Even though there's not a single minute of actual basketball played, there are few nights on the NBA calendar more exciting to a true hoops geek than draft night. It's where franchises decide their future. For the teams at the top of the lottery, it's a chance to strike instant pay dirt on a blue-chip prospect like a LeBron James or Kevin Durant; for the teams further down the ranks, it's far more challenging but no less interesting. What's more rewarding than picking in the twenties and finding a diamond in the rough?
This year's draft, which went down Thursday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, was as good as any. There was excitement at the top, with Philadelphia selecting Ben Simmons first overall, followed by Los Angeles and Boston taking Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown, and the fun didn't end there. Serge Ibaka made headlines when he was surprisingly shipped to Orlando, and Jimmy Butler almost got himself traded too. All in all, there was a little bit of excitement for everyone last night.
Everyone, that is, except your Portland Trail Blazers, who did nothing on draft night except execute a late trade for a No. 47 pick.
By now, you probably know the story, but I'll just rehash it for you real quick, just in case. Based on their won/lost record in 2015-16, the Blazers earned the No. 19 overall pick in the draft, but they weren't able to make their selection because it was shipped to Denver a year ago in the trade for Arron Afflalo. At the deadline in 2015, Blazers GM Neil Olshey wanted to add a scoring wing to his bench for the stretch run, so he gave up Will Barton, Victor Claver, Thomas Robinson and the protected 2016 pick for Afflalo and Alonzo Gee. The Blazers were slated to keep their pick if it fell in the lottery; it didn't, so they didn't.
On its face, the Afflalo trade is one of the worst deals the Blazers have seen in years. Not only was Afflalo mediocre to bad during his two-month stint in Portland, but Barton turned out to be a dazzling bench player in Denver - a legitimate candidate for 2016 NBA Sixth Man of the Year. You could make a convincing argument that he's now a better player than Afflalo straight up. Not only that, but he's far younger and cheaper. The Nuggets re-signed him that summer for three years and $11 million total. In other words, Afflalo for Barton is already a lousy value, and that's before you even get to the first-round draft pick. It really makes you think. For as much good work as Olshey has done during his time in Portland - and don't get me wrong, there has been plenty - isn't it odd that he doesn't take more heat for the massive misstep he made last February?
I know - I know what you're thinking. The easiest thing in the world is to judge these things in hindsight. Writing results-based trade grades 16 months after the fact is totally cheating. You're right. Anyone can say, "Obviously Afflalo was a bust, look how he panned out." And yes - at the time, the rationale for the Afflalo deal made quite a bit more sense than it appears to now. At the time the Blazers made that deal, in February 2015, they were 36-17. They were tied with Houston for third place in the Western Conference, three games behind Memphis for second. They were maybe one or two breaks away from being legitimate championship contenders. The idea that landing Afflalo could be one of those breaks wasn't that far-fetched. As it turns out, he was thrust into the starting lineup with the Wesley Matthews injury, then suffered an ailment of his own in the form of a strained shoulder, then the Blazers were out in the first round against Memphis and Afflalo was gone - but how were we supposed to see that coming?
On the other hand, couldn't we all have realized sooner that Arron Afflalo wasn't the kind of player worth sacrificing a pick for? At the time he was a 29-year-old putting up mediocre numbers on a bad Denver team. He had a PER of 11.7. He was a starting shooting guard, firing away at a high volume, and shooting under 34 percent from 3. He didn't exactly have "first-round pick value" written all over him.
First-round picks have always been valuable. In the last couple of years, think about the players that have commanded a first on the open market. There's Isaiah Thomas, Ty Lawson and Brandon Knight, to name a few. Thaddeus Young has been dealt for a first twice. Atlanta and Indiana pulled off a three-way deal just this week involving Jeff Teague, George Hill and Utah's first. Is Arron Afflalo as good a player as any of these guys? Was he ever? I'm not sure. I think we have a tendency to shrug away poor value plays like this because draft picks are so abstract, especially when they're in future years, but the reality is first-rounders are the currency of the NBA. Wasting one is like throwing away a $100 bill because it's just a sheet of paper.
