When it comes to rebuilding a professional sports team, the ultimate sign of the desperate fan is to take one possible outcome that has worked for a few teams before, apply it as gospel and then shout from the rooftops that "[fill in name of favorite team here] needs to [do that thing that's worked for some other team]!!"
Next, the desperate fan takes to talk radio with phone call after idiotic phone call saying that his team "HAS TO DO THIS!!!" (Tearfully crying, "It's the ONLY WAY!!" is optional.)
This brings me to the NBA Draft.
By and large, everyone is in agreement that you need at least one, if not two, elite-level superstar players to compete for an NBA championship. How you acquire these players becomes the puzzle, but one method thought to be conventionally simple (because, you know, other teams have done it in certain years recently) but that in actuality is a road fraught with disaster, is to bottom out and ensure your team a high lottery pick.
Basically, the plan looks like this:
1. Tank the season. 2. Have the plentiful lottery pingpong balls with your teams logo on them bounce your way after the season. 3. Select franchise-changing star in the draft. 4. Compete for NBA titles.
There are so many things wrong with the sequence of events listed above that it angers me even more to think that presumably employed, seemingly productive human beings think this is an appropriate course to chart for an NBA franchise.
I could talk about the integrity issues of losing games quasi-"on purpose." I could talk about the very top of the draft really only producing one superstar who won a title for the team that drafted him since just before the turn of the century (Tim Duncan, drafted in 1997). I could talk about the fact that, even with the worst record in the league, there's a better chance of winding up with the fourth pick in the draft than the first pick.
And someday maybe I will talk about all of those things. But to me the biggest flaw in "just tank and get a high lottery pick" guy's plan is that even if you do win the NBA lottery, you might (hell, you likely will) be winning it in a year that the franchise-changing superstar either doesn't exist or isn't readily apparent until after he gets into the league.
It appears 2013 is one of those years, and if you need any further proof, hopefully you checked out the first weekend of March Madness. Granted, it's a very small sliver of the sample space of a player's collegiate career, but it's the most important sliver -- single elimination games (basically a Game 7 each time out) against an increasingly difficult level of competition as the tournament wears on.
We've seen NBA draft stocks soar because of a few games in March, going all the way back to Ed Pinckney becoming a lottery pick thanks to Villanova's run in 1985. One thing is for certain: NBA teams value player performance in the crunch time of March. To varying degrees, for sure, but they do value it.
With that said, the first weekend of March Madness 2013 is a bit of a wake-up call and a tailor-made exhibit for the argument that bottoming out and drafting high is a highly risky proposition. Using the 14 lottery picks for the 2013 mock draft on nbadraft.net, look at the snapshots of their tournament performance (or lack thereof), and if you're a fan of one of the teams on course to get a high selection, maybe even the first overall selection, be afraid. Be very afraid:
1. BEN McLEMORE, Kansas, SG McLemore had a pedestrian 2 for 5, 11-point, 4-turnover performance in holding off a near 16 vs 1 upset against Western Kentucky on Friday. He followed that up with an 0 for 9 afternoon from the field against North Carolina (not exactly a "40 minutes of hell" defense). If you're pondering using a high selection on McLemore, the most chilling stat is probably that he only took 14 shots in two games. In close games this season, McLemore has repeatedly disappeared at crunch time. If McLemore does go first overall, he would certainly be the most underwhelming first overall pick of the "one and done" era since Andrea Bargnani in 2006.
2. MARCUS SMART, Oklahoma State, PG Smart shot 5 for 13 and turned the ball over five times as Oklahoma State became one of three victims of the "5 vs 12" curse against the Oregon Ducks. We've seen point guards taken first overall three times since 2008 -- Derrick Rose, John Wall and Kyrie Irving. Smart is clearly a cut below all three of them.
3. OTTO PORTER, Georgetown, SF Porter shot 5 for 17 and was the reputed best player on a Georgetown team that looked lifeless for the first 35 minutes of a ten-point upset at the hands of 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that didn't exist until the early '90s.
4. NERLENS NOEL, Kentucky, C Noel has been rehabbing a torn ACL that he sustained back in February hustling back to block a shot against Florida. He is almost assuredly leaving school, and to me, the interesting storyline will be whether or not Noel winds up being the first overall pick by not playing, and merely watching the players around him on the board falter and get dissected by scouts.
