Making fun of historic draft day blunders by incompetent general managers across the NBA landscape is a timeless basketball tradition, one that Knicks fans like me can take solace in as we wonder why Isiah Thomas ever though Renaldo Balkman would be a better pro than Rajon Rondo. Decisions such as this one are why guys like Thomas, David Kahn (a.k.a. the guy who took Jonny Flynn ahead of Stephen Curry), and Joe Dumars end up without jobs; nothing is worse as an NBA fan than knowing you’re team had a chance to grab a future top ten player and instead, ended up with a league laughingstock best known for his pre-game handshake celebrations.
We only remember the horrendous draft pick busts if they are accompanied by a franchise altering player who fell in their wake. If Greg Oden had been selected as the first overall pick in the notoriously terrible 2000 NBA Draft, he’d be just another young prospect who fizzled out once he made it to the big stage. Instead, Oden was selected as the first overall pick in the loaded 2007 NBA Draft, ahead of current MVP Kevin Durant, cementing his place in NBA folklore as “The guy who Portland took instead of KD.” Darko Milicic, Sam Bowie, and Ryan Leaf wouldn’t be nearly as well-known if they hadn’t been drafted before the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Michael Jordan, and Peyton Manning respectively.
That’s what makes the 2014 NBA Draft so interesting. Never before have we witnessed a draft class with as much potential talent, and as much uncertainty regarding future landing spots, as this one. One doesn’t need much common sense to realize that a lottery pick in 2014 is twice as desirable as a lottery pick in 2013. However, with a group of players as talented as this one, general managers suddenly find themselves in a far more vulnerable position than they did last season, understanding that selecting a bust in the class of 2014 may have long lasting ramifications, ones that could end in the loss of a highly coveted job.
Luckily, a writer doesn’t have to live with this intense pressure attached to his every move. If I wrongly predict that Elfrid Payton will have a better NBA career than Julius Randle (spoiler: he will), I can simply delete this article from my archives and go on making fun of guys like Thomas, Kahn, and Dumars. And if I’m right? Then hey, I TOLD YOU SO.
So let’s get to it. What follows isn’t a mock draft predicting what teams will do come Thursday night, it’s a mock draft that outlines what teams should do with their highly valued lottery picks. This may end up being one of the craziest NBA drafts of all time. Let’s take a look at what it should end up looking like.
CLEVELAND trades pick to ORLANDO (for picks #4 and #12)
Earlier in the week it was rumored Orlando had offered Cleveland both it’s first rounders, along with Aaron Afflalo in exchange for the first overall selection. If that rumor has any truth to it, I’m shocked Dan Gilbert and Co. didn’t immediately jump at the opportunity to swap one asset for three (picks number 4 and 12 along with Afflalo). Of course, the Cavs wouldn’t even be entertaining the possibility of trading down if news hadn’t struck that Kansas center Joel Embiid’s foot was fractured and would require a possible season-ending surgery. Embiid wasn’t just the consensus number one overall pick prior to this shocking news, he was also a perfect fit for Cleveland’s crowded roster full of slightly above average scorers and unbelievably careless defenders. Now, it’s unclear where Embiid should be taken among the drafts consensus top four (Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Dante Exum). So why not move down? Afflalo is no longer on the table as news broke Thursday morning that the Nuggets acquired him in exchange for guard Evan Fournier and the 56th overall pick. However, guaranteeing yourself one of the drafts consensus top four players, along with owning the twelfth pick in a historically deep draft is absolutely worth it, Afflalo or no Afflalo.
So why do this if you’re Orlando? The Magic currently find themselves farther down the rebuilding road than most teams selecting in the lottery. No they aren’t ready to be a contender just yet, but they are only a couple pieces away from being a formidable opponent in a very weak Eastern Conference. Jabari Parker is the perfect fit.
No matter which side you are inclined to take in the Wiggins vs. Parker argument, it’s pretty clear Parker is the most polished, NBA ready player in this draft. Losing Afflalo was imminent, but by adding Parker, Orlando allows themselves lineup flexibility that they weren’t afforded last season when they finished a demoralizing 23-59. The Magic were the second worst offensive team in the league last season, averaging only 99.3 points per 100 possessions, barely edging the 76ers for last place over their 82 game schedule. Jabari Parker doesn’t make those offensive struggles completely disappear, but he does alleviate the problem. In a league that is increasingly getting smaller, Coach Jacque Vaughn could pair Parker and Nikola Vucevic at the 4 and the 5, giving bigger teams like Indiana and Chicago defensive fits.
