Rules of the road: GMs address the debates that drive the draft
Ask any general manager and he'll tell you that the NBA draft is equal parts art and science. When you think about it, that doesn't seem the safest method to select an asset in which millions of dollars are invested. But with every Sam Bowie and Kwame Brown who disappoint near the top of the draft, it's clear no team can avoid the gray area that surrounds every pick.
"So much depends on the team [a player] ends up with," eighth-year Nets president Rod Thorn said, "the opportunities he has, how tough he is, how mentally accessible he is to a little bit different game than he is used to, how he reacts to a bit more physical play. And players react differently. Some people aren't physically mature enough to get it done their first year. Some people aren't mentally facile enough to do it right away.
"I think if you look at anybody's draft over a 10-year period, then you'll see some good ones and some that weren't so good. Even Red Auerbach, who I consider the gold standard for drafting, all of his weren't right, either."
Aside from a select group of prospects who occasionally rise to the top of every team's draft board, most clubs find themselves weighing the pluses and minuses of players very similar in potential. Tipping the scales is a handful of decisions every organization makes about the nature of the draft: Should it be used to fill needs or accumulate talent? Are projects with untapped upside more valuable than college veterans? Does the risk of drafting an international player who might not come to the NBA for years (or at all) outweigh the potential reward when he does? Are big men more valuable than other players? Does a prospect's school matter?
Answering those questions, determining the draft philosophy of a team, often dictates a club's approach on draft night.
SI.com spoke with some current GMs and team presidents to get a sense of their "rules of the road" for the key predraft debates that will shape not only Thursday night but also seasons to come.
Need vs. best player available
LeBron James doesn't come into the league every year. Neither does Greg Oden nor Kevin Durant. And even when a consensus forms about one or two players, at least 28 other teams are left deciding whether to fill that yawning gap at point guard or select the promising power forward when you already have an All-Star at the position.
"In the draft," Kings president Geoff Petrie said, "if you have your five top players [ranked] at each position and you get to the point where four of those top five guys at a position of need are gone, but one of the top guys at one of the other spots is still there, [then you have to decide] if the fifth guy on your list at one position as good as the first or second guy on the list at another one."
"Our preference has always been to start with who we think will develop into the best player and then see where it goes. It's still about talent."
While that approach would seem to offer, at best, an upgrade and, at the very least, a tradable asset should a team find itself stocked at a certain position, targeting talent over need sometimes can lead to some regrettable decisions.
The book has yet to be written on the careers of Chris Paul or Deron Williams, but it would take the most sunny of optimists to see the Hawks as a bigger threat to the NBA crown after having selected forward Marvin Williams over both point guards with the second pick in the 2005 draft.
"I don't think they felt that either [Deron] Williams or Paul were going to be superstars; that's probably what it came down to," Thorn surmised about Atlanta's decision. "They had a need at point guard, but I don't think they felt that strongly about either one of those guys, and their feeling was that Marvin Williams would become a superstar."
The lure of stardom, though, will continue to pull harder on the hearts and heads of GMs
"We're always sitting here wanting to get the player we think is going to be the best player for the next 10 to 12 years," Bulls GM John Paxson said. "At the end of the day, for a lot of people it's your gut telling you what to do and who to pick."
Upside vs. polish
Upside. No word gets more tongues wagging on draft night -- or more personnel men fired in April. Yet the temptation of the unknown, that the jumping-jack forward with a mere 30 games of college experience has only offered a hint of the All-Star within, persuades some decision-makers to bypass college veterans with more solid résumés.
"The draft somewhat discriminates against those three- and four-year guys because you're seeing them so much," Petrie said. "There are always new, younger guys, and [the thinking goes] they're just going to continue to get better and better forever just because they're younger. And that's not necessarily always the case."
The development of a 19-year-old takes more time, too. That may not be a problem on a rebuilding team, but for a club in the playoff hunt, it's a recipe for Darko Milicic.
"You look at the scenario in the draft and ask what your team concerns are, what your team needs are," Raptors president Bryan Colangelo said. "That's ultimately going to drive the decision [on what type of player to draft]. How much do you need someone who is absolutely ready to step on the floor and help you today versus how long do you have to develop a player and how long do you have to wait on a guy to get there?"
As tantalizing as the unknown can be, predicting it is still a challenge that keeps GMs up at night, no matter a draftee's body of work.
"[The hardest part] is still projecting what a guy can be and what you think he'll be given a few years in the league and the normal maturation process," said Paxson, who faces just that task in deciding between point guard Derrick Rose and forward Michael Beasley with this year's No. 1 pick.
Despite exhaustive scouting reports, predraft workouts, psychological testing and weeks of meetings and interoffice debates, no team can know how well any player will translate until he steps on the court. That has led more than a few front offices to focus on one of the few variables for which they can account: a player's personality.
"We drill down very deep into these kids," Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard said. "We want to know what they are off the court, we want to know if they're going to fit with what we believe in ... whether he's a first-year freshman or a fourth-year senior. For us, you've got to have a good character; we pass on really, really good players who aren't good people. We just decided that if we're going to live life, we're going to live life with good people. My life's too short to walk in the practice facility and say, 'You know what, I don't want to be here.' "