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Are We Overvaluing 2014 NBA Draft Picks?

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Are We Overvaluing 2014 NBA Draft Picks?
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You've probably heard plenty about the 2014 NBA draft by now, about the presumed depth of elite prospects likely on offer. You might even know the names of some of these superstars of tomorrow, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker chief among them.

But might the league's bright future actually be a hindrance to basketball's in-season "hot stove?" Could the overall quality of the upcoming draft class lead to stagnation and hesitation among front offices, forever fearful of making the wrong move?

That is to say, is everyone putting too high of a premium on this year's picks? And, if so, is that really just a matter of teams hoarding draft-day considerations, or are there other factors at play?

 

Josh Martin, NBA Lead Writer: Is it just me, or are teams around the NBA being stingy—perhaps even overly stingy—about draft picks during this trade period?

Last season, not a single first-round pick changed hands prior to the trade deadline. This time around, we've already seen one borderline blockbuster deal (Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings) go down without any draft considerations included, and another noteworthy one (Kyle Lowry to the New York Knicks) reportedly nixed because James Dolan has mysteriously morphed into Rose from Titanic, with a 2018 first-rounder standing in as Jack.

What's behind all of this? Are GMs just getting smarter about planning for the future over indulging in a fleeting bit of instant gratification? Have the more stringent rules put in place by the latest collective bargaining agreement really driven up the value of draft picks this much?

Or do you think this is something more peculiar to the 2014 draft, about which there's already been so much hoopla?

 

Jonathan Wasserman, Bleacher Report's NBA draft guru: If there was ever a year when teams will overvalue their own draft picks, this is it. This projected class is the real deal. At least that's the perception. And trade value is all about perception—especially when it comes to draft picks, given the uncertainty surrounding them.

Word on the streets is that this is one of the most talented draft pools in recent memory. Whether that turns out to be the case five years from now remains to be seen, but today, trading a draft pick would be perceived as risking missing out on a potential franchise player.

And I'm not sure Rudy Gay and his fat contract are worth that risk.

As for James Dolan, I think he's just gotten burned too many times. He's learning the value of a contributor on a rookie contract. If the Knicks could go back, don't you think they'd pass on J.R. Smith in free agency and give those minutes to Tim Hardaway Jr. (and Iman Shumpert)? Hardaway could give you similar (maybe even better) production for one-fifth the cost. Maybe it's Hardaway's strong play that's behind Dolan's reluctance to give up a pick (a smart move in my Knick-fan opinion).

David Dow/Getty Images

And yes, that new collective bargaining agreement does make it tougher to build a team through free agency. If teams have the chance to add a major piece in the draft, they're probably not going to give it up that easily.

This is that chance. Don't expect many draft picks to be traded until draft night, when teams can target a specific prospect as opposed to a ping-pong ball or spot in line.

 

JM: I get all that—truly, I do—but draft night doesn't come until after playoffs, which, last I checked, is when the championship is actually on the line.

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Not that the top contenders (i.e. Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs) are in need of the sorts of upgrades that might come from swapping out a first-rounder here or there. Nor do all of said contenders have 2014 picks to give; the Pacers owe theirs to the Phoenix Suns from the Luis Scola trade.

But if you're a team that has a 2014 first-rounder to trade and is either on the verge of contention (Houston Rockets) or has a shot of making noise of some sort come playoff time (Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers), wouldn't it behoove them to at least consider parting with one of the top 30 picks in next June's draft?

I mean, I understand the appeal of the upcoming draft class, which could be the deepest and most talented we've seen since at least 2003, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Darko Milicic (couldn't forget about him!) went in the lottery. Realistically, though, how many blue-chippers of comparable caliber could we see coming out of the collegiate and international ranks?

In other words, how many of those 2014ers that teams are hoarding do you think will actually yield prospects who can provide more on-court value later on than an established rotation player might bring to the table in the here and now?

 

JW:  Right now, I could see six-to-eight potential All-Stars in this class—Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Dante Exum, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, and potentially Aaron Gordon and Noah Vonleh. Still, every draft pick has its price. You'd like to think no pick is untouchable pre-draft. But if you're going to give up a first-rounder in a draft like this, the dude you're getting in return better be able to move the needle right away.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I'm with you—a team like the Houston Rockets should be a team to target if you're looking to trade into the first round. A late first-round rookie isn't likely to help Houston with a championship in 2014-15, which should therefore make its pick expendable.

The majority of teams who will be willing to give up a first-rounder will likely be playoff teams looking for one guy to make them immediate contenders. And you realistically won't find too many teams willing to give up a guy who can move the needle unless he's in the last year of his contract and there is uncertainty surrounding his return.

