NBA Playoffs prove success comes through the Draft
June 6th, 2012 By Patrick Green
Before you write off the NBA Draft as just another dress rehearsal with more script than substance, consider the fact that the 2012 NBA Playoffs have again proven how drastically important the draft can be for teams looking to contend.
It’s certainly worth arguing that drafts can be like cinema in many ways – exciting while being watched, but easily forgettable soon after. The truth that many draft picks simply don’t pan out is at the root of this feeling, of course. But honestly, if every draft pick materialized as promised, you’d need fewer drafts and shorter careers for some of the aging stars, to properly operate.
That said, it’s almost natural order then that some sail and most sink. Realistically, it is how one approaches the draft that should dictate whether or not it’s considered worth the hype.
First and foremost, general managers fall underneath this microscope, as they primarily set the tone for what the draft means to their respective clubs. In all fairness, fans should cringe to hear a GM say on draft day that the organization’s goal for a player it selected is for the player to sit and develop and hopefully be ready to contribute in a few years.
A few years?
This is through rhetoric what most of the teams’ representatives will voice on June 28th. It’s unfortunate, and it demonstrates a lack of confidence in either the player they drafted or the team personnel to put them in a position to succeed. Because the truth is, if a player is worthy of being selected, the proof should present itself the moment the player becomes part of the team.
Does that mean a successful pick would then become an all-star in his first two or three seasons? Not at all. But what it does imply is that the player will be a factor in whether the team wins or loses; it contends that without him the team will actually be worse off.
Take, for example, these NBA playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs are down 3-2 to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals and prior to dropping the last three contests to OKC, won 20 consecutive games dating back to the regular season. Give credit, of course, to the traditional pillars – head coach Greg Popovich, future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, and perennial all-stars Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. They’ve all had hands in bringing home NBA titles to Texas.
But recall that this is a team that exited the playoffs in the first round a year ago. Now they’re two games away from making a trip to yet another NBA Finals. The difference between then and now is simple.
Even though this year’s draft is advertised as one of the deepest in years, last year’s prospects were quite a bit the noisemakers as well. When the talk wasn’t Kyrie Irving or Derrick Williams, the frenzy followed Jimmer Fredette. Certainly not drowned out by the hoopla was the heroic story of Kemba Walker.
So when Kawhi Leonard strolled across the stage at No. 15 to greet NBA Commissioner David Stern, not many balloons were left to fall. But there he was, drafted by Indiana and sent immediately to San Antonio.
Make no mistake that this was still the Spurs' pick. You might give your buddy two bucks to pick you up a burger from the concession stand, but despite the fact that he orders it and picks it up, it was your burger all along. Most are not as wowed by this analogy as you are with the possibility of a burger being only two dollars at a concession stand.
So let’s stick to reality. And the reality is that Leonard has given new life to a Spurs team that was about to close the door on the chapter that secured four championships since 1999.
The Spurs knew they were getting a solid perimeter defender in the 6-foot-7 small forward out of San Diego State. Leonard’s been a great deal more, though. He’s defended the likes of Kobe Bryant and Rudy Gay without blinking, and in the Western Conference Finals, he’s been effective in slowing down Kevin Durant in spots.
His ability to defend alone is not what has the rookie in the starting lineup. His knack for scoring, particularly in the open floor, is one reason Popovich welcomed his team picking up the pace more this season. Leonard has also demonstrated the ability to stretch the floor in the half court setting and never appears overwhelmed by the moment. In the team's Game 4 defeat to the Thunder, he drilled two three-pointers late in the game to keep his Spurs in striking distance.
The former Aztec forward has been that way all season and appears to only be getting stronger. He averaged nearly eight points per game during the regular season and five rebounds in 24 minutes of action per contest. Those numbers have risen in the playoffs. In the series against OKC, the 20-year-old is averaging 11 points and eight rebounds. In fact, he had 18 points and 10 rebounds in Game 2’s victory and 17 points and nine rebounds in last Saturday night’s loss.
In the opposite locker room, the Thunder haven’t relied on any such rookie impact, most likely because OKC is still feeding off of a string of successful draft picks from previous years. James Harden (2009), Russell Westbrook (2008), Serge Ibaka (2008), and Kevin Durant (2007), exemplify what a franchise could resemble when the right choices are made.
But sometimes mistakes are stumbled upon. OKC probably thought it would be getting more return on lottery pick Cole Aldrich by now. That the 2010 selection out of Kansas is averaging only two points and three rebounds in just five appearances this postseason after being fingered as the future anchor of the Thunder front line is just one visual of this.
Every team has had that type of head scratcher. The key is that teams get it right more than they get it wrong. And for that reason, June 28 has substance. And even though the trading deadline has more style, it pales without question to the relevance of the draft.
For those who’d argue that suggestion, quick, name a title squad with a roster not defined by its drafted contingent. No, not Dallas. The Mavericks secured Dirk Nowitzki on draft day from the Milwaukee Bucks. He donned a Dallas jersey from day one. The same is the case for the Lakers (Kobe Bryant), the Celtics (Paul Pierce), the Heat (Dewayne Wade), the Spurs (Tim Duncan), the Bulls (Michael Jordan), the Rockets (Hakeem Olajuwon), the Lakers (Magic Johnson), and the Celtics (Larry Bird) again.
This presence tends to go beyond the face of the team. No doubt that the likes of Rojan Rondo, Derek Fisher, Tony Parker, Scottie Pippen, James Worthy and Kevin McHale were factors in securing those championship rings. By no coincidence, each of these standouts won titles with the team that drafted them.
You’d have to actually rewind the clock 30 years to find an NBA championship team without a drafted player at its core. The Philadelphia 76ers captured the 1983 title behind the duo of Julius Erving and Moses Malone. Neither player came into the NBA with Philadelphia; and both were established stars at the time they arrived.
That you’d have to reach that far back to find a successful team not built through the draft defies popular belief. The risk was always thought to be in the draft, where the players have never played an NBA game and generally are unknown to most fans outside of college sports. For that reason, the already established star generates more craze. After all, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James are proven commodities. They are brands, already, and seizing any one of them makes your franchise a contender.
However, none of those transplants has yet to land an NBA title. New York seems an impossible feat, the verdict is still out on the Clippers, and the Heat is again knocking on the door.
But while these playoffs unfold now with the final four doing battle, other GMs are plotting their way into the conversation by scouting for June 28. New Orleans will look to Anthony Davis as its savior, but it would be a mistake to become too fixated on the top of the draft. Folks like Leonard will still be there several slots later, prepared to flourish with the right ball club.
The process of drafting a player is a complex one, but it’s where the road to a title begins. At least, for the most part.
History always repeats itself, even in sports. So there will one day be another Erving/Malone combination. But if you are a loyal fan or a GM hoping to keep a job, is one in every 30 years really the kind of odds you’d like to settle on?
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