Of course, that's just the value of a draft pick in general terms. If you want to get more specific to the Blazers' situation, the trade was even worse. Why's that? Because Olshey is a great drafter! That's the great irony of this whole thing - Olshey is a fantastic evaluator of talent, and he squandered a chance to find additional talent. Look at his track record - back in 2010, with the Clippers, he used his first-ever draft pick as an NBA executive to take Al-Farouq Aminu at No. 8. In four years in Portland, he's selected Damian Lillard at No. 6, Meyers Leonard at No. 11, Barton at No. 40, CJ McCollum at No. 10 and Allen Crabbe at No. 31. He's found home-run value all over the draft board. That makes it all the more unfortunate that this year, he didn't have a chance.
Not only that, but the value of first-round picks is increasing every year. That's because with the new TV money flooding in next season, rookie salaries are now out of proportion to the rising salary cap. The cap is expected to increase from $70 million to $94 million next season, an increase of about 34 percent, but rookie-scale contracts are only growing by a tiny fraction of that - somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 or 4 percent. We've been hearing buzz all summer about how mid-tier free agents - guys like Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe - are going to command massive raises in the new cap environment. The same isn't true of draftees, which is why they're more useful than ever for cap space reasons.
I've heard the argument made that despite all of the above reasons (Afflalo's value, the loss of the draft pick, cap concerns and so on), the Blazers had to make the Denver trade last year because they were desperate. They needed that one last piece to put their roster over the top, and even if they didn't get great value, it was worth it just to nab a player who could turn them into a title contender. I'm not buying that, either. Here's the thing - if the Blazers needed another wing who could score, why didn't they just give more minutes to McCollum?
McCollum might have only been a second-year player at the time, but he had already proven in limited minutes that he was pretty good. From October through December of 2014, the youngster averaged just a hair under 14 points per 36 minutes in a bench role for the Trail Blazers. He shot 18-of-40 - a tidy 45 percent - from long distance. He was a capable ball-handler and playmaker. And yet, whether you blame Olshey or Terry Stotts or whomever, for some reason he only played 13 minutes a night. He was probably capable of playing double that, but he never got the chance until much later in the year, when Matthews and Afflalo were both battling injuries.
Post-July 2015, when the Blazers were headed for a rebuild and McCollum was obviously a big part of their future, Olshey and everyone else in the Blazers' organization began singing McCollum's praises incessantly. He's a really important piece, they said. He's a rising star, they said. Well, it has to be asked - why couldn't he have risen sooner? Why did the Blazers have to spend a first-round pick on another shooting guard instead of just trusting him?
There's no doubt that overall, Olshey is a great evaluator of talent. That's the line that people repeat about him all the time, and it's merited. It was, after all, Olshey's foresight that led the Blazers to take McCollum at No. 10 overall in 2013, sandwiched in between No. 9 Trey Burke and No. 11 Michael Carter-Williams. Olshey has also found great value in trades and free agent signings, as last summer's restructuring around Aminu, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis was masterfully carried out. The one blind spot Olshey has shown, however, is in his ability to value draft picks properly. That was evident last night.
You can do great things with draft picks in this league, whether they're lottery protected or not. For proof, take a look at the starting lineups from Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. Golden State had a five-man unit built entirely around homegrown guys they picked between slots 7 and 35 - Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli. Cleveland, meanwhile, had a lineup built entirely around top-4 picks - three homegrown players they picked that high (Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson) and two others (Kevin Love, J.R. Smith) they acquired by trading top-4 picks (Andrew Wiggins, Dion Waiters).
The point is that draft picks are always valuable in team-building, and lottery protection isn't all it's cracked up to be. Just because you guard against losing a top-14 pick doesn't mean you're protecting all the value you can. Every pick has the potential to lead to big things. You never know when the No. 35 guy will turn into the next Draymond.
Team-building with no picks in the top 46, though? That's rough. It hamstrings your ability to add talent, forcing you to be even smarter in free agency to compensate. That portion of the summer begins a week from today, and it will be the next test for Olshey - it's a test he passed with flying colors last year, but without much of a rookie class in his corner this time around, he'll need to ace it again.