The Cerberus Conundrum: Crafting the NBA Draft

By: Dan Grant

Hey, it’s NBA draft day!

While this is always a wonderful day, generally filled with a stupendous combination of roster moves and rumour, a certain unpleasantness is omnipresent. As per usual, some of the most typically disastrous draft pick archetypes have reared their heads. These situations seem to repeat themselves year after year and while the draft is always a crap shoot, you’d like to think that maybe NBA executives have learned something from past mistakes. They never seem to do so however; since every year is a  fresh slate for the most part, and because front office jobs are swapped out so regularly, GMs and scouts are often of the mind that they’re smarter than their predecessors. And you’d think that would be true.

However, regardless of who is in charge, again this year we see prospects falling into the same batch of archetypes. It’s like a merry-go-round, except the horses are dumbass executives and nobody is having any fun. This year, as a sample, we’ve got:

  •  “The Project” (Noah Vonleh): a player with mediocre stats but dripping with athleticism. Do these guys ever work out? Kevin Garnett says yes but Stromile Swift says, holy hell, is it worth the risk?
  • “The International Man of Mystery” (Dante Exum), who nobody has ever seen play against ‘real’ competition. At least he’s not pulling a Yi Jianlian and playing against a chair.
  • “The Franchise Centre” (Joel Embiid), who invariably has a litany of injury concerns. Shaq, Kareem, Hakeem and Ewing were all taken near the top of their draft, but so were Greg Oden, Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown.

Sometimes these picks work out and sometimes they crash with the fury of a thousand suns, but they always seem to be present in some form or another.

That being said, for the first time in many years, there is an embarrassment of riches in the top ten picks. The talent pool is astonishingly deep and the top of the draft is particularly strong and unusual in its parity. When it comes down to it, though, traditionally one of three “top of the draft” scenarios present themselves:

1. The Superhero – There is a clear-cut, consensus number one pick, that teams would do anything to get. In recent years, think LeBron James or Anthony Davis.

2. The Two-Headed Monster – There are two clear cut guys above the rest and the NBA world is on fire debating between the two. These debates usually wind up with a clear winner. Dwight Howard wound up being far better than Emeka Okafor and we all know how the Oden/Durant battle turned out. People also forget that there was a time when Derrick Rose vs. Michael Beasley was a real debate. No, really.

3. The Poop Sandwich – There is no clear cut choice and the team with the first pick is in a no win situation, because the fifth pick could potentially be better than the first. Yes, Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Bennett, everyone is looking at you right now.

Look at most draft years and you can peg them into one of these three holes. Even if the picks don’t wind up working out, pre-draft, these are usually the mindsets. However, this year has wrought a new scenario: The Three Headed Monster! At the risk of sounding like a Robert Ludlum novel, we’ll call it the Cerberus Conundrum. 

Wait, did he just compare us to a mythical dog?

Wait, did he just compare us to a mythical three-headed dog monster?

Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid can all lay claim to being the top pick in the draft. Unlike the Poop Sandwich, this is a good thing because all three are considered as close to ‘Can’t Miss’ Prospects as you can get. That said, all three have potential red flags, be it in their mentality (Wiggins), their game (Parker) or their health (Embiid). Only time can tell us what the right pick is, but it sure is fun as hell to speculate.

In a lot of draft previews, the writer/broadcaster will tell you what they would do. I think that’s worse than useless. You’re behind a goddamn desk! Nobody cares what you would do. They want to know what the teams picking will actually do. So that’s what we’re going to do here. We’ll take a look at each of the top 5 picks and the history of those picks – the highlights, low-lights and everything in between. Then, we’ll try and figure out what exactly this years top 5 picks might look like.

I’ve separated past picks into delightful rhyming groupings! Just a quick note- these picks are my opinion and they are relative to one another. If one pick has a particularly strong set of players, a player might slip from ‘Cream of the Crop’ to ‘Didn’t Quite Pop’. See what I mean about the rhyming? Also, pre-draft expectations matter. Chris Webber was expected to be the greatest power forward of all time. He wasn’t. So he drops down a level for me. Also the ‘Didn’t Quite Pop’ guys may have had perfectly acceptable NBA careers! They just didn’t wind up being franchise guys or championship contributors like their ‘Cream’ counterparts.

When you do an NBA draft deep dive, you find some hilarious things. You see a preponderance of 6’9, 230 lb guys that look like Karl Malone’s less talented brother and played like it too. You see a bevy of slow white guards who couldn’t play in an evolving league. You myriad five to seven year careers that started out well and fell off for no particular reason, also known as cocaine and/or injury problems or possibly, an injury sustained while high on cocaine. You see some great nicknames as well. Please, can we re-purpose ‘Dr. Dunkenstein’ and ‘Silk’? Silk Durant! I’m sold.

Feel free to disagree with any or all of these statements! And then get the hell out of here and get your own column.

