Word has it that the Bulls are going to sack Benny the Bull and replace him with Lenny the Mule, who has a lower cap number and an expiring contract. A guy I met at the Blarney Stone in Wrigleyville told me that. He claimed to be a "secret scout" for John Paxson. He may or may not have also been the guy who charged Bob Howry last season.
The rumors are flying in the days and hours leading up to Thursday's NBA draft. The Bulls are intent on selecting Derrick Rose. Pat Riley and the Heat have developed a sudden aversion to the childly ways of Michael Beasley. On and on and on.... Rumor mongering isn't really my cup of tea. Who are the Bulls going to take? I don't know. Who's going to get traded? Beats me. We'll know soon enough and, at that point, we can work from a place in which I feel much more comfortable: the realm of fact.
The NBA draft is my favorite of the sports drafts for the simple reason that I'm familiar with almost all of the players being selected. Thanks to NBATV and the Web, it's easier to become familiar with foreign-born players than it was in, say, the days of Arvydas Sabonis. Some of the high school players coming out used to be sort of mysterious, but that's no longer much of a factor. There are a handful of prep school talents and juco players that are incognito, but compared to baseball and football, the players selected tomorrow will be like old friends.
My proclivities being such as they are in regards to guessing and gossiping, I want to preview the draft for you by doing an exercise that I always have done on my own in order to prepare for the NBA draft. Preparation for a major sports event is always a key for me in terms of being able to enjoy it. That's why I do projections in baseball and basketball--if I don't know what to expect, it's more difficult for me to be intelligently surprised or disappointed. The draft is the same thing. I put myself in the place of the biggest fan of each team. I analyze where my team resides in the continuum between contention and catastrophe and which direction that team is headed. Then, taking into account draft position, I target the guy who should be the focus of my team's general manager.
It's all about establishing a baseline of expectation, the same as you do for player and team performance once the season approaches. Mock drafts are about throwing darts and guessing who a team is going to pick. This exercise is about establishing who a team should select. Much of this subjective exercise is based on an assessment of each team's "core trio" or "big three," if you will. If the core trio is in place and good enough to win a title, then the team is targeting players to fill specific roles. If the core trio not quite a championship level but still developing, then you're looking for the same or maybe to flip a pick in return for a veteran. If there isn't a core trio, then you're looking for an impact guy, of which there are generally only two or three in any given draft. And so on.
So without further ado, here's a look at how the first round would play out if it were up to me.
1. Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were projected by some--myself included--to win the East last season. Now, here we are with Chicago holding the first pick of the draft. This is not an easy choice. First of all, you have a number of unanswered questions about the rest of the Bulls' roster. Luol Deng and Ben Gordon will become restricted free agents on July 1. New head coach Vinny Del Negro is an unknown quantity. Are the missteps of Joakim Noah benign indiscretions or the onset of an ominous pattern?
There are no clear scenarios with this team. It's difficult to pinpoint where the team resides in the success cycle. It's difficult to know what direction the roster is headed. Heck, it's even tough to identify who comprises Chicago's core trio. The Bulls have a number of players with similar productivity: Kirk Hinrich, Gordon, Deng, Andres Nocioni and Drew Gooden. On the next tier, you have Tyrus Thomas, Noah and Larry Hughes. Lots of pieces, young pieces that won big in 2006-07. How do they all fit together? There's no true point guard, no true center, an overall lack of interior offense and a lack of rangy perimeter defenders.
John Paxson must make a realistic assessment of what can happen with this current collection of talent. If he is thinking long term (unlikely given the tenuous status of his own employment), then he has to go for the player who will turn out to have the most impact, regardless of position. To me, that guy is Michael Beasley. If he thinks that he can retain Gordon or Deng (or both of them) and that his team is closer to last year's preseason projections that its eventual results, then Derrick Rose might be the guy. Rose can give the team the focal point it lacked last season, someone who can lift the games of the talented players around him. In my opinion, the Bulls would improve significantly even if they brought back exactly the same roster that they finished the season with. Adding Rose as a facilitator to that roster is the right move. However, I should add that I don't think there is a wrong answer to the question of Rose or Beasley.