The problem is that teams might be hesitant to deal a first-rounder not knowing if the guy they're getting back is going to re-sign or leave after the year. Luol Deng fits that description, though recent reports say Chicago is leaning toward holding on to him.

If a team like the Washington Wizards is looking to add a player to get them into the playoffs, chances are they'll only trade a protected pick. The Wizards traded a first-rounder for Marcin Gortat, but that pick is top-12 protected.

 

JM: I'll bet the Phoenix Suns are happy to have that pick from the Wizards right about now. They've got two others (Minnesota's top-13 protected and Indiana's top-14 protected) in addition to their own, which, in all likelihood, will land in that mid-to-late first-round range, assuming they keep winning games.

If you're a team like the Suns or the Boston Celtics—a surprisingly competitive club with multiple first-round picks to peddle—does it make sense to deal those considerations for help right now? Do you think those teams can do that without jeopardizing their long-term prospects for building legitimate championship contenders?

What would you do if you were Danny Ainge or Ryan McDonough, the former once engaged with the Rockets in talks for Omer Asik and the latter having already discussed publicly the possibility of investing future assets to ensure the club's immediate ability to compete?

Rich Obrey/Getty Images

 

JW: You have to love those general managers who are active shoppers—guys who operate with the mentality that every asset is obtainable and tradable.  

I personally wouldn't give up a first-rounder and more for Omer Asik, a guy who I just can't picture moving the needle for the Celtics short-term. But I like the idea of teams like the Celtics and Suns seeing what's out there—exploring deals around the league by seeing what a package of picks and young players can get me.

If I'm Phoenix and I can get a game-changer for Alex Len, Archie Goodwin and a few first-round picks, that has to be a move to consider.

How about we flip your question upside down. If you're the Milwaukee Bucks, who currently have the worst record in the league, would you consider offering your first-round pick (which could potentially be the No. 1 pick) in a deal for an established star like Rajon Rondo?

If you're the Celtics, would you want the opportunity to build around a new franchise player like Duke's Jabari Parker or Kansas' Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins? With Rondo coming off knee surgery, the thought has to be just a little tempting, although it doesn't appear Boston wants to start completely from scratch.

But if you're a team at the bottom of the barrel like Milwaukee, Utah, Philadelphia or Orlando, wouldn't it be irresponsible not to go out and see what the value is of a potential top-three pick?

 

JM: That's quite a question there, Jon. I suppose it depends on what those teams with those picks are actually looking for, what they think of what they have on hand and, most importantly, whether they think having one bird in the hand is better than having two in the bush, so to speak.

Realistically, there are only 10-to-15 franchise-changing talents in the entire NBA. Nowadays, you could argue for 20 (maybe), but most of those reside out West. If you're the Boston Celtics, do you trade a guy who you know with some certainty that, when healthy, he can be (and is) one of those guys?

Or do you look at a situation with a guy like Derrick Rose—an athlete of arguably superior stature, skill and physical ability to Rondo—and see that health is fleeting? Do you see that one player can only carry a team so far (see: the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals), especially if he's a point guard? Do you reflect back on NBA history and realize that Isiah Thomas is the only point guard of "typical" size for his position who ever led his team to a title?

If you're the C's, do all those considerations—along with the ample data that point to Boston's offense never being that great, despite Rondo's gaudy assist numbers, and the team's defense being more the product of Kevin Garnett's former stewardship and Avery Bradley's current ball-hawking ability—add up to a player who's better served as a trade chip than as a retained asset? Do you think of him as a player whose name and appeal are big enough to entice a wide-eyed owner to pull the trigger on a deal, even if it might not actually make the team all that better?

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe (probably) that's why the Sacramento Kings were recently (and have for months been) discussed as a potential suitor for Rondo! They've got new owners who want to bring excitement back to the city after fighting so hard to keep the team from fleeing to Seattle. They've invested a ton of time, energy and money. They're in this for the long haul, but they have to start on the right foot.

Hence, the Rudy Gay trade, though (luckily) that didn't cost the Kings any picks. Unfortunately, they won't have a pick to trade until 2016, thanks to the Geoff Petrie "masterpiece" otherwise known as the J.J. Hickson Heist of 2011, which landed the Cleveland Cavaliers Sacramento's top-12 protected pick in 2014.

