Cade Cunningham will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
Let’s just put that out there before anyone starts to believe anything that’s fluttering about on social media or TV or sports-talk radio shows. There’s very little chance that the Pistons, who got the No. 1 pick by winning the lottery on Tuesday, would pick anyone else when the draft rolls around on July 29 at Barclays Center in New York.
General manager Troy Weaver could write out the draft card and send it to NBA commissioner Adam Silver today. Every year, in every draft in every sport, there’s this awkward time when the team with the first pick is on the clock to make its selection, when everyone in the world knows what’s going to happen.
This year is no different.
What often happens is that the team with the top pick entertains any last-ditch efforts for teams to trade up. The same likely will occur as the seconds tick away on the clock, and Weaver and his lieutenants are on the phones like they’re at a telethon.
For the first time in the draft era, the Pistons find themselves in a position of strength — because they’ve already won. They don’t need to do anything, and they can just hold up the already-completed card with Cunningham’s name on it.
Cunningham is the best player in the draft right now, and the only thing that should give them even a moment of pause is a ridiculous trade proposal that they can’t refuse.
Something like when Mike Ditka offered a bounty of picks for the New Orleans Saints to move up and pick Ricky Williams ahead of the 1999 NFL Draft.
That’s not how the NBA works, though. Cunningham, as good as he is, isn’t LeBron James or Shaquille O’Neal or Allen Iverson — a talent a general manager simply can’t put a fair value on. Another team simply won’t sell the farm to get Cunningham, especially when there are other high-level prospects, including Evan Mobley and Jalen Green, who could command as much attention.
Cunningham has been the prize of this draft for the whole NCAA season and in the months since. His status as the No. 1 pick remains the same, but what has changed is the idea floating around that the Pistons could fleece another team and still get comparable value from Mobley or Green.
Weaver is savvy enough to know what Cunningham could bring to the table, and he can figure out a way to find hidden jewels on other rosters and put together a package if a trade conversation gets to that point.
But it shouldn’t.
We’ve seen this before, with a team outsmarting itself to try to get a bigger haul and it backfiring. It’s what led the Orlando Magic to draft Chris Webber with the first pick in 1993 and then trade him to the Golden State Warriors for Penny Hardaway and three future first-round picks.
On the surface, that looks like a good return, but with a franchise player like Webber, the value of those picks decays, and instead of future lottery picks, those turn into mid- to late-round picks a couple of years down the road. In the Magic’s case, they became Todd Fuller, Mike Miller and Vince Carter (that pick was dealt to the Raptors).
In another instance, the Boston Celtics had the No. 1 pick in 2017 and traded down to get Jayson Tatum and a future first-round pick, which ended up being Romeo Langford.
The issue with many of these deals for the No. 1 pick is that the future picks don’t pan out or are lower in the lottery such that the value doesn’t match. That’s the risk in trying to increase the value of the No. 1 pick.
Why pass on the best player to try to get two players whose combined talent level may not match — and then there’s the other issue of waiting a couple of years to realize the full potential of the trade.
In the Pistons’ case, it’s not worth the headache or the trouble — unless Weaver really covets Mobley or Green that much and sees an opportunity. In that case, he’d still draft Cunningham at No. 1, but facilitate a trade to get more back.
That could still happen, but it’s not very likely.
Weaver and his staff will do their diligence. They’ll work out prospects in the coming weeks, as if they had a lower pick, but they’re sitting on to with the first selection. They can gather data, conduct interviews and gather a dossier on players during the combine and draft process to use later.
At worst, it can help them figure out whether there’s a pathway for them to consider something other than the obvious choice.
They don’t have to do anything, though. They’ve already won.