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Breaking Down Protection Of 2015 NBA Draft Traded Picks

While the concept of tanking gets plenty of ink in NBA circles, the league has a more specific problem in that vicinity due to the rules concerning pick protection. While the Sixers may be an example of a team just not choosing to re-build quickly, very strong and narrow incentives can have a greater impact on competitive balance. As an example, I covered the Golden State Warriors in 2011-12 when they only retained their pick if it fell in the top seven. Once their unreasonable playoff dream died the team did what they could to keep their selection including shelving their top players ahead of time.

I wanted to take the time to go through RealGM’s excellent pick protection page and detail the potential first round pick protection issues that could rear their head this season, ranked in order of overall impact (likelihood and significance, basically). While pick swaps can change the way teams play since it eliminates the benefit of excessive losing, I chose not to include them since playing with an indifference to losing works very differently than the incentives for teams like the 2011-12 Warriors.

- Cleveland Cavaliers: Do not swap their pick with the Chicago Bulls if 1-14 (otherwise Chicago can choose to swap): While prohibitively unlikely with the best talent in their conference, the wheels falling off the Cavs train for this year due to several injuries could force a fascinating choice since falling to the 9th or 10th place spot in the East would lead to retaining a much better choice than a low seed in the post-season. Unlikely but compelling scenario.

- Houston Rockets: Retain their first rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Los Angeles Lakers): The Rockets got lottery protection on the pick they sent to the Lakers in exchange for L.A. taking on the final season of Jeremy Lin’s contract, but it would be hard to imagine that the team would choose missing the playoffs over making them. The protection works more as a silver lining in this specific circumstance.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Retain their first rounder if 1-5 or 15-30 (otherwise it goes to Cleveland): In January 2013, the Grizzlies sent this protected pick to the Cavs as a sweetener to take on enough salary to get Memphis under the luxury tax. It has the top and bottom protection for this season and next then becomes a more traditional 1-5 protected in 2017 and 2018 if not conveyed by then. In this case, I would expect the restrictions to actually serve as a double punishment for the Grizzlies since it would take a ton to get their pick into the top five. The Grizzlies have plenty of incentive greater than this pick to make the playoffs again.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Retain their first rounder if 1-3 or 20-30 (otherwise it goes to Houston): As long as Anthony Davis stays reasonably healthy, this one should follow the same path as Memphis’ choice where the team is too good to have their pick fall on the top end and would not prioritize keeping the pick over making the playoffs or playoff seeding. The Pelicans’ pick becomes a little more dynamic because of the 20-30 protection rather than the 15-30 playoff team protection- it could turn out that New Orleans wanting to duck a specific first round opponent (the other major impetus for the truly harmful tanking) could coincide with this incentive considering the strength of the Western Conference.

- Philadelphia 76ers: Retain their first rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Boston Celtics): While it looks like a foregone conclusion at this point, losing a first round pick by making the playoffs this year and replacing it with two second round picks did create a clear incentive for the Sixers to avoid making a push this season. Probably not a major factor in what happened but likely a consideration.

- Miami Heat: Retain their first rounder if 1-10 (otherwise it goes to Philadelphia): Astonishingly, LeBron James affected this pick two separate times as it was originally compensation to the Cavaliers as a part of the sign and trade that brought him to South Beach and the Cavs sent it to Philadelphia as a key piece of the Kevin Love trade when LeBron returned. Having only top 10 instead of top 14 protection likely does not matter much here as the “best” non-playoff teams in the East have been very close to top-10 picks due to the quality disparity between the two conferences. In what would have to be close to a worst case scenario for the Heat, the team could have a huge reason to lose their last few games if they get knocked out of post-season contention late in the year.

- Minnesota Timberwolves: Retain their first rounder if 1-12 (otherwise it goes to Phoenix): We have already done this dance and could be doing it again this year depending on how the Wolves fare with their interesting roster. While most expect Minnesota to take a step back from the 14th-worst record last year (and #13 pick), this protection could be a factor late in the 2014-15 season if Minnesota has a better than expected year but still falls outside of the stacked top eight in the West.