5. CODY ZELLER, Indiana, PF Classic case of a player who gets penalized for staying around another year by having his game get nitpicked apart. If Zeller had come out last season, he probably would have been taken in the top three, no worse than fourth to Cleveland (who eventually selected his older, less good brother at 17th). Now he's struggling to stay in the top five behind four guys with much less on their résumés. As for this weekend, Zeller wasn't spectacular, but did what he needed to do to help Indiana get through the first weekend of the tournament.
6. SHABAZZ MUHAMMAD, UCLA, SG What a disastrous weekend for Muhammad, whose age was revealed in a Los Angeles Times article to be a year greater than originally thought all season long. (He's actually 20, not 19.) Then he went out and shot 6 for 18 (0 for 6 from three-point land) in a 20-point loss to Minnesota that likely got his head coach fired. Needless to say, the Shabazz Muhammad Experience at UCLA has not been exactly what Westwood thought they signed up for.
7. ANTHONY BENNETT, UNLV, SF/PF Bennett had a night that shows the flimsiness of the double-double stat -- 15 points and 11 rebounds, but shot 4 for 11 from the field and, like Smart, was the best player on a losing "5 vs 12" victim. 8. ALEX LEN, Maryland, C I've always thought seven-footers in the draft are the NBA's answer to quarterbacks in the NFL -- every team feels like they need to have one to compete, and they'll reach like crazy and delude themselves into thinking that big men are about 20 picks better than they really are. The clumsy Len would be the next example of this phenomenon if he winds up in the top ten. If you want to know how he's done in March, his Terps are in the NIT (strike one) and in two games in the NIT against Niagara and Denver (strike two), he's totaled 13 points and 6 rebounds in 35 foul-plagued minutes.
9. WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN, Kentucky, C Another potential seven-footer a team reaches for because of measurables and no real on-court résumé to speak of. Averaged 9 points and 8 rebounds a game once Noel went down for the season. Again, a player who is still at least a year away from being able to reasonably compete on the NBA level.
10. VICTOR OLADIPO, Indiana, SG A rising star and Player of the Year candidate as a junior, Oladipo's work ethic is reflected in his drastically improved shooting percentages, almost 60 percent from the field and 44 percent from three-point land (after shooting three's at a 20 percent clip last year). Oladipo might be the best player in this draft class (assuming he comes out). In an odd way, I feel like he is being penalized for being a junior. If he were doing the things he's done this season as a freshman, he'd be the runaway consensus number-one pick.
Oh, he was also the one guy this weekend on this list who showed balls the size of church bells...
11. C.J. McCOLLUM, Lehigh, PG Suffered a broken left foot in a January game with VCU and sat out the rest of the season. Oddly enough, after knocking off Duke in a "15 vs 2" game last March, McCollum easily has the most March pelts on the wall of this group.
12. KELLY OLYNYK, Gonzaga, PF/C Late-blooming big man and Wooden Award finalist, Olynyk averaged 23.5 points in Gonzaga's two tournament games. That's good. However, as a number-one seed in the West, they needed all 40 minutes to knock off Southern in their first game and lost 76-70 in a "9 vs 1" game in the next round. That's bad. Another potential big man "reach" pick in the lottery.
13. GLENN ROBINSON III, Michigan, SF Finally, a player who got it done individually on a team that got it done as a group this past weekend. Robinson probably has the highest ceiling of the three Michigan future NBAers (Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. being the others), and he showed it off by 21 points (8-9 shooting) in the round of 64 and 14 points (7-10 shooting) in the round of 32.
14. MASON PLUMLEE, Duke, PF Plumlee is another one of those NBA draft rarities -- an actual four-year player. His older brother, Miles, was a surprise first-round pick of the Pacers last year. Actually, it was not that surprising in that Plumlee is a big, lumbering white man, something the Pacers are fond of. It was surprising in that Miles is not very good at basketball. As for Mason, he is significantly more athletic than his older brother, and like many Duke players, anywhere from a tad to noticeably overrated. Last night, against Creighton, he had a quiet 10 points and 5 rebounds before fouling out. Yawn.
Maybe as Rocket fans, the biggest takeaway from the analysis above is just how potentially desperate the situation would be if the James Harden trade hadn't been consummated. Without Harden, this is easily a lottery team and they'd likely be sitting on their own pick (which Atlanta now owns but is top-14 protected) and Toronto's pick (sent over to OKC in the Harden deal with all of its odd protections).
So they'd have a young, Harden-less roster built around Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin and they'd be sitting on two more mid-late lottery picks trying to deal them from a position of weakness.
So we somehow wind up in a place with all of this analysis where we thank God one more time for James Harden.
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