If Cleveland ends up keeping the pick, they should, and will take Wiggins. But by trading down the Cavs eliminate an impossible decision, while adding a second very valuable asset in the process.
THE PICK: Jabari Parker
Let’s start off by making something very clear: The Bucks are taking Parker, unless Parker has already been selected in which case they will take Wiggins. There is no possible scenario in which they will select Dante Exum. But they should.
The Austrailian point guard has been a topic of much conversation as the Draft approaches, simply because nobody has ever seen him play on a consistent basis, or against top level competition. (Perhaps being 18 also has something to do with it.) Whatever the cause for his recent thrust into the sports daily news cycle, Exum will be well worth the gamble, even as high as second overall. Exum’s best trait is his ability to explode to the rim, something that will prove very difficult for smaller point guards to stop (Exum is 6’6). However, according to scouts who’ve watched him play on the international stage, Exum can, and will be a dangerous shooter in addition to his common attacks of the rim. 6’6 Australian point guards don’t usually garner comparisons to Kobe Bryant. Exum is strange that way.
Pair Exum with Giannis Antetokounmpo (the Greek Freak) and you have one of the most exciting, athletic young cores in basketball. The Bucks want Jabari Parker, and unless Cleveland decides to trade their pick, Milwaukee will most likely get their wish. But Exum doesn’t just have a higher upside, he also will provide Bucks fans with the excitement they’ve been so painfully starved of these last couple of years.
THE PICK: Dante Exum
This is Philly’s dream scenario. Before Embiid’s injury the Sixers were positive they would end up with Andrew Wiggins at three. Now, that result seems unlikely, unless Orlando, Cleveland, and Milwaukee do what I’ve suggested they should. GM Sam Hinkie fell in love with Wiggins’ athleticism during pre-draft workouts, and for good reason. Wiggins isn’t the polished prospect that Parker might be, but his NBA peak is undoubtably higher (at least in my mind), which is exactly what Philly is looking for. The Sixers have no expectations of being competitive next season; all they are hoping for is positive development from youngsters Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel. By adding Wiggins and holding on to the tenth overall pick (courtesy of New Orleans in last years Jrue Holiday deal), Hinkie guarantees himself a core of players with completely different, unique talents.
Sure, Wiggins needs to improve at consistently attacking the hoop on offense, not drifting out of games, and finding open teammates if and when a double team comes his way. But what better place to work on this than in Philadelphia where he will have the time he needs to become the all-star talent he intends to be? Hinkie understands that in today’s NBA, being horrible isn’t a bad thing as long as you’re consistently adding young assets and drafting high upside players. The Sixers are prepared to follow this strategy until they have a young team worthy of being dubbed contenders in the Eastern Conference. If they somehow are able to add Wiggins, this dubbing may not take as long as they thought.
THE PICK: Andrew Wiggins
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (from ORLANDO)
Look who’s available, its Joel Embiid!! This is why trading down is such a smart idea for Dan Gilbert; no matter who falls to number four, it will be considered a steal by normal draft standards. Embiid at number one doesn’t make much sense; it’s too much of a risk to pick a big man with a history of foot and back injuries at the top of the draft. But at four? For someone who’s been compared favorably to Hakeem Olajuwon? That’s an opportunity even the notoriously stupid Cavaliers front office can’t pass up. If Cleveland is even the slightest bit in touch with reality they will realize two things:
Cleveland has no chance of being a true contender next season. Drafting Embiid buys the Cavs one more year to re-assess what they have. Is Dion Waiters capable of being the starting shooting guard on a championship team (probably not)? Is Kyrie Irving too ball dominant to be worthy of a max extension when his rookie contract expires (probably not)? And where do Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, and Anderson Varjeao fit into all of this? By drafting Embiid, Cleveland will be able to sell the fans on one more middling season, as they try and clear cap space for …
LeBron James!!! Yes, at this point, LeBron returning to Cleveland is a pipe dream. But as Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst explicated yesterday on Grantland, there is a scenario in which Cleveland could possess the cap flexibility, and the infrastructure to lure LeBron back to his hometown. It’s been made clear that a very real possibility for LeBron is to resign with Miami for one more year (and another player option for year two), before reassessing what may be a more attractive free-agent landscape in the summer of 2015. Not just does this buy LeBron another year to figure out where he wants to spend his future, but it also buys the Cavs the time they need to make themselves a viable landing spot for The King. And let’s be honest, if LeBron is looking to pair himself with a couple young superstars, in effect prolonging his potentially historic streak of NBA Finals appearances, what better combination to match up with than Irving and Embiid? A dominant defensive big man who also commands double-teams on the offensive low-block would be extremely attractive to LeBron; he’s never played alongside a player as physically gifted as Embiid.
