It was only two summers ago that fresh off of another LeBron-led meltdown in the postseason (How long ago does that feel right now?), and on the twilight of an intimidating standoff between the NBA owners and players union which led to a five-month lockout, we had that blasted NBA Draft to get past first. The draft gets much pomp and circumstance depending on whose rights were at stake in the lottery, but not this time. Cleveland’s lottery win was met with more “meh” than “Yeah!” nationwide, even if they took a surefire All-Star at number one in Kyrie Irving. It was treated by most pundits as an afterthought not only because of the impending lockout but also because of the presumed lack of game-changing prospects and tightly coiled calm from team GM’s scared to death of taking on any money leading up to the new collective bargaining agreement. There was also the preconception of many star freshmen in 2011 in college (Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes) going back for their sophomore seasons due to the dim outlook of an NBA season even getting off the ground in 2012, creating an even bigger dearth in the 2011 crop. Irving went #1, Jimmer went to the Kings, do-it-all NCAA champion Kemba Walker went to the Bobcats, a guy named Biyombo got picked way higher than people thought, and that was about it, right?
Well, if you look deeper, not so much. The trade between the Spurs and Pacers in which they swapped George Hill and Kawhi Leonard (pick #15) was a game changer for both teams down the road. The Heat, Knicks and Bulls each got valuable reserves for established rosters in Norris Cole, Iman Shumpert and Jimmy Butler, respectively. Chandler Parsons, one of the most improved players in the league this season, fell all the way to the second round and got snagged by the Rockets. Other valuable rookies included the Nuggets getting Kenneth Faried, fresh off a stunning upset over Louisville in the NCAA tournament while he was at Morehead State, sharpshooter Klay Thompson to the Warriors, girth of all trades Tobias Harris to the Bucks, rebounding machine Nikola Vucevic to the Sixers, and, in the final pick of the whole draft, little guy/lightning rod Isaiah Thomas to the Kings.
Two years of removal from a draft is not perfect sampling (Remember how “fabled” the ’99 draft was in the pages of Slam magazine for years?), but that is a lot of strength and later-round depth for a draft that was infamously ignored even as it was happening. Why? Because the 2012 draft was just sooooooooo much better. And maybe last year’s “loaded” draft class will wind up being a good bit better than the 2011 class, but why am I bringing any of this up? Well, because just like a bad Denzel Washington movie (and no, I am not talking about Out of Time), I am getting a weird case of deja vu.
The 2013 draft, by many experts’ opinions, is merely the appetizer to the main course that is the 2014 draft with Andrew Wiggins being the delicious dessert. It’s an understandable projection: If the incoming high school class gets an exceptional grade, the one-and-done’s alongside returning underclassmen like Marcus Smart at Oklahoma State compound to make a peak the following year for the valleys that you are expected to drudge through the year before. But that is a dangerous and epidemic misconception in the most recent years of “off/on” critiques for the talent pools available. If you told me that 2011 was plenty behind the 2012 selections, I could make a pretty good argument otherwise. There may be no Wiggins, Smart, Jabari Parker or any other starter on next season’s Kentucky squad, but sellers may want to beware as well. There might be hidden gold in ‘dem muddy valleys, too.
