Are we getting worse at the NBA draft?

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USA Today

Are we getting worse at the NBA draft?

The Toronto Raptors just won an NBA championship without a single lottery pick on the roster. It’s true. Kawhi Leonard, the Finals MVP, was picked 15th. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka were all picked at the back of the first round. Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw were second-rounders. Fred VanVleet and Jeremy Lin weren’t even drafted. 

Not a single top-10 pick on the team. When asked about this stunner of a fact ahead of the NBA Finals, Gasol told reporters the draft was so important to him that he was actually asleep when he found out he was selected 48th in 2007. And now he’s a champion and NBA Defensive Player of the Year.


    Said Gasol: “I don’t know what it says about the draft.”

    On the topic, Lowry, who was picked 24th by Memphis in 2006, told the Toronto Sun: “Picks don’t mean anything.”

    It certainly seems that way, to an extent. Not only was the Finals MVP drafted outside the lottery, but so was the presumptive regular-season MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was drafted 15th overall in 2013. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, was drafted 27th by Denver and traded for the 46th pick and cash. The DPOY before him, Draymond Green, was a second-rounder himself.

    On the other side of the equation, we’ve had two massive misfires at the No.1 pick in the last six drafts. Just 20 months after being the top pick in 2017, Markelle Fultz was traded for Jonathon Simmons and what will likely be a few second-rounders. Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013, is out of the league.

    Lottery teams prepare countless reports, stay up ungodly hours and talk to hundreds of people to help identify the next star. Teams have more data than ever and, with social media, more insight into a player’s mindset and personality traits. And yet, the draft seems as much of a crapshoot as ever and lottery teams continue to miss on stars. Just look at the NBA champions.

    As we’re getting ready for Thursday night, we have to ask ourselves: Are we getting worse at the draft?

    * * *

    The NBA draft has always been a difficult enterprise. Clifton McNeely, the very first pick of the very first draft back in 1947 (when it was called the Basketball Association of America/BAA) never actually played a single game in the NBA. Instead, he decided to coach high school basketball. (Imagine if Zion Williamson did that).

    There have been busts and always will be busts. That’s the nature of trying to look into the crystal ball. 

    But are teams actually getting worse at looking into the crystal ball? 

    It would stand to reason that scouting technology and the rise of analytics have raised the accuracy of front offices. Gadgets have certainly helped other industries. Short-term five-day forecasts, for example, are nearly as accurate as two-day projections were three decades ago. Netflix estimates that 75 percent of viewer activity is driven purely by its recommendation algorithms geared to predict what you’ll watch next

    But the NBA draft, apparently, isn't getting any more predictive. If anything, it might be getting worse.

    “It’s still a crapshoot,” said one prominent scout. “With all the available resources and new technology, we certainly haven’t gotten better.”

    If the draft were perfectly predictive, the best player would always be picked first and the worst player available picked last. No undrafted players would ever step foot onto an NBA court.

    Of course, that doesn’t happen. But the correlation of pick slot and win shares doesn’t seem to be getting stronger. That is, if we look into every draft since 1990, the best players -- as measured by prominent value metric win shares -- aren’t increasingly getting picked at the top, or near it. 

    Let’s look at the trends. Over the last five drafts, pick slot and player production (as measured by win shares) has a correlation coefficient of -0.38, indicating a moderate negative relationship between the two variables. In less nerdy terms, as picks go down from 60 to 1, we’re seeing player win share totals going in the opposite direction -- up and up and up. It’s not a perfect minus-1.0 relationship where the closer you get to No. 1, the more value is produced. (Cash winnings at a pro golf event are a perfectly negative relationship; the lower the score, the more money won).

    If drafting was completely random, we’d see a correlation coefficient of zero. If the best players were always selected 60th, we’d see a perfectly positive 1.0 relationship. As you go closer to No. 60, the better the players get. Days without shaving and beard length are a perfectly positive relationship; the more days you leave the razor on the shelf, the longer the whiskers.

