Years ago, in the pages of Men’s Journal, I confessed to a psychotic obsession with the NFL draft. I dreamed of leaving journalism and being allowed to turn around a wayward team like the Jacksonville Jaguars using ideas like, “Always pick the guy who falls in the draft after a positive weed test.”
But Jaguars owner Shahid Khan never returned my calls. Moreover, I’m beginning to think the NFL won’t exist 20 years from now, because of that minor problem of the sport being physically lethal to its employees.
So my new obsession is the NBA draft, a different affair. The NFL ritual is a vast, twisted, almost agricultural event in which rich businessmen divvy up hundreds of poor (and mostly black) kids like cattle. Most football players are treated like disposable pawns who professionally speaking are expected to live brutish, short lives, like fruit flies. The game is designed so you can’t even see their faces.
The NBA draft is about welcoming a group of slick teenage gland freaks into a hoi polloi multimillionaires’ club. If the NFL draft is like The Jungle, an exercise in turning human beings into sausage, the NBA draft is more Great Gatsby or Brideshead Revisited, an upper-class garden party full of beautiful young things in amazing costumes. It’s a happier show, and you feel less like a monster watching it. Also, it doesn’t involve Mel Kiper Jr., so it’s safe for children and animals.
No less than the NFL draft, the NBA draft annually is a bizarre comedy of errors in which teams of millionaire executives get a whole year to consider a single decision and somehow still get it wrong.
Watching team executives like Kiki Vandeweghe reason their way into drafting the likes of Nikoloz Tskitishvili fifth overall recalls the great Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek’s definition of suicide:
“When a man puts a gun, instead of a telephone, to his head.”
As with most forms of gambling and prognostication, the key to success on the NBA draft is not so much about making winning moves as avoiding losing ones. There are five basic rules:
Flee the “Next Larry Bird”
If you see any player described as the “next Larry Bird” in any media outlet, cross that poor kid off your draft board immediately. It’s the death knell of sports clichés, the basketball version of the cursed video in The Ring. Guys get called that and disappear to wander invisible across the globe for all eternity. Do you know where Adam Morrison is today? Shooting bowling pins with a machine gun and DVR-ing Seinfeld episodes in rural Washington.
There is no next Larry Bird. The real Larry Bird was slow, couldn’t jump and couldn’t stay in front of a traffic cone on defense. If you’re drafting that package and it doesn’t come with the unique streak of homicidal competitiveness that infected the original, what you’re basically getting is a tall, overmatched white guy with a jump shot. Ask the T-Wolves (Christian Laettner, #3), the Nets (Keith Van Horn, #2), the Bucks (Joe Alexander, #8), the Clippers (Danny Ferry, #2) or the Bobcats (Morrison, #3) how using a high pick on that package works out.
There’s no “next Larry Bird” in this draft, but there is one next year: Slovenian Luka Doncic, supposedly the “European Larry Bird.” By all accounts, an incredible player, but take a hard pass on the poor kid the first time you see the “European Bird” thing in print. Also pertinent here:
The Austin Powers International Man of Mystery Rule
European players once had to fight propaganda that they were “soft” compared to Americans. Tough guys like Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis or Drazen Petrovic quickly proved this idiocy wrong. Then little-known Dirk Nowitzki happened, and the script flipped. NBA executives became convinced there was a market inefficiency involving 18-year-old foreigners who were not only unfamiliar to scouts, but whose existence was merely rumored, like Slender Man or Hogzilla.
Talented Europeans play in pro leagues from early ages. If they’re really really good, they often shoot up to A- or B-level leagues by the age of 16 or 17, where they then languish at the ends of benches while coaches who need to win now give their minutes to hairy 29-year-olds.
But if the kid plays a couple of nice games at a Nike Hoop Summit, or someone posts a YouTube video of him shooting alone in a barn, suddenly the Hogzilla legend-thing starts and he will rocket up draft boards.
Within the space of months, the unfortunate teen goes from not being able to get minutes in Zagreb or Strasbourg to being drafted third overall and trapped on the three-point line, in front of 25,000 people, guarding James Harden or LeBron James. This usually doesn’t end well. Whatever the Serbian version of shooting bowling pins is, it eventually happens to a lot of these kids.
The worst example is obviously Darko Milicic, whom the Pistons picked second overall, just after LeBron James, after he scored a whopping 58 field goals over the course of an entire season for a team called Hemofarm Vrsec. Can you say Hemofarm Vrsec three times fast? Pistons chief Joe Dumars probably couldn’t. He passed on the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for a player who, like other lottery picks Jan Vesely, Yaroslav Korolev, Dragan Bender and Tskitishvili, barely got minutes in foreign minor leagues.
