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The Law Of Small Numbers

Part of what makes basketball so fun is that it combines the collaborative play of team sports with individual dominance. Even though team quality matters a great deal, we know that stars win championships in the NBA.

Five years ago, I dug out the stat for my old site that since 1956, only five teams had ever won an NBA championship without a player who won or would win an MVP award.

Even more astoundingly, only the Detroit Pistons have won a championship without a player who had already won an MVP award since 1981 when the Boston Celtics took the title on a team that had a pre-MVP Larry Bird along with Parish, McHale, and Tiny Archibald. Both of those streaks have added another six champions since that piece was written.

While Kevin Love does not factor heavily into the conversation of players who could win the MVP, he has been an elite player before the age of 26.

NBA teams understand this and value elite talent. We see this throughout the transaction system. The other reason why high-quality players fetch such high prices is that there are not enough of them to go around.

I call this the NBA’s law of small numbers: if you have a valuable asset rare enough, teams will find a way to make it happen.

The Miami Heat cleared their books via sorcery to create the three-player allure strong enough to draw LeBron James away from other opportunities in 2010, and this year we have seen quality franchises like the Houston Rockets combine space for a max player with a strong roster.

All of these factors make the Golden State Warriors’ apparent caginess at getting a Kevin Love deal completed dangerous for their future. While taking a quick glance at the market for Love around draft day could have led to confidence in Oakland, any concept that letting the string play out would be to their advantage would be deeply misguided. After all, the other effect of the NBA’s law of small numbers is that some teams do not get what they want.

In this case, that could potentially be three potential teams: Houston, the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers if LeBron ends up there. With LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and possibly Chris Bosh sitting as the major difference-makers this time with exactly none of them spending last season with any of those three teams, it always stood to reason that at least one or more of them would miss out on the best of the best.

Inevitably, whatever franchises end up without a chair when the music stops will turn to Kevin Love. This should scare the Warriors because each of those teams holds assets that they cannot match should those teams choose to deploy them: Chicago possesses a high-end young player in Jimmy Butler on the same salary timeline as Klay Thompson and quality cost-controlled players that could help Minnesota now in Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, while Houston has a series of fun young prospects and a shiny new draft pick from New Orleans, and Cleveland has a whole ton of assets if they can pick up the best player in the sport with cap space.

Flip Saunders may like Klay Thompson quite a bit and may see David Lee as an asset despite his contract. Even then, the Bulls and Cavs could put together trade offers to blow Golden State’s out of the water. While we do not know if those teams will enter the Kevin Love derby, the mere possibility should have indicated that the Warriors needed to push hard for a good deal instead of a slight chance at a steal.

The even more jarring fact is that the Warriors would have needed to make a big sacrifice somewhere even if they somehow added Kevin Love without losing Klay Thompson in the process. For the 2015-16 season, a team that has never paid the luxury tax would have commitments to Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Love with both Thompson and Draymond Green in line for substantial raises. Simply put, I would not have expected Joe Lacob and company to foot that kind of luxury tax bill for two-plus seasons even with a new arena on the horizon. That means at least one of those key pieces would have to go anyway- why not use one to make this trade happen?

If the reporting on this story has been correct, the Warriors better have an ace in their pocket or pray for a huge season from Thompson because playing the long game rarely pays off when non-major markets go after elite young players.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

The problem with most mock drafts, especially early in the draft process, is the butterfly effect. If just one team in the lottery makes a surprise selection, it causes a chain reaction up and down the board that renders a lot of the previous speculation useless. At this point, I think it’s more useful to look at what each team in the lottery needs and what will be going into their decision-making process. With that in mind, here’s a quick sketch of one way it could go. 

1) Cleveland Cavaliers - Joel Embiid 

This is from David Griffin’s interview with ESPN last night - “I think we need to get a better fit for our roster. We’ve got an awful lot of talent and we just need to find the pieces that can serve as a conduit to make it gel.” That screams Embiid to me. When you have Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, the last thing you need is another perimeter player who needs the ball. That core needs interior defense and post scoring, which are Embiid’s two strengths.

2) Milwaukee Bucks - Jabari Parker

If Cleveland takes Embiid, some combination of Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum go in the next three picks. It’s hard to go wrong with any of them and when you have multiple elite prospects on the board, you have to look at how they fit with the players already on your roster. In other words, which one makes the most sense playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo? I want an explosive scorer who can stretch the floor next to him, which would be Parker. 

3) Philadelphia 76ers - Andrew Wiggins

This would be a great fit for Wiggins, a guy who is more comfortable in transition than playing in the half court at this stage of his career. The one thing I wonder about with Wiggins and the 76ers is that he’s not the pick if you are going by advanced statistics. Here’s the PER of lottery picks from Kansas in the last two seasons - 28.2 (Embiid), 23.2 (Ben McLemore), 21.4 (Wiggins). He’s a guy you take based off the eye test and projecting future ability, not the data.

