tl;dr: Don't trade the lottery picks up or down, consider taking two big men in the lottery since the PG market in free agency is a good one.
Here are our needs, I think by consensus:
A starting point guard. A starting center. Resign Nicolas Batum, or else we’re out a starting small forward as well. A backup PF/C (perhaps by re-signing JJ Hickson) or two, since Kurt Thomas is nearing his sell-by date. Other perceived needs in the Blazersphere include a second starter-quality shooting guard/6th man for those slightly nutty votes of no-confidence in Wesley Matthews that are out there gumming up the internet.
How do we fill those needs?
Free Agency, Trades, and the NBA Draft:
Quick note #1: While it’s well known that we’ll have a great deal of cap room this year after our fire sale at the end of the lockout season, the cap doesn’t reset until after draft day– that is to say, our expiring contracts actually expire July 1, 2012. The implication of this is that we cannot make a blockbuster draft-day trade– this is probably a good thing, given how few players we currently have under contract for next season. We have nine spots to fill.
Quick 2012 draft cheat sheet: General consensus top 15 prospects.
NAME POS SCHOOL/COUNTRY PROJECTION
Anthony Davis PF Kentucky No. 1 Pick
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist SF Kentucky Top 5 Pick
Bradley Beal SG Florida Top 5 Pick
Thomas Robinson PF Kansas Top 5 Pick
Andre Drummond C Connecticut Top 5 Pick
Harrison Barnes SF North Carolina Top 10 Pick
Damian Lillard PG Weber State Top 10 Pick
Dion Waiters SG Syracuse Lottery Pick
Perry Jones PF Baylor Lottery Pick
Jeremy Lamb SG Connecticut Lottery Pick
Jared Sullinger PF Ohio State Top 10 Pick
Tyler Zeller C North Carolina Lottery Pick
Terrence Jones PF Kentucky Late Lottery Pick
Terrence Ross SG Washington Late Lottery Pick
Arnett Moultrie PF Mississippi St. Mid First Round Pick
John Henson PF North Carolina Late Lottery Pick
Austin Rivers SG Duke Late Lottery Pick
Kendall Marshall PG North Carolina Late Lottery Pick
Meyers Leonard C Illinois Mid-First Round Pick
Moe Harkless SF St. John’s Late First Round Pick
OK, so, we have picks #6 and #11 (and some mid second-rounders). One of the first discussions that is taking place is this: Do we want to trade up in the draft?
I say: NO. The biggest reason for this is that the teams picking ahead of us have different needs, and thus are not likely to ‘steal’ one of the players we’ve got our eye on. The second is that prospects ranked 2-6 are all projected about evenly, with no one or two players sticking out head-and-shoulders above the others in terms of pure talent.
The ‘Nature v. Nurture’ debate of the NBA draft is this: draft for need, or best talent available? I think that there has to be a combination, and most teams will have a talent chart adjusted for their needs. If a team is certain there’s a huge talent at a redundant position they’ll probably take a flier– as we’ll see from New Orleans in the case of Kentucky PF Anthony Davis. However, most of the teams picking before us are set at PG and C– where the Blazers’ needs are– and need wing players and scorers.
Here are the teams picking ahead of us and their PG/C situations:
New Orleans Hornets– They’re not going to pass on Davis, the consensus #1, so their needs don’t matter.
Hornets take: Anthony Davis PF.
Charlotte Bobcats– Kemba Walker G, Ty Thomas PF, Bismack Biyombo C. They need a SF and more scoring, or a balanced PF that can contribute from Day 1.
Bobcats take: Bradley Beal SG or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist SF, potentially Thomas Robinson PF
Washington Wizards– John Wall PG, Andray Blatche PF, Nene C, Trevor Booker PF. Unless they move the albatross that is Blatche on draft day, they don’t need a big, nor are they seeking a second franchise PG.
Wizards take: Whichever of Beal or MKG is left on the table by CHA, or Andre Drummond if they think Nene isn’t going to stay healthy.
Cleveland Cavaliers– Future All-Star Kyrie Irving PG, Tristan Thompson PF, Anderson Varejao C. They also need a starting SF or SG, preferably one with range.
Cavaliers take: Harrison Barnes SF or Jeremy Lamb SG
Sacramento Kings – Tyreke Evans G, Isaiah Thomas PG, Demarcus Cousins C, Jason Thompson PF
The Kings actually look pretty scary for the next two years, but their wing players are ancient. Unless they’re more frustrated with Cousins than they let on, or think competition will inspire him, they pass on Drummond.
Kings take: Whichever is left of the 7 players mentioned above excepting Lamb– Likely Barnes or Thomas Robinson. There’s a risk they take Drummond on talent because the SG class in free agency is pretty solid.
