NBA players are a lot like new cars. As soon as you drive that whip off the lot, it depreciates in value exponentially. We all know this. In basketball, as soon as a player ceases to become a draft pick and metamorphosizes into an actual human, the stock usually drops. And that stock usually drops precipitously the further removed we are from draft day. Knowing this, NBA teams (and NFL too, for that matter) consistently place an inordinate amount of value on draft picks.
There are logical reasons driving this. The most valuable commodity a team can have is a great player on an inexpensive contract and young players = cheap labor. The draft pick allows you to mold a player in the image of your organization and coaching staff; you don’t have to worry about any of those nasty habits acquired while on bad teams. But at a certain point, gambling on the unknown shouldn’t supersede the worth of a known commodity.
Jimmy Butler (human) was traded by the Chicago Bulls last night to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for a third-year player (Zach LaVine), a first-year player (Kris Dunn) and the seventh pick of this year’s draft (which became Lauri Markkanen). Not the most inspiring haul for an All-NBA talent and consensus top 15 player.
Chicago could’ve easily taken Cleveland up on it’s offer for Kevin Love instead. Love is an All-NBA talent in his own right (he’s made the second team twice, while Butler has only made the third team once), with a terrific inside/outside game and championship pedigree. However the Bulls finally made the decision to act like they’re in full-on rebuild mode, a philosophy which doesn’t mesh well with a 28-year-old on a $100M contract. So, general manager Gar Forman opted for the Minnesota mystery box.
Are we sure Peter Griffin isn’t running the Bulls?
Sure, Love is on a more expensive deal and is older, but he’s only 372 days older than Butler and is the more accomplished NBA player. While an argument for Love being the better player could be assembled rather easily, the general consensus is Butler is better, especially given the current NBA climate. It’s completely defensible why the Bulls wouldn’t want to take back Love in a swap for Butler, ONLY if we’re assuming they’ll get a better or more valuable package for Jimmy Buckets elsewhere. And while Butler may be better than Love, the Minnesota package isn’t.
Sidebar: Especially since, to sweeten an already Kool-Aid-like deal, the Bulls threw in the 16th pick. WTF, Chicago?!
Such is the allure of the unknown—it forces GMs to look at draft picks like they’re Lira Galore’s IG pics. Even if a Love deal doesn’t meet the long term aspirations of the franchise, why wouldn’t the Bulls take him back anyway and look to flip him to a team willing to piece together a better deal than Minnesota down the line? Or why not work a three-team deal that reroutes Love elsewhere while the Bulls acquire better assets (such as a pick higher than seventh, or a high-flier who isn’t coming off a torn ACL, or a lottery pick who averaged more than 3.8 ppg as a rookie)?
In an equally head-scratching move, the Boston Celtics elected to once again hold onto all of their young talent and draft picks instead of acquiring Butler. Boston GM Danny Ainge could’ve put together a better trade package than Minnesota’s in his sleep, but paralyzed by the unknown, he decided to stand pat in the hopes that either Jayson Tatum, or one of their 700 future picks over the next few years, turns into something special.
Jimmy Butler is something special. He excels on both ends, he’s in his prime physically, he consistently stays healthy and is on a reasonable contract for at least the next two seasons.
Sidebar: For perspective, Butler signed a 5-year $95M deal in 2015. Three months later, Tristan Thompson inked a 5-year $82M deal.
The odds of any player Boston selected last year, this year or in the next two years being better than Butler are slim, especially considering Ainge’s questionable draft history. That didn’t stop a respected operation like the Celtics from putting their money on the unknown, rather than a known human.
The desire to create younger, cheaper team is an astute one. The desire to do this in one enormous move is what often results in the now ubiquitous All-Star-for-mostly-junk trades. Every team is willing to gamble on rookies and young players blossoming into something good. Why aren’t more teams willing to gamble on veterans with potential blossoming into something good? It’s happened with Isaiah Thomas, James Harden, Kyle Lowry, Zach Randolph, Goran Dragić and Tyson Chandler, to name a few.
It may be too early to judge last year’s draft, but as of today, only two bonafide blue chippers came out of the 2015 class (Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porziņģis). In other words, the value of the unknown is wild dependent on luck: the luck of the ping-pong ball, the luck of talent entering the league that year and the luck of the GM making the correct selection. The T-Wolves/Celtics Kevin Garnett trade would look drastically different if David Kahn drafts Stephen Curry…except he picked Jonny Flynn. Imagine turning down Kevin Love for a pick that turns into Anthony Bennett—would that be classified as good asset management? You’d rather have Love 11 times out of 10, regardless of his age or contract.
The truth is, front offices all across the four major sports cling to their precious draft picks in part because it’s hard to get fired for the unknown, even though that didn’t save Sam Hinkie. Dealing for a human with an actual track record is a far riskier proposition, making it easier to assign blame when shit goes left.
Maybe the Bulls actually received a war chest of assets that one day will become three All-Stars. Maybe the Celtics are just hoarding picks to save up enough NBA currency for a Paul George super-trade in July. Or maybe Forman is lazy, Ainge is scared and neither wants to get fired. But at what point does self-preservation transform into the slow road to self-sabotage?