 

JW: I'll tell you right now, and maybe it's just me because I've become hooked on the upsides of Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle—if I'm the Celtics and the Bucks offered me a package of a potential top-three pick, Brandon Knight and maybe a little something extra, I'd be really tempted to let go of Rondo, who not only is coming off knee surgery, but may not be the best fit on a team that lacks established talent.

And good call with Isiah Thomas. Not too many teams have had success building around point guards lately. Chris Paul, widely regarded as the game's top floor general, can't even get out of the first round (only twice in his career).

I'm also a fan of following the Oklahoma City blueprint—drafting your stars instead of paying for them, if the opportunity presents itself.

But draft picks versus established talent ultimately comes down to personal preference and the current state of the team. Rondo might be able to help draw a more immediate crowd and interest in a place like Milwaukee. He wouldn't make the Bucks a contender, but they'd likely be more competitive with Rondo on a nightly basis.

On the other hand, Jabari Parker might end up emerging as an absolute superstar in five years—only the first three might be a little slow. I guess it all depends on the direction, and, once again, the current state of the franchise.

 

JM: I, for one, can't blame scrimp-and-save small-market squads for wanting a legitimate shot at Jabari. The kid's been a joy to watch so far at Duke. I can only imagine how much better he'll become in time—and how big of a draw he'll be right away.

But might the sense of stagnation on the market be the result of something about which there's been only scant discussion so far? Namely, the dearth of teams with valuable assets—and, conversely, the flooding of the market with teams still battling with the ghosts of GMs past.

With the Cavs, Suns and Celtics among those fortunate enough to have extracted multiple picks from less savvy (and more desperate) trading partners in recent years—and so many teams having tied their hands with the picks they have due to the Stepien Rule, which prevents teams from dealing first-rounders in consecutive drafts—the market for movement seems to have reached a stalemate.

That is, only a few teams possess the assets necessary to acquire stars via blockbuster trade in the here and now. Moreover, there aren't many such superstars on the market, at least not ones that the smarter GMs who own these draft considerations are all that eager to take chances on.

Rondo's a question mark, the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers want to keep their healthy All-Stars (Deng and Pau Gasol, respectively), the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Magic aren't willingly parting ways with their UCLA studs (Kevin Love and Arron Afflalo, respectively), LaMarcus Aldridge isn't pushing for a way out of Portland anymore and the aforementioned Kings are all in on DeMarcus Cousins.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Those young impact players who are probably available (i.e. Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Omer Asik, Greg Monroe) aren't about to change the course of basketball history, and certainly aren't worth the price of prime real estate in what could be the best draft in decades. Those with the talent to warrant such asset investments (i.e. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki) aren't about to abandon their current digs, either.

What does all of this mean for 2014 first-rounders? Have they reached a point of being so valuable that they're unmovable? Has their concentration in select spots across the landscape and the lack of worthwhile and available trade targets actually killed this year's NBA hot stove?

I mean, is any GM going to give up a spot that could yield another star in exchange for a third or fourth banana—and risk losing his job if/when things don't work out in his team's favor? Have the league's genius GMs transformed into a basketball facsimile of Hollywood movie-studio execs?

 

JW: You nailed it with the potential star trade targets, or lack thereof. There just isn't a good match of teams with assets and teams with expendable stars.

And given the upside of some of these potential draft picks, it would be hard to imagine teams willing to give them up for B-listers like Turner, Monroe and Asik—guys who are going to cost immediate money yet are unlikely to move the needle.

The fact is, this projected draft class is perceived as one of the top classes in the last 20 years, and there aren't many worthwhile trade targets on the market.

Teams are going to overvalue their picks this year based on their potential reward and the underwhelming fish they'd attract as trade bait.

 

JM: Perhaps, then, the term "overvalue" doesn't apply at all here. Perhaps GMs are properly valuing their 2014 first-rounders right now, and the market is operating as it should.

A pick is only worth as much as whatever it can be used to obtain, be it a cheap youngster later or a pricier veteran now. The dearth of worthwhile trade targets is bad enough in and of itself, even more so when considering the coming deluge of blue-chip prospects and, in turn, the opportunity to grab one that might be lost if a GM tries too hard to improve his team in the present.

Unless you're looking to acquire a known commodity with franchise-changing potential, it doesn't make sense to sacrifice a chance to land one of the bright lights of the league's next generation—at a fraction of the usual cost for such an impact player, no less.

That being said, let's keep our fingers crossed that some GMs slacken their tight-fisted grip on picks, if only to generate some excitement and intrigue beyond the basketball court.

Chances are, there are plenty of front-office execs around the NBA who feel the same way, albeit for very different reasons.

 

Where better to talk draft and trades than on Twitter?

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