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24 Hours Later: How the 2011 NBA Draft Lottery Picks Should Have Gone

June 25, 2011

I’m a firm believer that in any sports draft situation, the best way to improve your team is to actually take a player in the slot you were provided.  It’s cliché, but take the best player available at your pick, addressing positional needs if possible and otherwise improving your team’s deficiencies, but not at the expense of passing over what should clearly be the best talent available (see JaMarcus Russell and Darko Milicic).  I dislike pre-draft trades once the draft order is known (especially for teams I root for, take notes Jerry Jones and Robert Sarver), and I especially dislike moving down in the draft, unless the deal is so lopsided in your favor that you can’t refuse.

Specific to the National Basketball Association, I believe that many decision makers – be it owners, general managers and/or team player personnel directors and staffs, particularly those drafting in the Lottery – make the same two mistakes on a regular basis: a.) they overvalue the long term over the short-term and b.) they over analyze their decisions at their draft slot.  Valuing the long term is somewhat understandable as a measure to bolster job security, but over-thinking potential options available relative to your draft position causes those who call the shots to get too cute too often and take players other than the one they should have.  Of course, the same people often wind up back in the Draft Lottery many years in succession by making these mistakes with prior lottery picks.

(As an aside, I already miss Elgin Baylor’s sweater collection, and look forward to seeing Dan Gilbert’s kid grow up before our eyes over the next few years.)

Furthermore, while foreign coaching is as strong (or better, depending on who you believe) than coaching here in the US, foreign scouting has not reached the same level as domestic scouting as far as I can tell.  It will eventually, once more foreign players with NBA experience become scouts, but currently foreign players tend to be overvalued by these same decisions makers, making the “Stash-a-Euro” draft pick both an increasingly vogue and dicey proposition.

So when I look back at last night’s 2011 NBA Draft, it’s comforting yet frustrating to know some things never change.  Unlike many who believed after the first two picks that the next 25 players were exchangeable, to me there was a clear delineation of the pecking order for the first 14-15 picks. As long as it was understood this was the weakest overall draft pool in 10 years, and that while the top end talent was lacking, there were many useful prospects at the shallow end, so teams who drafted more for depth needs than mining for potential all-stars much earlier in the draft order could still improve their prospects for next season … whenever it is played, but we’ll get to that another day in the not-too-distant future.

With all this in mind, here’s what should have happened last night in the First Round of the NBA Draft, focusing on Picks 1-14. I’ve included my Mock Draft courtesy of ESPN’s handy-dandy Draft Machine, to provide reference points for comparison.  While this in no way is a comprehensive review of each team’s draft performance, my views in this regard should become quite clear.

Two quick confessions before we proceed:

  • I’m a University of Arizona fan and alumnus, so I’ll admit to homing for Derrick Williams to go in the top 2 picks.
  • As alluded to, I’m a long-suffering Phoenix Suns fan, smitten, once bitten and twice shy ever since I watched Dennis Johnson throw lobs to Alvin Adams, then saw DJ traded to Boston in 1983, so I was looking forward to their No. 13 pick last night, and only now in hindsight did I lack proper respect for triskaidekaphobia.

Away we go …

1.) Cleveland

What They Did: Select Kyrie Irving, PG, Duke.

What They Should Have Done: Select Kyrie Irving.  Almost a no-brainer.  Seeing that the “Death of the True Center” is upon us, in today’s NBA you need a quality playmaker to contend for titles.  Irving is the prototypical modern point guard, and what he lacks in the extreme speed and athleticism of point guards like John Wall and Derrick Rose, he more than makes up with his vision, savvy and all-around skill set.  Cleveland has three decent point guards, so it wasn’t even their most pressing need, but when you’re as bad as the Cavs were last season, you need a bit of everything. Meanwhile, this was originally the LA Clippers’ pick, so Donald Sterling provides comedy in a draft lottery even when his team isn’t in it.

2.) Minnesota

What They Did: Select Derrick Williams, F, Arizona.

