Assessing winners and losers 10 seconds after the Draft is the worst of our click-bait world -- reductive, facile, lazy -- and, almost always, incorrect.
For example: Do you know if OG Anunoby (taken 23rd overall by the Toronto Raptors) is going to be an impact player in three years? Do you know if his teammates will be inspired by him, challenged, engaged? Will they find his jokes funny or tedious? Will he come all the way back from his knee injury? Will the injury take his skills away, or force him to develop new ones to compensate?
And if you don’t know any of the answers to any of those questions, how the hell can you say today whether Toronto was smart or dumb for drafting him?
All you can do, today, is make observations in real time, about the importance of what happened last Thursday. Here are a few.
• 1. Markelle and the Disappearance of Memory
Here were Philadelphia 76ers fans on Thursday, like the Munchkins as they learned a house had fallen on the Wicked Witch of the East, slowly coming out of their own homes, blinking rapidly, standing up straight as they realized the nightmare of the last few years may finally be over.
Trading up for the top pick in the Draft in order to take Washington’s Markelle Fultz, the 76ers announced they were just about done with “The Process” and were ready to be part of the NBA again. (They also closed the door on any potential reunion with Philly native Kyle Lowry, the Toronto Raptors’ All-Star point guard and unrestricted free agent as of this coming Saturday.) Fultz has superstar potential as a Russell Westbrook-ian kind of point guard, who will take ballhandling and decision-making pressure off of Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick of 2016 who missed 2016-17 with a foot injury.
With Fultz initiating pick and rolls instead of Simmons, defenses won’t be able to go under on every exchange, as they were sure to do had Simmons been on the ball. Now, Simmons can be the picker, coming down hill will the ball off the exchange with Fultz, and be a much greater threat to defenses as he heads toward the basket. Or the Sixers can feed Simmons on the post and baseline, where he’ll be a dribble away from the hoop and his size will afford him juicy passing lanes to cutters and/or weakside shooters.
It is fair to ask why Fultz didn’t have more impact on a Washington team that cratered. Fultz was, simply, the right fit for this Sixers roster. Lonzo Ball would have been fine as well, but opting for Fultz was simply picking a slightly more appealing option from among two good ones. And Philly felt the additional first-round pick it sent to Boston to move up was well worth sacrificing.
Philly’s young core -- Fultz, Joel Embiid, Simmons, Dario Saric, with assorted Okafors and Stauskases on the second line -- has a chance to become dynamic together, in the way the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz have assembled their respective rosters. Everything depends on Embiid’s feet, of course, but it’s a bet on which former GM Sam Hinkie put his rep, and it was worth doing. Embiid takes the Sixers’ futures stock to Pluto. Without him, they can, with Fultz, be a reasonably profitable utility, but not a blue chip.
But it is amazing, not to mention tiring, to hear from the Hinkie Stans among the Philly fanbase, zealots in defending “The Process.” This is not about Hinkie, a ridiculously smart guy who took the concept of rebuilding to its logical extreme -- if you’re going to stink, stink all the way -- but those who believe consistent losing isn’t corrosive, merely a trifle, and has no impact on the heart of a franchise.
To hear their version of history, the years of losing in order to get the highest possible Draft picks were a walk in the park, causing no damage to the franchise. To them, anyone who believes differently is an idiot. All those defeats on Brett Brown’s coaching record, apparently, are practice Ls, written in erasable ink. It’s as ludicrous as it factually wrong.
From 2013-14 through 2015-2016, the 76ers were 29th, 30th and 28th in attendance in the league. I was at several of those games at Wells Fargo Center during that three-year stretch, during which Philly’s overall record was 47-199. The crowd -- and, mind you, these were among the most hardcore of 76ers’ fans -- wasn’t just quiet, it was disinterested. Local television ratings during that stretch fell through the floor.
I was at meetings the team held with season ticket holders. It wasn’t pretty. Ask the Inquirer and Daily News sports departments how popular the Sixers were with readers and consumers during that period. There was a reason the league, let’s say, firmly suggested Philly’s ownership get more involved in the day-to-day operations of the franchise, which ultimately led to Hinkie’s ouster.
Having worked for the Inquirer for four years, I have a soft spot in my heart for Philly. I hope Fultz plays great from day one, and Embiid can stay healthy for a full season and play the way he did on those special nights of his last year. Philly fans are caricatured to their detriment because a loud minority are louts and boorish and say and do stupid things at arenas and stadiums (and because those louts also tend to dominate the discussion on the local sports talk radio stations). Yet most who cheer in the 215/610 are loyal and have great heart and grit and toughness. They are great sports fans.
What they are not is stupid. Which is why they stayed away in droves while the Sixers put a G League product on the floor all those years.
You are entitled to your opinion on the impact of “The Process.” You aren’t entitled to your own facts.
• 2. Give ‘Em the Old Razzle Dazzle
It is not a good time to be GarPax in Chicago.
Gar Forman, the Bulls’ GM, and John Paxson, the team president -- GarPax, in the local nomenclature -- finally pulled the trigger and traded Jimmy Butler, along with the 16th pick in last week’s Draft, to Minnesota for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the No. 7 pick, Lauri Markkanen. It is fair to say that there isn’t enough cole slaw in all of Chicago to go with the barbequing GarPax has received from fans and media for making the deal.
