Kevin Durant and LeBron James are two of the greatest to ever play the game. But the two most recent MVPs are on teams that are struggling to win. There are reasons for each team's lack of success. That said, the Thunder and Cavaliers both made "bold" decisions to "mortgage their future". After these trades went down, I had a few opinions I thought I'd share.
On "future mortgaging" and the value of draft picks
I hate it when the term "mortgaging your future" is used in to pro-sports. Weakside Awareness has a great post on average NBA career length. Despite the fact that the length of the average NBA career has increased since the start of the three-point era, it still tops out at around six seasons. Dave Berri's work on players' primes basically says you've got from age 25-30 before players turn into a ticking timb bomb. The idea of "thinking for the future" in the NBA shouldn't be more than – at most – three years out. Even then, it should be a maintenance activity, not a plan. The Spurs use the draft to supplement a good team. Sadly though, most teams rely on the draft too much.
On that note, let's be clear, most draft picks don't pan out. That includes top three picks. There's a funny aspect to the value of draft picks. Basically, rookie contracts are gold. First round picks have three separate options, as well as restricted free agency, and, of course, reduced pay. The value of this is that a team can try out young players and quickly "iterate" if they don't pan out. The only problem is that teams treat their draftees like guaranteed franchise players, and usually hold on to them far too long.
Additionally, despite the value of a draft pick, it should not trump having good players on your team. Yes, draft picks are great to stockpile, but doing that with a bad team is like opening an savings account when you have a lot of credit card debt. Also, if you're lucky enough to have a star or two on your team and you're worried that they will leave, then you had better be worried about getting decent players now as opposed to hoping your draft picks will pan out in the future. Trading a good team now for the hope of a good team later is just silly.
Why the Cavaliers did good, or at least alright
So on that note, the fact that the Cavaliers traded two first round picks for Timofey Mozgov is completely fine. He's performed close to average for the past three seasons. Now, it's possible that there were better players available. That said, getting an average player for two first round picks is a win in my book, especially when you consider the implications of LeBron James leaving. The Cavs can try to win now, or risk LeBron bolting in a year.
Also, both first round picks the Cavs traded are lottery protected. So again, the Cavs traded two late first round picks that they might not see for years in order to get an average player now. The odds that either of those picks would turn into an average player is low, and the odds that they'd do it on a team without LeBron is high. The purpose of draft picks is to get your team good, or at least decent, players. The Cavs did that with this these trades.
Why OKC is a sham
The Thunder were in the same boat as the Cavs – an underperforming team with a marquee player who is heading into free agency. Like the Cavaliers, they traded a pick to help bolster their roster. Unlike the Cavs, the Thunder traded for a terrible player. I tweeted this right before the trade went through.
If Waiters goes to OKC we can just end myth of "smart front office" and replace it with "lucked into Durant, Harden, Westbrook, and Ibaka"— Andrés Alvarez (@NerdNumbers) January 6, 2015
And almost two years ago, I wrote about how I wasn't sold by the idea that the Thunder were a savvy team. I noted:
So the Thunders’ biggest building block to success was a player that wasn’t supposed to be on there, with a pick they weren’t supposed to have. How is this useful?
At one point the Thunder had a core of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, and Ibaka. They let Harden walk. Many like to frame this as Harden vs. Westbrook, which, by the way, is still a landslide in favor of Harden. But the reality is that the Thunder's downfall started when they decided to keep Kendrick Perkins around for eight million a year despite the fact he never played well for them. This tied up money that they couldn't spend on Harden. And that was just the start of a series of questionable moves. Derek Fisher got a regular spot on OKC's roster. They just traded for Waiters. Yes, they did do well in drafting Steven Adams...who they haven't been playing very much. In essence, it appears the Thunder just guess and have had some good luck. Luck they've squandered with poor decisions.
It's hard to know what will happen with the Thunder or the Cavaliers. So much will rely on the performance of Durant and LeBron and whether they decide to stick around. Star players are human and can make decisions for reasons other than money or winning. That said, when it comes to front offices making their teams better, I can't say I'm sold on the Thunder. And after years of wasting top draft picks, at least the Cavaliers are starting to get on the right track.