacers

34-38, 18th, 1.0% chance of #1 pick

Do you know Indiana has picked in the top-10 just twice since 1990, and both times it was from the tenth slot? From that perspective, this is a team that absolutely deserves some lottery luck. Small market. Fight to win. A couple of legitimately great teams that were wiped out by Acts of God (the Malice at the Palace and Michael Jordan), and yet… is the Pacers’ ceiling high enough that winning the first overall pick vaults them into the upper-stratosphere? Even their great teams weren’t sexy, so how much heat could they really generate for the league? It feels like the Pacers should finally bottom out and give themselves a chance to actually rebuild. Call me back on this in, say, two years.

#9: Houston Rockets

17-55, 30th, 14% chance of #1 pick

The Rockets are an interesting question. On one hand, here is a franchise that has been “damn the torpedoes” competitive for the better part of a decade, coming close to defeating the peak Warriors. They haven’t picked in the lottery since 2012. Even this season, after the James Harden fiasco, the Rockets eschewed younger assets (Jarett Allen, Caris LeVert) for pieces they thought could keep them competitive now.

On the other hand, their owner is one of the all-time modern jerks, the team seems a long way away from becoming interesting again, passing on LeVert and Allen makes you wonder how good this front office is, and do you really want to expose a young-and-impressionable star to John Wall in malcontent mode? You could argue the Rockets have some cachet as an “it” team, but you could also argue that nobody liked any of those “it” teams and that everyone is ready for them to just go away.

#8: Cleveland Cavaliers

22-50, T-27th, 11.4% chance of #1 pick

Did the Cavaliers already get their lifetime karmic reward because LeBron James happened to be born in Ohio? Or was the fact they won a title just fair payment for what ended up being the longest-running soap opera in NBA history? Being a Jordan-stan doesn’t excuse you from this either, given how the franchise’s best previous teams were routinely tortured by His Airness.

Still, landing lottery picks in seven of the last eight years should disqualify the Cavs from the conversation. Then again, they did get “Bargnani-ed” in the 2013 draft when no clear #1 prospect was available, and Kyrie Irving did eventually force his way off a title-winning team. Under Koby Altman the Cavs have looked shockingly competent for a team owned by Dan Gilbert — so there’s a decent chance they won’t waste a star rookie’s formative years. Still, Gilbert is up there with Fertitta as an owner, and neither the NBA nor the average fan gives two craps about Cleveland as a market. Combine that with the fact that, no matter how much Sturm und Drang was involved, the Cavs only managed to win one title with LeBron (!!!) and I think they still are in karmic debt.

#7: Detroit Pistons

20-52, 29th, 14% chance of #1 pick

Long-time readers know I have a soft spot for coach Dwane Casey, so I’ll freely admit my bias here. The Pistons are hurt by not being a big-market team, but they have had enough historical success that if they won the lottery and it was the beginning of a renaissance, the NBA could trade on some nostalgia.

As a city, Detroit has been pretty hammered by the changing economy, so they deserve something nice. The major problem here is while I 100 percent believe Casey can develop young players as well as anyone, the Pistons roster doesn’t seem to have any, you know, stars on it. So, winning the number one pick wouldn’t get you all giddy the way New Orleans, or even Sacramento might. All it might do is make the Pistons too good to get another bite at the top-3 apple a great rebuild really needs. And yes, it would leave Cunningham looking at first-round exits for eight years (sorry Dwane).

#6: Sacramento Kings

31-41, T-23rd, 4.5% chance of #1 pick

Say what you will of the franchise, but the Kings now fall into the “long-suffering, but awesome fanbase deserves something good” category. I mean, have the karmic debts from the 2002 playoffs come even close to being paid? Adding Cunningham, or at the very least, one of the top four prospects, would go a long way into taking De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, and, oh, what the hell, Marvin Bagley III, into: “I might stay up and watch a half” territory.

And while Sacramento is nobody’s idea of a glamour market, the NBA can always sell an intra-California rivalry. On the other hand, the Kings have been so badly managed — they co-own the longest streak of missing the playoffs in NBA history — that the potential for them to KANGZ Cunningham’s career into oblivion is too great to get them any higher on this list.

#5: Minnesota Timberwolves

23-49, 25th, 9% chance of #1 pick

The Wolves should be at the bottom of this list simply because they’ve had the chance to make a lot of high picks, but have either got them wrong (Kris Dunn), traded them away (Lauri Markkinen), or got them wrong and traded them away (Cameron Johnson). Still, there are reasons for the Karma Gods to smile.