THE FIFTH PICK

Cream of the Crop: Scottie Pippen, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Charles Barkley, Mitch Richmond, Kevin Love, Vince Carter, Steve Smith, DeMarcus Cousins

Didn’t Quite Pop: Juwan Howard, Jason Richardson, Mike Miller, Isaiah Rider, Jeff Green, Devin Harris, Raymond Felton, Tony Battie, LaPhonso Ellis

Can They Rise to the Top?: Jonas Valanciunas, Thomas Robinson, Alex Len, Ricky Rubio

Stink of the Slop: Kenny Walker, Shelden Williams, Jonathan Bender, Nickoloz Tskitishvili, Kendall Gill, J.R. Reid, Jon Koncak, Sidney Green, Danny Vranes, James Ray (monumental bust alert!)

This year? The Utah Jazz select, from Oklahoma State, guard Marcus Smart

The history of the number five pick is interesting. As you can see, Hall of Fame players (current and future) have been picked here in spades- a lot of the time talented players slip down the board to teams that are eager to snatch them up at five. Scottie Pippen was picked behind David Robinson (1st) but was also picked behind three guys you’ll find listed in the ‘Stink of the Slop’ category for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th picks. The bottom line is that there is often franchise-changing talent still available – a top three pick isn’t everything.

This year, this was the toughest pick to call. A lot of draft boards have the Jazz taking Noah Vonleh here or Embiid if he slips. Utah already has two young big men in Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors however, and Vonleh is destined to be a power forward. I think Marcus Smart will ultimately wind up playing shooting guard in the NBA. If you look at this body and his game, he could be an elite two, at a position that is beginning to look beyond sparse. He can’t shoot – at all – but if he can develop that part of his game, he could be part of a fantastic back-court pairing with Trey Burke. They could theoretically go with Gary Harris or Elfrid Payton, who is rocketing up some draft boards. Or if they’re feeling Taxi Driver crazy, Zach LaVine, who could be the biggest boom or bust talent in the draft- regardless, they need to go small. Smart is a ruthless competitor who plays with an edge. I like him for the Jazz here.

5th overall?! Hey ladies, let's have a party!

“I’m going 5th overall?! Hey ladies, let’s have a party!”

THE FOURTH PICK

Cream of the Crop: Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, Dikembe Mutombo, Russell Westbrook, Rasheed Wallace, Glen Rice, Mike Conley, Antawn Jamison, Lamar Odom, Byron Scott, Sam Perkins

Didn’t Quite Pop: Stephon Marbury, Chuck Person, Xavier McDaniel, Tyreke Evans, Donyell Marshall, Dennis Scott, Jamal Mashburn, Antonio Daniels, Drew Gooden, Chris Morris, Shaun Livingston

Can They Rise to the Top?: Cody Zeller, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson

Stink of the Slop: Kelvin Ransey, Eddy Curry, Tyrus Thomas, Wesley Johnson, Marcus Fizer, Jimmy Jackson, Reggie Williams, Bill Garnett, Al Wood

This year? The Orlando Magic select, from Australia, point guard Dante Exum

The fourth pick is historically where teams start taking chances. Russell Westbrook was projected as the 10th pick about a week before the draft, until Sam Presti swung for the fences. Chris Bosh was taken by Toronto over Dwyane Wade because they already had Vince Carter.

A lot of draft boards have had Exum going to the Magic for weeks but lately he’s been slipping down towards Boston or LA (6 and 7 respectively) because he’s ‘The International Man of Mystery’. I think Orlando takes him anyway, because he fits so perfectly with Victor Oladipo. They compliment each other size and skill-wise; Oladipo is undersized and Exum is huge. They can both play on or off the ball, giving Orlando rarely seen versatility and athleticism from their guards. People are over-thinking things. Exum to Orlando!

No no no... you don't pass on Mutombo at 4.

No no no… you don’t pass on Mutombo at 4.

THE THIRD PICK

Cream of the Crop: Michael Jordan, Kevin McHale, Dominique Wilkins, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, Pau Gasol, Al Horford, James Harden, Baron Davis, Jerry Stackhouse, Buck Williams, Deron Williams (I guess…)

Didn’t Quite Pop: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Ben Gordon, Mike Dunleavy, Christian Laettner, Sean Elliott, O.J. Mayo, Charles Smith, Benoit Benjamin, Rodney McCray

Can They Rise to the Top?: Bradley Beal (looking good!), Otto Porter (not so much), Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors

Stink of the Slop: Adam Morrison, Darius Miles, Raef LaFrentz, Billy Owens, Mahmud Abdul-Rauf (Chris Jackson), Dennis Hopson, Chris Washburn

This year: The Philadelphia 76ers select, from Kansas, centre Joel Embiid. (Because they have to!)

The third pick produced Michael Jordan. It also produced Adam Morrison and Darius Miles. If any pick shows you just what a roll of the dice the NBA lottery is, it’s number three.

