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Finding What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

Amidst one of the most disappointing rookie classes in recent memory, two bright spots have emerged from the middle of the first round - Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee. Taken with the No. 21 and No. 22 picks, where an average NBA player is all you can hope for, Dieng and Plumlee have already exceeded expectations. As rookies, they are both solid NBA centers who look headed for 10+ year careers. A lot of teams should regret passing on them. 

Dieng, taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the second of their two first round picks, didn’t play much for the first four months of the season. With Minnesota making a desperate playoff push to keep Kevin Love in town, Rick Adelman stuck with his veterans, giving Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf minutes behind Nikola Pekovic at center. It wasn’t until Pekovic went down with an ankle injury in mid-March that Dieng got a chance to show what he could do. 

Because he wasn’t playing much, the feeling around the league was that Dieng was a raw player, years away from being ready to be a contributor. The reality was somewhat different - just because a young player doesn’t get minutes doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t play, particularly guys who aren't drafted in the lottery. The NBA, like most workplaces, is not really a meritocracy. On many teams, years of experience and the size of your paycheck determine playing time. 

Dieng, a 24-year old coming off an NCAA championship season, was one of the most NBA-ready players in this year’s draft. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he already had an NBA body, with the size to hold his own in the paint. Coming out of college, he was uncommonly skilled for a center, with the ability to hit a 20-foot jumper as well as a dissect a defense from the high post. Dieng shot 65 percent from the free-throw line and averaged two assists a game at Louisville.

Dieng started producing as soon as he got into the rotation. He averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds on 45% shooting over the last month of the season, including multiple games where he grabbed more than 15 rebounds. More importantly, from the Wolves perspective, Dieng showed the ability to protect the rim, something neither Love nor Pekovic can do. He averaged 0.8 blocks in only 13 minutes a game - he should have played more. 

Plumlee, like Dieng, struggled to get minutes early in his rookie season. When the Brooklyn Nets season began, not only was he behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett, he was also losing minutes to guys like Reggie Evans. Many old-school coaches won't give a rookie a chance over a veteran, but Jason Kidd eventually went with the best player. It was an easy call - Plumlee is longer, more athletic and more skilled than Evans and he does more to help his team win.

After Lopez went down for the season, Plumlee took advantage of the opportunities he was given. Like Dieng, Plumlee is an older prospect, a 24-year old center who played four seasons at Duke and left with a body ready for the rigors of the NBA paint. Per-36 minutes as a rookie, he averaged 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks a game. Not only could he protect the rim in the Nets small-ball switch-heavy scheme, he could also make plays for his teammates.

In the first two games of their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Plumlee has shown his worth to the Nets. He’s the perfect complement to the older players in front of him - a ball of energy who can finish above the rim as well as add a needed boost of speed to their line-up. In their Game 1 victory over Toronto, Brooklyn was +13 in his 12 minutes on the floor. Plumlee gives them a live body who can match-up with the size and athleticism of Jonas Valanciunas.

Plumlee is the only pick from the back half of the first round with a big role on a playoff team. The Atlanta Hawks took Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira, two European teenagers at No. 16 and No. 17. Schroeder is good, but Nogueira is a project whose best-case scenario is Plumlee. The Dallas Mavericks took Shane Larkin at No. 18, a smaller PG who hasn’t cracked their rotation. The Chicago Bulls took Tony Snell at No. 20, who has a PER of 8.0 this season.

All three of those teams desperately need help in the middle. Atlanta is using Elton Brand, an undersized 35-year old PF, as their backup C. Dallas has been making do with a platoon of Sam Dalembert, Brandan Wright and Dejuan Blair at the position all season. Tom Thibodeau is having to roll out 36-year old Nazr Mohammed to backup Joakim Noah in the playoffs. Most of those guys are barely NBA-caliber players at this point in their careers.

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6’10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Larkin’s predicament in Dallas is the perfect example of the fungibility of PG’s - the Mavs picked up Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and Monta Ellis in free agency and don’t need another small guard. Snell could stick in the NBA, but will he be better than Xavier Henry or Wesley Johnson, two players the Bulls could have had for nothing in the off-season?

Nogueira went higher than Dieng and Plumlee because he was perceived to have a higher ceiling, but that had more to do with his age than anything he showed on the floor. At 7’0 220, Nogueira is a painfully skinny 21-year-old who is averaging six points and four rebounds a game in Europe this season. In many ways, he was where Dieng and Plumlee were as college underclassmen. The problem is most raw young big men never improve as much as those two did.

Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling. Instead of focusing on what they could do, NBA teams worried too much about what they couldn’t. When picking in the latter half of the first round, you should think hard about passing on an NBA-caliber big man, no matter what his upside. Ask the Mavericks, Hawks and Bulls, who will once again be looking for big men this offseason.

The Utter Nightmare Of Minnesota's 2011 Draft

Teams have bad drafts all the time- it has actually been a hallmark of the NBA experience, sadly more for some teams than others. It can happen in a variety of ways: poor selections, bad trades, or taking options off the table for no reason. In the case of David Kahn and the Minnesota Timberwolves during the 2011 draft, all three occurred in extremely rapid succession.

What Happened

Minnesota started the night with an interesting composition of resources. They had the No. 2 pick after falling one spot in the lottery, as well as the No. 20 selection via the Al Jefferson trade of the 2010 offseason.

They walked out of the Prudential Center with Derrick Williams (taken at No. 2), Brad Miller (while losing Jonny Flynn), Malcolm Lee (taken at No. 43), a future first from the Houston Rockets that ended up being No. 26 in 2013 (while losing the No. 40 pick in 2012), their own 2014 second round pick, the No. 52 pick from the Nets in 2013, and cash.

The Transactions

As already detailed, the Wolves started out with just two picks in 2011: No. 2 and No. 20. Over the course of the evening, they made five different transactions without touching the No. 2 selection.

Move One: Traded No. 20, a 2012 second (No. 40 eventually) and Jonny Flynn to Houston for No. 23, No. 38, Brad Miller, and a conditional future first (No. 26 in 2013 as it turned out).

In effect, they moved down three spots, swapped Flynn for Miller and picked up an early second (which comes back later) and a future first.

Move Two: Traded No. 23 to Chicago for No. 28, No. 43 and cash.

Picked up a mid-second to move down five picks in the late first. A strange price since No. 38, No. 39, and No. 45 were all later acquired with cash and no future assets.

Move Three: Traded No. 28 to Miami for No. 31, a 2014 second (looks like it was their own, originally traded for Michael Beasley), and cash.

While the first pick of the second round holds a special value for international players, late first rounders are some of the best bargains in the league because of their cheap salaries and two team option years.

Move Four: Traded No. 31 to the Nets for a 2013 second (eventually No. 52) and cash.

Whatever value the first pick in the second round may have had, David Kahn got almost nothing of substance for it. A late second two years later and cash is a horrible return considering who was on the board.

Move Five: Traded No. 38 back to Houston for cash

Even without knowing who the player was, acquiring a mid-second as an asset and then sending it back to the same team for cash on the same day is just bad. Basically, just another loophole to get the owner more money.

Post-Draft Move Six: Traded a future second (less favorable of own or Denver’s in 2015) to Portland for the rights to Targuy Ngombo.

Ngombo is one of the single strangest stories in NBA Draft history, having been taken No. 57 overall by Dallas in 2011 despite having an age discrepancy of five years that would have made him ineligible to be drafted. Even with that, the man born in the Congo who plays for the national team in Qatar was traded twice in a week and appears unlikely to play in an NBA game.

Basically, the Wolves sent the No. 20 pick into the ether for a few eventual resources and cash.

The Players They Passed On

What makes the story so much worse are the players that could have been Timberwolves if they had settled at various points.

The No. 20 pick they started with became Donatas Motiejunas, a reasonably solid player for the Rockets. Kenneth Faried was chosen two picks later, though Minnesota likely would not have taken either Motiejunas or Faried due to Kevin Love’s place on the team.

The No. 23 pick Minnesota moved down to was used on Nikola Mirotic, widely considered the best drafted player not currently in the NBA and potentially a quality frontcourt piece. Reggie Jackson was taken next.

The No. 28 pick became Norris Cole, a piece of two Miami championships and useful guard. Jimmy Butler went two picks later.

While Bojan Bogdanovic was picked at 31 and has not played in the NBA yet after the Nets failed to reach a buyout with his European team, Kevin Love’s AAU teammate and current Detroit Piston Kyle Singler went two picks later.

The No. 38 pick that Minnesota acquired in the first trade with Houston and later sold back to the Rockets for cash was used on Chandler Parsons. 

The Players They Ended Up With

Derrick Williams still has plenty of potential, but yielded very little value for the Wolves. They traded him to Sacramento for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in November of this season.

Malcolm Lee played on Minnesota for two seasons and then was traded to Golden State in another remarkable move where the Wolves moved the No. 26 pick (the first they acquired in the Houston trade!) and a former first rounder (Lee) for a future second and cash. It actually sounds like a deal they could have made in 2011.

