The main reason I am back writing about the NBA with any regularity is to examine the NBA draft, past and present. Over time I have become more and more convinced that drafting well is the only way to build a championship-level roster – unless you get lucky (like Miami did in free agency two years ago.)
If you draft well you can develop your own stars (like OKC has done) or trade your cheap, good drafted assets for stars (like the Celtics did in 2007.) I wrote this piece before the draft in 2010. If some of these ideas were more thoroughly applied by teams, particularly bad teams, the fortunes of several franchises would rise.
I’m some kind of neocon when it comes to the NBA. When you look at the big picture it becomes apparent that a team’s supporting cast is much less important than its best two or three players – much less. I’ve written pretty extensively on this, and there are many smart basketball minds that totally disagree with me. Nonetheless, this is how I look at the league. Paying mid-level exception money or more for bench players is a mild form of insanity that often overtakes NBA executives. On a deep level there is not much of an overall difference in value between the fifth best player on a NBA team and the twelfth best. Paying bench players big money therefore becomes a great way of sabotaging your chances at a championship. And I have a suggestion to help executives avoid falling into this trap. It revolves around the unglamorous portion of the draft.
The latter part of a NBA draft can be a godsend for a team. Most NBA front offices view it rather ambivalently. Few people realize the scope of its possibilities. Simply put, the easiest way to cut corners and save money in the NBA is to draft and sign players who are on their rookie contracts. Relative to veteran players, first rounders taken after the lottery are cheap. Second rounders and undrafted free agents are ridiculously cheap. But we don’t hear about this salary disparity much. It’s not exciting to talk about how James Posey got paid twelve times more than Marcus Thorton last year, and five times more than Darren Collison. Or how DeJuan Blair was a fourth the cost of Matt Bonner. Or how Jason Maxiell was ten times more costly than Jonas Jerebko, and Roddy Beaubois cost nine times less than Jason Terry…this info might not seem exciting, but it is.
We need to accept that late first rounders, second rounders and even undrafted free agents can turn into very solid NBA players – often right out of the gate. Here are just some of the productive rookies that were not taken in the top twenty last year: Collison, Omri Casspi, Beaubois, Taj Gibson, Toney Douglas, Dante Cunningham, Blair, Jerebko, Thorton, Chase Budinger, A.J. Price, Wes Matthews and Reggie Williams. All these guys have one thing in common: they came cheap, and they were fine NBA players in their rookie year. They played better than many of their veteran teammates, for a fraction of the price. Nonetheless their tremendous relative value was only faintly appreciated, which is the regular plight of the late draftee.
Several problems come with being a late pick or going undrafted. Often it has little to do with talent, and much to do with perception. Because the NBA has long regarded the second round as an afterthought it is easy for that negative stereotype to hold, even when we have seen dozens of successful pros picked from there in recent years. The negative attitude lingers because many league personnel believe that there are only a certain amount of players in the world that are NBA-caliber, and most of those players must already be in the league. At best this belief is antiquated, and at worst it’s plain naive.
In the old days, before the international boom, perhaps there was a limited amount of basketball players in the world that were NBA-worthy. It simply doesn’t hold true in 2010. Now we have a tremendous excess of league-caliber players. I can’t put an exact number on it, but there are many more players with NBA talent than the 450 the NBA can provide with roster spots. Potentially another 450 players have NBA merit but for various reasons have never been able to fit into the league. This doesn’t mean there are superstars hiding under rocks in Europe. The NBA still appears to have a monopoly on the world’s stars. But role players are another story. Annually there are scores of Americans that given proper conditions could have made millions in the NBA. Instead they play across the pond or in the D-League. Did they lack the skill needed to compete at the highest level in the world, or were they just unlucky in the situation they found themselves in? Many times, the case is the latter. The story is the same for a multitude of their European counterparts.
Granted, the NBA still has plenty of bad players. And obviously many second round picks are drafted each year that really don’t belong in the league. Yet these bad, unworthy-of-the-league players shouldn’t make us think that the NBA only has a finite amount of talent to draw from. We shouldn’t be so easily fooled. The biggest problem for players drafted late (or undrafted) is that they never get a legitimate chance to show how good they can be. Coaches don’t expect late draft picks to actually become productive pros. And if a head coach or general manager doesn’t have high hopes for you it doesn’t take much to be out of the league before you’re even in it. Players need to be judged upon consistent floor time in NBA games. Many late picks never get playing time – even during the exhibition season.
I’m not saying it’s always easy for head coaches to provide ample playing time to unproven rooks. What I’m saying is that it is smart if they do. Dismissing prospects without ever giving them a fair shake has been standard league policy for as long as we can remember. And it costs teams cheap assets. Today it’s easier to draft a good player than ever before. There is a bevy of accurate statistical analysis that can be done, and there is tons of on-the-ground scouting available. And because there is an overabundance of talent in a draft, you just have to sift through and find what could likely work for your team. Often what you find can help you almost immediately, especially when it is a deep draft like this year. Mark my words: there will be potentially significant NBA players available after pick 60 on Thursday. Unfortunately we might never get to see these players given meaningful NBA minutes (for the record some possible undrafted sleepers I like in this draft are Omar Samhan, Jeremy Lin, Sylven Landesberg, Dexter Pittman, Landry Fields, Luke Harangody, and Devan Downey.)
Finally I want to relay to you the really good part about late picks – as productive as they can be in their rookie season, they become exponentially more valuable as they mature as players. Hedging our bets through statistics and scouting, why shouldn’t a savvy executive draft/sign four of these guys every year or two? Sign each player to four or five year contracts with a team option (only costing probably a few million for each player) and then see how it plays out. If only one of your chosen four turns into a good NBA player it’s still a nice move; and if you’ve been doing your homework two or three of the four should turn out decent – all for the price of signing one adequate veteran player. If one of the rooks you sign turns out to be a bust, simply cut or trade
him – it’s probably going to cost you less than a million dollars annually if your player doesn’t work out. It makes much more sense to sign these rooks to long term deals, because then you have locked them in, and won’t have to give them the large raises they might command once other teams find out what you already know: that your under-the-radar rookies are actually good. Utah right now is kicking themselves for only signing Wes Matthews to a one year deal. San Antonio meanwhile has DeJuan Blair under contract for
three more seasons – that’s smart decision making.
Make no mistake…what I’m suggesting here is a game-changer. If all of a sudden a good portion of your roster is making a pittance you will have much more money to spend on the players who you should be paying –the very, very good ones. I was recently joking with a friend that my ideal team would be three great players making $15 million plus a year and everybody else making less than a million. It wasn’t much of a joke – I have every reason to believe a team like that would win a championship.