Last week, the NBA Draft hit Brooklyn, NY and seeing as the Lakers had their highest pick in over 30 years, the SS&R crew couldn't help but attend. The following is an e-mail exchange between Ben Rosales and The Great Mambino, who sat through the 2014 NBA Draft from the raftiest of rafters at Barclays Center:
The Great Mambino: At this point, I'll consider myself a veteran of the NBA Draft. I've gone to the big night in both beautiful Brooklyn and...well, Newark, and the experience is really like no other sporting event I frequent on an annual basis. What struck me last night--more than the previous two Drafts I've attended and the dozen others I've watched on television--was the simple energy in the arena.
Draft night is always an exercise in unmitigated hope--well, except if you're a New York-area basketball fan--where even the lowliest of teams are visualizing a future with trophies in press conferences and falling confetti in their favorite arena. It's the beginning of a journey that any fan can and will allow their imagination to run wild in. We live in a world where the 57th pick can turn into a NBA champion, gold medalist and potential Hall of Famer--thanks, Manu--so with that precedent in mind, why shouldn't everyone be hopeful of the potential that springs forth on this one night in June?
This, more than any other year, is what struck me most about being in that arena in Brooklyn. Fans everywhere seemed hyped--the Milwaukee Bucks faithful were smiling ear-to-ear, the few Magic supporters in the building were looking forward to their two lottery picks and even the Philadelphia 76ers fanbase (loud, proud and in numbers) seemed stunningly thrilled taking two lottery players that most likely won't play a minute for their favorite team next season.
Ben--my co-conspirator Thursday night--what struck you most about your first in-person NBA Draft?
Ben Rosales: As someone who has usually viewed NBA Drafts from the safety of my couch with a few drinks and my computer for company, going in person was definitely a change in perspective, mainly since as you noted, it is hard to replicate the sheer energy of the crowd. The draft is all about hope in some fashion and if you're a casual fan who only has a general grasp of the available prospects, it is a joyous occasion to see the start of a player's career, especially so if he ends up as a fixture on your favorite team and you can say you were there from the beginning. Even for fans on the more knowledgeable--and should I say, cynical--side of things such as you and me, it's hard not to feel uplifted and thinking of the best case scenario for the Lakers' prospects.
And that's probably why by the end of the first round, for something that is just sitting and watching an event in which exciting things only really happen in five to ten minute intervals, I was dead tired. It's just hard to maintain a sense of constant excitement for three hours, especially when you have no idea of whether the Lakers were going to be relevant in this draft past seven (more on that later). To their credit, however, the NBA appeared to try to maximize that kind of feeling. Adam Silver isn't (yet) the recipient of boos from the crowd as David Stern always is and combined with nice gestures such as inviting Isaiah Austin to the draft, there was a uniformly positive vibe from start to finish. In a draft that likely has multiple superb prospects near the top and a very deep first round in general, there was almost always something to be excited about.
It helped, of course, that from my point of view, the Lakers nailed their draft pick after the top six went about as perfectly as one could hope. Aaron Gordon was overdrafted, the Celtics are now stuck with a backcourt that can't shoot, and the Lakers had their choice of two great power forward prospects in Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh at seven. Interestingly, while both Drew and I have moved more towards Randle despite originally being huge fans of Vonleh, the opposite appears to be the case for you, as I was rather surprised when you expressed your preference for Vonleh at seven. I know that you're happy with Randle as the rest of us are, but why the drifting towards Vonleh when a good chunk of the NBA seems to have soured on him a bit recently?
MAMBINO: First and foremost, I'd like to mention my admiration for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He instills a firm sense of authority and wisdom behind his gigantic, bald, bespectacled visage, and yet his heart shines bright through what I'm sure is robotic husk. Adam Silver is every bit the fantastic Commissioner most people thought he'd be.