Brad Miller played in 15 games for the Wolves, almost half as many as Jonny Flynn played that season. Minnesota actually gave up picks (originally including the 2012 second from the Nets that was a part of the No. 31 trade in 2011) to shed the final year of his contract in order to sign Andrei Kirilenko.

After some weird turns, the Nets’ 2012 second became Lorenzo Brown. Minnesota waived Brown before his first regular season NBA game. 

Astonishingly, at present none of the picks used or acquired in the six 2011 draft moves are playing for the Timberwolves right now. Two of the future assets they walked out of the draft with were later used to shed contracts of players they acquired that day.

At this point, what started with the No. 2 and No. 20 selections for a team that already had Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic has yielded Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, 205 combined games in Minnesota uniforms for Williams, Lee, and Miller, two 2014 second round picks (while losing one in 2012 and one in 2015), and cash.

The Western Conference At The Deadline

When the clock hit 3 PM EST on Thursday, basketball fans around the globe groaned as another NBA trade deadline passed without the epic blockbusters that fill the RealGM Forums. Although the deadline lacked a true blockbuster, the trades that were made (and the ones that were left on the table) will undoubtedly shift the landscape of the Western Conference playoff picture and possibly the team that will be facing the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals (It’s a lock, nobody is seriously questioning it).

The four most notable trades in the West came from the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.

The Warriors, who picked up Steve Blake from the Los Angeles Lakers, will look for him to provide the steady hand off the bench that they have been pursuing since Jarrett Jack left in the offseason. Blake’s addition isn’t going to drastically improve the team, but he is able to give the team quality backup point guard minutes behind Stephen Curry, given Jordan Crawford’s inability to play without Brad Stevens as his coach.

The Rockets moved little used backup point guard, Aaron Brooks, to the Denver Nuggets for Jordan Hamilton. After refusing to lower their insane asking price on Omer Asik, the Rockets decided to fill their lack of a stretch four with Hamilton. Despite Hamilton blatantly not being a power forward or an elite shooter (39 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3), the Rockets apparently believe he can become one when freed up as Dwight Howard draws attention in the post. The more important aspect to this trade is that it likely allows the Rockets to call-up D-League star, Isaiah Canaan.

The Spurs traded little used point guard Nando de Colo for Austin Daye. In one of the day’s most intriguing moves, the Spurs took on another reclamation project in the form of a 6’11 shooter who was once a top prospect coming out of high school. While Daye has struggled to earn minutes outside of his second season in the NBA (when he shot 40 percent from 3), he has tremendous length, can guard multiple positions, and San Antonio has shown interest in him. If that isn’t a sign of someone that will be playing meaningful playoff minutes in May, I am not sure what is.

The last deals of any consequence in the West were by the Clippers. They traded both Antawn Jamison and BJ Mullens for the rights to a Turkish player that probably is unaware he was traded, and a conditional second round draft pick that will likely never happen. These deals, while not interesting beyond the salary implications for the Clippers, do allow open roster spots on the team for buyout candidates. Look for Glen “Big Baby” Davis to join his old coach, Doc Rivers.

While each team above made a move – albeit small – at the trade deadline, the other five teams in contention, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies all stood pat.

Although several teams are in desperate need of a big man (OKC, PDX, PHX), no one budged on Philly’s offer of two second round draft picks for Spencer Hawes.

Portland, who is without a second round draft pick until 2019, had a tremendous need for Hawes with Joel Freeland out for two months and LaMarcus Aldridge banged up.

The Thunder flirted with a deal for Knicks embattled shooting guard, Iman Shumpert, but backed off at the last moment.

As for the remaining needs, the slew of veterans that will likely be bought out this upcoming week will have to suffice. Fortunately for these teams, Glen Davis, Caron Butler, Danny Granger, Jason Terry, Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Antawn Jamison are all buyout candidates.

Many NBA teams believe it is better to trade during the offseason so that players can get familiar with a system and their teammates, while others utilize the short second half of the season as a tryout for recently acquired players to see if they’re long-term fits. It appears that teams trading in the offseason are better off. For any fan grumbling over their team not making a blockbuster yesterday, here’s a stat you need to know: one; as in the number of Championship teams during the last 25 years to trade for a starter at the trade deadline (Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons in 2004). So while fans of the Rockets clamored for Rajon Rondo and Warriors' fans hoped for Kevin Love, just know that the odds of you winning the title with those guys was slim to none.

Happy Trade Deadline everyone! Only 124 more days until the NBA Draft!

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