    Where does minus-0.38 compare? The five drafts before that (2009 to 2013), that same number was minus-.50, indicating a stronger association between draft slot and player production. The five years before that, it was minus-0.41. From 1994 to 1998, that number was minus-0.52, the strongest five-year sample in the bunch.

    In sum: the last five years -- where intel on players on and off the court has skyrocketed -- haven’t been the sharpest work by NBA executives. If anything, the last half-decade of drafting seems to be more random than ever. 

    To be fair, win shares may not be the most accurate metric to evaluate draft performance and even if it was, it tells only part of the story. Recent drafts may seem more inaccurate simply because players haven’t fully developed; Joel Embiid was considered a bust two years after getting drafted. And who knows, maybe Fultz becomes an All-Star in Orlando.

    But even when there’s more information out there, it seems we’re not getting better at drafting. Executives have some theories as to why.

    * * *

    By now you’re probably wondering: Well, what about 2018? And you’re right. Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young (picks Nos. 1-5, respectively) had terrific rookie seasons. For the first time since the 1984-85 season, the top five picks in the previous NBA draft have all been selected to the NBA All-Rookie first team (there was no such thing as a All-Rookie second team that season.) 

    But 2017 was horrible by comparison. The Philadelphia 76ers were so confident in Fultz that they traded a future first-round pick to the Boston Celtics in order to move up two slots to draft the University of Washington prospect No. 1 overall. The Sixers dumped him less than two years later after a bizarre string of events.

    That same draft year, Donovan Mitchell, who has scored nearly 1,000 more points than the next-highest player in his class, was selected 13th overall. Kyle Kuzma, who is averaging 17.3 points per game in his NBA career, fell to pick No. 27 and was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers on draft night. 

    If the 2017 draft was redone, it’s hard to imagine 18 teams passing on Atlanta Hawks big man John Collins. Denver’s Monte Morris, who averaged 24 minutes per game for the 54-win Nuggets this season, went 51st. In a do-over draft, does Morris go higher than Fultz? That it’s even a question shows how much of a gamble the draft is.

    But in talking with executives (who all declined to go on the record so close to the draft), there’s something else going on here. One prevailing theory seemed to arise: They’re not getting dumber -- the players are just getting younger.

    There’s something to that. I pulled up all the draft data from Basketball Reference since 1990, when Derrick Coleman was selected No. 1 overall, and analyzed the ages of the draftees. Turns out that the average age of the 2018 draft class was 20.7 years old. That’s the lowest number of all the 29 classes I studied.

    Last year was such a young draft. The top five picks were 19.9, 19.3, 19.3, 18.8 and 19.1 years old, respectively. That’s the first time in NBA history that the top five picks were teenagers. To put that in perspective, as recently as 2013 -- the Anthony Bennett year -- there were no teenagers in the top five; Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter Jr., Cody Zeller and Alex Len were all in their 20s. 

    “The average age of drafted players is the lowest of all time,” noted one assistant GM. “That probably increases variance.”

    That might be true, though the accuracy of the 2018 draft class figures to be an outlier. The age limit of 2005 has given rise to the one-and-done. The average age of top-five picks over the last five years is 19.3 compared to 21.9 in years 1990 to 1993. Heck, Dikembe Mutombo was the same age when he was drafted in 1991 as Bradley Beal is today (25). Michael Olowokandi was 23 when he was the No. 1 overall pick. Sure, Fultz might have been a mistake at No. 1, but at least there’s an excuse; he was barely 19 when he was drafted after a one-and-done season at Washington.

    Another scout suggested one recent factor: the mock draft effect. The proliferation of mock drafts in recent years has created a false sense of general consensus. For example, NBA.com now publishes a Consensus Mock Draft that aggregates 10 different mock drafts with varying levels of intel. 