However, despite my admiration, I'd like to say when it comes to the NBA Draft...Adam Silver is no David Stern. The former Commish wasn't just a Master of Ceremonies--he was a showman, and the Draft night dais was his stage. While Silver got a smattering of boos (out of respect, oddly enough), there was mostly loud applause during his opening remarks. As the Draft wore on, the reaction turned to indifference, unlike the loud, long-lasting vitriol directed at Stern for all 30 picks on any given year. It just wasn't the same experience--every good story needs a villain, after all.
Now, back to the matter at hand. I'd say in terms of Vonleh, my softening on him largely has to do with the fact that over the past few weeks, I've bought into his ceiling being higher than Randle's. I'd say the souring on him largely has to do with his presentation (a ho-hum personality, without the extreme competitiveness of some of the other big men), as well as the ebb and flow of Draft prospects in general. Every year, names will get hot and ride the tide into the top-5--look no further than your no. 4 pick, Aaron Gordon, who was projected as low at no. 10 in some places. Though I've accepted Vonleh's higher ceiling, I'm also in love with Randle's drive and NBA readiness. By giving Kobe such a monstrously gigantic contract, they've already put themselves all-in to make the playoffs this year and next. That being said, I'd rather not see those two years go to waste when the team won't even have their draft pick one of those years. Randle gives the Lakers a player ready to contribute this season, one who now has a very publicly stated chip on his shoulder from his draft drop (something that Vonleh doesn't appear to have) that should add even more fuel to the fire.
Speaking of drops (and ascensions), whose movement surprised you the most last night? And the crowd's?
Ben: Yes, Silver does evoke far less scorn than Stern and as a result, seemingly draws less interest as a singular figure. Stern embracing the boos and asking the crowd for more at drafts is by far one of my favorite memories of him, especially since I know that I would have been one of those booing him if I had been present for any draft before this year ("basketball reasons!"). Perhaps vanilla is the wrong word to describe Silver, but his stand on the Donald Sterling issue and the rather touching way he incorporated Isaiah Austin into the draft proceedings has made him widely acceptable and thus, a bit dull. Indeed, among the commissioners of the four major sports, Silver looks especially good when you put him next to Goodell (concussions, extended season, inconsistent punishments/suspensions), Selig (steroids, steroids, steroids), and Bettman (lockouts, lockouts, lockouts). Should we consider this a sign of how far the NBA has come or is this just a temporary period of good feelings?
As for Vonleh and Randle, you've framed the issue very well: it really is a question of how fast Vonleh can realize the potential he has and whether he has the drive to achieve that. If anything, his time at Indiana was marked by a lack of aggressiveness and a failure to show his talent and especially his athleticism on the floor. While he does have a very good excuse of bad, shot happy setup men on the perimeter along with poor spacing, so did Randle and if anything, it was worse for him because Kentucky played under a giant microscope last season due to all of the hype. Despite that, he rarely if ever quit on plays, played through the incessant double coverage and overall poor fit for his talents, and kept his stock afloat. It is still early to prognosticate this, of course, but Randle seemingly has the right mindset for the league and the awesome pressure he'll have to endure from the LA spotlight and Kobe Bryant's expectations is something that appears right up his alley.
This notwithstanding, I was pretty shocked that Vonleh fell to nine when we had spent the past month hearing nothing other than how he was utterly killing it in workouts. Perhaps there was a so-so performance here and there, but most mocks were stating that his range was 4-6 and even the Sixers were giving him a look at three after Joel Embiid's injury tanked his stock. Instead, the beneficiary of a rise up the board was Aaron Gordon and as the reaction from our mutual Orlando Magic friend attested to, this was quite the shocker. The guy supposed to be slipping to the 8-10 range was supposed to be Gordon and he ended up going ahead of even Dante Exum. Certainly, you can see the rationale for Orlando in the potentially scary defensive team they are building with Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, and Gordon as the mainstays there, but I remain shocked that this is the direction they elected to go in. This really encapsulated the major movement of the night as far as players are concerned, as with a few exceptions (i.e. Gary Harris to #19, the truly bizarre Bruno Cabocle pick to Toronto at #20), everyone fell roughly within their designated range.
