Despite the beefed-up scouting budgets, the acne-faced kids hired by teams for their analytical brilliance, and a two-day combine that allows teams to grill prospects with uncomfortable questions such as, “Besides marijuana, what other types of drugs do you do?” the NBA Draft is still based on grown men relying on teenagers to save their jobs.
General managers essentially have three ways to build — or rebuild — a franchise: by free agency, through trades, or through the draft.
Teams such as the San Antonio Spurs have become significant because of draft scores such as David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997, and late gems such as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Miami Heat shaved enough salary-cap space in 2010 to sign three premium players — LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade — to free agent contracts, resulting in two championships.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, fed up with the draft after years of lottery disappointments, decided to trade his way to respectability by acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in a six-week period in 2007. The Celtics then won one title and made another Finals appearance.
In his most recent quest to retool, Ainge acquired nine (and possibly 10) first-round draft picks over the next five years, beginning Thursday, when Boston owns picks 6 and 17. While it is highly unlikely Ainge will retain all of those picks, the fabric of the Celtics’ resurgence following the Big Three will occur via drafting teenage players and banking on their success.
Building through the draft is an inexact science, sometimes based on pure luck. For example, the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with the Spurs the models for a small-market franchise, have acquired the core of their team through the draft.
Kevin Durant was the second overall pick in 2007 of the Seattle SuperSonics, who became the Thunder. That was an easy choice after the Portland Trail Blazers selected center Greg Oden first overall. A year later, the Sonics selected at No. 4 Russell Westbrook, who wasn’t such a consensus pick, and later in the first round, general manager Sam Presti grabbed Congolese forward Serge Ibaka and allowed him to stay with his Spanish team for another season.
All three of those picks worked better than expected. Durant and Westbrook are perennial All-Stars, and Ibaka is one of the best defenders in the NBA. Presti was astute, but he admits luck played its part.
“We’ll be the first to say that we’ve had a tremendous amount of good fortune. Nobody in our organization is taking credit for the development of Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook,” said Presti, a Concord native and former Emerson College player. “Our focus was on building a team that was capable of sustainable competitive success. We felt like building through the draft and building an identity for a team over a period of years was the best approach for us. It’s really so much about the individual team and organization and how they see their envisioned future.”
And then you have the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves, who like the Thunder have had a plethora of top-10 picks, only to watch many of those players fail to reach their potential, therefore keeping those franchises in the lottery.
Of the Kings’ five first-round picks from 2009-12 (including Jimmer Fredette, acquired on draft night in 2011), just one — DeMarcus Cousins — remains with the organization. The Kings basically failed on or were unsatisfied with Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Tyreke Evans, and Omri Casspi, all of whom were traded or released.
And not surprisingly, the Kings made their eighth consecutive appearance in the draft lottery. NBA sources said new general manager Pete D’Alessandro, realizing his team does not need another prospect but rather a veteran, has been shopping Thursday’s eighth overall pick.
The Kings essentially have decided that building through the draft only accumulates young and inexperienced players, so free agency and trades may be their most viable rebuilding option. The Timberwolves, who failed with Corey Brewer, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, and then Derrick Williams, now could be forced to deal homegrown star Kevin Love because of a lack of a supporting cast.
The Celtics were burned 17 years ago when they banked on Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer to help their rebuilding project. Billups lasted just 51 games and Mercer two seasons in Boston. A year later, Paul Pierce fell to the Celtics with the 10th pick after being projected as a top-three selection, and he went on to become the franchise’s No. 2 all-time scorer.
“In essence, we were very lucky because we got Paul Pierce,” said former Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. “It’s better to be lucky than good. I’ve been doing this a long time, seven teams and 17 years, it’s an inexact science. What would have happened if we couldn’t get to Paul [in the draft] and we had to deal with the rest of the players? There would have been no championship in 2008.”
With the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement limiting chances for teams such as the Heat to compile multiple superstars without them first accepting massively reduced salaries, draft picks have become even more valuable. Money-conscious owners want to avoid the luxury tax and may shy away from signing high-priced free agents in favor of relying on draft picks.
Those picks can earn moderate salaries for as long as five seasons into their contracts. Those picks who excel are likely to earn a lucrative extension following their third season — such as Durant and Westbrook each received. But draft picks have become the cheapest and potentially most effective ways to maintain consistency. The Spurs scored with former first-round pick Kawhi Leonard, taken 15th overall in 2011, who was named Finals MVP last week with two years remaining on his rookie deal.
Because of the increased value of first-round picks, they have become trade chips and teams — many that are not considered popular free agent destinations — have put more emphasis on landing such picks.
So the Celtics can use their array of first-rounders to bring in young players who could be under their contractual control for five seasons, or use them in trades with smaller-market clubs looking to rebuild with homegrown players.
“We’ve analyzed the best way to build a championship team,” said Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge. “And there are many ways to get there, and the first thing is, it is really, really hard to do and all the paths are unlikely. We try to do the most likely. There is no one way and you have to be flexible, make smart moves, and be opportunistic.
“We feel that with all of our draft picks and some of the young players that we have, if a Kevin Garnett scenario were to repeat itself, we feel we have the most assets for a team that would be looking to rebuild.”
Austin Ainge said there have been years when his father Danny assessed the draft and told his staff they would have to improve in other ways. While this year’s draft is considered one of the deepest in a decade, there have been recent drafts that were scarce.
Nine years ago, Danny Ainge drafted high school product Gerald Green 18th overall, and it ended up being a mistake. Austin Ainge said there are similar potential hit-or-miss prospects possible with Thursday’s 17th pick, selections that could aid a rebuild or be a step back.
“If you feel like you have a chance at a home run, sometimes you take a swing,” Austin said. “But there’s a lot of risks with trades and free agency, as well. Even when guys have been in the NBA a few years, it’s hard to predict how they will act with a new contract, new team, new system.
“At least if you miss in the draft, it doesn’t clog your salary cap. If you sign the wrong guy to $15 million a year, then you are done. It’s really hard. [The draft] is more risky, but it’s not quite as big of a hit if you miss.”
The Thunder have been the standard of building through the draft, but Presti has had to make some difficult decisions when his draft picks have developed quickly and required large pay raises to stay put. Presti traded Jeff Green to the Celtics because of the emergence of James Harden (the third overall pick in 2009), and he moved Harden to the Houston Rockets because Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook all required contract extensions.
Yet Presti has scored big through the draft, keeping the Thunder as one of the league’s elite teams for the past four years without bringing in a major free agent. The draft is tricky, unscientific, and unpredictable, but the benefits can keep a franchise competitive for years.
“There is a big difference between selecting a team and picking players,” Presti said. “Teams have to remain cohesive and retain a complementary nature to one another. That’s what makes the league great. Everybody is looking for some form of competitive difference. If you find that competitive difference, it’s in your best interest that it’s something that can be sustained. The draft is something we’ve relied on and we’re happy with what it’s been able to do for us.”