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The Increased Importance Of Accumulating Draft Picks

The reality is that in the new system, cap room will have far more value than it had in the past. What I don’t think people understand is that once a team hits the tax level its ability to improve is reduced dramatically. In addition, your ability to make trades is reduced. -- Mark Cuban

Since buying the Dallas Mavericks in 2000, Cuban has been one of the NBA’s most aggressive and free-spending owners, which is why his decision to not re-sign Tyson Chandler, the key to the Mavericks’ chances of repeating, was so puzzling.

But, as Cuban explained, the new CBA changes the decision-making process for teams near the luxury tax line. While offenders were only punished monetarily under the old CBA, repeatedly exceeding the line will now severely restrict roster flexibility going forward.

That’s why the most important assets in the post-lockout NBA are players making less than they are actually worth: superstars whose salaries are capped and young players on rookie contracts.

Because few young players can play NBA-caliber defense immediately, contending teams have long devalued the draft, especially the latter parts of the first-round, where picks are routinely sold. However, in a system that magnifies the importance of cap flexibility, overpaying replacement-level veteran players in free agency is a recipe for disaster.

The Mavericks lost two such players in the first week of free agency: small forward Caron Butler signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers while point guard JJ Barea received a four-years, $20 million contract from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Butler was a solid player for Dallas, but at this point in his career, he is best used spotting up on the three-point line and taking advantage of defensive rotations while shuttling defenders into the paint defensively. These skills have some value, but they are fairly replaceable, which is why the Mavericks didn’t miss a beat when Butler went down with a season-ending knee injury last January.

The Clippers undoubtedly factored in Butler’s widely respected leadership abilities when signing him, but his on-court contributions will consist of taking advantage of the defensive attention Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin draw and sending players towards DeAndre Jordan defensively. The percentage of his shots coming off assists has climbed steadily in the last few seasons, and an aging 6’7, 230 small forward who can’t efficiently create his own shot isn’t worth $8 million in the post-lockout NBA.

Because neither Griffin nor Jordan are good outside shooters, LA had to improve their floor spacing at the small forward position. But they could have filled that hole for $5 million less annually in the 2010 draft.

They selected Al-Farouq Aminu, a raw 6’9, 215 swing forward with limited ball-handling and jump-shooting ability, with the No. 8 pick in 2010, letting Gordon Hayward fall to No. 9. While Aminu has more talent, Hayward’s outside shooting would have been a much better “fit” with the rest of the Clippers’ frontline.

From a salary perspective, Jimmy Butler, the #30 draft pick of the Chicago Bulls in 2011, may end up having more value than Caron Butler. A skilled and athletic 6’7, 220 small forward who shot 34.5% from the college three-point line last year, he will make around $20 million less over the next three seasons. The Marquette product may not be as effective a shot-creator as the two-time All-Star, but he could conceivably spot up along the three-point line just as well.

The presence of another talented late first-round pick, Rodrigue Beaubois, allowed Dallas to let Barea walk in free agency. While he received an out-sized portion of the credit for the Mavericks’ championship, Barea’s ability to penetrate at an extremely generous listing of 6’0 was valuable primarily because of the veterans around him.

Beaubois, who scored 16 points in 20 minutes against San Antonio in the 2010 playoffs, has put up similar per-36 minute offensive numbers as Barea over the last two seasons while also being a significantly better defender. More importantly, he stands to make approximately $9 million less over the next three seasons.

In the post-lockout NBA, the draft is the best way to upgrade around an elite core. Coaches typically prefer veterans at the end of their rotations, but how much did Mike Bibby, Erick Dampier and Juwan Howard really help Miami last season? Were the Lakers really better off with Steve Blake and Derek Fisher and not Toney Douglas, their 2009 first-round pick they sold to the New York Knicks?

A stricter luxury tax will make expensive contracts for veteran role-players riskier, which is precisely the scenario the union was worried about during the CBA negotiations.

And with the ramifications of the new system becoming clear, expect smart franchises to accumulate late first-round picks. The draft will be even more valuable for small-market teams, as you may see them dealing their role players before they can enter free agency, in much the same way as the MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays.

Unsurprisingly, the Oklahoma City Thunder are ahead of the curve when it comes to drafting philosophy. With Eric Maynor entering his third season, he’ll become significantly more expensive in 2013, so they drafted Reggie Jackson, a 6’3, 210 combo guard out of Boston College, with the No. 24 pick this year.

There’s no way the Thunder will be able to afford Maynor after taking care of their core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. And with five players eating up the majority of their salary cap space going forward, the most cost-effective way to fill out the rest of their roster will be with late first-round picks like Jackson.

The Lakers dumped Lamar Odom for a trade exception in order to shave $8.9 million off their luxury tax bill this season. The difference between what they are paying Fisher and Blake this year and what they could be paying Douglas is $6.3 million. Selling the No. 29 pick of the 2009 draft may end up costing them a championship.

 

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