The 2015 Draft: Poker Night For Rebuilding Teams

The NBA Playoffs are off to a pretty great start. In the East, Derrick Rose looks like his tremendous old self, LeBron’s young Cavs teammates had stellar playoff debuts, and a nation that largely ignores the Hawks is finally seeing just how beautifully they play. In the West, the Warriors and Pelicans are putting on a show with Anthony Davis loudly announcing himself as the future of the league, and the Spurs are battling the Clippers in what Grantland’s Zach Lowe calls “The Last Ride Of The Spurs Dynasty.”

But even with the playoffs roaring into action, half the league’s fans are already looking ahead to June’s draft. Perhaps somewhat overlooked in the shadow of the immensely over-hyped 2014 draft, the 2015 entrees suddenly look like an extremely talented and formidable bunch. And that’s not the only reason June’s draft is particularly intriguing; it’s also because there might simply be more at play this time around than ever before.

This is because the NBA draft has essentially become a giant, massive stakes poker game played out from season to season. And that’s not just to suggest “it’s a gamble,” or “teams are playing each other.” Rather, it’s literally started to resemble a giant poker game.

Consider this. Betfair Poker’s how-to-play guide for Texas Hold’em describes the process of the game by saying, “All players are dealt two cards face down. There is a betting interval followed by three community cards being dealt face up in the middle of the table.” The process continues after this, but doesn’t it resemble what the NBA draft has become? The initial dealing of cards, face down, is a given year’s draft lottery: teams get their picks, and only they know what they’re going to do with them. Then the draft and the following season play out essentially as a betting interval, with teams one-upping each other, making trades, bluffing, feeling each other out—all in the hopes of putting together the best plan for the future. And finally, community cards are dealt. This is the next year’s draft class arriving, to be used in whatever way each team positioned itself to use it.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it’s not far off, and it speaks to how clearly the NBA draft has become a multi-year process. The key difference, of course, is that not everyone starts and finishes a hand at the same time. For example, the Sixers’ rebuilding plan started two drafts ago, whereas the Celtics arguably didn’t fully start their rebuild until letting go of Rajon Rondo in the middle of this past season. But for each individual team, the draft has become such a multi-year process that it truly resembles a drawn-out poker game: take the picks you’re dealt, manipulate and leverage them as best you can, and position yourself to use the next round of assets as effectively as possible.

A lot of people think the process—a heavy focus on asset gathering (and tanking)—is ruining the league. But whether or not that’s true, it’s also making draft night incredibly interesting. So here’s the fun part: what are the best “hands” that rebuilding teams could emerge from the draft with? Here are some of my thoughts.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Hand: Jahlil Okafor, Backup PG, Future Picks, Olivier Hanlan, Cap Space

Explanation: Minnesota isn’t a team that can sign big-name free agents, so using its first round pick—likely to be first or second—is a no-brainer. Okafor is a pure post player whose presence allows the team to explore trades for Nikola Pekovic and go with a very capable young frontcourt of Okafor and Gorgui Dieng. According to Sportrac, Pekovic has a bear of a contract. However, with the salary cap rumored to be going up, the contract may be friendlier than it seems. This means he could be traded for a backup point guard, which is a major need for Minnesota, and/or a future pick along with potential cap space. Meanwhile, the second round pick this year should be used on a combo guard who can spell Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin, such as Boston College’s Olivier Hanlan.

New York Knicks

The Hand: Karl-Anthony Towns, Rajon Rondo, Paul Millsap, 2nd Round Pick, Taker For Jose Calderon

Explanation: If the NBA draft (or really, the entire offseason) is a poker game, this would be the Knicks’ Royal Flush. And yet, it’s perfectly within reason. Phil Jackson has hinted he prefers Karl-Anthony Towns to Jahlil Okafor should the Knicks get a top-two pick. The Knicks have over $20 million in cap space this offseason to purchase Rondo—who happens to be friendly with Carmelo Anthony—and Millsap, a scoring forward who would complement and mentor the more defensive-minded Towns beautifully. Securing a 2nd round pick in a trade would give the Knicks another young asset, and finding a trade partner for Jose Calderon would provide flexibility and give Rondo the reigns.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Hand: Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Cliff Alexander, Aaron White, Veteran Big Man

Explanation: This is another Royal Flush. If Miami’s first round pick falls outside the top-10, it belongs to the Sixers—and it’s time for the Sixers to make a move for NBA talent. They could trade their likely top-four pick, perhaps with Nerlens Noel, to Phoenix (who brought in Brandon Knight to play point) for Bledsoe and Phoenix’s mid-first round pick. The Sixers, if they get Miami’s pick, could then trade that and the Phoenix pick to get back into the mid-lottery to grab Justise Winslow—exactly the tough, athletic small forward they need. Second-round picks could go toward guys like Alexander and White, both with NBA bodies, and young assets should be traded for a veteran big man to mentor Joel Embiid.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Hand: Jahlil Okafor, Kevin Love, Goran Dragic, Terry Rozier, Future Pick

Explanation: Many believe Kevin Love wants to play in LA, and if there’s an indication that can happen, the Lakers should immediately look to trade Julius Randle and their own lottery pick to move into the top two to pick Okafor or Towns. Towns is the better fit alongside Love, but Okafor has elite center potential, which fulfills a tradition in LA. Dragic is easily affordable alongside Love for the Lakers, meanwhile, and gives the team the point guard it desperately needs. Rozier could be had with the Lakers’ late first-round pick as a backup point guard option. Also, if possible, the Lakers should move their second-round pick for a future asset to address needs after they see how much they can improve next season.

The likelihood of any of these scenarios playing out just this way is very low. But with the draft and offseason more and more closely resembling high-stakes gambles of asset management, these are the ideal scenarios—the winning hands—these rebuilding teams might be angling for.

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