Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Drafting a Player "Too Early"

With the NBA Draft coming up this week, it's time to address a pet peeve of your humble author: commentators, pundits and talking heads that kill teams for picking a player "too early" in a draft. Without fail, you hear this every year in the NBA or NFL draft, that a certain player is a "reach" at a certain pick. Let's ignore the fact that you can't properly judge who should have been drafted when in a draft until years afterwards. The theory on reaches is still a load of crap.

A prototypical example of a guy who's being dubbed as a potential "too early" pick is Kevin Love of UCLA. The newest group of rumors has him going to Minnesota at the #3 pick, when in a lot of earlier mock drafts and projections had him somewhere around the 10-slot. Naturally, this has lead multiple people to speculate that Minnesota is crazy for drafting a guy this early, that taking him at #3 is a reach, and that they should do something else. What's the rationale for this?

1. The player they want to take isn't that good. Latent in all those who are against taking Love at the 3 slot (or whenever you say a guy is being picked too early) is the idea that there are better players available in the draft, such as O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon, heck, even stiff white guy du jour, Brook Lopez . You know what? Those who say this may be right. They may also be dead wrong. While I'm not going to presume that Kevin McHale is a genius, given that he traded away Kevin Garnett for Al Jefferson and two boxes of donuts, there's a damn good chance that he's looked at all the players available and said "You know what? I don't want someone like Mayo on my team; Russell Westbrook's a project, Brook Lopez is a stiff, Eric Gordon is the next Jamal Crawford and I'm not taking an international player. Love reminds me of Carlos Boozer. I want him." And that would not be a ridiculous opinion, frankly. I'm not endorsing taking a guy who would have trouble making an NBA roster at #3. I am saying that if you rationally think a player may be the third best player in the draft, there's nothing wrong with taking him at the third spot, projections be damned.
2. They could trade down and take him later. Easier said than done. Here's what you have to do: (a) find a trading partner; (b) make sure you don't trade down too far only to have a team in front of you take the player you want; (c) make it all work under the salary cap; (d) make it all work within your overall mission for your team. For example, people would be all over the idea of Minnesota swapping picks with the Clippers, taking Love at #7, and getting something else for their troubles, while the Clippers get Mayo. Win-win, right? Maybe. Also a lot harder to do in real life than it is on Bill Simmons' laptop.

3. It's a waste of money to take a guy early. This has a scintilla of truth in the NFL, where rookie contracts have become obstacles to building a franchise. But NBA rookie contracts are all scaled and are under $5 million a year. The mid-level exception takes up as much room as a top draft pick. You're telling me the T-Wolves should try to save about a million bucks to trade down 3 spots? I don't buy that at all.

The bottom line is that if you think a guy is the best player in the draft and/or the best fit for your team, take him when it's your turn to pick, unless someone's pounding down the door with a great offer. Within reason, of course. For example, if the T-Wolves honestly think that Roy Hibbert is the 3rd best player in the draft, they shouldn't take him #3; they should move a future pick to a team picking in the middle or late first round in exchange for his rights. But saying that a team "can't" take a guy at #3 because Chad Ford thinks he belongs at #8 is ridiculous. Do your scouting, do your evaluation, and fit your team's needs as you see fit.

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