Build Through the Draft

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

It does not always work. The draft is a crap shoot.

Criticism of the path Dell Demps has chosen is coming hot and heavy. Oleh mentioned Kevin Pelton's analysis earlier in this piece; Pelton gave the Pelicans a D+. I had an enjoyable conversation with Zach Lowe about his piece on the trade the same day. Lowe avoids handing out arbitrary grades (which I prefer) but I disagreed with some of the tone of his piece.

But acting early here was the smart move. The Rockets know that a ton of teams with superstar dreams will be looking to dump salary in order to free up cap space, and they got ahead of that market by preying on a Pelicans team hell-bent on making the playoffs next season. The Rockets snared New Orleans’s 2015 first-round pick, and the two teams cooperated to put some intriguing protections on that sucker. The Pelicans will keep the pick next season only if it falls within the top three or after no. 20; the Rockets get it if it falls somewhere in between those spots, per sources close to the talks...

The Pelicans have now dealt away first-round picks in three consecutive drafts. That is not, um, ideal. This is what happens when an aging owner bellows a playoffs-or-bust mandate at a GM, in this case Dell Demps, entering the final year of his contract with shaky job security.

I do not like either bolded line in the slightest. It makes a reader unfamiliar with New Orleans think the team is both desperate and incompetent. Tom Benson might be on his deathbed demanding the team make the playoffs before he passes on. Let me unpack some of that.

Tom Benson intends to pass both the Saints and Pelicans down to his family members; this is outlined to some degree by NOLA.com in this piece. I am to believe that Benson demands winning now, at the great potential cost of the future which will be overseen by his own offspring. That is a long jump in logic that I am unwilling to make. Second, the first line in bold makes New Orleans seem incompetent. "Preying on a Pelicans team" is a great turn of a phrase. It also implies the Pelicans are being hunted my more capable adversaries.

Other Grades

There is not as much consensus on this trade as we might be led to believe. Zach Harper at CBS Sports gave the Pelicans a B+. Ben Golliver at Sports Illustrated also said Demps earned a B+. Zach Reynolds at The Lottery Mafia was more critical, handing out a C+. RealGM gave New Orleans a D+ yet said they love the fit of Asik and Davis. Common assumptions include Asik being a one year rental and Houston landing a third star. Consistently each article raises these concerns. Little credence is given to other possibilities.

What if Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James don't come to Houston? And what if, by some miracle, the Pelicans make the playoffs? The Dallas Mavericks were the 8th seed in the Western Conference this season, they were slotted to select 21st. Considering the protections (Houston receives the pick if it lands 4-19) it is possible the Rockets just traded away one of the best defensive centers in the league for maybe a late teens pick in 2016. What if the Pelicans become serious contenders by then?

Houston receives nothing. Or it turns into a second round pick when Anthony Davis retires. New Orleans holds Asik's Bird Rights, and Gordon's contract conveniently falls off the first year of AD's extension. Why would the Pelicans let half of their starting front court walk? The Pelicans won't pay the luxury tax is a common refrain. Yet every article can't help but remind everyone that Benson is actually paying Asik $15 Million this season. Is it even cognitive dissonance if a writer does not realize they are contradicting themselves?

Next summer the Pelicans might fork over another late lottery draft pick. If that's the case this trade is not a failure. So many other things have gone terribly wrong. Remember for a moment that the Pelicans gave away the 10th pick after Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Anthony Davis missed a combined 151 games. The biggest weakness for New Orleans last year (beyond health) were defense and rebounding. Asik is ELITE at both of those things.

Examples Outside of Oklahoma City

Small market teams are supposed to build only one way, through the draft. Every writer loves pointing to Oklahoma City as the example. In 2007 they drafted Kevin Durant with the 2nd pick, in 2008 Russell Westbrook with the 4th and Serge Ibaka with the 24th, in 2009 James Harden with the 3rd pick. All it takes to rebuild is three top five picks (and nailing every single one of them) and hitting a grand slam with the 24th pick. Serge Ibaka might end up the best 24th pick of all time. No pressure on the GM, just crush every single draft pick.

If only more teams would follow the OKC model, small markets could have more success, right? Kevin Love would not be demanding to leave Minnesota if they could have only just been patient and built through the draft! Except, well, that they tried.

Minnesota Built Through the Draft

Warning: This is written with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

Take a good hard look at two things for me. First, the draft history of the Timberwolves. Traded O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love in the 2008 draft and picked a draft-and-stash candidate in Nikola Pekovic. Boom, two enormous hits already and one was even in the second round!

The next year, another draft-and-stash candidate in Ricky Rubio, a young high potential guard in Jonny Flynn (big wingspan, 40" vertical, just 20 years old), traded an older low ceiling guard in Ty Lawson (he was 22 and too short!), then drafted a potential 3&D player in Wayne Ellington (6'7" wingspan, 38" vertical, shot 40%+ from three in college). Did I mention they traded Ty Lawson for the eventual #16 pick in the next draft? They traded the #18 pick for the #16 pick the next year. Talk about assets!