Now, does it mean that all twenty members of Dan Gilbert’s family need to huff and puff like Eagles fans in The Silver Linings Playbook (or even scarier, Eagles fans in general) when they win a seemingly forgettable #1 pick? Probably not, and the bold prediction that Cleveland will not be going back to the lottery next time was probably ill-advised. But the risk of missing out on a star in weaker fields like this year’s can be just as risky as the ones where you take Greg Oden over Kevin Durant (Well, maybe not that much of a fuck-up, but you get my point). What if the Cavs passed on Irving and tried to plug in the abandoned SF spot thanks to “LeBron-ageddon” and they took Derrick Williams, a slasher who has already worn out his welcome in Minnesota? GM Dan Grant probably would have been shown the door by Gilbert along with recently-fired head coach Byron Scott. Second-guessing doesn’t hurt less when we talk about depth of the class. If you miss out on a star, the mistake hurts just as much. That is where the Cavs sit for a second time. They got it right last time with Irving, and now here we go again…
#1- Cleveland Cavaliers- Nerlens Noel, C Kentucky
Cleveland just fired a coach (Byron Scott) who was so bad that they are replacing him with the coach he was meant to replace from the beginning, Mike Brown. This reunion is more of a level-headed one: Brown is a good defensive coach who was in high-anxiety situations when he coached LeBron and that ungodly thing they called the Lakers this past season. No talk of rings dancing in the owner’s head this time, and Brown likes it that way for now. Brown always values a traditional big man who can plug up the paint (Remember, he got his start coaching Duncan’s Spurs to a title as an assistant in ’03). He took Ben Wallace’s awful contract, a tired Shaq, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas for those roles in playoff runs in Cleveland and got the most out of Andrew Bynum in L.A. They still need a small forward to replace LeBron three years later, but that might wait until free agency or the next draft. Noel has been the consensus number one pick in many people’s eyes since last summer when the defensive eraser and Kid N’ Play enthusiast committed to John Calipari’s scholastic pro camp. The previous dweller at the center spot there was Player of the Year and 2012 #1 pick Anthony Davis, and Noel is perceived as an even better shot blocker. I don’t see that compared to Davis, but Noel’s 4.4 blocks per game average is pretty scary for guards floating in the lane. His scoring is very raw (moreso than even Davis’, who can make jump shots and free-throws at a decent clip), and he tore his ACL in February, pushing his expected debut to the Christmas time-frame. Anderson Varejao’s rebounding numbers last season were spectacular, but he has always fit better at the power forward spot where he can move more, and his time is almost up there. The other red flag is the fact that Noel checked in at just over 200 pounds at the combine, incredibly light for a perennial center of the future. But then again, Kevin Durant looked like a stick in the 2007 combine, too. Noel is riskier than even Irving was, who had missed most of his freshman season at Duke to a toe injury, but his talent at Kentucky shows enough upside to take the pick. I just hope they use some of that enormous cap room they have to give him another established big in the paint to go with Noel and Tristan Thompson (And no, Maureese Speights is not the answer, either). There is growing concern about Noel’s management decisions leading up to the draft along with the chance that Cleveland will take big man Alex Len or trade out, but no one will give up what Cleveland would ask back for the #1 spot, so Cleveland will keep the pick and likely take Noel.
#2- Orlando Magic- Victor Oladipo, SG Indiana
The Magic got through their first post-Dwight season with not a lot to write home about, as most expected. They did swing a steal of a deal by getting Tobias Harris in exchange for J.J. Redick, who was going to go sign elsewhere in the summer anyway, and Harris played out of his mind in the last couple of months. And if I told you that the team that got the most production out of that mega blockbuster trade between the Lakers, Magic, Nuggets, and Sixers would have been the Magic, you would have never believed me, but they almost did (The Lakers still have Dwight, but the Sixers completely got toasted on the deal [Editor’s note: the Sixers were not winning a title with Iguodala so gambling on one of the best centers (at the time) in Bynum and having the inside track to re-sign him was the correct, and smart move – Brad]). Noel would have been a perfect fit for Orlando (who had the best odds of winning the pick) to play alongside the thicker and more rebound-heavy Vucevic, but there is a small chance of the Cavaliers passing on Noel. I originally had Trey Burke in this spot a month ago, but I am going to switch it with probably the most talented player overall and another Big Ten blue chipper in Victor Oladipo. He has grown by leaps and bounds since he arrived at Indiana, displaying amazing athleticism and very efficient shooting numbers his junior year. In the really big games, Oladipo played his best ball, so you know he’s a gamer. Magic Johnson himself saw him and compared his athleticism to Jordan’s, which is quite the compliment. I think he is like Luc Mbah a Moute but with a smoother offensive game and more determination. If head coach Jacque Vaughn wants to commit to small ball and move Arron Afflalo to the small forward position with Oladipo at the 2 spot that could work, too. My question about Oladipo is if he can guard small forwards consistently on switches. He can defend any guard and his shot blocking on the weak side is amazing. McLemore is definitely a possibility here, too.