The suspect this year is point guard Frank Ntilikina, who’s about to be picked high in the lottery – probably by mentally disintegrating Knicks Zen Master Phil Jackson, perhaps after trading Kristaps Porzingis to move up a few slots to get him – despite averaging 5.2 points a game in a French league. Sometimes moves like this work out (i.e., Porzingis), but the safer play with Europeans involves the next rule:
Hoard and Stash
Second-round picks cost nothing. Any halfway competent sports executive can get one for a cheeseburger or the corpse of Hasheem Thabeet. Danny Ainge has so many second-round picks that he began using them as toilet paper last summer.
Here’s an easy team-building strategy. First, suck! Then, during your rebuild, call around the league and extort masses of second-rounders from every dumb GM who needs to be rescued from the bloated free agent contracts he doled out while high on his owner’s money the summer before.
Next, during the draft, take your 11 second-rounders and draft a bucketload of unknown young Europeans or Africans or South Americans. Stash them overseas on foreign squads (you don’t even have to pay them!), and wait.
Foreigners drafted in the second round are the real NBA market inefficiency. When in doubt, draft a mute seven-footer who needs a little work. Some turn into superstars, like Nikola Jokic (#41) and Marc Gasol (#48). Others, like Omer Asik (#36) and Superman II cast member Nikola Pekovic (#31) become cheap starters. Kyrylo Fesenko (#38) reached neither level, but he still enhanced team chemistry by being huge and amusing.
The other overlooked second-round prototypes are head cases (Hassan Whiteside), shooting specialists (Khris Middleton, Danny Green, Kyle Korver), undersized power forwards (Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap) and defense-first types (Jae Crowder, Draymond Green). But by far the best second-round play is randomly hoovering up draft-eligible foreigners (Goran Dragic, Manu Ginobli, et al.) and letting them simmer. Buy-low options this year include Adriatic league star Jonah Bolden, Latvian tall person Anzejs Pasecniks and moody German Isaiah Hartenstein, among others.
Do Not Read Mock Drafts!
Most fans think the draft is when their favorite teams engage in an earnest effort to pick the players most likely to bring future on-court success. Not so!
What you’re usually watching is a group of half-bright ex-jocks cling to overpaid jobs by shielding their ignorant meddling aristocrat bosses (the owners) from the white-hot rage of the peasantry (the fans). NBA GMs ask themselves daily: What will make my owner happy? The answer: Waking up in the morning and not finding ten million emails from angry fans calling for him to be castrated for not drafting the next Michael Jordan.
How do fans know who is the next Michael Jordan? Easy. They read mock drafts!
In real life, there are maybe 100 people on earth who’ve seen enough of the draftable players in person to make informed decisions. On draft day, a typical team president will ignore five of those people in favor of making sure his terminally insecure owner doesn’t get called an asshole by thousands of fans who know Wesley Johnson is better than Paul George, because George, the Internet tells them, has a “high turnover percentage” and an “inability to create for himself.” The pressure these media pronouncements create inside team offices is how someone like Wesley Johnson gets drafted fourth, while all-worlders like George go tenth.
Enforce tight operational discipline in your scouting staff. Buy a hatchet and lop off one finger each time a scout is caught reading a mock draft or using a phrase like, “the consensus top overall pick.” If you have to, make them wear horse blinkers in public. If all teams did this, it’s a good bet that at least ten would have picked people like Jimmy Butler (#30) and Gilbert Arenas (#31) earlier.
There’s only one media voice that should be welcomed in NBA offices:
Employ the Reverse Skip Bayless!
Bayless is a sportscasting legend and trailblazer of a programming epidemic: debate shows where oafish white guys get massacred in fake arguments by more likable African-American counterparts. The foil can either be a jovial ex-athlete like Shannon Sharpe who actually knows something about sports, or a disputatious on-air professional like Stephen A. Smith, who actually speaks the English language.
Bayless’ job is to serve up ice-cold takes that get swatted back by his smarter partner. He is so good at this that whenever he makes NBA draft predictions, he calls things exactly wrong virtually every time. “Underrated: Austin Rivers. Has starpower. Overrated: Bradley Beal,” he said. He once called for Senegalese fast food enthusiast DeSagana Diop to be taken #1 overall. “An athletic freak,” he wrote, “with the potential to be better than Shaquille O’Neal.”
Skip also said he was against “taking American-born white players in the first round,” a hot take he should try out on Bird, Kevin Love, Bill Walton, Kevin McHale, Rick Barry, David Lee, J.J. Redick, Gordon Hayward and about a hundred others. So it’s simple: Whoever Skip likes, pick the other guy. For the record, Bayless has consistently advocated for Lonzo Ball to be this year’s top pick.
This has already been maybe the craziest draft week of all time, with basically everyone rumored to be traded. If form holds, tonight will be a hurricane of upsetting decisions – the sports version of the Mel Brooks “French Mistake” epic fight scene. If it doesn’t end with Jay Bilas and P.J. Carlesimo throwing pies at each other in the middle of the Barclays Center, it’ll be a letdown. See you next year!