4) Orlando Magic - Dante Exum 

Orlando will be happy to take whoever falls to them, but Exum is the best fit with the players on their roster. At 6’6 195 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s a big guard who can run point, which would allow him to cross-switch with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt. Taking Exum would free up Oladipo to hound smaller guards on defense and hunt for his own shot on offense. In a best-case scenario, those two would become Orlando’s version of John Wall and Bradley Beal. 

5) Utah Jazz - Aaron Gordon 

If the draft plays out this way, Utah at No. 5 would be one of the big swing picks in the lottery, as they would have first choice on a run of power forwards. Most people have Noah Vonleh and Julius Randle rated ahead of Gordon, but if they take one of those guys, they would have to go back to the two-post system they went away from this season. Gordon is going to be an incredible pick-and-roll player and he would allow them to play 4-out with Derrick Favors at the 5. 

6) Boston Celtics - Noah Vonleh 

In this scenario, Boston would have their pick of two fairly similar PF’s in Vonleh and Randle, which could be one of the more interesting debates in this draft. If you are going with the stats and collegiate success, you have to look at Randle, who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds on 50% shooting and lead Kentucky to the national title game. If you are looking at it from a tools perspective, Vonleh is the better outside shooter and he has much longer arms. 

7) Los Angeles Lakers - Julius Randle

I hate to say this about a guy from Dallas, but Randle is the guy I would not want in the Top 7-8 picks. He will put up a lot of stats, but he doesn’t project as a great shooter or a great defensive player and I want my PF to do one of those two things. Given the amount of shots and minutes that could be up for grabs in the Lakers frontcourt, Randle would have a real shot at Rookie of the Year, but I don’t think his ceiling is as high as a lot of these other guys. 

8) Sacramento Kings - Marcus Smart 

Smart is one of the wild cards in the lottery - there’s a pretty high range of where he could go. It’s hard to see him sneaking into the Top 5 and if he doesn’t go to either the Lakers the Kings, the teams picking after them don’t really need a PG. Smart offers a lot of line-up versatility, as he can play as a SG next to Isaiah Thomas or a PG next to Ben McLemore, but the Kings are an interior defender away from being a solid team, so I wonder if they would reach here. 

9) Charlotte Hornets - Nik Stauskas 

This seems like the first spot where Doug McDermott could come off the board. Charlotte desperately needs outside shooting and they have the personnel to hide McDermott on defense. However, if they are committed to Cody Zeller at the 4 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the 3, Stauskas would be the more logical pick. He’s just as good a shooter as McDermott and he’s a much better passer who has the ability to run the pick-and-roll and create shots for others.

10) Philadelphia 76ers - Doug McDermott 

Philadelphia could go in a number of different directions, depending on who they take at No. 3. McDermott, for example, would make a lot more sense next to Wiggins than Parker. Wiggins can defend multiple positions and McDermott can’t defend any while McDermott’s shooting ability would open up the floor for Wiggins and Carter-Williams to attack the rim. I prefer players with more two-way ability, but he could score a lot of points walking into transition 3’s in Philly.

11) Denver Nuggets - Jusuf Nurkic 

If Brian Shaw wants to run more offense out of the low post, Nurkic makes a lot of sense. At 6’11 280 with a 7’2 wingspan, Nurkic is a 19-year old who is already big enough to score over most NBA centers. He comes into the league with a pretty solid post game and he moves well for a player with his mammoth size. He’s not getting up and down the court particularly fast, so taking him would represent a complete turning of the page from George Karl’s small ball style.

12) Orlando Magic - Adreian Payne 

If the Magic go with a perimeter player at No. 4, they will probably want to look at a front-court player at No. 12. Nik Vucevic is entrenched at center, but he isn’t much of a shot-blocker, so that’s a huge need in terms of how they are going to build their roster. I’m surprised at how far Payne is sliding in some of these mocks. He is a legitimate stretch 4 with elite athletic ability who has the ability to play interior defense and rebound - that’s exactly what Orlando needs.

13) Minnesota Timberwolves - Gary Harris 

Minnesota was a perfect example of the problems with fielding a line-up of one-way players. Nik Pekovic, Kevin Love and Kevin Martin are all poor defenders, while Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer are both poor outside shooters. The result was a group that was worse than the sum of its parts. Harris doesn’t have the upside of a guy like LaVine, but he’s a safer pick who will instantly make the Wolves a better team on both sides of the ball. 

14) Phoenix Suns - Zach LaVine

I’m going to put the Suns as the floor for LaVine. They have three first-round picks in this draft, so they will be willing to roll the dice on a guy with as much pure ability as anyone on the board. He didn’t do much in his one season at UCLA, but he’s a 6’5 180 with a 6’8 wingspan, he can jump out of the gym, he has unlimited range on his jumper and he can handle the ball like a PG. LaVine has a chance to be a special player in the type of uptempo system the Suns run.

Identifying 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.

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