    Some teams use mock drafts, especially early in the season, to outline which players they watch in tournaments and on tape. As a player moves up the mock drafts or big boards, personnel people may be trapped into confirmation bias. If a player is rising, there must be a reason why. You see what you want to see.

    “A lot of guys get drafted because they’ve been on a mock draft board at certain positions for a while,” said the West scout. “It’s kind of a mob mentality. Web sites and agents are gassing it up.”

    Mock drafts are supposed to be a reflection of the market, which would be a helpful resource of data. But what if the market is a mirage? With so little information on these youngsters, executives may be desperate to find clues, no matter how good or bad those clues are.

    * * *

    The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty launched a league-wide hunt for the next Draymond Green, who was famously picked 35th in the 2012 draft. This year, front offices will surely hear from powerful people with a task to identify the next Fred VanVleet, the undrafted Wichita State product who played so well that he got a vote for NBA Finals MVP. 

    You could probably say the same for Malcom Brogdon, a 2016 second-round pick, who won NBA Rookie of the Year and became a 50-40-90 club member this season for the best regular-season team in the NBA.

    There is one characteristic that Green, VanVleet and Brogdon share beyond the fact that they weren’t first round picks: They played all four years at college. 

    Perhaps we’ve invested so far in the one-and-done era that there may be what I’ll call a Diploma Bias -- guys who played all four years may be undervalued in the market. These prospects are usually labeled as “low upside” players, but VanVleet just proved his ceiling as one of the best players on a Finals team. Same with Draymond Green and Danny Green, the latter of whom went 46th after four years at North Carolina.

    Sure, one-and-done players may be sexy because they did so well in just one year of experience, but it’s still, you know, one year of data. One executive sees the one-and-done problem having a compounding effect.

    “Whoever plays in college next year won’t play against Zion Williamson,” said a front office executive. “That reduces their competitive environment.”

    Which makes it tougher to evaluate, even with technology and analytics.

    “Although there is more information, the signal in that information has dropped,” the executive said.

    This isn’t to say that Cam Johnson, who is 23 years old after his senior year at UNC, should go No. 1 over Zion. But it might mean that he’s being unfairly punished for his age. For those who are looking at the next Draymond Green, it may be worth taking a look at Brandon Clarke, who is 22.8 years old but shares much of the same versatility and defensive acumen that we heard about Green. The same goes for Virginia’s defender, De’Andre Hunter, who is 21 and a half.

    While everyone chases the next kid and bemoans how hard it is to draft in today’s environment, it might make more sense to zig when everyone zags. Old may be the new young.

    Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

    Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

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    NBC Sports

    Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

    Bradley Beal isn’t going anywhere.

    That was the message Washington Wizards officials insisted on for months even when it seemed, from the outside, that Beal was facing an unpalatable situation, at best.

    Consider the ominous backdrop. The Wizards missed the playoffs in 2018-19 despite Beal’s career year. The search to replace Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards’ chief decision maker took nearly four months. Fellow backcourt star John Wall tore his Achilles and likely will miss the entire 2019-20 season. 

    Not only that, but Anthony Davis -- who was picked two spots ahead of Beal in the 2012 draft -- just orchestrated an ugly exit from the franchise that drafted him. All the while, Beal’s name kept surfacing in the rumor mill as a potential trade target following a historic free agency bonanza that was sure to leave some teams desperate for a splashy move. 

    Beal must have had his bags packed, right? 

    Quite the contrary. The message I was hearing from the Wizards’ side of things was steadfast: We’re going to keep Beal -- not just for the season. He’s going to want to commit to what we’re building long-term.

    On Thursday morning, that level of confidence was justified. Beal agreed to a two-year extension, first reported by ESPN, totalling $72 million through 2022-23 and lining him up for a potential record-breaking five-year, $266 million contract when he’s eligible for the 10-year pay bump in 2022, if he exercises a player option following the 2021-22 season.

