The one time of the year when everyone seems to enjoy giving out grades is after the NBA Draft. More than any other sport, fans seem to place faith (or, in the case of some GMs, at least hope) that the draft can change their team's fortunes. I suppose this is because is because basketball is played with 5 players, so any player influences (approximately) 20% of your team's production at any given time on the court, while baseball fields 9 (10 if you count the DH) and football 11. And of course, football and baseball rosters are much bigger, and they draft more players, so a far smaller percentage of drafted players actually make the roster. In the NBA, in contrast, the 1st round picks have guaranteed contracts, and as the book Stumbling on Wins points out, playing time is highly correlated to draft position and salary. In other words, once owners and managers shell out a lot of money for a prospect, they are reluctant to give up on that prospect.
All this leads to an atmosphere where pundits and fans are quick to evaluate how these rookies will impact their teams, given the significant minutes they will be given. Since covering every NBA team's draft performance has already been done by many others, I'm going to stick to one team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, primarily because their general manager David Kahn has amassed a reputation for his...unusual...draft choices, but also because I was born and Minnesota, and powers-that-be help me, I'm still a Timberwolves fan. Whenever a Clipper or Warrior fan says that no one can feel their pain, I get insulted.
The Timberwolves selected Derrick Williams with the number 2 pick of the draft, and then went on to make a dizzying array of trades "down" from the 20th pick before eventually drafting Malcom Lee in the second round (And later picked Tanguy Ngombo, who appears to have lied about his age; that pick will be voided, I believe). Lots of picks kept swapping, with Minnesota first trading down from 20 to 23, then from 23 to 28, then from 28 to 31, and then down to 43 where the Bulls selected Malcolm Lee on behalf of the Wolves. Several teams were involved, but when all was said and done, Mr. Kahn traded Johnny Flynn and the 20th pick in the draft for Brad Miller, a future non-lottery 1st round pick, and an unrevealed (but presumably large) amount of cash.
This draft is simple for me. I think Mr. Kahn "had to" take Derrick Williams at #2. Given that "conventional" wisdom seemed to converge on Williams as the best player available, Kahn had little choice. As David Berri has pointed out many times before on his Wages of Wins Journal, there is more to being a general manager than simply evaluating the best talent (let's pass on this opportunity to make any "KAAAAAAHHHHHN!" jokes for just a few moments while I make my point), because at the end of the day, the GM has an employer to report to, and accountability is a big factor. And the simple fact is that if Derrick Williams does not perform well in the NBA, it will likely not count against Mr. Kahn's perceived performance; he made the "right" pick. But if he had passed on Derrick Williams, and Williams went on to become an all-star, Mr. Kahn would need both a new job and a new set of bodyguards to protect himself from rabid Timberwolves fans (for what it is worth, I don't believe that Cleveland was able to pick Williams over Irving for precisely the same reasons). There are few general managers in the league that have the clout to buck conventional wisdom and not worry about the consequences should they be wrong, and David Kahn is assuredly not a member of that elite group.
No, the 20th pick is what is of real interest. What could they have had for this pick, and was all that trading worthwhile? Kahn has received his fair share of grief for the fact that Flynn was his #6 pick in the 2009 draft, and by trading him he "admits" that this was a bad pick. But as an amateur economist I feel the need to point out that the 2009 draft is history. It's a sunk cost. It doesn't matter that Flynn was Mr. Kahn's "fault", what matters is whether one can turn him into an asset. As @canishoopus pointed out, "It doesn't matter if you created the mess, if you clean it up, you are still cleaning up a mess." In this respect, Kahn exceeded my expectations. Johnyy Flynn was a terrible point guard last season, posting a -0.086 WP48 (0.100 is average, 0.0 means you don't contribute to winning, a negative number means you cost the team wins), and his removal from the roster surely counts as "addition by subtraction." And honestly, I didn't think any GMs in the league would take him. Moreover, even at his age, Miller posted a WP48 at center of 0.119, which is about average. It's true, he likely will not play until at least January thanks to an injury, but if you take even a short look at Darko Millicic (-0.100 WP48) and Nikola Pekovic (-0.161 WP48), "average" starts to look like "Wilt Chamberlain." If he gets any floor time at all it is a huge improvement. Lastly, there was one distinct advantage of all that trading down: avoiding any draft decision at all is a pretty creative way for Mr. Kahn to keep himself from drafting someone useless. I thought the trades were beneficial in that they saved a lot of money and made the team better...
