The NBA offseason, which in the past few years has become far more exciting than the NBA's regular season and nearly as exciting as the postseason, is almost here. Much like the dark clouds and slight drizzle ahead of a tropical storm, we are starting to see a smattering of coaching hires (what's up, Mike Malone?) and trades (welcome to LA, Lance Stephenson!) that tell us the silly season is nigh.
Every offseason over the past three seasons has been crucial in the construction of the 2015 Western Conference finalist Houston Rockets — 2012 with the trade for James Harden, 2013 with the signing of Dwight Howard and last season with the moderate recovery after striking out on Chris Bosh. The assembly of a team is a series of steps, and to make the move from "one of the top four or five teams in the league" to "true title contender," the Rockets have more work to do. They know this.
One of the key assets for Rockets GM Daryl Morey over the next few weeks is going to be the 18th pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, acquired in the deal last summer that sent Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans. Reportedly, Morey sees this as a deep draft, so the 18th pick should have value, either in a trade or if the Rockets decide to use it for themselves (please, please, please take Tyus Jones or Jerian Grant…please!). My contention is that, if the Rockets decide to keep the pick and make a choice, it needs to be someone who can contribute now. No European stash jobs, no seven-foot projects. Get someone who can be a rotation guy on a good team, and do so inexpensively.
Now, I bring this idea up on my radio show, and people chuckle. Surely, you must be kidding, Sean! Get an actual NBA player with the 18th pick in the draft! What are you…HIGH?!?
Maybe. Maybe I am high. But that's beside the point. My chemical state doesn't mean that my assessment of the 2015 crop of basketball-playing collegians is somehow jumbled and not-very-lucid. I trust Daryl Morey to find somebody, and moreover, I trust enough other stupid general managers picking in front of Morey to leave plenty of meat on the draft bone.
And if I needed to further my conviction by using some historical shreds of evidence, that came recently in the form of an article on Grantland about the future whereabouts of Kevin Love. Actually, the eventual evidence has nothing to do with Kevin Love, but was instead triggered by a footnote in the article about Klay Thompson, who was rumored to be a trade target for Minnesota when they were looking to deal Love last offseason.
Flip Saunders, who runs the show in Minnesota these days, reportedly has loved Thompson going all the way back to the 2011 draft, in which Thompson was selected 11th overall by the Warriors. The footnote in the Grantland piece said this:
Thompson had blown Saunders away during a pre-draft workout in 2011, when Saunders coached the Wizards. The Washington brain trust considered reaching for Thompson with the no. 6 pick before going the safe route with a big man — Jan Vesely, who ranked higher on most draft boards but is now out of the league. “We toyed with it,” Saunders says, “but heaven forbid you go out of the box and pick someone you’re higher on than anyone else.”
After getting over the concussion I sustained from banging my head on the floor from fainting at the thought of a John Wall/Klay Thompson backcourt for the next ten years, I went and looked up the 2011 draft on Wikipedia to see just how big a reach taking Thompson at 6th would've been. (Answer: Not as big as whoever-vetoed-it-in-Washington thought it was.) And then I remembered — Oh snap, this is the draft where Morey took Marcus Morris one pick before the Spurs took Kawhi Leonard…. (one of the few Morey draft missteps, although to be fair, a lot of people misstepped on Kawhi)
So I looked at the entire draft, and guess what I found? It wasn't just Kawhi at 15th overall who was a useful NBA player taken in the downhill part of the first round. Check out this list (* denotes "likely/eventual/actual $12M+ per year" guy):
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* 16. NIKOLA VUCEVIC: Averaged 19 and 10 for Orlando this season
17. IMAN SHUMPERT: Starter on a team in the NBA Finals
* 19. TOBIAS HARRIS: 17 pts/game guy for Orlando
* 20. DONATAS MOTIEJUNAS: Starter and viable scoring option on Western Conference finalist
* 22. KENNETH FARIED: Making $12M/yr with Denver
* 23. NIKOLA MIROTIC: Rotation guy in Chicago with upside
* 24. REGGIE JACKSON: Starting PG in Detroit
28. NORRIS COLE: Viable backup/spot starter at PG on playoff team
29. CORY JOSEPH: Viable backup/spot starter at PG on an even BETTER playoff team
* 30. JIMMY BUTLER: All Star at SG, future max player
* 38. CHANDLER PARSONS: Starting small forward who may or may not think Houston is the dirtiest city in America
That's nearly a dozen highly functional NBA rotation players, some on really good teams, and some who have All Star level ceilings. And these players were plucked by people a lot less savvy than Daryl Morey. Hell, one of them was plucked by the ACTUAL DARYL MOREY!
I'm not saying all of these guys with stars next to their names should be making $12M+ per year. My point is that these are all viable rotation players, and some teams even see them as valuable rotation players (even if they're not as valuable as they'd like to think). Am I trying to find future optimism in historical happenings? Maybe so. Just don't tell me the Rockets can't find a guy who can help them with the 18th pick, because they can.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.