Bradford's pick: Derrick Rose
2. Miami Heat. Let's be blunt. Beyond Dwyane Wade, who is an injury question mark, and Shawn Marion, who is not a go-to offensive player, the Heat roster is a disaster. Boston showed how quickly a team can rebound by constructing a championship-caliber core trio and filling out the roster with an intelligent mix of both young and veteran role players. Riley is stuck with Wade and Marion, who has decided not to opt out of his contract. Marion can be a free agent next offseason, during which players like Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer might also be available and unlike some other rebuilding teams, Miami is always going to be an attractive free-agent destination. A Boston-like turnaround is not likely for the Heat, so they are building for the long term. Marion is likely not part of that plan, but with an expiring contract, he'd be a valuable trading piece come next February. That leaves Riley to build around Wade, assuming Wade can return to his established level of production.
With a roster as barren as Riley's, a trade down with one of the top five or six teams in the draft makes a lot of sense. He needs an influx of talent, as many impact players as he can get. Of the teams drafting behind Miami, the only sensible trading partner is Memphis, which could send a starting point guard like Mike Conley and a top-five pick for the right to draft Beasley. If Chris Wallace is amenable to such a deal, that's a possibility. If Chicago takes Beasley, then Miami should take Rose. If Chicago takes Rose and a suitable trading partner cannot be found, then Riley should take Beasley and feel very fortunate.
Bradford's pick: Michael Beasley
3. Minnesota Timberwolves. The T-wolves have a "big one" (Al Jefferson) and he plays out of position. Last year's lottery pick, Corey Brewer, was frighteningly bad in his rookie campaign, posting a 38.2 eFG% and using a meager 15.7 percent of the possessions while on the floor. You can't give up on him at 22, but you also can't pencil him in as part of the team's core. Randy Foye, who battled injuries last season, Rashad McCants, Craig Smith and Chris Richard all can play a little bit. The cupboard is not bare in Minnesota. Assuming Kevin McHale can't move up into the top two, then O.J. Mayo is the guy. Most analysis I've read refers to this year as a two-person draft, with a steep dropoff after Beasley and Rose. From what I've seen, Mayo is not far behind those two and I'm not convinced he won't turn out to be better than Rose. So for McHale, maybe Foye develops, then you have a core trio of Jefferson, Foye and Mayo with the rest comprising a nice mix of complementary talents. That still leaves Minnesota weak defensively, but you've got to start someplace.
Bradford's pick: O.J. Mayo
4. Seattle SuperSonics. The one certainty about the Sonics is that Sam Presti is building around Kevin Durant, who going forward is going to use somewhere around 30 percent of the Sonics' possessions. The ideal player to pair with Durant would be a classic center who could score in the low post and lock down the lane on defense. You know, Hakeem Olajuwon. Alas, that player doesn't exist in this draft. Presti has to feel optimistic about last year's other key rookie, Jeff Green, as a complementary scorer and perimeter defender. With a slot-appropriate center not available here, the Sonics could trade down, landing another supporting player while still having a chance to grab a playmaking point guard. Beyond Rose, the top point guards in the draft are combo types, like Jerryd Bayless and Russell Westbrook. Bayless is the better shooter and Westbrook has the edge defensively. Westbrook would seem to be a better fit as a backcourt mate for Durant, but the fourth pick seems too high for him. If Presti wants to go big, then Kevin Love would be my pick. I like production over upside and Love is the second-most productive big man in the draft, after Beasley.
Bradford's pick: Kevin Love
5. Memphis Grizzlies. Love would also fit in Memphis, if Wallace isn't able to swing a deal with Miami and get Beasley. With a trade, you end up with a core trio of Kyle Lowry, Rudy Gay and Beasley with excellent role players Darko Milicic and Mike Miller to fill out a nice starting five. Without a trade, you end up with Conley instead of Lowry and Love instead of Beasley, if he's available. Either lineup works for me. In my little draft universe, however, Love is gone and I'm not assuming any trades. That muddies the waters for the Grizzlies and underscores just how tough lottery day was for this franchise. Bayless is probably the best player left on my draft board but the last guy Memphis needs is another lead guard. I wouldn't be thrilled about it, but if I'm Wallace, I probably settle for Brook Lopez. Thursday will be a trepidatious day for Grizzlies fans--the range of possibilities is considerable.