Dammit, there is a big however here.
Mr. Kahn had an opportunity to make a great pick with that 20th spot. One that would have redeemed some of his previous poor picks.
The problem with the positive view of the trade is that it presumes that the 20th pick in the draft wouldn't really get you an impact player anyway. And this is usually true. But not this year. This year, the player most likely in this draft to make an impact in the NBA from day 1 was still available at number 20. That player is Kenneth Faried. In fact, I think Faried is the best player in this draft. Yes, I said it. No, your crowd-sourced wisdom will not force me to back down. Faried posted an absolutely astounding WinScore/40 of 19.7, thanks to his incredible rebounding, his very efficient shooting, and his above-average ability to block shots and get steals. Yes, he's "only" 6'-6" and he "only" played at Moorhead State. Who cares? His standing reach is 9'0". His height isn't a problem. And...oh hell...I hate it when pundits say "he's a [insert all-star player here] type of player," but let's be honest, we're all thinking it, this guy could be the next Dennis Rodman. Huge energy, solid defender, great rebounder, does not take bad shots, does not need "touches" to be happy because he gets his own by going out and getting the damn ball. Moreover, this isn't a fluke season: his WS/40 was 19 when he was a sophomore. Since rebounding is one skill that nearly always transfers from the NCAA to the NBA, Faried will make a positive impact from the first minute he steps on the floor. For passing on Faried, I give Mr. Kahn a D in this draft.
Passing on a talent like Faried, who had already slipped a bit farther than he should have, is inexcusable. 17 rebounds per 40 and 62% FG%? Here are some other players who put up similar R/40 and FG% numbers in recent years: DeJuan Blair, Blake Griffen, DeMarcus Cousins, and John Bryant. No one else since 07-08 has put up 17 R/40. I don't care if he played for Moorhead State. Those are insane numbers. He's basically Dennis Rodman without being completely inept at offense (and one of the reasons Rodman was great is that he knew this and didn't try to score anything but layups), and Dennis Rodman won championships. Sure, Faried probably cannot play the 3 (but I would not be surprised if he can GUARD the 3), and the Timberwolves have a ton of forwards, but in case you hadn't noticed, all of them not named Kevin Love suck (with apologies to the almost-average Anthony Randolph). If you move Love to Center, he's undersized. And we care.....why? Who cares if you are undersized if you grab more rebounds than you would with your 7'1" center playing next to Kevin Love at the 4?
As for the pick of Malcolm Lee, I don't see how a shooting guard that isn't very good at...well...shooting (FG% of 43.7 in 2011) is going to pan out, and if there is a lockout it would not at all be surprising if Lee didn't actually make the team, since there will be no summer league or training camp to give coaches a chance to see him in action.
in closing I should mention that a great many people on the internet firmly believe that these trades were all about generating enough cash to pay off the departing Kurt Rambis, and all made at the behest (i.e. command) of owner Glen Taylor. And if this were indeed true, we could excuse Mr. Kahn for passing on Faried and say that he more than overperformed at his goal of turning bad assets (Flynn) into cash and/or better assets. But since Mr. Kahn himself was very quick to deny this suggestion, I have no choice but to evaluate his performance on the assumption that the trades were made with the sole intention of fielding a better basketball team. And as great as I find the subtraction of Flynn (and the potential of adding Brad Miller) from the roster to be, it doesn't make up for passing on the chance to add Faried to the roster. With Faried, the Timberwolves could have had the best rebounding front-court in the league, which would be a huge step in the right direction.