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Drafting Small, Thinking Small

The Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers have traditionally been hard-luck franchises, but fortune, in the form of ping-pong balls, has smiled on them in recent years. Cleveland won the lottery in 2011 and 2013, to go along with Top-5 picks they “earned” in 2011 and 2012. Washington won the lottery in 2010 and moved into the Top-3 in 2012 and 2013. A similar run of luck from 2007-2009 allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to build the core of one of the NBA’s best teams.

While there may not have been a Kevin Durant-like talent in any of the last four drafts, there was no shortage of talented prospects to sift through. It’s too early to say whether either the Cavs or the Wizards made the right picks, but they built remarkably similar cores. Both took a point guard at No. 1, something done only four times since the lottery began. In looking at what both teams have done in the draft, one obvious question comes to mind. Where are the big men?

Three years after taking John Wall with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, Washington doesn’t have a player who predates him. In 2010 and 2011, they went with size, taking Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton. None of the four has done much in the NBA, perhaps causing a shift in the Wizards philosophy. In 2012, they took Bradley Beal (6’5 210) at No. 3 overall. This year, they went with Otto Porter (6’8 210) at the same spot.

Cleveland went with the industry consensus when they took Kyrie Irving first in 2011, but they’ve been marching to the beat of their own drum since. Three picks later, they took Tristan Thompson, an undersized power forward most had pegged as a late lottery pick. In 2012, they surprised many when they took Dion Waiters, a shooting guard who didn’t start for his college team, at No. 4. This year, even Anthony Bennett was stunned when took him No. 1 overall.

Both franchises have built from the outside-in. Five years from now, a huge portion of Washington’s salary cap will be tied up in the perimeter trio of Wall, Beal and Porter. All three are long, skilled and athletic, capable of switching assignments on the perimeter and guarding multiple positions. However, when they are in their prime, Nene and Emeka Okafor will be past their expiration date. Will the Wizards have the assets to replace the two big men?

For Cleveland, the problem is even more basic. Their Top-4 picks may not be able to play together. In the backcourt, Irving and Waiters need the ball in their hands and neither has the size to match-up with bigger shooting guards. In the frontcourt, Thompson and Bennett are natural power forwards. At 6’9 230, Thompson doesn’t have the size to be a center. Bennett’s game, meanwhile, is based around beating slower players off the dribble as a 4, not posting up smaller players as a 3.

Down the road, neither team has an answer in the middle. Washington used their top-3 picks on a PG, a SG and a SF while Cleveland went with two guards and two combo forwards. In the modern NBA, unless you have an owner like Mikhail Prokhorov, you cannot have highly-paid players at all five positions on the floor. The Wizards and the Cavs both made their picks under the assumption that you don’t need a high-level C to win.

Of course, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, you go into a draft with the players on the board, not the ones you wish were there. As the Memphis Grizzlies found out when they took Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 in 2009, reaching for size is no answer either. In that respect, Cleveland and Washington’s picks might have been dictated by the changing nature of the amateur game. If the best players are all on the perimeter, what’s the point in drafting more limited big men?

Centers do take longer to develop than guards, but it’s not like there weren’t plenty of highly-rated ones available in the last four years. In 2010, the Wizards passed on Greg Monroe, Derrick Favors and DeMarcus Cousins. In 2011, the Cavs passed on Jonas Valanciunas and Enes Kanter. In 2012, neither pulled the trigger on Andre Drummond. This year, both teams passed on Alex Len and Nerlens Noel, two 7’0 seen as the front-runners for the No. 1 pick, and took a 6’8+ combo forward.

For Cleveland, Valanciunas is the one that got away. In 2011, the Toronto Raptors took the 7’0 from Lithuania one pick after Thompson. While both have shown a lot of promise in the NBA, it’s much harder to find a center than a power forward. As a result, the opportunity cost of selecting Thompson was higher. If the Cavs had Valanciunas, they could have taken Bennett without disrupting the mix upfront. Instead, they have two redundant pieces in their frontcourt.

Washington’s pieces fit better, but redundancy is an issue there too. Beal and Porter project as excellent perimeter defenders and secondary ball-handlers, but are those roles important enough to merit two Top-3 picks on the same team? After all, you can find 3-and-D wings in the second round or in Europe. In contrast, the only place to find players like Drummond, Noel and Len is the top of the first round. If a center is available in free agency, there’s probably a reason -- see Andrew Bynum.

That’s the gamble that will make or break the Cavs and the Wizards. The Detroit Pistons haven’t picked higher than No. 7 in any of the last four years, but they’ve been building from the inside-out as opposed to the outside-in. In five years, if Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe can play together, it won’t matter if Brandon Knight and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were good picks. It’s a lot easier to find perimeter players you can put around a big man than the reverse.

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