No need for need
Only one rule is important for draft day: Take the best player
Updated: Tuesday June 15, 2004 7:44PM
By John Hollinger, SI.com
The logic seems so clear. So undeniable. So obvious: A team should draft based on its greatest need.
It's also dead wrong.
Go through all the worst draft choices in history and you'll find one common thread: They were drafting for need rather than taking the best player. While that hardly seems idiotic, you'll find that the decision-making it produced borders on hilarious.
Just ask the Trail Blazers about drafting to fit a need. In the 1984 draft the Blazers decided they "needed" a center. They followed their draft blueprint to the letter, selecting Kentucky center Sam Bowie with the second overall pick and thus filling their need.
We all know how that one turned out. If they had selected the best player available instead -- some guy named Michael Jordan -- the Blazers could have played Michele Tafoya at center and still won multiple championships. But they already had Clyde Drexler, so they didn't "need" a shooting guard.
Fortunately, the Blazers mended their ways in later drafts. Despite a frontcourt that was packed to the gills, they eschewed need and used recent late first-round picks to take Jermaine O'Neal and Zach Randolph. I doubt they regret either pick, especially since if they had targeted the point guard they "needed" going in, they would have ended up with Joseph Forte and Derek Fisher. In fact, the one time Portland succumbed to the need fairy in that period, they drafted the now-forgotten Erick Barkley.
The funny thing is that a lot of teams don't get it, even after the fact. A few years ago I saw a chat with Jack Ramsay, who was Portland's coach in 1983, and he was still vigorously defending the Bowie pick on the grounds that his team needed a center.
But as the old saw repeatedly proves, those who don't learn from history are bound to repeat it. Thus, from the greatest sports draft blunder this side of Ryan Leaf, we can see the three important reasons why teams shouldn't be seduced by drafting for need instead of taking the best player:
1. The missed opportunity is too great
The Jordan example is the most obvious case, but it prevails even if the greatest player of all time doesn't happen to be on the board when you're picking. Each draft only has about ten players in it who are going to make a major impact at the pro level. Thus, teams that look at the draft as a case of filling a need vs. not filling it miss the far more important distinction of getting a player vs. getting a stiff.
Unfortunately, sacrificing draft choices at the altar of need is a time-honored skill in the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers are experts. Back when Zydrunas Ilguaskas was breaking his foot every week, they went into the 2000 draft thinking they needed a center. So after a trade with Chicago, they took Chris Mihm with the seventh overall pick. A year later they still needed a center because Mihm hadn't worked out, so they went to the well again and took DeSagana Diop.
Because of their focus on need, the Cavs had top-10 lottery picks in consecutive seasons and managed not to get a single impact player out of it. The only saving grace was that those picks helped make Cleveland bad enough to eventually win the lottery for LeBron James.
2. You force square pegs into round holes
There's another, more insidious level to this discussion. The second somebody decides they have to have something is usually when they pay too much for it. A player who shouldn't go higher than No. 20 suddenly starts looking awfully good to the team picking 10th if they happen to have an opening on their roster at that position. Or give me a better reason how the Bucks ended up with Joel Pryzbilla.
That's also how a player with a history of injuries like Bowie started looking sexy to the Blazers 20 years ago at No. 2. "Hey, we need a center ... Hey, this guy's center ... Maybe he'll stay healthy and ..."
The Orlando Magic offer a more modern example of how this works. Want to know how a team could have Tracy McGrady and still manage to go 21-61? The lure of drafting for need can take the lion's share of the blame. Going into the past three drafts, Orlando focused on two areas: Getting a center and getting big guards for the backcourt.
Whether they could actually play or not apparently wasn't part of the process. The Magic's first-round picks included a center (Steven Hunter) and two big guards (Reece Gaines and Jeryl Sasser), just like the plan said. So are we supposed to consider these good drafts? After all, they got what they needed, right? Of course, we know the truth now -- none of these players ever should have been picked in the first round. As a result, Orlando heads into this year's draft still needing a big guard and a center.
Don't get me wrong -- plain old bad talent evaluation plays a role, too. In Orlando's case' the Magic took Ryan Humphrey ahead of Carlos Boozer and traded Brendan Haywood on draft day 2001 for somebody named Laron Profit. Still, I'd be hard-pressed to find a more definitive example of how drafting for need is the perfect way to screw up a roster than what has happened in Orlando the past few years.
3. There are better ways to do this
So if drafting for need isn't how teams should go, how are they supposed to fill their needs? Through free agency and trades, that's how. There's no law saying a team has to use their pick, either. For instance, when the Hornets needed a backup shooting guard two years ago and didn't like what was on offer with the 17th pick, they sent it to Washington for Courtney Alexander. That's a far better strategy than reaching for a player who can't do the job, and ending up still needing to use trades and free agency to try to fill it.
The fact is the draft is a team's only chance to acquire talent for free. Considering that, it seems even more obvious that taking the best player available is the only way to go. If the guy you draft is good but plays a position where the team is stacked, you can always trade him to a team that can make better use of his skills and get something of value in return. And if he can't play, he's worthless to everybody.
You'll be seeing a lot of draft analysis in coming days that focuses on team needs, but any club who actually follows that logic is setting themselves up to fail. Instead, let me offer my own three-word draft guide: Best player available. If you have second thoughts about it, just ask a Blazers fan about Sam Bowie.
John Hollinger is an NBA producer for SI.com and author of Pro Basketball Prospectus