Draft-Brewed Goodness: A Look Back, and A Look Ahead

Adam Underhill


The Minnesota Timberwolves have just selected the first-drafted NBA player (Spain’s Ricky Rubio) who was born in the 1990s. Rubio, the number five pick, just donned his Minnesota hat and sat down with ESPN’s Mark Jones for an obligatory “you’re rich now, how are you feeling” TV chit-chat. Jones, predictably, asked Rubio about the Lakers’ Pao Gasol, another Spanish player, and Rubio gave him an athlete’s stock response about being his own man and having his own style. This is the kind of disappointing television that results from a 24-hour sports news cycle. Had ESPN wanted to make the mini-interview interesting, Jones would have instead asked, “Ricky, Michael Jackson died of a heart attack today. As an 18-year old, do you even have any idea who that is? I’ll give you a hint: He did not play in the NBA.”

Remarkably, though, the NBA draft moves along at a refreshingly brisk pace; would that an actual NBA game flowed so swimmingly. Compared with the monolith NFL draft, it’s a summer breeze. The NFL draft, like an octopus, stretches its news-tentacles from April outward, through those non-football months when people used to talk about baseball, golf, and tax returns. The draft itself, a two-day event, is a bit of an anti-climax, each player having been micro-analyzed as though they were applying to be FBI field agents.

The NBA draft pops its head out of the ground just a few days after the end of the Finals, contains only two rounds, and puts each team on the clock for only five minutes. It moves so fast that I barely have a chance to write anything about each pick. Well, that, and I hardly know anything about each pick. In a game where one player can turn around a franchise, fans actually have a right to get pissed and boo when their team makes a boneheaded move. The NBA draft also contains the potential for trades – real trades, featuring actual players and not just future draft picks. Guaranteed contracts mean teams are always looking to cut payroll or add a missing piece to the puzzle. Today, the big trade involved Shaquille O’Neal, who will be playing alongside LeBron James in Cleveland next season. That’s the first thing I want to discuss.

First, I understand why the Cavaliers did it. Imagine, for a moment, that you’re Cavs GM Danny Ferry. (I know. Just try.) Your team cruised to a 66-16 record, and was feeling confident and ready to take on the mighty Celtics in the playoffs. The Celtics lose Kevin Garnett and get bounced by the Magic, who go on to surprise the Cavs in the conference finals. Now, suddenly, Cleveland has a new team (Orlando) and a new All-Star (Dwight Howard) to plan around if it wants to get back to the Finals. The ferocity with which Howard ripped down rebounds probably gave Cleveland pause, as it did just about anybody who watched him. This guy actually hustles, on both ends? This is the NBA, dammit. Who does this guy think he is?

The Cavs also have one more guaranteed year of LeBron before he becomes a free agent, and they need to show they did everything under the sun to help him get a ring so that he’ll have a reason to stay in Cleveland instead of, I don’t know, sign with the Nets and become the cornerstone of the first major pro sports team in Brooklyn in 52 years. Ferry had to go for broke, and he saw staring him in the face Shaq, the four-time champion, 12-time All-Star, and terrible movie star, coming off his best season in four years, and with one year left on his contract. If Ferry didn’t pull the trigger on this, and the Cavs come up short again, he’d wind up in Cleveland’s Hall of Shame, along with Craig Ehlo, Mike Hargrove, Marty Schottenheimer, and Shawn Kemp. (Ok, Shawn Kemp didn’t fool anybody in Cleveland into believing in a title, but let’s just put him there anyway.) Considering what Ferry gave up for an aging Shaq (an aging Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, and a second-rounder), it probably made too much sense. Plus, having O’Neal around won’t hurt ticket sales, not that that’s a problem with King James on the court.

And yet, do you see this ending well? Do you see O’Neal, who is 37, out-hustling Howard, who is 23, on either end of the floor? Do you think O’Neal will play 75 games, like he did last year, or do you think he’ll miss at least 21 games, as has been the case the previous three? And, as CNNSI’s Steve Aschburner pointed out, do you envision O’Neal, who has pursued and landed in greener pastures four times now, encouraging James to hang around Cleveland? Especially when O’Neal himself could be gone? Well? Do you? Huh?

Here is what I see: Something fewer than 66 regular season games won, shaky confidence in the playoffs, a loss in the conference semifinals, Shaq retiring and LeBron heading for New York City. I’ll follow up on this next May.

I’ve just realized 26 picks have gone by since I started typing, and I couldn’t tell you who went where. I did notice, however, that a guy from Tanzania and a guy from Israel were drafted.