- Sacramento Kings: Retain their first rounder if 1-10 (otherwise it goes to Chicago): If the Kings fall out of the playoff picture, I am fully confident they will make sure they retain this selection and hope to do better the following season. This pick has top-ten protection for three more seasons and then becomes a second rounder in 2017, so we could see the same general path as last year happen up to three more times depending on how Sacramento progresses.

- Lakers: Retain their first rounder if 1-5 (otherwise it goes to the Phoenix Suns): The biggest protection issue going into the season by far. After striking out on the impact free agents this summer, the Lakers look to be out of the playoff picture for the 2014-15 season and thus have a clear incentive to keep their own lottery pick. This pressure gets even stronger if they have the belief that the Summer of 2015 will be more fruitful since they would be adding a better young piece and sending away a worse pick in 2016. The dueling pressures of winning in one of Kobe Bryant’s last seasons and adding a key piece for their future will be a major storyline to watch all year.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Pacific Division

We continue our division-by-division look at candidates for internal improvement on each team with the Pacific Division, which features teams at every stage of the building process. The Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors are contenders with a foundation in place, the Phoenix Suns are trying to establish themselves as a perennial playoff team and the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings are trying to find a foundation. 

The Clippers and Warriors built through the draft and then swung for the fences when their young core was on the cusp of contention, with Los Angeles adding Chris Paul and Golden State adding Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. They have pretty much set rotations and are only looking to tinker around the edges, either by adding a young player or bringing in a veteran who can offer a different look to their rotation and help with a match-up in a playoff series. 

The Suns were supposed to be at the very beginning of a rebuilding process last season, but they skipped their place in line when a bunch of young guys - Eric Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee and the Morris Twins - broke out simultaneously. Winning brings its own set of problems, as they have already had to shell out over $120 million to Bledsoe and the Morrii and now have to prove they aren’t a one-year wonder but have a group ready to win over the long-haul. 

The Lakers and the Kings, meanwhile, have made noises about contending, but they have gone about it in the exact opposite way as the Suns. Instead of taking flyers on young guys with room to grow, they have been bringing in name brand veterans like Carlos Boozer and Darren Collison, in the hopes that they can cobble a back-door run at an 8 seed. This approach, if not done carefully, can end up impeding internal development and keep a team stuck in place.

- Los Angeles Clippers: Reggie Bullock

Like most rookies on contending teams, Bullock’s first season in the NBA was essentially a glorified internship, running errands for veteran players and competing against them in practice without ever having much of a chance to earn consistent playing time. JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes will still get the majority of the minutes on the wings, but Bullock still has a chance to carve out a role for himself as a 3-and-D player this season.

At 6’7 205, he has prototype size and athleticism for a perimeter defender and he displayed a good shooting touch at UNC, where he shot 44% from 3. The Clippers loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the playoffs showed they need a player like Bullock, as Barnes had to spend his time defending Kevin Durant and neither Chris Paul nor Redick had the size and athleticism to prevent Russell Westbrook from going crazy

- Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green 

Green had a breakout performance in last year’s playoffs, when he was inserted into the starting line-up as a small-ball PF in the aftermath of an injury to Bogut. He averaged 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks a game on 47% shooting and his ability to spread the floor from the PF position allowed the Warriors to come this close to stealing their first-round series with the Clippers, which they lost in a Game 7 heartbreaker on the road.

With a new coaching staff in place in Golden State, it will be interesting to see how much they stick to a two-post offense as opposed to trying to spread the floor and creating more opportunities for young guys like Green and Harrison Barnes. The key for Draymond is becoming a more consistent three-point shooter - while he had a green light to shoot from deep in the post-season, he was only at 33% in the regular season and 28% in the playoffs. 

