When they weren’t busy revitalizing the National Basketball Association, this year’s playoffs made a concerted effort to extend themselves well beyond an infinite horizon. And while the length of the postseason is usually cited as one of the NBA’s many liabilities, in 2006 it was a bulging asset, a chance to milk the only part of the season that’s guaranteed viewers. Any basketball fan worth his salt will surely spend the next few months sifting through the debris and polishing up fragments for a not-so-distant relevance.
Effectively massacred by this windfall, though, was the sense of any ritualistic buildup to the draft. Each summer, miserable franchises queue up to stake their futures on unproven, largely imagined, prospects. With the league itself supposedly foundering for the past decade, it’s no accident that the entire Association got used to holding its collective breath and waiting on an angel throughout the month of June. This molten year, however, has minimized the draft’s importance; between a paltry bunch of entrants and this extended disco mix of a playoffs, anyone hung up on the Class of ’06 faces a wintry uphill climb. This, my friends, might be the best thing to happen to the draft in ages, and I say this as an unrepentant draftnik.
Far and away, the most corrosive aspect of the pre-draft loudness is the ceremonial draping of unreasonable expectations. General managers’ lack of imagination is a brilliant paradox: they have no problem putting a second-tier prospect in the company of a borderline All-Star, but are seemingly incapable of description that does not resort to pre-existing models. Recent drafts have treated us to such overcooked comparisons as Caron Butler, the next Paul Pierce; Dajuan Wagner, spitting image of Allen Iverson; Mike Sweetney, son of Elton Brand; and Mickael Pietrus, the Kobe we never knew. There’s also the endless parade of Next Jermaine O’Neals and Next Dirk Nowitzkis, the slightly newer Myth of Next Gilbert Arenas, and the inevitable Myth of Next Dwyane Wade. In many cases, these men have grown into perfectly respectable NBA operatives. But to saddle them early on with such lofty, and often distortive, comparisons does nothing to clarify either the scouting process or their potential role in the program.
This time, however, not only have the playoffs drowned out any hopes of getting these wild-eyed projections into the minds of millions; as far as I can tell, executives themselves have been too underwhelmed to pull out the usual claws of exaggeration. The closest we’ve yet come is the insinuation that Tyrus Thomas, the hyperathletic LSU freshman with a decent shot at topping the draft board, resembles Suns All-Star Shawn Marion. Yet anyone with the grainiest sense of Thomas’s game knows that it bears little resemblance to Marion’s lithe magnetism. If anything, the mostly unformed Thomas brings to mind legendary underachiever Stromile Swift, an LSU alum whose name no one really wants to bring out into the open. Or perhaps, shaken into sobriety by the unremarkable state of things, those fixated on the draft have seen that likening fruit to other fruit might not be the most productive tool available to folks in their esteemed position.
This would explain another distinctive feature of this year’s talent assessment: the willingness to admit that strengths and weaknesses are an interdependent cluster, not warring community gardens that are each trying to grow a tomato that will blot out the sun. For the most part, even decidedly flawed prospects like Duke’s J.J. Reddick and Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison have been sized up as a unity of features, whereas in the past any one of their deficiencies might’ve been hung high as a dour red banner. Very few NBA players are defined by a single trait or skill; to judge their futures by such, without any acknowledgment of counterweight or compensation, belies an altogether idiotic sense of the game.
What’s more, the admission that no perfect player will emerge from the talent pool is a far more honest approach to the draft, which, realistically, should be looked to for a solid, useful piece in a team’s long-term plan. Despite recent drafts having yielded gems like LeBron, Wade, Chris Bosh, Melo, Dwight Howard, Yao, Chris Paul, and Amare, one or two stars per summer is a reasonable estimate of the overall trend. Teams should be perfectly happy with a solid starter, and should be looking for utility, not ferreting out imperfections.
But before you line up to thank this draft for changing things for the better, behold a decidedly chilling trend: the scramble to push players into other positional slots, altering the perspective in hopes of suddenly stumbling over a foolproof phenom. The Thomas/Marion parallel was a joke in the hands of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons … until word got out that Thomas was working out for teams in a manner that showcased his jumper and ball-handling ability. Rudy Gay, a frighteningly promising UConn’er who has been hogging the draft radar for some time now, becomes a bonanza of terror if he becomes a viable shooting guard. The value of Texas big man LaMarcus Aldridge hinges on whether he can survive the wilds of the center position, Morrison plummets if he’s too slight to play small forward, and so on.
Despite this year’s draft having the potential to alter the landscape for the better, the parties that seem dead set, perhaps frantically, on salvaging its air of summertime fantasy. And while one can fault them for it on a practical level, it’s somewhat comforting to see that even multimillion-dollar business decisions and “serious” sports journalism still need their maximum dosage of childlike fun. Delight is, above all things, the 100-ton motivator in the room for what might otherwise be a frustratingly vague, and often fruitless, professional necessity.