GMs caught between potential of picks, certainty of stars

The NFL draft is this week and the lottery to decide the order of the NBA draft is in two weeks. I’d rather talk about the NBA draft lottery—but not yet. Instead, let’s talk about french fries.

French fries are great. They’re delicious and crunchy, and I can still eat them on Passover. Two weeks ago, I went to the Acropolis Diner and bought a plate of french fries. Those same french fries have been festering in my refrigerator since I brought them home in a styrofoam box. Right now, there’s about three dollars’ worth of fries sitting in the frigid darkness of my refrigerator, existing yet neglected.

I wouldn’t just let three dollars mold in my fridge, right? And I wouldn’t throw three dollars out like I (definitely) will do to the fries tonight. But they’ve become devalued, so that’s what I (definitely) must do. Even when they were hot and crunchy, contiguously to when I had overpaid for them back at Acrop, I was happy to offer the fries to my friends.

Despite its real cash value, the value of a commodity is discounted once it’s been traded for cash. Although they were once hot, crunchy and juicy, no rational person would think to buy my soggy french fries now. Fries, like all other commodities, are not exactly flexible. You probably saw where this was going a long time ago, but I have a point to make and a word count to meet.

My point is that NBA General Managers can’t make up their mind if they want draft picks or french fries.

In this ill-conceived metaphor, NBA players are commodities with known values. That value may be steeped in risk, hindered by a reputation or enhanced by a contract’s details, but they are still a known value. Currency, in this case, is draft picks, packed with potential but saddled with the downside of going bust.

It seems like teams in the market to make a splash should trade veteran players for draft picks. Draft picks are cheap and last a long time. Rookie contracts start out at as two-year deals, but teams have the option to extend them into year three or four.

Veterans, on the other hand, can be expensive. They’re also not likely to improve. Actually, it turns out that clairvoyance is rare even when it comes to known entities. Take a look at FiveThirtyEight’s Wins Above Replacement Projection ranking from 2015. You’ll find that Cody Zeller is ranked above Joel Embiid, that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist cracks the top 52, that Marcus Smart comes in at 13 (32 spots better than Paul George) and that Elfrid Peyton is 14th, 30 spots ahead of his teammate at the time, Victor Oladipo (FiveThirtyEight, The 53 Best Franchise Players In The NBA, 10.27.2015).

In this era, however, when the best players seem apathetic to staying with the team that drafted them, maybe it does make more sense to take a chance on established players. When FiveThirtyEight published those rankings, Victor Oladipo was two seasons away from being All-NBA. Giannis Antetokounmpo is ranked behind Deandre Jordan in the article. This season, he’s probably the MVP. Jordan received a big contract this year and was a footnote in a trade with the Knicks at the deadline.

Let’s examine that more. In the trade, the Knicks received Dennis Smith Jr., Jordan, Wesley Matthews and two first-round picks. The Mavericks got Kristaps Porzingis (who is under investigation by the NYPD following an allegation of rape), Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee. This deal is either completely rational, or completely irrational depending on how you view potential. The Mavericks made away with a well-regarded commodity in Porzingis. By absorbing Porzingis they’re betting that, despite his record of injury and his current season-lasting one, he is still more valuable than retaining the draft picks that the rebuilding Mavericks might find attractive. At the same time, the Knicks are betting that Porzingis’ injury surmounts the tremendous potential he showed in his first couple seasons. This calculation seems ludicrous considering Porzingis is a restricted free agent this offseason, and the Knicks hold every card in determining where he could go.

Implicitly, too, the Knicks are betting on getting Zion Williamson. The Knicks posted one of the worst three records in the league; if they receive the first pick in the lottery in May, they will draft the Duke standout. But is that decision really sound? While Williamson was more recently dunking on boys in high school, Porzingis was busy making fools of guys in the NBA. There is a vast and expensive difference between the two. Despite Williamson’s potential, he has never succeeded at the level at which Porzingis already has.

The NBA is filled with paradoxes like this. Another trade deadline deal sent Tobias Harris, another blossoming star, to the 76ers in exchange for two first-round picks and surprisingly solid rookie Landry Shamet. The 76ers decided to focus on now, the Clippers were willing to hedge. Both are playoff teams this year.

The Process—a five-year tankathon that saw the 76ers trade virtually every valuable asset they possessed—stopped processing with that move. The Sixers have mortgaged the future for a title no later than this year. They march forward with the afterburners on and all reserves empty. I think they’re on to something.

The Sixers prove that you might actually be able to have it both ways despite the fact the NBA is a bizarro world where very little goes according to plan. Scrawny point guards from liberal arts colleges can become MVPs, and domineering big men may crack under the pressure of their own bodies.

This is all to say that potential is a very messy trade to deal in. First-round picks sound tremendous because of their non-commodified value. But vets bring demonstrated worth and the potential to make similar unlikely leaps to those of Tobias Harris, Paul George and Victor Oladipo in the recent past.

In trading for draft picks, GM’s replace pressure-tested vets for high schoolers who may be getting drunk at house parties. Those prospects aren’t always tearing it up at the high school level either. I was a scrawny runner in high school, but I once knocked a Division I prospect on his ass with a box-out. True story.

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