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Why Bother?
Jackie MacMullan
June 23, 1997
Even if your team gets a stellar player like Tim Duncan in the NBA draft, it probably won't make any difference in the long run
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June 23, 1997

Why Bother?

Even if your team gets a stellar player like Tim Duncan in the NBA draft, it probably won't make any difference in the long run

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NUMBER OF PLAYERS CUT BY NBA

STILL IN THE NBA

YEAR

DRAFTED

'92

'93

'94

'95

'96

'97

1992

54

6

1

4

4

4

3

32

1993

54

10

4

3

3

1

33

1994

54

6

3

7

2

36

1995

58

8

5

4

41

1996

58

15

1

42

Pat Williams thought he was the luckiest man alive. As the general manager of the expansion Orlando Magic, he was ecstatic after the Magic won the No. 1 pick in the 1992 draft lottery and the chance to select center Shaquille O'Neal. A year later, even though Orlando, which finished with a 41-41 record in O'Neal's rookie season, had the slimmest chance of landing the top choice among the 11 teams in the lottery, Williams beamed as the Ping-Pong balls again rolled the Magic's way. This time he used the first pick on forward Chris Webber, whose rights he then traded to the Golden State Warriors for the rights to No. 3-selection guard Penny Hardaway and three future first-round draft choices. The teaming of Hardaway with O'Neal instantly transformed Orlando into a title contender. "We were set for the next 15 years," Williams says. "And we had ordered championship rings for 12 of those next 15 years. We had the brightest future in the league."

But on July 18, 1996, the Magic's future became a thing of the past. O'Neal signed a free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, for $120 million over seven years, and Orlando received nothing for him in return. The next decade suddenly looked exceedingly bleak. "We put on a brave face last summer," says Williams, now the Magic president, "but truthfully, we were devastated. Maybe we were naive, but we didn't expect O'Neal to leave."

When the 1997 draft is held on June 25 in Charlotte, the teams will make their selections based on intensive scouting, private workouts, psychiatric testing and background checks by private investigators. Even so, if recent history is any guide, 40% of the players drafted in the two rounds will be out of the league within five years (chart, page 56). "In the end, you're still guessing," concedes Toronto Raptors president Isiah Thomas, who in the last two drafts has chosen guard Damon Stoudamire, who became the 1995-96 Rookie of the Year, and promising center-forward Marcus Camby, who lost some of his luster when he was arrested on a marijuana possession charge last Friday.

Worse, all that scouting and scrutiny and educated guesswork—and, in Williams's case, lottery good fortune—often winds up counting for nothing. The reality of the 1990s is that the draft is nearly irrelevant when it comes to building a franchise for the long term.

Consider the drafts of 1987 through '94. Only two of the eight No. 1 picks from those years remain with the clubs that drafted them (chart, page 54): San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, a seven-time All-Star and the league's '95 MVP; and Milwaukee Bucks forward Glenn Robinson, a mildly disappointing performer whom the Bucks have considered trading. Also, of the first 10 selections from each of those drafts—a total of 80 players—only 17 have performed solely for the franchises that drafted them. Of those 17, some have stayed put only because their teams couldn't move them. The Sacramento Kings have been trying for two seasons to trade forward Lionel Simmons and point guard Bobby Hurley, their top picks in '90 and '93, respectively, while the Washington Bullets have tried on and off to deal their '93 first-round selection, guard Calbert Cheaney.

What's more, the rookie salary cap, implemented in 1995, enables a player to become a free agent after his third season in the league. Already, two members of the first rookie-cap class—the No. 1 pick, forward Joe Smith of the Warriors, and the No. 2, forward Antonio McDyess (who was traded by the Los Angeles Clippers to the Denver Nuggets on draft day)—have said they will not remain with their clubs after next season and would like to be traded now. The No. 3 choice that year, guard-forward Jerry Stack-house of the Philadelphia 76ers, has been the subject of trade rumors; and the No. 4 selection, center Rasheed Wallace, was traded after his rookie season, from Washington to the Portland Trail Blazers.

That movement is disconcerting to NBA officials, who believe that a player remains more appealing to fans—and therefore more of a marketing asset to the league—if he becomes identified with a specific franchise. Part of the attraction of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson was that each played his entire career with the club that drafted him, as has Michael Jordan, so far.

But nowadays, as Thomas puts it, the draft is "merely the beginning of a recruiting game." Once a team lands a prize player, the front office and coach have to work to keep him happy and to persuade him that his prospects and those of the team will be bright if he stays put. "You have to communicate with players now," says Thomas. "In a way it's good, because it forces management to be more humane. But it's also bad, because agents are back there manipulating these kids, and they can really hold you hostage."

The Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in this boat with All-Star forward Kevin Garnett, the No. 5 pick in the 1995 draft, who can become a free agent in the summer of '98 or sign a long-term deal with Minnesota on or after this July 1. The continued success of the rapidly improving Timberwolves may well be riding on his decision, because point guard Stephon Marbury, a second-year player next fall who is Garnett's close friend, will be in a similar position in '99 and isn't expected to re-sign if Garnett bolts.

The Timberwolves seemingly have done everything right with the 6'11" Garnett, who jumped to the NBA out of high school. They didn't showcase him during his rookie year as the team's savior but gave him time to mature on the court and off it. They had former Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale, now Minnesota's vice president of basketball operations, available to serve as Garnett's personal guru. Then on draft day last June, Minnesota traded guard Ray Allen, whom they had chosen with the No. 5 pick, to Milwaukee for Marbury.

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