The potential talents that might outweigh team needs in the top 5 picks across the top-10 ranked prospects are Thomas Robinson PF, Andre Drummond C and Damian Lillard in a league that loves scoring PGs.
As I’m writing we received news that the Blazers have just hired former Clippers VP and GM Neil Olshey as our new GM. The Oregonian has this to say about Olshey: "Olshey has a background in player development, having worked for SFX Sports Group Inc. in running predraft training camps and working at the Adidas ABCD camps, where talented youths make their names."
I’d say that’s a another vote of confidence that we’ll be using our two lottery picks. So who do we want?
Draft Pick #6: Andre Drummond
1) Pure talent: If he falls this low, I think Portland would be making a mistake to pass on Andre Drummond, the consensus #1 center in the draft by a notable margin.
I’d like you to watch one particular play that really sold me on Drummond, from his DraftExpress video.
Go to minute mark 2:14.
This is a 7-foot, 275-pound man running a nasty fastbreak.
Drummond’s worst-case scenario has been described as DeAndre Jordan or Marcus Camby– shot blockers with limited offense and iffy physicality– and his upside has people mentioning some guy named Dwight Howard. The flip side of this is that his talent may outweigh team needs for a team in the top 5 picks, especially Cleveland and Sacramento. I think he’s worth a top-6 pick, especially given:
2) The Blazers’ primary needs: As we’ve mentioned, we badly need a PG and a C. We’ve been burned for years by not having a physical presence inside. We know we need to come out of the draft with some size and Drummond is far and away the best option here, if we can live with his weaknesses– and we can. If Drummond doesn’t pan out as a franchise player, then we have a serviceable, athletic 7-footer on our bench rather than getting starters minutes. I think the only way we pass on Drummond if he’s available is if the Blazers are certain there’s an All-Star guard available.
3) Free Agents: The free agent class at PG is relatively strong, if not as star-studded as it could be. We’ll talk more about this after the draft section, but the summary is this– we can get a healthy, relatively young starting PG in free agency. The best FA center options look to be Chris Kaman and Spencer Hawes, both of whom are constantly injured, and the dropoff after is immense.
4) Arguments against: The argument against Drummond is that his deficiencies outweigh his value relative to other players available. Baldly, he is a bad free throw shooter, a bad scorer, and is inconsistent at playing physical defense. If this scares Blazers brass, they might make a ‘safe’ play knowing we can get a player with less upside with our #11 pick who is an upgrade in these areas, such as Tyler Zeller or Meyers Leonard. This would leave our #6 pick available for a possible franchise PG or a talent expected to go higher falling into our laps.
5) Damian Lillard: The consensus #1 PG in the draft, he’s the other name most frequently associated with the Blazers #6 pick. Again, the teams with picks 1-5 are pretty set for PGs, unless the Bobcats think Kemba Walker should be playing at the 2. The scenarios Blazers brass will be looking at most closely is if Drummond and Lillard are both available at #6. I have to think that the Faried/Nolan decision from last year’s draft is fresh in everyone’s mind, though the #6 pick is nearly a world away from #21.
6) Plan B: If we don’t take Drummond, it will be for one of these reasons:
a) He’s gone by the #6 pick. We take one of the below options.
b) The Blazers think we need a young PG more than a young center. We pick: Damian Lillard
c) The Blazers think a future All-Star was passed-up by the top 5. We pick: Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes, Thomas Robinson, Dion Waiters
d) Blazers scouts– who do this much more than I do– weigh Drummond’s deficiencies more heavily than I am, especially his poor defensive rebounding and reluctance to body out opponents.
Draft Pick #11: Zeller, Leonard or Marshall
1) Big man: If we took a guard at #6 I’d imagine it’s almost certain we take a big man at 11. Further, I wouldn’t be shocked if we doubled down on centers here– again, taking a player with a lower ceiling who is more prepared to score and rebound while we wait for Drummond to mature. Again, I think the weak FA class at the position, balanced with the strong PG class, makes taking two lottery big men a solid option.
The centers who will likely be available at #11 are Tyler Zeller and Meyers Leonard– two more 7-footers with better scoring and rebounding numbers than Drummond but lower athletic ceilings. Zeller is a senior who can be viewed as the conservative pick, and I think if we take a second center at #11 it’ll be him. He’s a classic Tar Heels big man who rebounds well and works hard and will never be an All-Star. Leonard is the upside/risk pick– younger, lighter and less polished than Zeller, he’s also faster, a fantastic shot-blocker (v. college opponents, but it speaks well for his court vision and anticipation) and is not afraid to shoot from mid-range. He and Zeller both have quite good FT%, again in stark contrast to Drummond. I think if we take Lillard, or if Neil Olshey enjoys rolling the dice, we may select Leonard over Zeller. On the other hand, there are rumors of 2006 draftee center Joel Freeland coming over, and he also likes to shoot the ball– if the front office is confident he’s joining us, we probably will pass on a roaming big man here and take the best rebounder instead (Zeller).