Bradford's pick: Brook Lopez
6. New York Knicks. The first thing new Knicks honcho Donnie Walsh must do is to determine how many, if any, core players are currently on New York's roster. To me, there are none. All Walsh can do is take the best available talent, position be damned, as he tears down the roster and sheds salary. A long process. It's also probably not Walsh's plan. Why else would he hire Mike D'Antoni? David Lee is the best player Walsh has but he's a role player. Jamal Crawford could probably fit into D'Antoni's system in a Leandro Barbosa-type role. Eddy Curry can be an effective offensive post player but he must be paired with a dominant defensive center, of which Zach Randolph is not. Point guard is obviously the single-biggest glaring need on a team full of needs. Bayless is still on the board and if he's available at No. 6, you can't pass him up.
Bradford's pick: Jarryd Bayless
7. L.A. Clippers. As usual, the Clippers are a mess. As it stands, the core trio is Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Chris Kaman. Brand and Maggette can both opt out of their contracts and, even if they don't, they will be free agents next offseason. Really, though, that doesn't matter because they don't comprise a championship-caliber big three and, even in Clipperland, championships are the end goal. The franchise faces yet another transitional season. Brand and Maggette must be dealt with, Mike Dunleavy has to assess the recovery of Shaun Livingston from a brutal knee injury and L.A. must also figure out what they have in last year's top rookie, Al Thornton. If I'm Dunleavy, I chalk up Kaman's season as a career year, though he can be a top-notch role player going forward. I try to build around Livingston, Thornton and whomever I take with this pick. Then I hope that Brand and Maggette return so that their expiring contracts can be moved to add cap space and young talent. With so much in flux, the Clippers won't be targeting a position, though a point guard would be nice given the uncertainties surrounding Livingston. Unfortunately, there is a big dropoff on my board after the sixth slot. I guess Eric Gordon would be the guy. He's highly rated but I have my reservations.
Bradford's pick: Eric Gordon
8. Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks' new regime, general manager John Hammond and head coach Scott Skiles, will take the first step towards rebuilding the flagging Milwaukee franchise. As constructed, the roster Larry Harris left behind is not close to contention and is not likely to be any time soon. The Bucks were the league's worst defensive team last season. Under Skiles, that's going to change. Milwaukee's best player is probably center Andrew Bogut, but his usage is hampered by the presence of Michael Redd and Maurice Williams. Bogut is solid, an efficient performer who can be a core talent, yet I'm left with the feeling that the Bucks haven't gotten the most from his wide array of abilities. He's played center almost exclusively in the NBA; I'd like to see him play the four-spot or at least function as a high-post center in the mold of Brad Miller. Either way, he ought be paired with a defensively-dominant big man. Instead, he's paired with promising-but-raw Yi Jianlian. At No. 8, you don't really want to wishcast for a project like DeAndre Jordan or JaVale McGee. One option might be to trade down. The Bucks probably would be best suited to grab a small forward to replace Desmond Mason, which makes Joe Alexander a perfect fit. Any defensive improvement will have to come from the coaxing of Skiles. It's hard to look at Milwaukee's roster and not be horrified by the three years and $51 million left on Redd's contract.
Bradford's pick: Joe Alexander
9. Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats underachieved under Sam Vincent last season. Without making a move, Charlotte would project as a playoff team in the East next season. Charlotte has a nice core in Gerald Wallace, Jason Richardson and Emeka Okafor. Okafor is expected to become a restricted free agent on July 1, but it's unlikely any team will be able to cobble up enough cap space to make an offer that the Bobcats won't match. That being the case, Charlotte is in need of a center and a scorer off the bench. Ray Felton is a capable point and the bench could coalesce into a nice unit under Larry Brown built around Jared Dudley and Jemareo Davidson not to mention injury returnees Adam Morrison and Scott May. The Bobcats acquired the No. 20 pick from Denver on Wednesday so Michael Jordan can fill both of his primary needs on draft day. There are some upside picks, like Anthony Randolph, that could work here in a different environment but Charlotte needs to win now. The Bobcats are shedding fans rapidly. I like Roy Hibbert here. Hibbert would allow Okafor to slide over to his natural power forward position and the pair would lock down the lane for Charlotte. Doesn't a lineup of Hibbert, Felton, Richardson, Wallace and Okafor sound awfully nice?
