With the Playoffs in full swing, much of this blog has ben focused on teams competing at the top of the NBA. However, last night was crucial for those franchises who are looking to rebuild through the draft and free agency over the summer. Last night was the NBA lottery draw.
For UK sports fans the draft process is completely alien to us. There is no attempt at creating parity in most European sports leagues. The teams who have more fans, bigger stadiums and deeper pockets almost always win, whilst the little guys who perform badly get relegated. The only way you can really change your fortunes is through massive investment both on and off the pitch. In most American sports leagues, such as the NBA and NFL, there is no relegation and teams that finish near the bottom of the league get the top picks in the following draft. This combined with a fixed amount each team can spend on player salaries creates a more level playing field where success is harder to maintain. For example teams like the Phoenix Suns, who were perennial contenders throughout most of last decade, are now firmly entrenched in the lottery. In Europe young talent is all funnelled towards the chosen few. Where as in the NBA the new talent is, in theory at least, more evenly distributed throughout the league.
In the NBA the draft process is even more confusing then in other US sports leagues. In the NFL, for example, the team with the worst record gets the top pick, the second worst gets the second pick and so on. In the NBA finishing with the worst regular season record does not guarantee you the first overall pick, it only gives you the best chance of drawing it in the lottery. The NBA brought in the lottery to prevent teams from loosing on purpose towards the end of the season to improve their draft position. What has become apparent over the last few years is that having a high pick is not a guarantee of acquiring a franchise transforming player.
Three teams that I haven’t written about at all in this blog all left the lottery with greatly differing prospects for the coming season.
The Philadelphia 76ers have been terrible on purpose for the past 3 seasons, consistently finishing with one of the leagues worst records. This was all part of former general manager Sam Hinkie’s plan to acquire high draft picks and build a young core that could succeed for years to come. However, Hinkie failed to appreciate two things when he initiated his plan. Firstly, the NBA is about entertainment and 3 years of terrible basketball without much hope of improvement has been too much to bear for the proud Sixers fanbase. Secondly, it is all well and good using stats and algorithms to stockpile draft picks, but if you fail to convert them into meaningful on court assets the whole process is futile. Last night it seemed as though Hinkie’s vision had finally been realised as the Sixers landed the top overall pick. What they do with it will define the future of the franchise.
Philadelphia’s front office has shown very little aptitude for picking players over the past few drafts. Loading up with big men such as Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in a league which is getting smaller and quicker has certainly been a questionable strategy. Noel and Okafor both look to be solid players, who will have decent careers in the league, but are either the perennial all-star you need to lift a franchise out of the basement? Embiid has been plagued by foot injuries and is yet to play a game, which doesn’t suggest a long career awaits him.
Philadelphia owns 3 picks in the first round of the 2016 draft. If they can hit on at least two of them then there could be hope of a revival in Philly.
For the Brooklyn Nets, on the other hand, the outlook is completely bleak. A trade with the Boston Celtics in 2013 for ageing superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett has stripped the Nets of almost all their draft assets for this year. They only pick once this year, near the end of the draft at no. 55, where the chances of even finding an average starter, let alone a star, are fairly slim. Brooklyn is also lacking in on court assets too, with centre Brook Lopez their only trade worthy player. Lopez is a decent player and Brooklyn’s only real scoring option but a trade is something Brooklyn should really consider. With the league becoming increasingly focused on small ball, a centre with limited shooting range and no real ability to switch on smaller faster players at the defensive end is only going to become less valuable. Brooklyn would be wise to cash in now on Lopez and try and regain some draft picks.
If they choose to retain Lopez the Nets will be stuck in NBA purgatory until the damage done by the Celtics trade passes.
For the team on the other side of that trade the future looks much brighter if not entirely straight forward. The Celtics, over the past two seasons, have shown the rest of the league you can be competitive whilst in the process of rebuilding. The Celtics have a solid roster who play hard for each other and have led Boston into the Playoffs the past two seasons, as a 7 seed last year and a 5 seed this season. Unfortunately for coach Brad Stevens his young feisty squad have come up short in the first round with years and there is a sense that without some added star power this is the ceiling for the celtics, respectability but no hope of a championship.
The Celtics have the no. 3 pick and a whopping 7 picks overall including some nice high first rounders. What the Celtics front office must decide is whether to have faith in youth and build through the draft, a process which will take time and has no certainty of success. Or do they use these draft picks to create a monster offer for one of the superstar free agents coming on to the market this off season. This could be seen as he safer option but as the Nets have shown trading away assets can be a dangerous business if it doesn’t translate in to sustained on court success.
One thing’s for sure Boston and Philly have options, Brooklyn really don’t.