The crowd mostly did as well, as I expected an eclectic selection of fans from around the league mainly dominated by fans from the surrounding area (Knicks, Nets, Sixers), although I will say that the Sixers had an impressive contingent of fans present. Considering that they walked away from this draft with two players who might not play a minute of NBA basketball for them next season, one has to wonder at how they were processing this information on the way home, their cheers upon the selection of each pick notwithstanding. The excitement I mentioned earlier was fairly universal, as nearly every team walked away with a recognizable prospect with the possible exception of Toronto fans, who were probably just utterly confused. I mean, I've spent the past few months doing a lot of draft research, reading, and so forth and for a guy to be so unknown that he doesn't have a Draft Express profile is rather incredible in this day and age. It's really quite something to consider when there's just a complete blank elicited by a pick not only from the crowd but from us as well. This is supposed to happen in the late second round, not in the top 20 picks and it was a nice diversion from what was otherwise becoming a huge drag at that point.
In any case, a big part of my constant checking of Twitter during the draft was not to get spoilers on who was being picked, but to stay abreast of all of the myriad trades that don't get reported by Silver until hours after their actual completion and I was pleasantly surprised to see the Lakers get into the mix as well. This was the case, moreover, not only in the second round, where I think they got fantastic value in Jordan Clarkson, but in their summer league invites as well, as we have both DeAndre Kane and LaQuinton Ross present. Do you think that the Lakers have turned a corner as far as talent acquisition goes towards the bottom end of the roster? I can't help but be excited that they finally seem to be embracing areas they have long neglected and ones teams like our recent champion Spurs have mined so successfully for so many years.
MAMBINO: Regarding the team turning the corner on the bottom half of their roster, it's still hard to say, though optimistically I'd like to think "yes". The answer there is more of a two-part equation. The first would be if Clarkson is good enough to stick (he is still a second round pick, regardless of where he was supposed to be selected. Remember how high Devin Ebanks' stock was once upon a time?) and if Ross and Kane can even grab training camp invites out of Summer League. The second part is just how good are guys like Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly and Kent Bazemore (should he return). Yes, they played important roles on the Lakers last season, but that team was--I'd argue--the squad with the least amount of sheer talent in the Western Conference. That being said, are these players worthy of being anything more than roster filler? Were their performances just mirages constructed by a vacuum of talent and a dearth of available shots? I'm still not sure.
However, optimistically speaking, it feels like Mitch and Jimmy have cemented a great foundation for guys 8-15. If Ross and Kane can make it past Summer League, we're looking at a back end of the roster including: Kelly, Clarkson (heh), Kane, Ross, Bazemore and Johnson (if the latter two were to be re-signed). That's a really nice group of guys with upside, with the exception of Johnson. Who sucks.
Now that we have a direction for the Lakers and another couple spots presumably filled out on the roster, what direction do you think this sets them off in, in free agency? Is there any way to know that right now?
Ben: You're right: it's important to couch this optimism in its appropriate context. Clarkson, Ross, and Kane are interesting prospects and certainly great acquisitions as far as second rounders and undrafted free agents go, but they were selected or acquired in those spots for a reason. That notwithstanding, they certainly will have every opportunity to make it onto the team due to the front office's need to fill the roster, and that the Lakers have a number of young players gunning for a possible NBA future in purple and gold increases the likelihood that they'll end up with a contributor from at least one of them. Perhaps that is what is more encouraging than the prospects themselves: it is the seeming reality that the Lakers are investing time and effort into the development of the bottom half of the roster and constantly searching for that diamond in the rough, a welcome organizational change as a whole.
As for free agency, we still really don't know. We've documented the Lakers' cap situation and it really comes down to the availability of the top free agents going forward. Perhaps Randle's presence is a deterring factor against a Kevin Love acquisition, but it's far too early to say that until we actually see Randle play a game. And even so, the Lakers need talent in the worst way, so they have to be opportunistic in the free agents that they look at, something that was the case before the draft and will be going forward. Nevertheless, the draft has been a notable jolt of optimism for a Lakers team that has been sorely lacking it lately and if anything, that is something eminently worthwhile.