The only winning draft strategy: Throw your depth chart out the window

Andre Drummond has 2 years left on his contract but can opt out after next season – no reason for the Pistons to not draft a center, in other words.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – There’s a case to be made for the Pistons dealing their first-round draft pick – stick around and I’ll make it one of these days – but for the purposes of today’s exercise let’s say they keep it.

How should they spend the 15th pick in next month’s draft?

The same way teams should always – always – spend it: Get the player you expect to have the best shot at leaving the greatest imprint on the NBA in a reasonable time frame. Throw your depth chart out the window.

What’s reasonable? You get four years of relatively cheap labor on a rookie contract. You want to know what you have by the end of the second year, at least, to shape the decision to pick up third- and fourth-year options.

A generation ago, you could maybe move consideration of your roster needs up a notch or two higher, though even then there’s a graveyard full of general manager tombstones for guys who picked on positional need foremost.

If you want extreme examples of how teams benefited by disregarding depth charts, let’s look at two recent 15th overall picks that worked out OK.

  • In 2011, San Antonio had a solid veteran in Richard Jefferson at small forward and Danny Green, two years into his career, capable of playing there. The Spurs saw value in dealing a promising young guard, George Hill, to Indiana for the 15th pick they used on Kawhi Leonard.

  • In 2013, Milwaukee had 25-year-old Ersan Ilyasova and a 22-year-old recent lottery pick, John Henson, at power forward. The Bucks shot for the moon with the 15th pick on the completely enigmatic Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Yes, those two are complete outliers. The odds of getting two top-five players in today’s game out of the 15th pick two years apart make winning the lottery from the last spot in the drawing seem routine. The point of the comparison isn’t that the Pistons should expect to wind up with a superstar if they keep their pick but that they shouldn’t regard their current roster even a little bit when they shape their draft strategy.

    We’re not going to look at potential picks at 15 today – again, stick around, we’ll get to that starting after next week’s NBA draft combine wraps up – but, instead, make a case for taking a player at any position on the roster:

    • Point guard – Reggie Jackson has a year left on his deal and both Ish Smith and Jose Calderon are free agents. Dwane Casey has talked about Bruce Brown and Svy Mykhailiuk as possibilities there, but their real value is always likely to be more as secondary ballhandlers rather than lead guards. It would be a tall order to expect a rookie taken 15th to shoulder the burden of point guard with the second unit, but someone who could do that and become a candidate to fill the void left by Jackson’s possible departure in 2020 would make it an easy call.

      Shooting guard – The Pistons have Luke Kennard, Brown and Khyri Thomas all on rookie deals and one more season left on Langston Galloway’s contract. Mykhailiuk could also play there, though in today’s game he’s probably more apt to flip to power forward than shooting guard. But Brown’s ability to guard multiple positions eases the logjam, Thomas projects to have similar defensive versatility and Dwane Casey has zero inhibitions about moving players around even if it defies convention. If a shooting guard who projects with an elite skill is available at 15, by all means, take him.

    • Center – Andre Drummond can opt out after the 2020 season and if he stays healthy – the guy’s missed a total of 10 games over the last six seasons – that should be the expectation. The Pistons would be in favorable position to re-sign him and Drummond, who said he had the most enjoyable of his seven NBA seasons in 2018-19, logically would be interested in staying. No matter. The Pistons, at minimum, need to augment the position behind him. As with the situation at point guard, if they could get someone who does that in year one and shows the promise of being more beyond that, they’ll be in a most favorable position.

    • Small forward – Obvious position of need for a team that started 6-foot-5 Wayne Ellington down the stretch after dealing both Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock ahead of their free agency. That said, reaching for a small forward – especially given the long odds that one drafted 15th would be ready to assume a starter’s role next season – would be as big a mistake as passing on a player at a position of strength. Which brings us to …

    • Power forward – Blake Griffin is a six-time All-Star who just put together one of the best individual seasons in Pistons history. He’s got three years left on his contract. Maybe a few years ago, you’d have shied away from taking another power forward. But Griffin doesn’t play like an old-school power forward. Though still a formidable post player, it’s pretty clear the trend of Griffin playing more from the 3-point line or as a facilitator operating out of the elbows will only increase in the future. If there’s a player at 15 who can move his feet well enough to guard the spectrum from bigger small forwards to stretch centers, Griffin’s offensive versatility would mean the rookie could both back him up but also play in tandem with him down the road.

    So, yeah, throw the draft chart out the window. Take the best player.

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