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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.

Balance Remains Key To Winning In March

While the underdogs are the story of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the favorites take the stage in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. The cutdown from 64 to 16 isn’t nearly as brutal as the one from 16 to 4. A team might sneak through the first weekend due to a favorable draw, but the quality of play ratchets up quickly the further you go. The talent gap shrinks as the field narrows and any weakness a team has will eventually be exposed.

That was the story on Thursday night, which featured two of the best games of the Tourney - Florida 79, UCLA 68 and Arizona 70, San Diego State 64.

After playing the America East champs in the first round and a middling ACC team in the second, Florida faced the second best team in the Pac-12 in the third.

Arizona, after rolling through the champions of two mid-major conferences in the first two rounds, faced a steep challenge from the Mountain West champs in the third.

The games between the 1 and 4 seeds in the South and West brackets were heavyweight matchups. Florida was the No. 1 overall seed and had won 28 straight games; UCLA had as much talent as any team in the country and was coming off winning the Pac-12 conference tournament. Arizona had a 31-4 record and was ranked in the Top 5 for most of the season; San Diego State had a 31-5 record and had not slipped out of the Top 15. All four teams had multiple NBA prospects.

The Florida game came down to rebounds - the Gators had a +10 margin on the glass, including 10 offensive rebounds. UCLA went into a zone early, hoping to exploit Florida’s inconsistent perimeter shooting. However, one of the problems with zones is that it’s harder to rebound out of them, since none of the defenders have a box-out assignment. So while Billy Donovan’s team missed plenty of shots, going 8-21 from three, they rebounded enough misses to make up for it.

The Bruins had a ton of perimeter talent, but they didn’t have the size and athleticism upfront to match-up with Patric Young (6’9 260), Will Yeguete (6’8 230), Dorian Finney-Smith (6’8 215) and Chris Walker (6’11 220). UCLA started two jump-shooting big men in the Wear Twins, who combined for only 8 rebounds. Tony Parker, their biggest player at 6’9 255, was still a year away - he picked up three personal fouls in only 10 minutes of action on Thursday.

Their weakness on the glass meant the Bruins were playing uphill for most of the night. The 1-on-1 talent of Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine fueled runs throughout the game, but they could never close the gap and get a lead. Florida always had an answer, either on the first shot or the second shot or the third. UCLA couldn’t turn them over consistently either, so they were never able to make up the possessions they lost on the defensive glass.

The Bruins were an offensive-minded team that played just enough defense to survive. Against lower-seeded teams like Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, their overwhelming edge in talent made up for their inability to impose their will on defense. However, against an elite team, it doesn’t matter how many points you can score if you can’t protect your defensive glass. Florida exposed UCLA’s weaknesses in a way their opponents in the first two rounds couldn’t.

San Diego State was the polar opposite of UCLA - an elite defensive team that played just enough offense to survive. When the Aztecs were at their best, they were using their athletic advantage to turn teams over and get out in transition, getting points going from defense to offense. In the half-court, their lack of post play and perimeter shooting made them limited offensively, especially against teams with the size and athleticism to protect their defensive glass.

Arizona, like SDSU, played elite defense and could play an NBA-caliber athlete at every position on the floor. The difference was they had better shooters and more skilled players in the frontcourt, allowing them to run much better half-court offense. They turned the tables on Steve Fisher’s team - turning them over and scoring points in transition, before the Aztecs could set their defense. San Diego State had four assists on 10 turnovers; Arizona had 14 assists on 7 turnovers.

As long as Sean Miller’s team took care of the ball, they could force San Diego State to stay in the halfcourt and beat them from the perimeter. And with their season on the line, the Aztecs couldn’t make enough shots when it counted - shooting 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from three. All those misses allowed them to grab 18 offensive rebounds and keep the game close, but the Wildcats pulled away late, forcing a few huge turnovers and getting easy points on run-outs.

While UCLA could only beat you with offense and San Diego State could only beat you with defense, Arizona and Florida could beat you with both. An elite team can beat you in multiple ways. Some nights the shots aren’t falling, so you have to be able to dig in on defense. Some nights the other team can’t miss, so you have to be able to keep up. Just as important, a balanced team can exploit any weakness in the other team’s roster. They don’t leave points on the board.