What They Should Have Done: Select Derrick Williams.  The other “sure thing” in the draft, and the best player available after Irving. People question his eventual position, and having watched him up close for 2 seasons at Arizona, I say it doesn’t matter as much as people think.  He’ll cause more mismatches for other teams than he invites for his team. On the Timberwolves he’ll be able to play next to whomever else is on the floor, whether it’s Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, Michael Beasley or the other cast of thousands they have at the forward position.  Not even GM David Kahn could screw this up.

3.) Utah

What They Did: Select Enes Kanter, PF/C, Turkey (and erstwhile team manager at Kentucky)

What They Should Have Done: Select Enes Kanter.  Many thought the Jazz would go point guard here and take Brandon Knight, having lost Deron Williams, but Devin Harris isn’t chopped liver, and Kanter was the best prospect available.  I say “prospect” because he didn’t actually play last season at Kentucky, having been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for receiving “benefits” while he played for a club team in Turkey. On the flip side he already has professional experience, so he has that going for him, which is nice. Having fellow Turk Mehmet Okur as a mentor, teammate, and tour guide helps, and he’ll compliment Derrick Favors’ abilities on both ends of the floor.

4.) Cleveland

What They Did: Select Tristan Thompson, PF,  Texas

What They Should Have Done: Select Tristan Thompson. My guess is they wanted Kanter, but with him gone Thompson makes sense, what scouts call a “plus” rebounder and defender who must continue developing his underrated offensive game, but otherwise not a steep drop off from either Kanter or Williams. Plus with J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao, he won’t have to start right away.  Cleveland did well here. So far so good. Teams doing what they should. This evening might not be a circus after all.

5.) Toronto

What They Did:  Select Jonas Valanciunas, PF/C, Lithuania

What They Should Have Done: Select Kemba Walker, PG, Connecticut.  I spoke too soon, this is a perfect demonstration of the two common mistakes I identified. Let’s put aside for a moment that Valanciunas is by all accounts a high lottery talent, I won’t dispute that.  Reasons abound why this is the first mistake of this draft.  First, Toronto already has Andrea Bargnani at center, their No. 1 overall pick in 2006, as well as 2 other centers under the age of 24, so they don’t really need him right away, which is good due to my second issue. Valanciunas reportedly has a $3 million buyout, meaning he might have to stay in Europe another year; while this concern may be mitigated by an NBA work stoppage, he likely won’t provide the immediate help a No. 5 pick should (and that the 22-win Raptors clearly need).   Third, even if they become more defense-minded under new coach Dwane Casey as expected, their roster is built for uptempo basketball, and Valanciunas is more of a plodder with minimal perimeter game.  Fourth, and most glaring to me, is that Kemba Walker was still on the board, and Toronto needs a floor leader at point guard more than anything.  It’s not about Toronto fans clamoring for a familiar, high-profile face, it’s that Walker in my estimation is the 2nd best point guard prospect in the draft, a proven winner and leader, and the best fast break player in the draft, fitting Toronto’s roster and transition offense like a glove. Truth be told, I’ve been a huge fan since I saw him play as a high school sophomore in an AAU tournament.  Truth also be told, Jerryd Bayless and Jose Calderon are not the answer, and Walker together with Demar Derozan would have the potential to cause nightmares for Eastern Conference backcourts.  Now, Valanciunas is a talented throwback, a true center reminiscent of his countryman Arvydas Sabonis, and Toronto is a good fit for most European players from a cultural standpoint.  Another season of European play would help him as well.  Kemba Walker however would have set the Raptors at point guard for the next 10 years.

6.) Washington

What They Did:   Select Jan Vesely, SF, Czech Republic

What They Should Have Done:  Select Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Diego State.   I know I just finished a long diatribe on Kemba Walker being the best player available, but the Wizards presently have their Anointed PGOTF (Point Guard Of The Future) in John Wall.  What they needed was scoring, defense and rebounding on the wing, which Leonard immediately provides, and while many scouts believe Vesely can have an instant impact in those areas, I’m not sold.  They see a “freak” athlete with a high motor,  I see someone not exactly setting Europe on fire with 9-10 points per game.  They see a potential Andrei Kirilenko in his prime, I see another Chris “Birdman” Andersen, complete with goatee and frosted tips but hopefully without the drug suspension.  Maybe I’m wrong here, but Vesely is overvalued and should have been taken in the middle of the First round by a playoff contender needing punch off the bench.  That makes two suspect picks in a row, and like the proverbial pebble in the pond, the ripples of these last two wayward picks will be far reaching.