Throw me on the spit with them.
Apparently, I’m one of just a few, the way Maximus was one of just a few in the Colosseum, who hasn’t condemned the Bulls’ portion of the trade.
The main criticism was the Bulls had to get more for Butler, the team’s best player, an Olympian and three-time All-Star, than a point guard (coming off a dreadful offensive season), a young two (coming off an ACL tear) and a rookie who was viewed as the best shooter in the Draft (but whose defensive liabilities are clear and present dangers). And, if you settled for that, you had to keep your own first-rounder rather than tossing it in to Minnesota.
That critique is debatable, but fair. Butler’s been on the block for a while, with Chicago clearly unwilling to pay the $200 million it would have taken to keep Butler with the new Designated Veteran Player Exception. But the Bulls may well have been able to hold out for more, either this summer or by next February’s trade deadline, than what they got from the Wolves. They’d engaged Boston for months, but were not able to pry either of those precious Brooklyn first-rounders (this year’s and next) from Danny Ainge’s cold yet quite alive hands.
Almost everyone has pushed back on the rumor that the Bulls, Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers were deep into discussions on a deal that would have sent Kevin Love to the Suns, Eric Bledsoe and the No. 4 pick in 2017 to Chicago and Butler to the Cavaliers when Cleveland abruptly ended the tenure of former Cavs GM David Griffin last week. The unanimity of the denials leads one to believe that the rumor was spot on, or reasonably close. So, if you’re a Bulls’ fan: would you rather have Bledsoe and, say, Josh Jackson, than Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen?
That’s the realistic market for Butler, Bulls fans’ belief to the contrary. A team that believed Butler was the lynchpin of a franchise going forward wouldn’t have shopped him so hard. A contending team that believed him to be such, like Boston, surely would have given up a higher Lottery pick than seven to get him.
The reality is that Butler, while an excellent two-way player, is not as good as his most ardent supporters believe. He is not a top-10 player, capable of impacting a first-round series basically by himself. That the Bulls, up 2-0 on Boston in their first-round series, collapsed after Rajon Rondo’s injury is not an indictment of Butler -- but it was nonetheless revealing. The Celtics weren’t really challenged at all in winning four straight.
LaVine is an electric 22-year-old (younger than Dunn, actually) wing whose highlight-reel dunks and offensive capabilities should hopefully return when he’s done with his rehab. Defensively, he’s not very good right now, but that makes him like 75-80 percent of the twos his age. (Another reason the Golden State Warriors currently tower over the rest of the league: Klay Thompson, among the best shooting twos in recent memory, also is an elite defender at his position.)
The question with LaVine and Chicago is whether the Bulls will pony up and give him a nine-figure payday in a year, when he’s eligible for an extension, the way the Washington Wizards paid to keep Bradley Beal off the market ($128 million) or Portland Trail Blazers anted up for C.J. McCollum ($108 million).
The answer to that has to be yes, of course; Washington didn’t blink an eye in paying for Beal, whose injury history was as troubling and varied through his first four NBA seasons as LaVine’s has been. You bet on the come with a talent like LaVine.
Your opinion of the trade probably rides on what you think of Dunn, the fifth pick overall last year who was excellent defensively, as was expected, but who was horrific offensively. Per NBA.com/Stats, among the 47 rookies who played in half or more of their team’s games last season, only seven shot worse than Dunn’s 37.7 percent from the floor. Dunn’s Efficiency Rating of 5.8 ranked 20th among that same group, and he shot an abysmal 29 percent on 3-pointers.
But: point guards, of all the positions in the Association, take time. It wasn’t that long ago that John Wall shot 7 percent for an entire season on 3-pointers, with NBA types whose names will not be revealed here lest they be laughed out of their respective towns insisting that Evan Turner, taken after Wall in the 2010 Draft, would wind up being a better pro. Very few people outside of Oklahoma City believed that Westbrook could play point guard in the NBA when the Thunder took him with that position in mind in 2008.
Dunn was too good in college, it says here, to be a bust in the pros. One thinks of the career arc of Mike Conley, also a defense-first point when he came to the league. Conley shot 33 percent on 3-pointers as a rookie and often looked overmatched. When the Grizzlies gave him a $40 million extension in 2010, people around the league came to the placid conclusion that Grizz management needed to be placed, collectively, in a rubber room.
Markkanen is not Dirk Nowitzki, but he’s the Bulls’ latest attempt to find a frontcourt perimeter stroke. Doug McDermott didn’t flash consistently enough and Chicago is gambling that Markkanen, who shot 43 percent for the Wildcats last season, will. (At the least, his presence will keep the Bulls from having to pay through the nose to keep Nikola Mirotic, now unrestricted; they’ll surely buy out Rondo for $3 million by Friday’s deadline. Biggest on this list: does Chicago initiate buyout discussions with Dwyane Wade, who’s told the Bulls he’ll opt in next season for $23.8 million in the final year of his deal?)
