The Difficulties in Moving Up

Draft Week is upon us and I'm still getting bombarded with questions about the Blazers moving up into the highest echelon of picks.  I don't suppose you can blame folks considering Portland's traditional draft-day activity.  Anything can happen, right?  Well...almost.

While I wouldn't be surprised to see the Blazers move around a little, it's unlikely they're going to the level dreams are made of.  We covered part of the reason why in a recent mailbag:  the guy of your dreams may not be available this year at any pick you could actually acquire.  The buzz around this draft has been that you can get good value down into the teens and twenties, maybe even farther depending on who you ask.  In theory that sounds great.  In practice that means that you can't tell a huge difference between your higher and lower picks.  Anyone you move up to get is going to have problems.  The people who own those picks get to risk those problems for the price of a contract.  People moving up risk those problems for that price plus whatever they have to pay to get the pick.  Unless the price is really reasonable it's not going to be worth it.

I can tell you this from my own experience with this year's draft.  Each of the years prior on back to the Roy draft I had some fairly firm ideas about where they team would, or at least should, go with their picks.  Sometimes those were right.  Sometimes those were wrong but the wrong ones at least turned out to be somebody else's good picks.  This year?  Yeesh.  Ben is going to give you some semi-officially-inspired candidates quite soon.  After weeks of study and conversation on my part, I'm not sure I can give you much more.  Even the names we suspect or the team might be hinting at could well be gambles or smoke screens.  The draft is falling into place but there's not the usual sharply-defined shape we're accustomed to.  Some of that may be Portland's low pick but part of it is also the nature of this year's class.  Given that so many of these players are gambles, gambling lower makes more sense than gambling higher.

But what about those reasonable prices?  If the draft is truly that level (or mushy) shouldn't plenty of people be looking to trade down?  Perhaps.  Teams are always rumored to be looking to do so.  That's what makes the pre-draft chatter so exciting.  But how many of those teams actually make that kind of trade?  How many move more than a handful of places?  Not many.  There are good reasons for that too.

Part of it is human psychology.  Everybody knows that not all of the top ten picks will pan out, let alone top twenty.  Some organizations are probably convinced that this is a weak draft.  In fact you almost always hear that assessment made by GM's in a given year.  But those quotes come out early.  As the day approaches people tend to get more tight-fisted with their picks.  And since almost all deals are made on draft day itself, that means trades happen precisely in that tight-fisted environment.

Let's pretend that you hold a general disdain for Ford automobiles.  You've never considered buying one.  You tell your friends and neighbors that Chevy and GM have the real goods.  But one day when you check the mail you find a coupon for a free Ford.  You and 29 other folks get to come to the dealership next month and walk off lot with one.  (Remember to pay taxes on your winnings, of course!)  What's more, you get to select 6th out of 30.  At first you roll your eyes and wonder why it couldn't be a Chevy.  But you've got the coupon so you start to do the research.  After a week of study those Fords don't look quite so bad.  After a couple weeks you've narrowed it down to a couple models you'd be happy with...if you have to, that is.  A week from the event you're actually starting to get excited despite yourself.  By the time that morning dawns you have an exact car you're hoping for and you're invested in getting it.  A month prior if somebody had asked you in theory whether you'd accept a Chevy with 70,000 miles on it in exchange for a new Ford you'd have said, "Of course!"  But now that you all but have the new car in hand that offer is going to have to be a lot higher.  In fact even trading down and chancing having to take home a Fiesta instead of your Mustang is going to cause you discomfort.  The offer had better be good.  Obviously a professional General Manager has a little more detachment than your average Joe winning an unexpected car, but the same principle applies overall.  You'll not get into those spots cheaply even if the organization in question theoretically isn't thrilled about the draft.

There's also a practical element working against trade-downs:  they can lose a GM his job.  If someone wants to trade up that badly it means they have assessed the player they're gunning for as top-level.  What's more, because of cap considerations they're not likely to be sending you a flashy, star player to replace that missing pick.  Most proposed offers (in the popular venue anyway), consist of a lower pick plus some semi-interesting throw-ins.  Right away you have a PR problem as the player going out is going to look better than the player(s) coming in.  That problem will explode into a nightmare if the high pick actually becomes a star.  You'll forever be known as the guy who traded away All-Star X for some semi-nice dudes.  Rumor has it that the end of John Nash's tenure in Portland (and the advent of Kevin Pritchard's) was tied to moving down just three spaces, passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul in favor of Martell Webster.  At least the Blazers kept a high-ish lottery pick.  What if they had moved down 17 spots in exchange for a prospect?  The risk of making the high pick is giving a contract to a guy who doesn't deserve it.  But realistically that means a couple more million a year (between the lottery picks and the teens/twenties guys) of rookie scale that nobody notices.  Everybody is excited about your draftee at first and by the time they figure out he's a bust two years later you've made a ton of other decisions.  The risk of not making that pick is far higher.  People start questioning your move-down right away and don't stop as long as any player you could have conceivably gotten with that pick performs at a decent level.  (Nash couldn't have drafted Williams and Paul but his name gets cursed when either one of them does well.)  Therefore there's considerable incentive for GM's to keep their high picks.

So...in answer to all of the single-digit hopefuls out there we'll reiterate:  Could happen?  Sure.  But it almost certainly won't.  If it did the buzz should be loud and incredulous.  Don't expect the Blazers to make a major splash by moving up in this draft.  Expect them to get a targeted player somewhere not far from their current pick and look to make splashes via other avenues.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)    

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