7.) Charlotte (from Sacramento via draft day trade)

What They Did:  Select Bismack Biyombo, PF, Congo.

What They Should Have Done: Originally Sacramento’s pick until a few hours before the draft, what should have happened is the Kings staying put, letting Kemba Walker fall to them, take him, move Tyreke Evans to off guard and unleash that backcourt on an unsuspecting Pacific Division.  Anxious ownership obviously had other ideas, never a recipe for success in my book, so the pick went to Charlotte.  When I finished my Mock yesterday before the draft, Charlotte was assumed to this position already. Since Walker was off my board, and since I think His Airness needs to blow things up and start over, I had them taking the best name in the draft, Biyombo (Say it to yourself, his name rolls off the tongue … Bi-yom-bo).  He’s raw to be sure, and this pick goes against my philosophy, but he makes sense for a rebuilding project like the Hornets even if his offensive upside is Ben Wallace, and even if he has buyout issues, as another year in Spain would expedite his development.  Maybe, MJ just wants a re-do on the Kwame Brown pick and this is the best chance he thought he’d have.  Walker also would have been a great pick here as it turns out, since Charlotte wants and needs a top-flight point guard …

8.) Detroit

What They Did:   Select Brandon Knight, G, Kentucky.

What They Should Have Done: I had Knight here because I had Charlotte beating them to Biyombo, and Walker should’ve already been off the board.  As it happened he wasn’t, so given this chance Detroit should have picked Walker.  I like Knight enough, he showed real potential in Kentucky’s run to the Final Four, but I don’t think he has as much point guard ability as Walker, and the Pistons already have an ongoing combo-guard-turned-point-guard experiment with Rodney Stuckey, so why add another?  Also, Knight never even worked out for them, which isn’t exactly Draft Preparation 101 (if anything, they under-thought their options), but he’s an intelligent, able scorer with loads of potential.

9.) Charlotte

What They Did:   Select Kemba Walker, PG, Connecticut

What They Should Have Done:  Exactly this.  In my Mock I had them picking Alec Burks, SG, Colorado, as they needed another guard on the wing after trading away Stephen Jackson earlier in the day.  Walker not only fills their biggest need – D.J. Augustin is decent but he’s not their PGOTF either, and Walker’s an immediate upgrade on the same skill set – he’s a steal at No. 9.  I suspect Toronto, Detroit & Sacramento will regret passing on Walker. Speaking of Sacramento …

10.) Sacramento (from Milwaukee via draft day trade)

What They Did:  Select The Jimmer.  (Jimmer Fredette, G, BYU)

What They Should Have Done: How I went so long without mentioning “The Jimmer”, I’m not sure.  Before their trade, I had Milwaukee selecting Klay Thompson (and with Walker gone, Kawhi Leonard became the best available player), but once Sacramento ended up here, everyone knew it was to take The Jimmer, as everyone knew at that point the Maloofs had overruled their basketball people, unable to resist the potential box office bonanza The Jimmer might bring.  I’m not in favor of these owner shenanigans – hire the best basketball people, and let them do their thing – as PR splashes rarely makes good basketball decisions.  However, I’m ambivalent here as I really like The Jimmer, and believe he’ll succeed in the NBA.  When you can do one basketball “thing” as well as anyone on the planet – and make no mistake, The Jimmer can score points from anywhere with the best of them – all concerns about his position and defense fall short.  He’s not a point guard right now, and it remains to be seen whether he develops those skills or learns to play off the ball, but I do think he and Evans can play in the same backcourt, and I do think the Kings will score points in bunches for years to come.  Whether wins and stability in Sac-town follow is anyone’s guess.