A Bulls fan should be a lot more salty that Chicago sold its second-round pick to Golden State, which gleefully got Oregon jumping bean Jordan Bell. He’ll likely become the Warriors’ high-flying, shot-blocking, 1-through-5 switching center of the future. Yes, the Warriors gave the Bulls an insane $3.5 million -- the limit to what any team can include in all of its transactions in a calendar year, per Collective Bargaining Agreement rules -- for the rights to Bell, a number hard to turn down for the 38th overall pick.
But, let’s be clear. Chicago is one of the league’s most profitable franchises.
Forbes magazine’s annual franchise valuations pegged the Bulls this year at $2.5 billion, fourth in the league and only behind the Knicks ($3.3 billion), the Lakers ($3 billion) and Golden State ($2.6 billion). The magazine ranked Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf 58th last year on its list of the world’s billionaire sports owners, setting his individual net worth at $1.3 billion. The Bulls are perennially in the top five in the league in attendance. This is not a franchise for which you need to hold a telethon.
They did not need the money, the ridiculous overprice for the pick aside; Bell would make a lot more sense going forward as a potential pace-and-space center for Chicago than, say, Robin Lopez, not that there’s anything wrong with Robin Lopez.
Would Dunn, LaVine, Bobby Portis, Markkanen and Bell be a legit starting five in three years? Probably not. The Bulls could certainly buy out Rondo and Wade, tank it up this year and be in prime Lottery position in 12 months, when they could grab one of the elite big men prospects in next year’s Draft, or, in their biggest dreams, a certain small forward prospect who’ll attend school in the Midwest and whose name will not be mentioned here, but is almost certain to be the top pick in 2018. That scenario would leave plenty of room for a LaVine extension and a prime veteran free agent to join the kids.
At least it’s a plan.
• 3. They call it the Indian spring of Sacramento/And when the sun is up in the sky/The wind is blowin' by the riverside most everyday/You're in Sacramento a wonderful town
The Kings didn’t reach, didn’t panic, didn’t dither. First, they took the point guard the franchise has been looking for since Mike Bibby was in his prime in De’Aaron Fox. They then astutely traded back deeper into the first round, sending the 10th pick to Portland for the 15th and 20th picks, to take Justin Jackson and Harry Giles. Then, they got another solid prospect in the second round in Frank Mason III. It was the Draft night of a competent franchise -- and, no, I didn’t expect to be typing that about the Kings any time soon, either.
But things are different these days in the Sacramento front office, with Vlade Divac being secure enough to understand he needed help in the analytics and talent evaluation areas. He’s brought former Pistons exec Ken Catanella and ex-Magic exec Scott Perry into the fold in the last year, and while the return for DeMarcus Cousins in February wasn’t ideal, at least the franchise turned the page, with the pick Sacramento got from New Orleans turning into Jackson and Giles.
Fox was the Kings’ top choice -- only Jackson was higher on their wish list, and Sacramento wasn’t willing to pony up to move up the one or two spots it would have been necessary to do to be in position to take him. The Kings’ love for Buddy Hield, acquired in the Cousins deal, is well-documented; we’ll see how much Hield will bloom playing next to Fox, who’s speed with the ball is frightening.
One could quibble -- slightly -- if one preferred Gonzaga’s Zach Collins, who the Kings could have taken if they held onto 10 rather than move it. But Jackson improved dramatically as a junior at Carolina, winning ACC Player of the Year honors in leading the Tar Heels to the national championship. And using the 19th pick on Giles was a reasonable flyer. He was one of the top prospects in the country early in high school before tearing the ACL in both knees in separate unfortunate incidents and undergoing three knee surgeries, the third last October, before the start of Duke’s season.
Giles returned and played 26 games last season, hardly looking like his old self. But there’s no rush for him to play in Sacramento at the beginning of next season. Skal Labissiere, acquired on Draft night last year, showed some encouraging signs at the four for Sacramento after the All-Star break. He started 12 of the Kings’ last 21 games, averaging 11 points and 5.9 rebounds in nearly 29 minutes per game. Giles can take his time and continue rehabbing and getting stronger.
And Mason, while likely not an NBA starter, certainly has a chance to be a strong backup in the pros.
It was a good night in the California capital.
• 4. Youth, Served.
The difficulty in finding an agreement on what to do with the age limit for early entry players was put in stark relief in the first round: 10 of the top 11 players in the Draft were one-and-dones, and the other was 18-year-old Frank Ntilikina from France. Sixteen of the 30 first-round picks were one-and-dones, and only two -- two -- seniors were taken in the first, and they were the last two picks: Colorado guard Derrick White (San Antonio Spurs, 29th) and Villanova guard Josh Hart (Lakers, 30th).
Putting the genie back in the bottle is going to be impossible. The feeling around the league is that if the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agree to restore the minimum entry point for Draftees to high school, there will be a much greater influx of teenagers coming into the league than there were the last time high school grads were allowed to enter the Draft. Combine that with the explosion in player salaries, and there’s no way that fewer, rather than more, high schoolers will come into the league the second they’re able. And the NBA has to be ready for what that will mean.
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