Looking Back On Missed Opportunities For Hornets & Kings To Draft Blazers G Damian Lillard

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

A pair of teams reportedly coveted Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is tracking to a potential Rookie of the Year award and has taken home Western Conference Rookie of the Month for both October/November and December.

Lillard, selected No. 6 overall in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Blazers, was the subject of a few different reports this week concerning pre-draft interest in picking him.

Alex Kennedy of HoopsWorld.com reported that the New Orleans Hornets were interested in selecting No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis and Lillard, but that Lillard's late rise up the board made that impossible. The Hornets also held the No. 10 pick in last year's Draft, which they used to select Duke guard Austin Rivers, who has struggled so far this season.

During the pre-draft process, the New Orleans Hornets had zeroed in on Davis and Lillard, hoping to draft both and make them the cornerstones of the franchise. This was a realistic scenario and likely would've happened if Lillard's stock hadn't significantly increased in the weeks leading up to the draft.

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New Orleans' top option was to draft Lillard. They believed he had star potential and loved the idea of building around Davis and Lillard going forward. At the time, Lillard was being projected as a late-lottery pick since he came from a small school in Weber State where he was primarily a scorer. There were some in NBA circles who wondered if he could be a facilitator and play point guard in the NBA. Keep in mind, Lillard entered his final collegiate season projected as a second-round pick, but then had an outstanding year which lead to his meteoric rise. The idea of the Hornets drafting him tenth wasn't as absurd as it seems now. In fact, many early mock drafts had Davis and Lillard going to the Hornets.

The Hornets' front office worked out many players, but it was clear that Davis and Lillard were their two primary targets. New Orleans hoped that Lillard wouldn't climb into the top ten because they loved the idea of having their point guard and big man of the future. They thought that Davis and Lillard complemented one another nicely. Davis was arguably the class' best defensive player and he could use a great floor general to set him up on offense. Lillard was arguably the class' best offensive player and he had thrived in the pick-and-roll in college. The only problem was that the Hornets weren't the only team that had fallen in love with Lillard during the pre-draft process.

Also this week, Sam Amick of USA Today Sports reported that the Sacramento Kings, selecting No. 5 overall, were interested in Lillard but that financial factors played a role in their decision to select Kansas forward Thomas Robinson instead.

While there was a recent increase in the price tag of this team (from minimum payroll the last two seasons to a 2012-13 payroll that is at the salary cap), the penny-pinching precedent came with a cost during the summer. According to three people with knowledge of the situation who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, part of the reason the Kings drafted forward Thomas Robinson fifth overall out of Kansas in June instead of Rookie of the Year frontrunner and Weber State point guard Damian Lillard (who went sixth to Portland) was because of internal doubt about ownership's ability or willingness to pony up for restricted free agent forward Jason Thompson.

There was strong support for Lillard among the team's front-office and scouting staff, but the unexpected chance to grab Robinson when he slid was seen as a safer option in case the Maloofs didn't pay the market price for Thompson and the team was left with Cousins and veteran forward Chuck Hayes on the frontline. The Kings were legitimately excited to take Robinson, who was seriously considered as high as No. 2 (Charlottte), but Thompson's situation was a factor.

The Kings eventually signed Thompson, of course, with his deal reportedly worth $30.2 million over five years that came with a ripple effect on Robinson's rookie campaign. While Lillard is leading all rookies in scoring (18.4 points per game) and assists (6.4 per) while looking like a future All-Star, Robinson has had virtually no effect on the Kings' season. He's averaging just 15.1 minutes (21st among rookies), 4.3 points (23rd), and 3.8 rebounds per game (10th).

Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports' Ball Don't Lie reacts to that report.

Thompson's situation should never be a factor. No player's "situation" (not to make fun of Amick's choice of words, but the Kings' own thinking) should ever be a factor in the high or even late lottery. This is NBA-styled thinking from decades ago, and it's anachronistic even if the player that could be on the verge of leaving is a star in the making. The fact that the report names Thompson, an above average 26-year old player at a position with an endless array of replaceable options, makes this all the more infuriating.

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Thompson could be an All-Star in the making that both old school scouts and new era numbers enthusiasts obsess over. That's not the point. NBA teams can't draft for need. Especially that high in the process. You take the best player; and if that best player happens to fill a need, all the better.

And you don't pass up on who you think is the best player - regardless of whether or not Isaiah Thomas is your new favorite pizza guy - because you're worried about matching terms on a reserve-level power forward.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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