Of course, for all this to work Embiid would have to make a smooth recovery, and even then, LeBron returning home remains a long-shot. But when you have a chance to reacquire a hometown hero, one who just happens to be the best player in the league and one of the greatest players of all-time, you have to give it your best shot. And if you miss? The Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid core still isn’t all that shabby.
THE PICK: Joel Embiid
UTAH trades pick to CHARLOTTE (for #9 and a 2016 1st Rounder)
Draft day trade number two! For Utah, the reasoning is similar to that of Cleveland’s. At this point the big four are off the board, and instead of getting first choice of the crowed second tier of prospects, why not get whoever falls to you at nine while also adding another valuable asset (in this case the Hornets first round pick in 2016)?
As for Charlotte? Any chance to move up and get a shot at Noah Vonleh should be jumped at by the Hornets (formerly Bobcats) front office. The former Indiana power forward is a perfect complement to center Al Jefferson, and should fit right into the direction Charlotte is traveling. While Big Al likes to do his offensive work on the low post, Vonleh is capable of stretching the floor; his ball handling skills are above average for a player of his size and his shooting stroke is effective even behind the arc (Vonleh shot almost 50% on an admittedly small sample size of three point attempts last season). Defensively, Vonleh’s length and elite shot-blocking capabilities will help cover up the occasional miscues Jefferson makes when guarding other dominant big-men. Vonleh’s “superior” rebounding won’t be needed much on the defensive glass (Charlotte ranked first in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage last season), allowing him to freelance in the paint, much like Serge Ibaka tends to do in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile Vonleh would be invaluable to the Hornets on the offensive glass, as Charlotte was one of the five worst offensive rebounding teams in the league last season.
The worries about Vonleh’s potential as a non-shot blocking defender are valid, but if any coach/team combo could teach him how to be an elite-all around defender (not just an elite freelancing shot-blocker), its Steve Clifford and his top six NBA defense. Select Vonleh, sign Lance Stephenson, and who knows, maybe Michael Jordan will finally see his team achieve playoff success (that sentence feels weird to type).
THE PICK: Noah Vonleh
This one’s easy. If Boston’s future plans include Rajon Rondo, and right now it looks like they do, who better to pair him with than freak athlete Aaron Gordon? The Blake Griffin comparisons are ridiculous, the Shawn Marion comparisons aren’t quite fair, and the Russell Westbrook comparisons don’t fit. But all three guys give us an idea of the player Gordon could become; a defensive agitator (Kawhi Leonard anyone?), an explosive finisher in pick+roll situations, and someone who’s all around competitiveness leads him to exceed current expectations of the player he will become. Remember, we’ve never seen Rajon Rondo play with someone capable of making SportsCenter’s Top Ten list night in and night out.
Gordon’s poor shooting is certainly a legitimate concern, but fortunately for Gordon, shooting is one NBA skill where repetition can lead to significant improvement. A bump in free throw percentage into the mid-sixties, an ability to knock down the corner three, and suddenly Aaron Gordon becomes the steal of the draft.
THE PICK: Aaron Gordon
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Another easy selection for another all-time great organization. With (let’s pray) no hopes of contending next season, the Lakers should draft the player with the highest upside left on the board. In this case, that player is power forward Julius Randle, another big man who’s recovering from a broken bone in his foot. I’m not sold on Randle’s future as a pro; his defense leaves a lot to be desired and his low post game is extremely predictable and left-hand dominant, something he was able to get away with at Kentucky but won’t in the pros. However Randle still seems to be viewed as a player you could build your offense around, and for that reason alone he provides enough value to justify taking him seventh. Even if the Lakers don’t believe he’s the right fit for them (and they shouldn’t), he may end up being just the asset another team covets in a potential sign and trade scenario.
The Lakers are at risk of falling into a common trap for big-market teams staring down the rebuilding tunnel: being fooled into thinking you’re still a contender. Los Angeles’ front office needs to take a collective deep breath, focus their attention on getting Julius Randle healthy, and wait until Steve Nash’s contract expires. Sometimes patience is the first step towards renewed success.
THE PICK: Julius Randle
Seeing what Sacramento ends up doing will be one of the more interesting subplots of the 2014 NBA Draft. But while the Kings have explored every single option that involves trading the eighth overall pick, their best play might be staying put and drafting … Elfrid Payton??? Stick with me.