    This is an absolute home run for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and his revamped front office structure led by general manager Tommy Sheppard and chief operations and planning officer Sashi Brown. Selling Beal on the team’s vision going forward was the top priority of the franchise.

    Not only does it mean, by league rule, that Beal can’t be traded until July 2020, but the extension avoids the sticky situation of Beal becoming eligible for supermax money next summer if he landed on an All-NBA team this upcoming season (or won MVP or Defensive Player of the Year). In 2021-22, Beal is set to earn $34.5 million, about $10 million less than he could have gotten if he inked the supermax contract, a la Wall.

    Beal could have demanded a trade like his draft classmate Davis. He could have tabled talks and gunned for an All-NBA selection this season to maximize his earnings. He could have kept this hanging over the Wizards all season. But instead, he signed off on the pitch outlined by Leonsis, Sheppard and the Wizards’ front office. 

    Getting Beal’s commitment wasn’t going to be easy considering the strong league-wide current pulling the other way. Beal had to be assured that things would be different going forward. Beal had, at times, been frustrated about the lack of accountability in the front office, according to sources. Those feelings reportedly boiled over in a November practice in which he levied strong words at Grunfeld.

    Leonsis’ decision to promote from within was met with surprise by some around the league. While Sheppard was highly-regarded throughout league circles, he also stood loyally by Grunfeld’s side for 16 years. Could Sheppard really convince Beal in a short time that he’s not Grunfeld 2.0?

    The answer to that question is loud and clear. After years of shedding longer-term assets for quick fixes, Sheppard and the front office made a play for decade-long sustainability. 

    They drafted Rui Hachimura with the No. 9 overall pick and added Admiral Schofield at No. 42 via a deal with Philadelphia. What followed draft night was three shrewd cap moves to acquire talent for next to nothing. The team plucked Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones and a second-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, who needed to offload money to acquire Davis. Then, Sheppard absorbed former Spurs sharpshooter Davis Bertans when San Antonio needed to move salary in order to sign Marcus Morris, who ended up backing out of the deal to sign with the Knicks. 

    To further establish a new culture, the team swapped Dwight Howard’s contract for another veteran sharpshooter who was rehabbing from injury in C.J. Miles. In a season where several contenders will likely look to add talent at the deadline, both Bertans and Miles could be moved for picks.

    Sheppard and the front office weren’t done making plays with the long-term future in mind. Rather than pay big money to retain restricted free agents Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, the team moved on. They inked 22-year-old Thomas Bryant to a three-year deal for backup money after an impressive season as the team’s starting center. The final tally at the outset of free agency: The Wizards acquired seven players under the age of 23 (Jones was waived Wednesday).

    Evidently, Beal was impressed with the reset, turning down the opportunity to be the biggest name on the market this season and signing for less than he could have if he made All-NBA. 

    At the age of 26, Beal is a consummate franchise pillar. The two-time All-Star averaged 25.6 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds last season, one of six players to reach those marks last season. The other five -- LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Kevin Durant -- have all won MVP awards. Beal has played all 82 games in each of the last two seasons, a feat almost no one thought was possible after he battled stress fractures early in his career. 

    The extension will take Beal under contract through his age-29 season, when he will be reaching the apex of his career, about the same phase that Curry, Harden and Kawhi Leonard are in now. The Wizards may not make the playoffs this season, but under revamped leadership, there’s at least a roadmap to contention. The Wizards just needed to buy some time to see it through. Beal’s extension, which at multiple points seemed unlikely, gives them that. And affirmation that the Wizards have something here.

    Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

    Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

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    USA Today Sports

    Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

    LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

    The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

    The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

    After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

    The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

    Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

    “I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

    They knew what it meant. 

    The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

    James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

    Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

    That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

    At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

    Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

    “I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

    Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

    “But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

    Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

    “When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

    “We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

    The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

    In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

    Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

    Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

    Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

    As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

    But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

    Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

    In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

    While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

    Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

    Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.