11.) Golden State

What They Did:  Select Klay Thompson, SG, Washington State

What They Should Have Done: Actually, this. I never thought Leonard would be available, and he would have been a good fit here, but Mychal Thompson’s son was always the pick. Stephen Curry + Klay Thompson = Buckets of rain.  He‘s the best pure shooter in this class, provides sorely-needed size on the wing, and has an old-school feel to the game which is great for the Warriors’ new coach, old-school Mark Jackson. Jerry West shows he still has his touch, also nabbing first-round quality in Charles Jenkins, PG, Hofstra at No. 44 in the Second.

12.) Utah

What They Did: Select Alec Burks, SG, Colorado

What They Should Have Done: Breathed a sigh of relief that The Jimmer was off the board. Kawhi Leonard was surprisingly available, and I had Chris Singleton, F, Florida St to the Jazz; either would have been a good replacement for Kirilenko, and both would have better fit Utah’s needs. I can’t find much fault here in picking Burks though, an athletic slashing scorer with vision, and while he’s not a great perimeter shooter, Raja Bell isn’t getting any younger.

13.) Phoenix

What They Did:   Select Markieff Morris, PF, Kansas.

What They Should Have Done: Anything else. Worst. Pick. Of the Lottery. Number 13 strikes again! Let me be clear: Kawhi Leonard falls into your lap, someone who improves your defense and rebounding from the wing and perfectly suits the Suns’ share-the-ball offense, someone who should have been off the board 6-7 picks ago, and instead of the next Shawn Marion, they select a shorter Robin Lopez, who is already on the roster.  For a team that hasn’t traded Steve Nash and by most accounts won’t, thereby choosing to contend next season instead of rebuild, the only viable option towards that was to take Leonard. Markieff’s ceiling is that of decent bench fodder, and he’s not even the “good” Morris twin (isn’t one “lesser twin enough?), that’s Marcus who was available and who would have been more justifiable, as would Chris Singleton and Jordan Hamilton. Second worst thing about this?  Indiana takes Leonard at No. 15, then trades him to hated rival San Antonio.  Owner Robert Sarver should have just pulled a “Sarver” (trading down or selling the pick) and saved Suns fans the trouble.

14.) Houston

What They Did:   Select the better Morris twin, Marcus, F, Kansas.

What They Should Have Done:  At this point, who cares? (Well, I do, but still …) To me, Marcus is Derrick Williams-lite, doing many of the same things as Williams, just not as well, and as with Williams the tweener criticism is overwrought.  It’s not a bad pick, Kevin McHale should help his post game tremendously, but Singleton, Leonard and Tobias Harris would have been optimal.  Houston would also find a lottery-level talent later on, trading for Lithuanian 7-footer Donatas Montiejunas, so GM Daryl Morey had a brighter evening than his Suns’ counterparts.

As for the rest of the draft, the circus came to town as a bevy of curious picks fueled by  questionable trades, shaky promises and half-hidden messages to coaches and players in limbo only added to the night’s confusion.  From David Kahn doing David Kahn things in Minnesota (FIVE draft trades), to San Antonio’s masters conducting another draft night clinic (acquiring Leonard and their yearly Stash-a-Euro in Davis Bertans), to first round free falls (Singleton at No. 18 to the Wizards, Hamilton at No. 26 to the NBA Champs before being traded to Denver, and Darius Morris, PG, Michigan, tumbling out of late-first round projections to the Lakers at No. 41), and blunders (Nolan Smith at No. 21 to Portland is a real head scratcher), there was something for every draftnik and die-hard.

Cold comfort for this Suns fan however, with the clock ticking on Nash and the owner seemingly asleep at the wheel, I’m somehow left wishing Phoenix was the exception to my rule.

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One Comment
  1. According to DraftExpress’ twitter:

    “Just informed that Jonas Valanciunas’ buyout was officially agreed upon & signed this afternoon. He’ll be free to sign with Toronto in 2012.”

    So the buyout is not the impediment I thought it would be, but he’s not coming until 2012? Is he staying with Lietuvos Rytas in the Lithuanian league for another season regardless of the lockout? Either way, I stand by the rest of what I said about Toronto’s pick, and if they’re committed to him as a focal piece, then there’s a lot more restructuring of the roster yet to be done.

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