As NBA draft grows increasingly specialized, uncertainty remains
NBA draft has shrunk from more than 20 rounds to a two-round affair now
Internet, more scouting have increased background information available
Teams now pooling resources to hold combine workouts for players, teams
At its most elemental, the NBA draft is all about finding the right pegs to plug into the various teams' round holes.
Only there's nothing elemental about it anymore. The draft is big business, a multi-million dollar enterprise responsible for seeding talent into the NBA's multi-billion, international operation, while inspiring a fleet of services, publications and careers dedicated to the once-a-year roundup of pro prospects not just nationally but globally. Broadcast live around the world, bigger than big, the draft is as famous now for a culture all its own -- Look at what Joakim Noah's wearing! Did you see the look on Mom's face when her son got picked by the Clippers?! OK, time for Knicks fans to boo! Who's going to be the last guy left in the green room? -- as it is for matching young hires with their new employers in one of the world's most glamorous job fairs.
Still, it's not entirely removed from the playground, where you'd pick five, I'd pick five and the 11th kid would cry and face a lifetime of expensive therapy. There is, for instance, the game of tug o' war that has been added through the years in the run-up each June to the draft. Teams want to poke, prod and learn as much as possible about each player before committing a high pick and vast sums of money to his uncertain NBA future. Agents prefer to sell the proverbial pig in a poke.
"As long as there's a blank canvas, you can dream pretty big," San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford told me last week, when he attended a group workout of late-first-round-or-somewhere-in-the-second prospects in Minneapolis. "The more you fill that canvas, the more complete the evaluation becomes. Whether it's positive, negative or otherwise. If I start with a picture, and Picasso starts with a picture and they're both blank, they look the same. When you see his paint on it and my paint on it, you'll be able to determine who the painter is."
Having both eyes on the same side of one's head, in the NBA, is not a good thing. Some franchises still are figuring that out.
The power of players' agents is just one of myriad changes in the approach and execution of the NBA draft from its inception until now. In its infancy, each club's general manager had a few round pegs within easy reach -- the league recognized "territorial rights" to certain players, allowing a team to court fans by grabbing local or regional favorites while forfeiting its first-round pick. That's how Overbrook High's Wilt Chamberlain came home to Philadelphia in 1959, Ohio State's Jerry Lucas went to Cincinnati in '62 and, er, Michigan's Bill Buntin wound up in Detroit in '65.
Starting in '66, the league went traditional, with teams selecting in inverse order of their records and the last-place finishers in the two divisions (later conferences) flipped a coin for the right to pick No. 1. The first few unlucky teams did OK -- Detroit called tails, lost and got Dave Bing anyway, while Baltimore landed Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld with No. 2 picks in '67 and '68, respectively. But Phoenix guessed heads in '69, the coin showed tails and the Suns selected hirsute Florida big man Neal Walk a few sad moments after Milwaukee took Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) off the board.
Expansion meant more non-playoff qualifiers, more teams willing to backpedal late in the regular season for a 50-50 shot at the nation's best collegian. The Houston Rockets were suspected of that in '84 when they positioned themselves for No. 1 draftee Hakeem Olajuwon 12 months after landing Ralph Sampson with '83's top pick. The NBA countered with the first draft lottery in '85, hoping to thwart similar moves in what many considered a bigger sweepstakes for Patrick Ewing, but giving birth to a new strain of conspiracy theories (think envelopes, hopper, dry ice, New York Knicks). The lottery got tweaked more than once after that -- and Orlando's luck in scoring the first picks in '92 and '93 -- in noble but still unsatisfying attempts to find the perfect system.
The draft's format has changed through the years to something more streamlined and slickly packaged. Initially, it lasted as long as a any team wanted to continue picking; in '73, the Buffalo Braves and the Boston Celtics pushed it out to 20 rounds, making 12 of the last 19 picks after most teams had gone home. The next year, the NBA imposed a 10-round limit that lasted until '85, when the draft was reduced to seven rounds, then three ('88), then the current two ('89).
The presentation has changed dramatically, too, from a telephone conference call to a backroom meeting in New York to a live event staged for prime time, rotated for several years to various league venues as if it were All-Star Weekend. The draft has been back in New York since 2000, still a showcase that -- with the lottery each May -- tries to stoke NBA interest in markets whose teams have fallen by the playoff wayside.
More than any structural, cosmetic or marketing changes, though, the scope of draft preparation has expanded as the event, and the stakes it represents for franchises valued at $300 million or more, have grown. Tales of great players falling through the cracks or going underscouted are legion and even amusing, a little quaint -- after their careers are over. Willis Reed, Nate Archibald, Gilbert Arenas and Rashard Lewis lasting until the second round? Eleven teams passing on Karl Malone after Ewing went first in '85, followed by three more (including Dallas twice) passing on Joe Dumars? Seattle picking Central Arkansas' Scottie Pippen at No. 5 for Chicago GM Jerry Krause in '87, immediately swapping him for No. 8 Olden Polynice and minor considerations long forgotten? Great stories, but not so great for the less savvy or less fortunate teams to endure.
No one wants to make a mistake, same as always. Only now, mistakes are measured in seven and eight figures rather than five or six. And with foreign pools of talent to tap, bad decisions or lack of preparation can expose personnel departments on a multinational stage.
Scouts who used to be sent mostly to the major NCAA conferences and to independents now have to hit the minor conferences, Division II and lower schools and junior colleges. For 11 years, from '95 until the NBA made prep players ineligible after '05, they had to fight for bleacher seats in tiny high school gyms. Meanwhile, the level of overseas scouting was ramped up, either from true interest or just self-preservation.
"As the number of players qualified to play in the NBA has gone from one to 80," Buford said, "you've had to make decisions: How much do you want to scout it, and how much do you want to play with those types of players? They don't fit with every coach, in every system."
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