- Phoenix Suns: Alex Len 

The Suns unexpected emergence into a playoff contender last season meant there was little time for Len, the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft. He has become a bit of a forgotten man - a raw young center whom many considered a reach and didn’t have the chance to get much playing time as a rookie. Nevertheless, he is still an intriguing prospect with a lot of tools and he represents one of the best avenues for internal improvement in Phoenix, going forward. 

At 7’1 255, Len is a big body with the athleticism to run up and down the court and play in the Suns uptempo system. In a best-case scenario, he can replicate Plumlee’s ability to set screens and finish at the rim while also providing a defensive presence in the paint and a more balanced skill-set on the offensive side of the floor, with the ability to post up and knock down the perimeter jumper. Len is only 21 and he is very skilled for a guy his size. 

- Los Angeles Lakers: Wesley Johnson

The Lakers went all-in on building a super team around Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2012 and they are still feeling the after-effects two seasons later. After selling off most of their draft picks, there wasn’t much young talent on hand when the whole thing fell apart and they had to scour the waiver wire for reclamation projects. Johnson, one of their best finds, began turning his career around last season under Mike D’Antoni.

The No. 4 overall pick in 2010, Johnson was unable to shoulder much of an offensive burden in Minnesota, but he has re-invented himself as a 3-and-D player in Los Angeles. He shot 37% from 3 and matched up with multiple positions on defense, giving D’Antoni the type of versatility his system required. The question is how Johnson will fit in Byron Scott’s more conventional system, without the type of space he was able to play in under D’Antoni. 

- Sacramento Kings: Ben McLemore

After a disappointing rookie season where he shot only 38% from the floor, the Kings seemed to lose faith in McLemore, the No. 7 pick in 2013. They drafted over him this season, taking another SG (Nik Stauskas) in the lottery and now the two young players will have to compete for playing time as well as a place in the pecking order, going forward. McLemore may end up being a bust, but it’s still way too early to make that declaration with any certainty.

Stauskas showed more of an ability to create his own shot and distribute the ball in college, but McLemore is a far better athlete who projects as a much better defensive player down the line. The problem is that it’s going to be hard for them to grow together, as neither has the game to be a full-time PG or the size to swing to the SF position. The crazy part about doubling up at SG is that the Kings still don’t have a long-term answer at PG, SF or PF.

Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

With the Kevin Love trade finally completed and free agency all but over, the fate of Eric Bledsoe is one of the offseason’s last unresolved subplots. Along with Greg Monroe, Bledsoe has been stuck in restricted free agency limbo for the last few months, unable to come to terms with his team or drum up much interest on the market. Bledsoe reportedly wants a max contract, which is much more than the Phoenix Suns have been prepared to offer.

The Suns skepticism is understandable, given that Bledsoe has started only 78 games in his NBA career and had major knee surgery in January. At the same time, in the 43 games he played in Phoenix, he looked like one of the best point guards in the league and was an instrumental factor in their unlikely push for a playoff spot. If he accepts their one-year qualifying offer and becomes an unrestricted free agency next summer, he should have no shortage of suitors.

Coming into the season, few knew what to expect of Bledsoe. He had spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers as Chris Paul’s understudy, averaging less than 20 minutes a game. With Vinny Del Negro stubbornly refusing to play two-point guard lineups, even when that meant starting career journeyman Willie Green, Bledsoe’s opportunities were limited. As a result, there wasn’t a ton of interest when the Clippers made him available in trade talks.

Phoenix was able to swoop in at the last minute, acquiring Bledsoe as part of a three-team deal that sent JJ Redick and Jared Dudley to the Clippers and Caron Butler and two second-round picks to the Milwaukee Bucks. It was a buy-low move with little risk for a team in their position - after missing the playoffs and seeing their win totals drop for three straight seasons, the Suns were starting over with a new GM (Ryan McDonough), and coach (Jeff Hornacek).

