Twists & Turns

How Cavs’ 2011 surprise pick sent both Knight, Drummond to Pistons

Tristan Thompson
Cleveland’s selection of Tristan Thompson at No. 4 in 2011 allowed Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond to fall to the Pistons.
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
Cleveland owns the No. 1 pick in the June 27 draft and the widely held expectation is that the Cavs take Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, despite the ACL rehabilitation that clouds his rookie availability. But Cleveland hasn’t done the expected in the past two drafts and, in fact, it’s been the Cavaliers’ unpredictability that has steered both Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond to the Pistons.

Cleveland made the two eyebrow-raising picks in each of the past two draft’s top five with Tristan Thompson in 2011 and Dion Waiters in 2012, both with the No. 4 pick. Almost nobody saw those moves coming a week or less ahead of them happening. And this year’s draft is murkier at the top than those two by a safe margin, so good luck figuring out who’ll be off the board when the Pistons go on the clock in 23 days.

The Cavaliers could go in a number of directions: (1) play the chalk and draft Noel; (2) throw another curveball, a la Thompson and Waiters, and take neither Noel nor Ben McLemore, seen as the only alternative to Noel on NBA upside; or (3) trade the pick and start converting some of their assets to veteran help.

Whatever the Cavs do, it sets the path that leads to No. 8, where the Pistons hope the draft’s twists and turns benefit them as they have each of the past three seasons.

Cleveland’s pick of Thompson in 2011 directly affected the Pistons. In fact, he was the guy most likely to be a Piston that night if the Cavs hadn’t gone off the grid. Smart money had Cleveland drafting Jonas Valanciunas with the No. 4 pick, even though it was fairly clear the Lithuanian wasn’t likely to come to the NBA for the 2011-12 season, not with a lockout looming and some tricky buyout issues in his European contract.

And that pick of Thompson over Valanciunas was the key in the Pistons landing not only Knight, but, as it turned out, Drummond a year later.

Remember when Charlotte pulled off a three-team trade just a few hours before the draft, landing the No. 7 pick that was Sacramento’s? The Bobcats wanted to get ahead of Detroit, though whether they thought the Pistons were focused on Thompson or Bismack Biyombo remains a great mystery. Joe Dumars, meanwhile, was on the phone with Toronto, picking fifth, to jump back ahead of the Bobcats when the Cavs’ selection of Thompson prompted then-Raptors decision-maker Bryan Colangelo to pull out; Toronto happily took Valanciunas, never believing he’d be there. In fact, most thought the Raptors would be picking Knight fifth.

That was Knight’s last logical landing spot before Detroit’s turn, and it never seemed possible he would be available at No. 8 until Cleveland upset the applecart. Knight, after all, was a very close second, by all indications before and since that draft, in the eyes of Utah management, which finally opted for Turkish center Enes Kanter at No. 3.

So if Charlotte traded up to have its pick of Thompson or Biyombo, Cleveland made the choice for the Bobcats. But if they traded up with the sole intent of taking Thompson before the Pistons had a chance to grab him, they miscalculated badly.

Cleveland’s pick of Waiters didn’t have a direct impact on the Pistons, necessarily. Charlotte was really the tripping point last June for sending Drummond tumbling to the Pistons. The Bobcats, picking second, were widely portrayed as debating Michael Kidd-Gilchrist vs. Thomas Robinson and many expected Robinson to be the pick based largely on Kidd-Gilchrist’s lack of scoring punch.

It’s very likely – almost certain – that if Charlotte had taken Robinson, Drummond goes no lower than No. 6. Washington still probably would have taken Bradley Beal at No. 3, but Cleveland probably would have opted for Kidd-Gilchrist over Waiters. (“Probably” because, hey, it’s Cleveland.) Sacramento, which didn’t expect Robinson to be available at No. 5, was thought to be torn between Damian Lillard and Drummond.

Whichever one the Kings didn’t take probably would have gone to Portland at No. 6. The Blazers wanted a center and a point guard. They ended up taking Lillard sixth and Meyers Leonard 11th. If Lillard had gone to Sacramento fifth, Portland probably winds up with Drummond sixth and Kendall Marshall 11th.

Golden State likely would have grabbed either Waiters or Harrison Barnes, its eventual pick, with Toronto, picking ahead of the Pistons, taking the other.

But if Cleveland had taken Valanciunas in 2011, as it was expected to do, he wouldn’t have been there for Toronto. And then the Raptors would have had a pronounced need at center. Pretty hard to imagine Toronto passing on Drummond, in that case, for Washington shooting guard Terrence Ross, the biggest top-10 surprise.

And if the Cavs had taken Valanciunas, the Pistons and Raptors probably would have gone ahead with the trade Joe D and Colangelo were discussing that would have given the Pistons the No. 5 pick and Toronto the No. 8 pick with Jose Calderon coming to Detroit, as well, in exchange for Ben Gordon. The Pistons would have had a Greg Monroe-Tristan Thompson frontcourt today, Valanciunas and Kyrie Irving would be Cleveland’s core and Toronto would have Andre Drummond (how do they pass him at No. 8 last year with no Valanciunas in the pipeline?) and … perhaps Brandon Knight, taken with the No. 8 pick the Raptors were to get in the trade with Detroit.

(As an aside, how about Cleveland passing up Valanciunas and Drummond in consecutive drafts? The Cavs are well positioned with Irving, Thompson and Waiters, and perhaps Noel will give them a presence in the middle if they don’t throw another curve at this year’s draft. But … still: The Cavs passed on two very promising 7-footers and might yet live to regret it.)

Our True Blue Pistons draft preview series rolls along and if you’ve been reading, I’ve acknowledged in some of the segments, including recent ones on Victor Oladipo and Otto Porter, that they’re unlikely to be available at No. 8. But not nearly as unlikely as it was that Greg Monroe would be there at No. 7 in 2010, Brandon Knight there at No. 8 in 2011 or Andre Drummond there at No. 9 in 2012. It doesn’t take much to upset the balance of the draft and send players who in early June appear “top-five locks” tumbling down the chain. The Pistons have three such players who now form the cornerstones of their future.