Lottery Magic: Bet the Field

May, 19, 2009
5/19/09
11:59
AM ET

Tonight is the NBA Draft Lottery. It has pageantry and drama -- but it also has a whole bunch on the line.

When that collection of team executives retreats to a secret room at the NBA offices in Secaucus, New Jersey this evening, to watch the lottery ball drawing that will determine their fortunes, it will be no secret that the main thing on the line is elite big man Blake Griffin.

But will the team that wins the draft lottery be the one that is ultimately judged to have won the draft?

Unlikely. 

First, let's get to know the player everybody wants.

Big Prize: Blake Griffin
I know, this is a selectively edited highlight reel, but simply watch the man at his best for a few moments.

Blake Griffin
One other thing to know about Blake Griffin: He can fly.
(Joe Murphy/Getty Images Sport)

Then think about the team you love most ... they could use him, right? 30 teams could.

It has been suggested that the Kings have a good young power forward in  Jason Thompson, and thus might prefer a point guard. Just for the record, if I ran the Kings, I'd take Griffin first even if I had young Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett on my roster. Ask the Celtics: You need multiple quality big men to go far in the NBA playoffs.

And Griffin has all the signs of a quality big man: 

  • He's emphatic (and effective) as hell around the rim.
  • He plays with a magnificent sense of urgency.
  • He's in unbelievable shape.
  • He's big.
  • He's powerful.
  • He's said to have a fantastic work ethic.
  • He has the tools to become a good NBA post scorer and even a good jump-shooter.
  • He is a rebound machine.

That's enough to be a top overall pick in a weakish year. But Griffin offer has one other quality that is my favorite: He's mobile.

There's an old military debate: Would you rather have a big strong army that will take months to get to the battle, or a lighter force that can be wherever you want it quickly, even if it doesn't have all the tools once it gets there?

The trend in the NBA, and in the military, is to go with the force that can get there now

Griffin appears, to me, to get wherever he wants on the court as quickly as any big man -- and when he gets there, he's a well-equipped army! (Holy best of both worlds!)

The footspeed is meaningful in several ways:

  • Big men who can effectively contain ball-handling guards (think Ben Wallace in his prime) in the pick and roll do their teams a ton of favors. Some nights, this alone can turn a loss into a win.
  • Owning the paint is about contesting threats -- wherever they come from. And more and more in today's NBA, they come quickly from here, there, and everywhere. If you're aiming to prevent easy buckets by the likes of Aaron Brooks, Monta Ellis, Tony Parker, Chris Paul or Derrick Rose, you can't be loafing. As my grandmother would say: "On your bike."
  • Fit, active, quick big men, on nights they get to play against slow big men, get easy buckets both on the break and in the half court. It's evident in that highlight reel: A lot of the time, he's simply all alone. Easy buckets are huge for the highlight reels, and the wins.
  • With some big men, you wonder how they'd fit on a fast-breaking team. Anybody worried about that with this guy? I didn't think so.

The Best NBA Prospect is Not the Same as the Best NBA Player 
Blake Griffin's the best prospect in the draft. No one disputes that. If I were a GM, and I had this top overall pick 100 times in a row, I'd take Griffin 100 times. He is both the most likely to succeed and the least likely to fail.

But five years from now, when we look back on this draft, will he be clearly the best player? That's a lot more complicated, because there's a lot of chance to account for.

The NBA Draft is just like the NBA Draft Lottery: What's most likely is that something unlikely will occur.

Case in point: A team will win the lottery this evening. That team, right now, is unlikely to win. The Kings are the "favorites" to win, but even they have a 75% chance of losing the top spot.

The draft is the same way. Every year there are the favorites, and then there is someone in the field who ends up looking better. In 2006, the candidates for the top overall pick were players like Andrea Bargnani (the eventual top pick), LaMarcus Aldridge, and Tyrus Thomas. But play it over today, with the benefit of hindsight, and it's possible Brandon Roy and Rajon Rondo would be picked first and second. In 2005, Andrew Bogut was the pick, but Chris Paul and Deron Williams are the undisputed class of that draft.

In 2004, there were two clear top overall choices: Emeka Okafor and Dwight Howard. In hindsight, Howard was clearly the right first overall pick, but would you rather have Okafor, or your pick of Al Jefferson, Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Kevin Martin, Jameer Nelson, or Devin Harris?

2003 was the year of LeBron James, and 2002 was the year of Yao Ming (although Amare Stoudemire went ninth), both true counter-examples to my theory. There have been other monster overall picks, like Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal.

But don't forget that Kobe Bryant was drafted 13th overall, Dwyane Wade fifth, Dirk Nowitzki ninth, Chris Paul fourth, Paul Pierce tenth, and so on.

A third (LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal) of the 15 players recently announced to be part of the the all-NBA teams were top overall picks.

The point is, the best players tend to be drafted pretty high, but there's a ton of wiggle room. More wiggle room, in fact, than anything else.

If I had to guess who'll be better in any given draft: The top overall pick, or the best of the other 59, I'd bet the field every time.

The Real Mystery
I'm super excited that tonight I have been invited to the secure room where the drawing will take place before it is announced on TV. (Expect a report after the fact, when they let us get back online.) But after the winning combination is announced, and we get to know which front office will be all smiles tonight, I'll look around the room and wonder something else: Who will actually draft the player who will later prove to be the best player in the draft? It is possible, even likely, that it won't be the team with the top overall pick.

It's a far more complex question, with elements of work, research, brains, insight, player development, and random chance. But in the end, that's the question that will matter most.

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