The new management team in Phoenix cleaned house, getting rid of three starters and bringing back only four players from a team that won 25 games the season before. They were expected to be a West Coast version of the Philadelphia 76ers, bottoming out to improve their odds in one of the most anticipated draft lotteries in recent memory. However, instead of beginning a multi-year rebuilding process, they became one of the biggest surprises of the NBA.

Hornacek’s spread pick-and-roll offense was a perfect fit for the players on hand, as almost everyone in the rotation had a career high in field goal percentage. Miles Plumlee was the roll man, Channing Frye was the stretch-4 and PJ Tucker was the 3-and-D wing while Bledsoe and Goran Dragic took turns spotting up and orchestrating the offense. It was a triumph of spacing - the Suns played four three-point shooters at all times and blew teams off the floor.

When Bledsoe went down with a knee injury on December 30, Phoenix was 19-11 and No. 6 in the West. In the 33 games he missed, they went 17-16 and slipped out of the playoff standings. He returned to help them make a 12-7 push over the final month, but it wasn’t quite enough, as they finished one game behind the No. 8 seed Dallas Mavericks. They would have made the playoffs if he had stayed healthy - they were 28-15 with him and 20-19 without him.

Just as a comparison, the Oklahoma City Thunder went 25-11 without Russell Westbrook last season and the Clippers went 12-7 without Paul. To be sure, the Suns didn’t have a Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin to pick up the slack in the absence of their star PG, but it shows the impact Bledsoe was having on both sides of the ball. When he was in the line-up, Phoenix was one of the best teams in the NBA, with a winning percentage (.651) of a 54-win team.

His impact goes beyond his stats - you can count the number of guards who can impact the game in as many ways as Bledsoe on one hand. He is one of the best athletes in the NBA and he can beat you as a scorer, shooter, passer, rebounder and defender. He takes what the defense gives him - he can turn the corner and finish at the rim at will, find the open man when the defense collapses and knock down the jumper when they go under the screen. 

In Hornacek’s system, with three shooters spotting up on the three-point line and one big man rolling to the rim, Bledsoe’s versatility made him an impossible cover. When he had the ball in his hands, something was always open. On the other side of the ball, his ability to defend multiple positions, pressure opposing ball-handlers and turn them over as well as clean the glass made him a one-man break who could change the tempo of the game by himself.

Bledsoe is the rare PG who doesn’t have any holes in his game. Most guys with his athleticism don’t have his ability to finish from all over the floor and very few guys with his all-around offensive game have his ability to impact the game defensively. Last season, only 6 PG’s had a higher True Shooting Percentage than Bledsoe (.578) - Steph Curry, Dragic, Jose Calderon, Patty Mills, Jimmer Fredette and Paul - and only Paul is in his category as a defender.

Spending two years learning from Paul clearly had an impact on Bledsoe, who plays with far more finesse and control than he did at Kentucky. He came into the league an unfinished product - he played only one season in college and spent most of that time spotting up off John Wall, so he rarely got to play with the ball in his hands. As a result, he slipped in the draft and had to spend his first three seasons in the NBA learning the game while coming off the bench.

Unlike his more celebrated college teammate, Bledsoe didn’t have anything handed to him at the next level. Wall, as a No. 1 overall pick, was given the keys to the offense as a rookie and received a max contract extension before Bledsoe even got a chance to be a starter. However, when he finally got his shot, you would have had a hard time differentiating the two Calipari products - Bledsoe (19.6) and Wall (19.5) had almost identical PER’s last season.

At this point in their careers, perception is the biggest thing separating the two. Bledsoe is just as good an athlete and he’s the better shooter. Once he gets more NBA games under his belt, there’s really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paul’s brain in Derrick Rose’s body. Even if he doesn’t improve going forward, he’s already one of the best two-way players in the league. If the Suns don’t want to give him a max contract, someone else should.

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