The Wolves have been so bad for so long, they’re owed a little good fortune, right? They have been bold in trying to get good — even if the D’Angelo Russell trade was flawed in its construction. Related to that, wouldn’t you prefer if the Wolves won the lottery and handed the Dubs a pick in the 10-12 range next year, then Golden State grabbing a plum asset this year or next? Plus, a Cade Cunningham-Anthony Edwards-Karl-Anthony Towns-Russell line-up has some serious “Run TMC” vibes in terms of being a basketball nerd’s League Pass darling.

#4: Golden State Warriors

39-33, 17th, 0.7% chance of #1 pick

The sole argument for the Warriors getting to win lies with the idea of maximizing the team’s legacy. But man, it’s a heck of an argument — do two more titles put them on the greatest teams ever podium? Three? The brutal series of injuries to Klay Thompson gives you some karmic weight here as well, but that’s counter-balanced by the Dubs taking advantage of a ludicrous one-year spike in the cap to bring in Kevin freaking Durant!

The NBA would undoubtedly love more of Steph Curry and co. in primetime games. Still, it would reinforce the narrative that only a chosen few can win in the league, and you have to figure that a good chunk of fans might be suffering from Warriors fatigue. The deciding factor for me? Is there anything more enjoyable than watching a Splash Brother go supernova in a meaningful game? Anything that gives us more chances at that has to be good, right?

Bonus Karmic question: What if the Dubs somehow won the lottery, and then got the Wolves’ pick next year and won then too?

#3: Charlotte Hornets

33-39, 20th in NBA, 1.8% chance of #1 pick

The Hornets were the Bulls until LaMelo Ball happened. Now, they’re one of the most fun teams to watch in the league. Ball made all of the Hornets’ other intriguing talent pop, and this team has “hipster fave” written all over it. I mean, seriously look at this. Add Cunningham to the mix, with a healthy Gordon Hayward, and there’s enough talent here that the Bugs could make some actual noise. An underrated home crowd from the original Hornets days (LJ!!!) and slick uniforms add to the appeal.

There would definitely be questions about whether a market as small as Charlotte could sustain the massive financial commitment of keeping a winner together, and if they could attract the complementary pieces needed. But as a small market squad, the NBA would love the narrative and Ball is a flamboyant enough talent to make any team must-see TV. Really, the only question is: does Jordan the owner deserve this kind of luck?

#2: Toronto Raptors

27-45, 24th, 7.5% chance of #1 pick

All right, so this is a total homer pick, but I’m not alone in smelling the 1987 vibes, right? Sure, adding Cunningham to the Raps core isn’t quite the same as pairing Tim Duncan with David Robinson, but it’s not a crazy comparison. As for karma, I’d say being the first NBA team to not play a single game on their home court, combined with one of the most debilitating COVID caseloads earns them more than a few K-points. As does the fact that there is no way one of the best-run franchises in the league wastes a player like Cunningham.

From the big picture standpoint, the Raps work too. Toronto has quietly become a legit NBA brand (no. 9 in merch sales in 2020-21) and also buck the: “only a few teams can win” complaint. You could quibble and say that none of the top prospects are quite good enough to bring the Raps back to a title level (although a closing lineup of Siakam-Anunoby-Cunningham-Lowry — you know he’s staying now — and VanVleet would be awful tough to handle as soon as Year Two). And sure, the Raps did engage in naked enough tanking that they were fined. But put it all together, and there isn’t a stronger case for any team “earning” the lottery win than Toronto — with one exception…

#1: New Orleans Pelicans

31-41, T-23rd, 4.5% chance of #1 pick

Like the Thunder, the Pels have their own trove of assets and already have two legit NBA stars in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Unlike the Thunder, the Pels tried hard to win, making actual basketball moves all year long, and were undone by youth and a porous defense. If they won the lottery, it would create a small-market super-team which is great for league optics (and marketing). They’d instantly be everyone’s second or third favourite team. As a homer, they’re one of the few teams that would be ahead of Toronto that would have minimal interest in Evan Mobley — upping the Raptors’ odds of getting him as a consolation prize.

The one point against the Pelicans: they had Anthony Davis and were totally unable to maximize that generational talent, but with the pieces in place already, that won’t be a problem. My final, frightening, reason for the top spot? Doesn’t it feel like Zion might be one of those “burn brightly and then get wiped out by injuries” kind of talents? If so, it would be understandable for the Basketball Gods to help Williamson get a few supernova years in.

*******

So there you have it: Pelicans good, Thunder bad, Pacers boring, Wolves combustible but very interesting.

You now know how you should be feeling a week from now. (That anything but a Raptors lottery win is a travesty and if it doesn’t happen it’s time to burn Seacaucus to the ground!)