#3- Washington Wizards- Otto Porter, SF Georgetown
Again, McLemore takes another potential step downward due to the dreaded “need-isms” of draft time. The Wizards showed immense improvement when John Wall (Another Calipari #1 pick from the 2010 draft) turned it up after sitting the beginning of the season to a knee operation. His numbers were improved across the board, and rookie Bradley Beal got tons of starting time this season in place of the injured Wall. When Wall and Beal got lined up together, magic happened more often than not. So, no silky guards needed here, the vacancy is taken. Porter is a perfect fit for them, to the point that I have yet to see the Wiz take anyone but Porter in every mock draft I have seen so far. Georgetown swingmen and big guys have had a steady track record in the last six years with Roy Hibbert, Jeff Green, and Greg Monroe (Well, let’s pretend DaJuan Summers never happened, okay?!). The defense of the Wizards was their strongest suit down the stretch, shockingly, and Porter can provide more length to keep that going. Porter got massively criticized for his lack of assertiveness at Georgetown, but I blame bad coaching for that more than most (Remember when Monroe’s squad lost to Ohio by double digits in the first round in 2010? No one else does either). The league has a great way of getting the most of the guys who are lying in wait for their time to shine. Harrison Barnes is a red-letter example of this as he had some breakout performances in the postseason for the Warriors after doing practically nothing at North Carolina and for most of the regular season. I think Porter can do that, too. Trevor Ariza: See ya, bud!
#4- Charlotte Bobcats- Ben McLemore, SG Kansas
It would feel really good for the Bobcats (soon to rename their team back to the Hornets) to get the better end of the draft at least one time. Even on their inaugural pick at #2 in 2004, they lost out on Dwight and took a (now) glorified journeyman in Emeka Okafor. The only draft pick they hit a home run on wasn’t even a rookie draft pick, it was the expansion draft in 2004 when they took Gerald Wallace from the Kings. Losing the #1 pick and Anthony Davis to New Orleans really hurt, although Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was not a total disaster (At least Charlotte can fall back on the fact that the Hornets did win the lottery that year, just in a different city). A D.J. Augustin here, a Gerald Henderson there, and voila, you have this hot mess of a team, owned by the greatest player of all-time in Michael Jordan. Perhaps the change back to teal on their logos will get things going again in Charlotte, especially if they get McLemore, who, to me, is the most talented player on the board. I know it looks like I am falling for a guy who disappeared in the NCAA tournament, but dammit, take the best player available! They do need size still, and Alex Len and Cody Zeller will be on the board, but I think they will pass on size and give Biyombo another year to prove himself. I read a couple of writers claim that the Bobcats are set at shooting guard with Gerald Henderson. Fuck. No. They are not. I don’t even think they are set at the point with Kemba if he continues with the awful turnovers and three-point shooting. McLemore is an instant upgrade, even though GM’s have images of Xavier Henry running through their heads when they watch his lack of aggression sometimes. If this guy falls to them at #4, Charlotte wins a draft, for once.
#5- Phoenix Suns- Anthony Bennett, SF/PF UNLV
Ugh, the Suns were awful last season when the clock went past midnight on the Steve Nash era. Other teams had worse records, but this was definitely the worst team I saw this past year. Alvin Gentry got out while he could, leaving Lindsey Hunter to fight off the dogs in the interim with a team that had village idiot Michael Beasley, the Morris twins, an old Luis Scola, and Jared Dudley at… shooting guard? No wonder they stunk. Jeff Hornacek is the newly appointed head coach coming from Utah, which rebuilt their team with a gluttony of skilled big men after the Deron Williams trade. I think he might see some of Paul Millsap’s shooting and Al Jefferson’s backside in Anthony Bennett, who was the next best freshman in college after Noel, McLemore, and Smart. His offensive efficiency early in the season was off the charts, and he can shoot better than expected. A lot of people are thinking Victor Oladipo going to Phoenix, but I am taking my first road not traveled with Bennett. He hurt his shoulder before the workouts, so no summer league for this guy. We’ll have to wait to see what he can do in November, because he will probably play right away when they dump salary in the offseason. This team will be back in the lottery, for sure.