In a one-and-done tournament, you never know who you are going to play or what type of team you will have to face. Match-ups can be a tricky thing - the Midwest was supposed to be the region of death, but the No. 3 seed lost to the 14 in the first round and the first seed lost to the eight in the second. A favorable draw will only take you so far; eventually you are going to run into a team with the pieces to expose any hole on your roster. That’s why the best teams have the fewest holes.

One of the age-old debates in basketball is whether offense or defense wins championships. The answer is neither - you need both. A team that plays good offense and good defense is going to have the edge over a team that plays great defense and average offense or great offense and average defense. That’s why balance is the key to winning in March. Arizona and Florida were more balanced than San Diego State and UCLA and that’s why they are moving on.

Proposing A New Playoff System

A little while back on the podcast (and on a subsequent episode with Amin Elhassan of ESPN), I laid out my idea of how the playoffs should work. I wanted to take a little time to put together both the logic behind it and the way it would look this NBA season.

The core principles

- Series make sense as the core of any NBA playoff system. The sport has too much randomness to reward a legitimate championship on anything shorter than a best of five series.

- Reward teams for success in the regular season as much as possible. This will keep teams fighting throughout the regular season.

- Time off can be too long in basketball. We have seen teams end up hurt by long layoffs. In the present system, these mostly come by having set dates for the Finals and teams just winning too fast before that. Either way, a gap of longer than about five days (I’m open to data on this should anyone have it) could make a competitive disadvantage.

The system itself

- The top 16 regardless of division or conference make it in. Ideally the schedule would be equalized to account for this shift, an excellent reason to work in a reduction in the number of games in the regular season.

- From here, the 16 teams split into two groups: the top eight in record order and the rest in another cluster.

- Starting with the No. 1 record and moving down, the top upper half team chooses who they want to face of the remaining teams in the lower half. This could even be run as a Selection Special the day after the end of the regular season.

- After a best of five (or seven) first round, you rinse and repeat with the remaining teams.  I prefer five for the first round because it reduces the risk of a longer layoff and adds excitement without substantially curtailing equitable results.

Why this works

By giving the best teams the choice of opponents after each round, franchises have huge incentives to play for the best record possible during the season and zero incentive for playoff teams to strategically lose under any circumstances. Upsets could move teams up the selection order and possibly shift them from the bottom pool to the top depending on circumstances. Also, it shifts the possibility of facing a team saddled with an injury to teams based on merit rather than luck.

It also brings back something that has become far too rare in a league with strong personal and financial relationships between “rival” players and teams: personal animosity. This part of basketball experienced by every kid growing up regardless of skill level can be a galvanizing and intriguing force, especially since most of these players have not felt this kind of sting in quite some time. Being the first team picked would be a rallying cry unlike anything we currently see in professional sports.

How it would look this year

Using the standings at the close of games on Monday March 25, the top eight in record order would be:

San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Indiana, LA Clippers, Miami, Houston, Portland and Golden State

The lower cluster would be:

Memphis, Phoenix, Dallas, Toronto, Chicago, Brooklyn, Washington and Minnesota

In terms of the teams in, Phoenix and Minnesota would replace Charlotte and Atlanta in the field. Pretty clear upgrade to me.

Predicting the selections would be tough, but I think the record order comes pretty close. I’d move Dallas down below Brooklyn and likely flip the Nets and Bulls based on current play though Chicago would be a pretty undesirable opponent as well.

  1. Potential first round series

San Antonio (1) vs. Minnesota, OKC (2) vs. Washington, Indiana (3) vs. Dallas, LA Clippers (4) vs. Chicago, Miami (5) vs. Phoenix, Houston (6) vs. Brooklyn, Portland (7) vs. Toronto, and Golden State (8) vs. Memphis. A few of these could easily be flipped but you get the idea.

It would certainly be fun to watch and speculate each round while also reducing one of the forms of strategic losing that hurts the league the last few days of most seasons.

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