After the Lottery: Part I

Tue, 06/24/2008 - 10:11pm

This just in: The NBA Draft is more than the first 14 picks.

46 more, to be exact.

Sometimes, successful drafting outside the lottery is just as important to a team’s future as the lottery picks themselves. The lottery is the easy part; everyone knows the 18 or so players that will compete for those 14 spots. Pick 15 and beyond is where drafting becomes a science, where teams find pieces that help them compete for championships (see: Boston Celtics) or where teams draft poorly and take years to recover (see: Frederic Weis incident).

[img_assist|nid=1242|title=Rajon Rondo|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=450] The San Antonio Spurs haven’t been in the lottery since drafting Tim Duncan, yet they’ve won 3 titles in this decade and will be in position to win as long as Duncan dons the silver and black. How do they do it? Well, they found Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick in 1999 (he came over in 2002) and Tony Parker with the 28th pick in 2001. Both are All-Star caliber players and important pieces to the Spurs’ mini-dynasty.

The two “other” starters on the champion Boston Celtics are another example of good drafting outside the lottery. Both Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo were late first-round picks of the Celtics, and both were vital to the championship run (Perkins was a huge factor against Detroit, especially in Game 5, and Rondo’s Game 6 against the Lakers speaks for itself). Not to mention that their wise decision with the 15th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft (Al Jefferson) enabled them to acquire Defensive Player of the Year and championship catalyst Kevin Garnett.

Just because late-first and second round hopefuls don’t receive the hype or have the “upside” doesn’t mean they can’t play. There is always the opportunity to find that diamond in the ruff, and GMs drafting outside the lottery employ different strategies in the hopes of finding that key piece of the puzzle.

Approach #1: Drafting to Fill a Need:

Fictional Scenario: General Manager A’s team was swept in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs after winning 37 games during the regular season. The most glaring weakness is the lack of a quality starting power forward. He has great depth and talent in the backcourt but gets no scoring from the frontcourt. His team has the 16th pick in the draft.

A number of teams just outside the lottery are in a similar situation to the one above and should be drafting to fill a need. Utah and Toronto need toughness at the center position. Philadelphia, Washington, and Orlando all need depth up front as well. Denver needs a true point guard to defend against penetration and distribute the ball. Houston and New Orleans need perimeter scoring to take the pressure off of their stars. All of these teams should be drafting to fix those problems unless a lottery talent unexpectedly falls on draft day.

Approach #2: Best Player Available:

Fictional Scenario: General Manager B’s team just lost in the Western Conference Finals after going 52-30 during the regular season. His team has the 24th pick in the draft and wants to add depth to his aging frontcourt. All of their highest rated forwards and centers are off the board, but a point guard, believed by many scouts to be a Top-10 talent, is still on the board.

Strong teams have more flexibility when it comes to the draft. They have no pressing needs, so the “best player available” strategy is always a good option. At most, the only thing teams like the Celtics, Spurs, and Pistons need is more depth or a nice piece for the future as their stars continue to age. By choosing the best player available, these great teams simply add another weapon to their already loaded rosters.

The Spurs need to get younger, but for them, this is not a positional need. They have veterans at every spot in their rotation and therefore could use some new blood at every position.

The Pistons are in a similar situation, although not as bad. They added youth to the backcourt in last year’s draft, but with the promise of roster changes from Joe Dumars looming, the best player on the board seems like a safe bet.

The Celtics pieced together a bench of veteran players to support the Big Three, but they will need more if they hope to repeat next year. Sam Cassell and PJ Brown are ancient and most likely will not be back, and Garnett, Allen, and Pierce are not getting any younger. Leon Powe and Glen Davis showed the ability to contribute off the bench this past season, but they could use depth at every other position.

Another team that should use the “best player available” approach is the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New Jersey Nets (with their second pick), not because they have no glaring holes, but because they have so many glaring holes. The best player available, with the possible exception of small forwards, will help them next year.

Approach #3: Stashing the Pick

A second option for the stronger teams that can afford to wait for prospects to develop is “stashing the pick.” The best example of this can be seen with the San Antonio Spurs, who have done a great job of this over the years. Their biggest coup came in 1999 with Manu Ginobili. Taken with the 57th pick, Ginobili stayed in Europe until 2002 and has since blossomed into a star in the NBA.

They also did it with Luis Scola, who had a very solid rookie campaign for the Rockets this past season. Ian Mahinmi was another example of this, and Tiago Splitter, their selection last year, is currently in Europe further developing his game. And now, teams have options when waiting for a pick to develop: they can go the traditional route and let an international player mature overseas, or they can sign an American player and let him gain professional experience in the D-League, just as Joe Dumars did with Amir Johnson.

Best Candidates for “Being Stashed":
[img_assist|nid=1243|title=Serge Ibaka|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=449]

Serge Ibaka – He is raw and extremely athletic, and most likely is not ready to contribute at the NBA level. But he’s shown a great deal of upside, and some time to develop in Europe with less pressure and scruity would be advantageous for his career.

Omer Asik
– Asik came on like a freight train over the past season showing excellent development in his body and game. Hopefully his robust body is "au naturale" and not synthetically enhanced. He's a horse, with a lot of raw potential.

Goran Dragic
– The point guard who helped his Slovenian team Olimpija win their countrie's championship. He's big, quick and athletic and with a early to mid second round pick would be a nice "stash pick".

Alexis Ajinca – The agile 7-footer from France has raised some eyebrows lately, as long as he isn't over-drafted (top 25) he could be a very good player after a couple of years of seasoning in Europe.

Davon Jefferson – The freshman declared after one season at USC, and he clearlyisn’t ready to compete at the highest level. Athletically, he’s there, but time in the D-League is necessary if he ever plans to contribute for an NBA team.

Devon Hardin – The athletic big man from Cal took a step back this year behindRyan Anderson, but he has an NBA body, and several teams are intrigued by his potential.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
– His struggles at UCLA have been well documented, and he has appeared to be reborn in workouts. Matching up with Brandon Ruch and playing him evenly, and even beating him at times, Luc appears to be a defensive stopper in training who could benefit with some time in the D-League.

Check back for Part II for the best draft day steals over the past five years, and the players that could become the biggest steals of the 2008 NBA Draft.
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