Look at how beautiful this cap sheet is for a moment. Three different lottery picks (Love, Flynn, Corey Brewer) on rookie scale contracts. Minnesota has TWO picks in the top 16 the following year AND almost $20 Million in cap space. Plus they have not even brought over their draft-and-stash prospects in Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio. Sam Hinkie, eat your heart out!

The next year though, that is the magnum opus. The Timberwolves had a rough go of in in 2009-2010. With all those rookie scale contracts, we really should not be surprised. While lottery luck was not on their side (they were slotted 2nd, they slid in the lottery to 4th) that should not be too big of a deal, right? Wesley Johnson had all the tools for being a 4th pick. 7'1" wingspan, 37" vertical. The concern among draft graders was if Ryan Gomes and Luke Babbitt were worth Martell Webster. No, seriously. Only one of those players has been a consistent rotation player, and Minnesota is the team that got him.

Look at all the beautiful flexibility on the cap sheet! They traded two second round picks for Michael Beasley, the number two pick just two years ago. He had missed a total of 5 games in two seasons, posted above average PERs, was only 22 years old, and had increased both his PPG and RPG from his rookie to sophomore years. Development! Upside! Again Minnesota has $15 Million plus in cap space, Ricky Rubio stashed away in Europe, and EIGHT different players on rookie contracts. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything. They won just 17 games. Martell Webster, who played 82 games the season prior, played just 46. The head coach was fired. Rick Adelman was brought in. Ricky Rubio was coming over, the Timberwolves had the #2 pick in the draft. Hello flexibility! Welcome back upside! Come on down Derrick Williams! Read this gorgeous quote about asset collection and team building, a la Morey and Hinkie.

He managed to get the team’s second best player for practically nothing from Miami. And all season long, in the midst of Carmelo and other major trade talks, Kahn has been willing to throw his name in the mix as a third party.

Granted, each of these may not score the Wolves a superstar, but they are starting to collect assets. Whether these assets eventually grow into valuable pieces of the team or are traded for a star or draft picks, I like that we have them.

That quote is not from some time long ago. It was written in April 2011! For those keeping track, Minnesota has the following players still on a rookie contract on the roster.

Draft Slot Name
2008 2 Michael Beasley
2008 5 Kevin Love
2008 14 Anthony Randolph
2008 31 Nikola Pekovic
2009 5 Ricky Rubio
2009 28 Wayne Ellington
2010 4 Wesley Johnson
2011 2 Derrick Williams
2011 43 Malcolm Lee

Not 1, not 2, ... 9! Nine different players on rookie contracts. Six of those nine are lottery picks STILL ON THEIR ROOKIE CONTRACTS. Chad Ford gave the Timberwolves an A for the 2011 draft. Of course Minnesota again struggled, and this time they did not own their draft pick. Instead that draft pick turned into Austin Rivers, the worst player in NBA history.

Can I stop now?

Not the Only Example

I hope my point is clearly proven into your soul. If, for some reason, it is not, you have a homework assignment. Take a hard look at the draft history of the Sacramento Kings (eight lottery picks since they last made the playoffs) or Detroit Pistons (four lottery picks since they last made the playoffs). Take a look at their salary cap situation over time as well at Sham Sports. Sacramento has never approached being capped out in the long term. Detroit has cleared the decks for major free agent acquisitions twice (in 2009 and again in 2013).

None of these teams failed because they lacked flexibility or assets.

Sacramento fans may disagree and point, rightly, to their ownership situation.

They failed because the draft is a crap shoot. They failed because every single draft pick is a risk. We cannot go to an alternate reality to see what Kahwi Leonard looks like in a Timberwolves jersey (they selected Derrick Williams) or a Kings jersey (they traded for Jimmer Fredette) or a Pistons jersey (they selected Brandon Knight). To look back in time and say those teams made a mistake is garbage hindsight posing as "analysis". Drafting players is more complicated than picking the salad over the triple cheeseburger if you have a cholesterol problem.

New Orleans does not need, and potentially cannot afford, to wait for the next draft pick to hit. The Pelicans drafted their superstar two years ago. All he has done since is exceed all expectations. If the Pelicans are to ever win a championship, Davis is going to be the best player on the roster. His championship window does not open for a couple years at best, three years or more has a great possibility.

Three years from now the Pelicans have a ton of flexibility. At worst (assuming the pick is transferred to Houston) New Orleans has about $40 Million in cap space and their 2016 First Rounder. Davis will have just turned 23 years old. At best, they have less flexibility and a core of Holiday, Evans, Anderson, Davis, and Asik to build around. Oh, and the 2015 First Round Pick. And the 2016 First Round Pick. And the mid-level exception.

Save your doomsday scenarios. If the Pelicans hand over the 4th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft the problem is not the job security of the GM or the head coach. It is not the age of the owner. And one lottery pick surely is not going to solve it.

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