This year, this is where things get really interesting. Embiid is a sublimely talented big man, a potential once in a generation talent who, before his injuries (back and foot stress fractures… yikes), was generating whispered comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, the most athletic centre of all-time. The thing is, the 76ers don’t want Joel Embiid. They just spent a year with a big man lottery pick sitting out because of injury with Nerlens Noel. Noel is nowhere near the talent Embiid is; he may never be more than a defensive minded rotation big man. That said, Embiid and Noel might not fit particularly well together, if it came to that. I think the 76ers will do everything they can to move up to the first pick so they can grab Andrew Wiggins, who is the player they really covet. However, the Cavs might not be interested in taking an injury-prone big man if they’re trying to lure LeBron back to town. Philly would have to give up a lot (their own pick plus Thaddeus Young?) to move up ahead of Milwaukee. If they stay put, Philly can’t just pass on Embiid.

Or can they? While some draft boards have Dante Exum slipping lower in the draft, ESPN’s draft guru Chad Ford recently raved on the BS Report that he thinks Philly should take Exum at 3 – he’s a project since he’s only 18 years old but Ford thinks he has the potential to be the best player in the draft. He would give the Sixers a potentially devastating backcourt, paired with reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams.

I have Embiid slotted here but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam Hinkie and the Philly front office shocked everyone by taking Exum. If this happens, who knows how far Embiid might fall.

Funnily enough, Michael Jordan was responsible for both these slop monsters

Funnily enough, MJ himself was responsible for drafting both these stinky slop monsters.

THE SECOND PICK

Cream of the Crop: Jason Kidd, Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton, Kevin Durant, Alonzo Mourning, LaMarcus Aldridge, Mike Bibby, Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler

Didn’t Quite Pop: Antonio McDyess, Terry Cummings, Rik Smits,  Kenny Anderson, Keith Van Horn, Steve Francis, Evan Turner, Darrell Griffith, Emeka Okafor, Armen Gilliam, Wayman Tisdale, Steve Stipanovich

Tragic, no rhymes: Len Bias, Jay Williams

Can They Rise to the Top?: Victor Oladipo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Stink of the Slop: Darko Milicic, Marvin Williams, Derrick Williams, Stromile Swift, Michael Beasley, Hasheem Thabeet, Danny Ferry, Sam Bowie

This yearThe Milwaukee Bucks select, from Duke, forward Jabari Parker.

The second pick is often referred to as the ‘worst’ pick a team can have; when there’s a clear cut number one choice, you’re stuck picking from the best of the rest. When there isn’t, you don’t even get the first shot at the Poop Sandwich. It’s generally a lose-lose.

Except this year. This year, Milwaukee is going to get Jabari Parker, who is the most talented pure scorer in the draft. He often gets comparisons to Carmelo Anthony and those are legit. He’s listed as a small forward but he’s actually really big; he’s going to wind up playing a lot of power forward, particularly on defense. He can score in a million different ways, he demands the ball on the floor and he’s the most NBA ready player to come out of college in a long time. He’s also a black hole on defense and has been maligned for looking out of shape during workouts, with some suspecting he actually purposely tanked his Cleveland workout.  There may have been an ulterior motive here; a Chicago native, Parker wants to play in Milwaukee, which is just a couple hours from his hometown. I think he’ll get his wish and probably win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. Five years from now? Unless there are major changes to his two-way game, I think the Bucks will wish Embiid had stayed healthy so they could have grabbed Andrew Wiggins.

Both these guys went first overall. Go figure.

Both these guys went first overall. Go figure.

THE FIRST PICK

Cream of the Crop: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, James Worthy, Bill Walton and Anthony Davis/John Wall (so far).

Didn’t Quite Pop: Chris Webber, Yao Ming, Elton Brand, Mark Aguirre, Andrew Bogut, Larry Johnson, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Coleman, Kenyon Martin, Joe Barry Carroll, Joe Smith, Danny Manning, Glenn Robinson, Brad Daugherty, Ralph Sampson

Can They Rise to the Top?: Derrick Rose (here’s hoping post-injury he can get back up to the Cream), Anthony Bennett

Stink of the Slop: Greg Oden, Michael Olowokandi, Pervis Ellison, Kwame Brown, Andrea Bargnani

This year: The Cleveland Cavaliers select from Kansas, small forward Andrew Wiggins

If you count up the names, nailing a franchise player is less than a 50/50 proposition. It’s not automatic by any stretch of the imagination.

If the Cavaliers are too afraid to take Joel Embiid because of his injuries (and who could blame them?), then they have to take Wiggins. They have to. Jabari Parker makes zero sense for their team; he plays the same position as Anthony Bennett, who Cleveland can’t give up on after just one season. He has the same limitations as Bennett also, in that he’s a four masquerading as a three. They also have Tristan Thompson; adding Parker would create a logjam. The Cavaliers were an atrocious defensive team last year. Wiggins is an NBA ready defender who will grow into his offensive game. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands, which is a good thing on a team with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. He also has the highest ceiling of any player in the draft. There have been questions about his mentality, that he’s not assertive enough. What I see is a guy who went into Kansas to be a team player, who played in a system and who, given the abundance of open court and better spacing in the NBA, will excel at the next level.

He might be a guy who doesn’t make the leap until year two or year three but Andrew Wiggins needs to be your number one pick in 2014.

Andrew Wiggins is going to Wonderland!

Andrew Wiggins is going to Wonderland!

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