Bradford's pick: Roy Hibbert
10. New Jersey Nets. The Nets have a core trio in Devin Harris, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. Is it a trio good enough to win a title? Probably not. Still, the Nets need another big man. Sean Williams, a rookie last season, looks like a keeper at power forward. Some mock drafts have the Nets taking Brook Lopez, who would be gone in my scenario. However, the Nets need a shot blocker and Lopez's brother Robin is actually a little better in that area. Another option is JaVale McGee, but Lopez is probably a safer choice. The Nets also pick at No. 21--perhaps they could get both.
Bradford's pick: Robin Lopez
11. Indiana Pacers. The Pacers are headed in a different direction, which is a much needed chance. Since the Pacers have adopted a helter-skelter style of play, they needed a point guard to run the show. T.J. Ford, acquired from Toronto on Wednesday, is perfect. Now the need shifts to a big man to replace O'Neal. The best on my board is Kosta Koufos, a big man with a center's body and potentially a forward's game.
My pick: Kosta Koufos
12. Sacramento Kings. If the draft breaks this way, this is an easy pick. The Kings need a point guard. Russell Westbrook and D.J. Augustin are available. Westbrook is the better fit.
Bradford's pick: Russell Westbrook
13. Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers added another pick on Wednesday (No. 27, from Denver) and I would guess that they are trying to move up. Portland is young, deep and talented. The Blazers also have Greg Oden coming in next season, joining Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge as a very nice core trio. Portland could upgrade at one of the wing positions, probably the one occupied by Martell Webster. An efficient, rangy shooter like Danilo Gallinari would be a perfect fit. However, the Indiana/Toronto trade on Wednesday could allow a point guard to slide, one who could play alongside Roy. That'd be D.J. Augustin, a pure playmaker who will have plenty of scorers to dish to in Portland.
Bradford's pick: D.J. Augustin
14. Golden State Warriors. Assessing the Warriors' needs is tough because of the unusual style and player-usage patterns of Don Nelson. On the surface, it sure seems like the Warriors need another rebounder. Brandan Wright might fill that bill but he's awfully lean, as is starting center Andris Biedrins. Golden State needs bulk. On the other hand, Nelson always loves shooters. I'd go for the bulk--JaVale McGee is the choice.
Bradford's pick: JaVale McGee
15. Phoenix Suns (from Atlanta). Steve Kerr pretty much put all of his balls in last season's basket so they may as well tear it down. Kerr won't do that, of course. An upside player actually works here. The best on the board is Anthony Randolph.
Bradford's pick: Anthony Randolph
16. Philadelphia 76ers. I love where the Sixers are as a franchise entering Ed Stefanski's first draft. True, he's got to lock up restricted free agents Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, but there's plenty of cap space to make that happen. What Philly needs more than anything is a third scorer to take Willie Green's place in the lineup. There's a pretty good two-guard on the board: Kansas' Brandon Rush.
Bradford's pick: Brandon Rush
17. Indiana Pacers (from Toronto). The Pacers have a new core trio of T.J. Ford, Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy Jr.. In my scenario, they've added Kosta Koufos as the long-term answer at power forward. A big-man project like DeAndre Jordan might be a worthy gamble at this point. On the other hand, Jim Boylan's system requires shooters. A rangy, efficient gunner like Danilo Gallinari would work.
Bradford's pick: Danilo Gallinari
18. Washington Wizards. This is a tumultuous offseason for the Wizards, with Antawn Jamison hitting free agency and Gilbert Arenas likely to join him on a restricted basis. When two of your three best players are in limbo, that makes for a tough draft day. If I'm Ernie Grunfeld, I split the difference and draft the best point guard or big man left on the board. There are no point guards left worthy of this slot, so I'm going big. The choices, as I see them, are Darrell Arthur, Marresse Speights and J.J. Hickson. I like Hickson's game a lot and, yes, he probably has the most upside.
Bradford's pick: J.J. Hickson
19. Cleveland Cavaliers. Well, we know they don't need a small forward. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is getting up there but you're not going to find his replacement at this point. The same goes for Ben Wallace. Still, a backup big guy with upside is the likely target. That sounds like DeAndre Jordan.
