Weighing the Draft

There’s a bunch of talk going on about the draft and relative weights player-to-player and year-to-year.  It’s fascinating, and much appreciated too!  The diversity of opinion and spirited debate make for interesting reading, especially since we’ve got people not just on both ends of a spectrum, but on most points in between.  This is one of the fringe benefits of having an open-ended pick and open-ended needs as opposed to last year’s basically binary options.

In the spirit of this discussion (and to encourage more) I want to offer a primer of sorts, not on the draftees, but on the judging of prospects and classes in the abstract based on fan opinions and reactions, media reports, and mock drafts--the basic resources we have available.  Mind you, this is useless as a scouting or professional survey.  The point isn’t to divulge arcane secrets that will give you the exact draft order.  The question at hand is how we, as fans, interpret and parse the information accessible to us in order to make reasonable comparisons.  Here’s the deal:

Tip #1:  A draft class will, on average, be significantly overrated in its own year. 

This will intensify at the time of the NCAA Tournament, continue through the draft lottery, and build steadily until draft day.  How many times have you looked ahead at next year’s draft class and said, “This doesn’t look like a particularly strong group”?  In a given year you might be able to name one or two underclassmen who could be significant players if they came out, plus maybe a sleeper you’ve had your eye on.  But most years, for media folks and fans alike, those prospective significant players don’t amount to more than a half-dozen players...and that's if you’re really, really watching.  Now let me ask you this:  has there ever been a draft in the history of forever that hasn’t been described as “deep” in the weeks leading up to it?  What happened in the meantime to change that handful of prospects into the next revolution in the NBA?  For the most part, nothing.  They’re still the same group they always were.  We’re just paying more attention to them now.  It’s human nature to elevate the importance of that which we pay attention to.  It’s also important for the entertainment value.  It’s incredibly depressing to say, “This draft is going to be average at best.”  It kills the whole early summer, not to mention your team’s chances of improving…which is another significant factor.  If you don’t have a Top 3 pick, you want the draft to be deep.  For most of us not just four or five deep either, but into the teens and twenties.  We have to believe there are sleepers out there to be plucked or the star power this year is so great as to provide important players by the dozen.  This also, by the way, affects the way the media presents each draft.  The experts don’t just make their money by being right about the prospects, their order, and their future.  In fact nobody tunes in to check whether anyone’s mock draft was accurate except their own.  People tune in for the interest, the excitement, the mystery, and the hype.  A media expert who called a draft class terminally mediocre and wholly predictable in late May would be slitting his own throat.  Thus the frenzy gets fed.

Does this mean that the hype can’t be true and that everybody is overrated?  Of course not.  Some of the praise is dead on.  Some draftees will exceed expectations.  But there will be plenty of average guys, non-impact players, and outright busts too and you won’t hear about a one of them from official sources leading up to the draft.  On average, across the board, it’s safer to bet a draft class will not live up to its pre-draft billing, let alone the frenzy that surrounds it on draft day.

Tip #2:  Any given fan base will overvalue players its team is likely to draft and/or has drafted.

Corollary #2a:  Everyone will tend to overvalue the top picks.

Like a street magician’s trick, this is obvious and funny when you see it happen to someone else, but devilishly hard to detect when it’s happening to you.  You need look no farther than Russell Westbrook among Blazer fans this year.  I’m sure he’s good and has a lot to offer the team.  But as momentum towards the prospect of picking him builds you are going to read description after description that makes him sound far more like a #2 pick than a #13.  Furthermore, it’s guaranteed the reputation of whoever we pick will grow mightily between late June and late October.  You will see him penciled into starting lineups before the year ends.  You will start to hear about the eventual dominance of the core of Roy, Aldridge, Oden, and Draft Boy.  Meanwhile to the rest of the league he’s still a #13 selection with all of the flaws and learning curve that implies.  But then again, THEY have the secret instant starter.