Payton is one of my favorite players in this draft. I hate to be presumptuous in my comparisons, but Payton reminds me of Kawhi Leonard before he won an NBA Championship. When watching Payton, the first thing that jumps out at you is his on-ball defense, something that Leonard just happened to parlay into an NBA Finals MVP trophy. Payton’s athleticism and quickness on the defensive end netted him 2.3 steals a game in his junior season at Louisiana Lafayette University, leading to a multitude of baskets in transition, another Payton strength. This same athleticism and quickness helps his half-court offense as well, allowing him to blow by opposing perimeter defenders with ease, creating many high percentage shots near the rim. Payton’s smart decision making on pick and roll’s could be a devastating combination with the size of current Sacramento big Demarcus Cousins.
Just as was the case with Kawhi, shooting and turnovers remain the number one concern for any team looking at Payton, but (just as was the case with Kawhi) not being the only viable offensive option on his team should help qualm the turnover concerns and allow Payton time to develop his shot, something that can be done (as we discussed with Aaron Gordon and the Celtics).
It’s time the Kings took someone known for his defense with potential on offense, instead of the other way around.
THE PICK: Elfrid Payton
UTAH JAZZ (from Charlotte)
Am I crazy or does a starting five of Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter sounds somewhat intriguing? The Jazz desperately need someone to space the floor on offense, who possesses both elite shooting skills and an ability to create his own offense. This makes Stauskas the perfect fit. Fire Ty Corbin, hire an actual coach, and who knows, maybe Utah will be this year’s surprise contender in the West (with a 2016 first rounder to boot).
THE PICK: Nik Stauskas
Ask any general manager in the NBA and they would agree that Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Andrew Wiggins, and Marcus Smart is a terrific haul for two years worth of lottery drafting. Again, Philadelphia isn’t, and shouldn’t be worrying about Smart’s fit in the Sixers lineup. All that matters is that he’s a high upside asset who possesses serious trade value. For Philly, this would be yet another steal in a two-year run full of them.
THE PICK: Marcus Smart
OKLAHOMA CITY (from DENVER for #21 and #29)
The Oklahoma City Thunder were (potentially) a Serge Ibaka injury away from making it to the Finals for the second time in three years. What was missing? Most notably, an offensively competent shooting guard. The Thunder never seemed to find the right lineup combination capable of taking down the NBA’s elite, in large part because of this very position. Oklahoma City was almost four points per hundred possessions better on offense when Thabo Sefolosha, their starting shooting guard in the 2012 Finals, sat, while suffering no decrease in defensive production. Or in simpler terms: he sucked. Reggie Jackson proved to be a much better option, but left Scott Brooks with no perimeter punch off his bench, leading to extended minutes for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant (something they won’t appreciate in the future, just ask Dwyane Wade). It’s no coincidence, then, that any mention of the James Harden trade in Oklahoma City is bound to cause a riot.
Trading two picks at the back end of the first round to acquire Gary Harris is 100% worth it if the Thunder hope to emerge from the stacked Western Conference in 2014-15. And with the free agencies of Westbrook and Durant looming in just a couple short seasons, emerging from the West and winning the Finals should be priority number one for everyone in the Thunder organization.
THE PICK: Gary Harris
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (from ORLANDO)
As was made clear in my explanation of why the Cavs should select Joel Embiid at number four, the last thing Cleveland needs is more bodies clogging a roster already filled with question marks. Thats why European point guard prospect Dario Saric makes perfect sense here at number twelve. Saric recently signed an extension with his European squad that will prevent him from playing in the NBA for two years (possibly three). For the Cavs, this won’t be an issue. By drafting Saric here, Cleveland suddenly possesses a highly coveted trade chip, one that can be used to offload a bad contract in pursuit of salary cap flexibility for the summer of 2015. This one is admittedly a bit of a stretch but it makes sense in my head at least.
THE PICK: Dario Saric
For the sake of everyones time (I’ve already rambled on wayyyy too long), I’ll save my thoughts on the Kevin Love situation for another time. However, keep this in mind: ESPN’s Chris Broussard reported yesterday that there’s a 50/50 chance Love is traded on draft night. And what better Kevin Love replacement than Doug McDermott? (I promise you, this isn’t a comparison simply because both Love and McDermott are white. I think McDermott will end up being a poor man’s Kevin Love. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen.)
THE PICK: Doug McDermott
All I need to sell you, the reader, on the final pick of the lottery is a little cooperation, and a little imagination. First, cooperation: go to YouTube and type in Jusuf Nurkic International Scouting Report. Second, imagination: Imagine a world in which Goran Dragic and Jusuf Nurkic are running pick and rolls on a nightly basis, with Eric Bledsoe flying around on the perimeter creating space for our two European heroes.
THE PICK: Jusuf Nurkic