Bradford's pick: DeAndre Jordan
20. Charlotte Bobcats (from Denver). Is it possible that the Bobcats have too much talent? Nah. Still, there're adding complementary players at this point. A solid third guard, a combo type that can defend, would fill a need. And, guess what, KU's Mario Chalmers is still on the board. That would be a tremendous coup for the Bobcats at No. 20.
Bradford's pick: Mario Chalmers
21. New Jersey (from Dallas). Assuming the Nets get the big man that they need at No. 10, this slot will be used to get a shooter. New Jersey was 25th in eFG% last season and lack what analyst Mark Jackson loves to call "knock-down shooters." Cal's Ryan Anderson had the third-highest offensive rating in the country among high-usage players. A 6'10" sharp-shooter, Anderson reminds me of Keith Van Horn who, technically, is still with the Nets.
Bradford's pick: Ryan Anderson
22. Orlando Magic. The Magic are set with a core three of Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. They need an upgrade a the two-guard, someone who can hit the deep ball and defend. Orlando could also use another rebounder. The better players left given those needs are the rebounders. I'd go with the polished KU forward Darrell Arthur. He's not a great rebounder but is an active big man with the potential to develop a midrange game, which would make him a nice complement for Howard. The idea would be to shift Turkoglu to two-guard. Would that be a better group than Orlando's orgy of mismatch-makers of last season? Maybe, maybe not, but that group wasn't going to win a title anyway.
Bradford's pick: Darrell Arthur
23. Utah Jazz. The Jazz's only glaring need is a shot blocker, but it's a pretty big need. Better interior defense could have landed Utah in the finals in the season just completed. The best shot blocker left on the board is Rider's Jason Thompson, who has the potential to develop into much more than that. My personal opinion is that Thompson could be a special player as a pro and could supplant Andrei Kirilenko down the line. He's a steal at this slot.
Bradford's pick: Jason Thompson
24. Seattle SuperSonics (from Phoenix). In my scenario, the Sonics went big with the fourth pick and are looking at a core trio of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Kevin Love. That leaves center and point guard to fill but Chris Wilcox is already on hand and can play the center out of position, if need be. For that matter, so can Nick Collison. Earl Watson, last year's starting point guard, is still around. Perhaps the best course of action for Sam Presti would be to take the best available player. That's not a clear-cut choice. I'll throw a dart and go with French guard Nicolas Batum.
Bradford's pick: Nicolas Batum
25. Houston Rockets. With Yao Ming presumably returning from injury with no lingering effects from his fractured foot, the Rockets don't really have a glaring need and already have a deep roster. A backup guard is probably on the list. This may be a reach, but I'll opt for Chris Douglas-Roberts to give the Rockets another spot-up shooter and solid perimeter defender.
Bradford's pick: Chris Douglas-Roberts
26. San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are aging and an injection of youth is sorely needed. You'd expect San Antonio to go big, to replace minutes that ancient Kurt Thomas may not be able to fill going forward. San Antonio also needs an upgrade at backup point guard and a well-rounded small forward couldn't hurt matters, either. Marreese Speights lacks polish but could give the Spurs a post scorer off the bench.
Bradford's pick: Marreese Speights
27. Portland Trail Blazers(from New Orleans). If the Blazers keep this pick, you'd expect them to wishcast for an upside talent. There's not a whole lot of room left on the roster. A guy whose game I don't particularly like but who has scads of talent is Donte Green. That's a nice fit here. If Green develops, he could easily steal minutes from Martell Webster.
Bradford's pick: Donte Green
28. Memphis Grizzlies (from LA Lakers). This No. 28 pick makes the whole Pau Gasol trade worthwhile for the Grizzlies. This is the perfect place for my sleeper of the draft: Alabama's Richard Hendrix. He reminds me of Utah's Paul Millsap, an efficient, productive player undervalued because of his height. He has a long wingspan and plays bigger than 6'8".
Bradford's pick: Richard Hendrix
29. Detroit Pistons. The Pistons really don't have much room on their roster for another talent. I'll take Memphis' Joey Dorsey because he's experienced, productive and tough on defense.
Bradford's pick: Joey Dorsey
30. Boston Celtics. A bench scorer or a backup big man is in order for the Celtics to close out the first round. The only player on the board that is a possible upgrade from what they already have is BYU's Trent Plaisted. He's a tweener big man with nice post skills.
Bradford's pick: Trent Plaistad
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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