Part of the reason the top picks get overvalued is simply this phenomenon writ large.  We’re all going to be privy to Chicago’s and Miami’s thought process for the next month.  Analysis of their prospects will be all over the NBA media.  In a real sense we’ll all be picking along with the Bulls when draft day comes around…not because we wish them well particularly, but because we’ve spent a few weeks imagining we were in their shoes.  The guy we would have picked will be the guy we elevate.  Plus, following the logic of Tip #1, we need the top guys to be superstars-in-waiting, both because it’s more entertaining and because it sweetens the talent pool.  If we say the top guys are good, but not great, and the prospects trend downward from there where does that leave us?  Thus you get the ubiquitous “Next [fill in star player of similar height here]” references which dazzle us with the potential of nearly every first round pick.

The actual rule, as I stated the other day, is simple:  the pick doesn’t make the player, the player makes the pick.  Not all #1 and #2 picks are created equal.  Before you salivate over having (or trading for) those picks you better make sure you know who you’re getting with them.

Tip #3:  Mock Drafts will tend to overvalue both the surprise pick and picking for need.

Again, nobody reads these things on draft day unless they wrote them themselves.  They all get read, and judged, before the draft.  The obvious problem with this is that nobody really knows before the draft or we’d be making six figures captaining real drafts instead of typing up mock ones for GoogleAd chump change.  But that doesn’t matter much because the goal of the mock draft isn’t so much being right (Who would remember that a year later?) as it is being agreeable and noticeable.  The agreeable part accounts for the “picking for need” part.  If both you and a team’s fan base perceive that the team needs a point guard your draft board is going to get (virtually) crumpled up and thrown away if you project a small forward for them.  “That makes no sense!” they will say.  But then a fair amount of actual draft picks don’t make sense to us mere mortals.  To balance this you have to have the countercultural surprise move to make your board distinct and interesting.  A fair amount of people will project Beasley over Rose and have a couple players rising meteorically and a couple others falling like rocks even at this early stage in the absence of data.  Why?  You don’t get attention for being right on 90% of your picks.  You get attention when you correctly predicted something that only had a 10% chance of happening.  You can get every other pick wrong but if you call O.J. Mayo as the #1 pick and it actually happens you’re a genius. 

I am not saying that mock draft writers purposely doctor their boards.  It’s not that crass or conscious.  But when they review their work before publishing I would bet that most of them feel the greatest satisfaction about correctly matching a player for the majority of the teams' needs.  I would also bet that they feel proprietary about the one or two picks that go against the grain and stand out from the norm.  Given a choice, in the absence of other data, those are the kind of picks they’re going to choose.

In real life “best player available” is the norm for most picks, even if that doesn’t make sense by position.  Once you choose a guy you have four-plus years to work him in and shuffle your roster accordingly.  You never get a second chance at that draft pick if you blow it though.  That’s why most teams will go with the talent.  The difficult part is that the definition of "best" varies with the philosophies and personalities of the evaluators.  Understanding those tendencies for even one GM is daunting.  Taking the pulse of the whole league is near impossible. 

In real life there are three or four flashy surprises speculated for every one that actually happens.  The ones that do occur are mostly surprising because we didn't understand those philosophy and personality issues.  The picks aren't actually radical, the GM's priorities are just different than what we assumed.  In any case, most true surprises happen in the double-digit rather than the single-digit picks, exactly the opposite of the ones we remember from the mock drafts.  Again, these are difficult to predict with consistency.

Tip #4:  Despite all the national networks and "new media" coverage, your local beat writers with access to team officials and workouts are the best source of information on who your team is actually going to draft.

These guys have the inside track on information and usually a good relationship with team executives.  They know what the sore spots and points of emphasis were from the year(s) prior.  They know exactly who is coming in to work out and often how that workout went.  They’re not going to ruin their relationship with the team by spilling beans before the soup is made, but when you start hearing positive reviews and repeated mentions of players’ names you get a pretty good idea who the team favors.

Tip #5:  National networks are the best source of information about potential trades.

Corollary #5a:  If you hear it too early, it probably won't happen.