I also know that Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin was chosen first overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. This does not bode well for Griffin, as the Clippers are quite possibly the worst franchise in all of sports. It doesn’t bode well for the Clippers, because, well, nothing ever bodes well for the Clippers. That’s why they’re so awful.

And now, a look back at the last ten #1 picks in the NBA draft.

1999: Elton Brand, Chicago Bulls. With a career 20/10 average, Brand has been solid for most of his NBA tenure. The Bulls traded him after two seasons to the Clippers for Brian Skinner and Tyson Chandler; lose-lose as Odom languished in L.A. while Chicago turned Chandler into J.R. Smith and P.J. Brown (remember him?), then traded Smith for two second-rounders and Howard Eisley (remember him??). Meanwhile, Brand purportedly screwed over the Clippers by assuring them he’d re-sign in 2008 if they landed a big name free agent. Los Angeles signed Baron Davis, and Brand signed with Philly. On the plus side: Brand’s production company produced Rescue Dawn, a film by Werner Herzog starring Christian Bale and Steve Zahn, which I recommend. Summed up in a few words, Brand is good for 20 and 10 a night, he got away from the Clippers, and produced a quality film.

2000: Kenyon Martin, New Jersey. When Joel Pyrzbilla is in the top ten, you know it’s a weak draft. Martin has been a solid contributor with the Nets and Nuggets, but a bit of a head case. He’s just a one-time All-Star, a record incommensurate with the ballyhoo he received coming out of the University of Cincinnati.

2001: Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards. Team President Michael Jordan proves that those who win championships don’t necessarily know how to build championship teams. Brown has average 7.1 points with four teams since this draft.

2002: Yao Ming, Houston Rockets. Yao was drafted ahead of Amare Stoudamire. At first I thought, if the Rockets could, would they do it the same way a second time? Then I looked at Yao’s numbers: He hits 52% of his field goals, 83% of his free throws, and scores just under 20 a game. The Rockets have been in the playoffs as many times as the Suns since 2002. Yao/Rockets merchandise probably sells like hot cakes in China. Hell, it’s probably all made in China. Win-win.

2003: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. The biggest no-brainer since Vito Corleone picked Michael over Fredo. That’s not to say the rest of the draft was Fredo – quite the opposite. In any other year, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, and possibly Chris Bosh, could have been #1 picks. (Detroit Piston fans just collectively threw up in their mouths a little.) LeBron’s that good. He currently averages 27.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game in Cleveland, where he’s been to the Finals once (losing to San Antonio). Call him the Anti-Kwame Brown.

2004: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. He’s also been to and lost one Finals, in 2009. Howard is the breakout star of the year from a marketing standpoint, though he’s been solid his whole career. It’s worth mentioning that the #2 pick was Emeka Okafor, who has been serviceable with the Charlotte Bobcats. Well, every part of that sentence was worth mentioning except for “Charlotte Bobcats.”

2005: Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks. It’s hard to call Bogut a “bust” when he’s played solid ball for four seasons (with some injury setbacks). It’s hard to call him a success either, considering he was the consensus #1 pick going in and has been since outshone by Deron Williams (#3) and Chris Paul (#4). But the Bucks probably wouldn’t have taken those players had they not taken Bogut; the only question at the time was whether Marvin Williams of UNC might be the better pick.

2006: Quick – which team had the first pick? Whom did they select? Where did he play before the NBA? Is he still playing? Do you think his name makes him sound like a professional basketball player, or a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model? Do you even remember what you were doing in 2006? This was also the year Crash won Best Picture. Does that help? No? Let’s move on.

2007: Greg Oden, Portland Trail Blazers. We’re in the “it’s too early to tell” portion. Oden sat out his rookie year with an injury, then scored 8.9 ppg last year. Kevin Durant, chosen second by Seattle, has been terrific, averaging 20 his rookie year and 25 last year with The Team Formerly Known As The Sonics. The team was hijacked and taken to a tiny Midwestern market, where it plays under a name and logo so clearly brainstormed and focus-grouped by a consortium of marketing experts, yet so vapid and unimaginative, it does not deserve mention, other than alongside similarly contrived endeavors like Surge soda, or the movie Crash.

2008: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls. Yes, it’s early, even earlier than for the earlier paragraph, but Rose had a terrific rookie year, and elevated his game in the playoffs. It already seems like a long time ago, but remember that the Bulls stretched the Celtics to seven games in round one. In Game 1, Rose’s first playoff game, he dished 11 assists to go along with 36 points in an overtime win. The 36 points were tied for the most by a rookie in his playoff debut (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee).

As you can see, it’s a mixed bag. There’s no sure thing in the NBA, but we’ll know more in a few months, when the days are short and the air is crisp. For now, let’s take a break, turn up the music, check the baseball standings, and go for a swim.