There are two ways to do this, to manage the NBA draft. You can take the path of least resistance whereas everything makes sense. You need a point guard- you take the best one on the board. You need a center- you find one who can rebound. Structurally, it is an appropriate way to build a team after suffering through a disastrous year. But it is not the only way to rebuild something and frankly logic is not how some people operate, the ones who climb rocks and jump out of airplanes, the ones who are adrenaline junkies. They don’t mind a crash and burn so they risk more because they want more.
This unholy alliance of risk and regret followed the Lakers into the draft of 2005. They were coming off a brokenhearted season interrupted by injuries and a coach quitting in the middle of it. Phil Jackson had been brought back to collect the broken shards and the draft was his first imprint. Phil would reinstate the Triangle and for it to be effective he needed post players who had a level of athleticism and passing ability. That left out Sean May who had just won a NCAA title with North Carolina. Sean was an undersized forward who was fat and not particularly skilled at the rim other than using his weight for dunking.
On the other hand Charlie Villanueva out of UConn, a 6-10 player with length, liked to shoot threes but he underachieved for much of his time at UConn. Phil believed he could inspire Villenueva by putting him in the Triangle and teaching him how to think the position. But…the Toronto Raptors took Charlie Villenueva ahead of the Lakers. They had the #7 pick in the draft.
With Villenueva off the board the Lakers took Andrew Bynum, a not talked about high school player who was bright and seven feet tall; he was huge. He had been a target of Toronto but they got cold feet at the last minute and left Bynum still on the board.
Everyone agreed Bynum was a risk, one of those draft night gambles Dr. Buss liked to trumpet as part of his I-got-rich-by-doing-what-others-would-not-do scenarios. UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who recruited Bynum, called him a project. Still, Bynum became an All-Star and a two time champion in the NBA while Charlie Villanueva, the safe pick of the Raptors, has never been much of anything as a NBA player, not an All-Star, not a player of the week, not an NBA All-Defense selection, not on the playoff stage, not in the NBA Finals.
The next year, 2006, the NBA Draft was on another Thursday night in June. Andrea Bargnani was taken #1 and everyone rolled their eyes after the Raptors picked the Italian and for good reason. In a league in which games are won and lost with physicality up front, Bargnani was a weak seven footer. He only took three point shots and didn’t rebound. The Raptors didn’t take a risk with Bynum and it failed. They did take a risk with Bargnani and it failed too and that is the point. Risks come in two forms: homerun or strikeout.
Men will do enormous things when they want to compete. They will take on pain. They will alter the structure of their body and then- solemnly- ask their body to be silent. But the body and all of its road maps and all of its tangles of nerves and tissues do not enter into this marriage willingly. It can and sometimes does rebel. It falls apart and it only takes seconds.
This year’s test case of what to do with a body you don’t understand is Joel Embiid who is injured again, first the back, now it is the foot. Several years ago it was Brandon Roy who on draft day in 2006 was traded before he had a chance to say two sentences. Picked by the Timberwolves, a team anxious about Brandon’s iffy knees, he was quickly traded to Portland. The TrailBlazers, approached it like a poet. They saw beauty.
Brandon Roy was the second best shooting guard in the Western Conference. He was a clutch scorer. He was what scouts termed a f**k you player, he took pleasure in beating his man. The Blazers got into the playoffs with Brandon Roy leading them. The story of Brandon Roy and his knees and his Portland popularity and the risky chance the front office took on him was worth it- sort of like walking in a rainstorm is worth it- no you are not comfortable but it won’t kill you.
But it did eventually, kill the Blazers, when Brandon Roy wrung everything he could out of those gimpy knees with the cartilage hanging by a thread. When there was nothing there, nothing but water and merciless pain and the history of what he used to be, he had to retire.
Bill Simmons (ESPN, Grantland) says a draft is a “crapshoot” and if you think about it, really, it is. It is how a #2 pick- Hasheem Thabeet- turns into a pretty terrible, almost clueless on the court big man. It is how Tyreke Evans is Rookie of the Year and every year after his rookie year he has yet to fulfill his promise. It is how Jonny Flynn failed disastrously because, well, there are two sorts of skills. There is the one on the court and there is the one in practice, with your teammates, with your coaches. Jonny Flynn struggled at both.
On Thursday there are two teams that want to climb the chance ladder. One is the 76ers who want the injured Joel Embiid even as teams like the Lakers are scared away. But not Philly. What is the risk? If he fails they have Noel Nerlens. And if he doesn’t? Oh my God.
The Celtics at #6 are willing to trade Rajon Rondo to the Sacramento Kings and draft the guard from Louisiana-Lafayette, Elfrid Payton, who is a terrible shooter but can get into the paint and he can defend his position. If this happens then the Celtics are saying that defense has more value than offense; offense is learned behavior, defense is gut behavior, work ethic behavior.
So here we are, the NBA Draft upon us. Some teams will pretend they are not taking a chance at all, that they know what they are doing, that they are smarter than the rest of us, that they know more. Some teams will use the word ‘faith’ when they talk about how their coaches develop players and how the system they run has discipline. Good for them. But no one can predict success on this level in which skill, explosion, work ethic, luck, all the above stir the pot. Yes, some players will fail miserably. Yes, other players will fit in beautifully. It is the hit and miss nature of the draft, it is the car crash aspect to all of it.
This is not a place for pessimists, for those looking and expecting everything to go wrong, for footsteps to turn into failures. Draft night is for the optimists, for the ones who think the moon is never a half circle and the sky is always blue and the air smells of honeysuckle. This is a world where for one night at least, good supplants dysfunction and teams have situated themselves for the future.
They still talk about it, you know, how once upon a time there was a kid who was skinny and who could shoot and who had an arrogant sort of confidence. No one thought he should enter the NBA, not without college. He was deluding himself, really he was. Drafted and then traded, the general manager of the team that got rid of him faster than he could blink was a man named Bob Bass. Of that night in 1996 when the skinny, starry eyed kid was traded from Charlotte to Los Angeles because Jerry West thought he knew something about Kobe Bryant no one else did, Bob Bass puffed out his chest. He boasted and preened. Because he thought he had pulled off the biggest steal in draft history by acquiring an All-Star Center for a high school kid who may not be able to play. Of course we know the rest of the story, of how a chance turned into something enormous.
That is why the draft can be so great. Because there is Hasheem Thabeet and there is Kobe Bryant. Because there is house money and there is rolling the dice. Because there is what Bill Simmons classifies the crapshoot nature of it and the hopeful craziness of it. It is worse than Vegas and it is better than Vegas.