It’s hard to gauge the trade winds when you’re sitting in one of the ports like the local guys are.  Usually the GM is tight-lipped.  Even if you get a hint, breaking the news early could also break trust.  But the national guys ply the waters between organizations, monitoring the communication and byplay.  They run less risk of cheesing off the GM by blabbing, as he can’t get to them, let alone cut them off.  Not that the national networks are always right, mind you.  The entertainment/interest variable comes into play here.  And really a national reporter has far less to lose from being proven wrong than does your local beat writer.  That means you'll get a fair amount of spaghetti thrown against the wall.  But that doesn't change the fact that you'll probably hear the trades that do go down reported nationally first.

However almost every trade that involves the draft goes down right before, during, or right after the proceedings themselves.  Don't jump too hard on things you hear in the intervening weeks, including assertions that top teams are entertaining trades for their picks.  They'd be irresponsible not to, but it's more a case of the prettiest girl in school knowing everyone wants to take her to the prom, so she lets thirty guys ask her before she goes with the quarterback she had scoped out all along.

Tip #6:  Despite all of this, some drafts break the mold.

Everything we’ve just described applies to your average draft…which frankly is the vast majority of them.  But just like the familiar laws of nature such as gravity and time fall apart when applied to unimaginably large objects, some drafts are so big as to warp all of the rules.  In these cases all the predictions of greatness are dead on.  Mock drafts, national, and local sources tend to agree.  It’s like a force of nature blows through and sweeps away all the normal caveats. 

This confirms the assertion that not every draft, or #1 pick therein, is equal.  You know when this is happening.  You don't have to ask if this is the year.  There’s no doubt.  It’s all around you.  What are the signs you’re seeing it?

 

  • You’ve seen this player (or these players) coming for years.  Nobody needs to cite their bona fides, tournament performances, stats, or the like.  Everybody who knows anything about basketball already knows their name.  We’re talking LeBron James and Shaq territory here.

  • There’s little or no mention of the top pick(s) possibly being traded.

  • There’s no need to mention that the class is deep, either because it’s already evident or because those top guys take all the attention.  We don't care so much about the 11th pick this year.  Sure she's your local beauty queen, but jeepers, Megan Fox just walked in the room.
  • There’s comparatively little debate about the order of picks, at least for the upper echelon.

  • This all intensifies, and rightfully so, when a 7-footer is the celebrated #1 pick.

Some folks are probably going to want to debate the last one.  “Wait a minute Dave,” you’ll say, “7-footers are usually the most overrated guys in the draft!”  That’s only partially true.  7-footers picked in the #3-#13 range are often overrated.  Sometimes a 7-footer will slouch into the #1 position by default and turn out to be decent, but not great.  (I’m trying hard not to glance in the direction of Milwaukee.)  But name me the last celebrated, definitive 7-footer around who came out in the environment listed above who failed.  Maybe you could say Pervis Ellison, but he didn’t have the credentials of Shaquille or Duncan or Robinson or The Dream.  When you’re that large you have been scrutinized, poked, prodded, and otherwise put under a microscope since you were ten years old.  If you are creating a whirlwind that blows everyone else out of the water…if nobody has to ask your name…if people have been looking forward to this draft for years because of you, it’s almost certainly legit.  Phenoms like LeBron aside, it’s much easier to misjudge a superstar-potential smaller player than it is to misjudge a superstar-potential giant.

Naturally I’ve added this last part to help frame the Oden issue for Blazer fans, but it also illustrates the larger philosophical point.  All other things being equal it’s more likely that Oden will be a league-changing force than Derrick Rose will be.  It’s also more likely that last year’s draft, which fulfilled the conditions of the unusual type of draft, was more singular and weighty than this year’s, at least at the top.  While Blazer fans are certainly as prone as anybody else to fall prey to the fallacies in the first tips, the presence of the factors in the sixth mitigates those somewhat…or at  least confirms that getting carried away has some validity.  As those factors are absent this year, it would be prudent to take the assertions of the next month about this class and the individuals in it with a grain of salt.  It’s not that they can’t be true…they very well could be.  But many years they’re not.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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