2) Point Guard: If we land Drummond, most pundits seem to think we’ll miss Lillard but be excited to take the second PG in the draft, Kendall Marshall. A recent ESPN mock has Lillard somehow falling to #11, and if that happens I think we’ll be elated; since it’s unlikely let’s look at the next option. Marshall is a pass-first PG who has been frequently compared to Andre Miller in his style and his average athleticism coming out of college. The decision in this scenario is whether the FO enjoyed the Miller era– if they think Marshall will develop into a Rondo-type talent with his corresponding years of poor shooting made up for by dynamism, focus and defense– or whether they want a lower-ranked scoring PG such as Seattle product Tony Wroten, Jr.
3) Other: If the front office gets whichever man they’ve really been crushing on with pick #6 and don’t like the remaining C or PG looks, we probably end up taking a scorer with the #11. The most likely names here are SGs Jeremy Lamb and Terrence Ross, with the outside chance of Waiters slipping to the 11 spot- all players with range who can also drive inside. The odds that any of these three are a significant upgrade on an unjinxed Matthews is slim– especially with Wes’ defensive capabilities– but we could use a 6th man or a 3-bomber that would let us use Wes off the bench, or a surprise find that allows us to put Wes on the market.
The last thought would be for a backup power forward, either because we’re not confident of re-signing JJ Hickson or because we like the thought of Aldridge continuing to play some minutes at the 5 as he has through necessity the last two seasons. There are a lot of PFs in the draft and several lingering in the 9-16 range that we could like seeing with the #11 pick. The most intriguing of these is Arnett Moultrie, a 6’11" PF who nearly entered the draft in 2010 and is a good scorer in part due to his proficiency from the free throw line. He’s a bit too light to draft at the center position but could certainly take 15 or so of the mid-game minutes the Blazers like to spread around in the PF/C flex to give Aldridge a breather or spend some fouls. Other names include Perry Jones, Terrence Jones, John Henson and Jared Sullinger.
Draft prediction summary:
With our #6 pick, drafting for need, we end up with Drummond or Lillard.
With our #11 pick, drafting for need and depending on our #6 choice, we draft Marshall, Zeller or Leonard
If our targets don’t fall or we draft for perceived all-around talent and scoring, we could end up with Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes, Dion Waiters, or Jeremy Lamb. An outside chance ends up getting us a backup PF/C such as Moultrie.
Quick note #2: We also have 2nd round picks, #40 and #41. If we don’t manage to trade these higher in a package, look for us to take fliers on a) international players, b) players from smaller schools or conferences or c) players whose stock has dropped because of attitude problems or other events.
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Free Agent Forecast: I’ve written above that the pool of free agents coming up July 1 must have an effect on the draft. Again, the PG pool is fairly strong, and the center pool is weak. Furthermore, the SF pool is also fairly weak for a lottery team weighing drafting for that need or drafting best talent available. The SG pool is decently strong, which may throw a wrench in some of my predictions in picks #2-5.
I’ve ordered the following categories by the effect their positional availability or scarcity in free agency will affect the top 6 picks: PG, C, SG, SF, PF. It’s important to notice that I’ve made no differentiation between restricted and unrestricted free agents, and that there’s valid dispute for many players’ listed positions (See Lou Williams, Carlos Delfino, Michael Beasley)
Marquee PGs: Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Rondo
Second tier PGs (non-star-level starters): Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Aaron Brooks, Kyle Lowry, Raymond Felton, DJ Augustin
Some third-tier, non-standard, or mentor-veteran PGS: Jason Kidd, Baron Davis, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, George Hill, Randy Foye, Mo Williams, Jeremy Lin
Marquee Players: Hibbert, B. Lopez
Second tier: Chris Kaman, Spencer Hawes, JaVale McGee
Third-tier and lower– Omer Asik, Aaron Gray, Jermaine O’Neal, Semih Erden
Marquee players: Eric Gordon
Second tier and lower: OJ Mayo, Ray Allen, Nick Young, Carlos Delfino, Landry Fields, Lou Williams, Jamal Crawford, JR Smith, Brandon Rush
Marquee players: Gerald Wallace
Second tier and lower: Nic Batum, Jeff Green, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Jeremy Evans, Dahntay Jones
Marquee players: Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Michael Beasley
Second tier and lower: Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, JJ Hickson, Elton Brand, Carl Landry, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Randolph