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NBA AM: Biggest All-Time Draft Risks

Giannis Antetokounmpo was an all-time huge draft risk that worked out. Not all of them do, however.

Joel Brigham

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The NBA Draft is an exercise in weighing risk versus reward. Some years, there are clear first overall picks with no-doubt futures as NBA juggernauts. There was the LeBron James draft, the Tim Duncan draft and the Blake Griffin draft.

But no matter the year, there always are a handful of players that come with more risk than usual, but general managers love a high ceiling a whole lot more than a sturdy floor, so there comes a time in every draft when those calculated risks seem like they’re worth it. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they just aren’t.

The following is a look at some of the riskiest first-round picks of the last 10 years. Some of them worked out great, and some of them are Anthony Bennett. So it goes in the life of an NBA executive.

Thon Maker, Milwaukee Bucks (2016) – While it’s way too early to make any sort of judgement on Maker, there’s no question that he was the first jaw-dropping selection of last year’s draft. There couldn’t have been a single mock draft in existence (outside of Sudan, naturally) that had Maker going in the top ten, but that’s where he went. Milwaukee just had him higher on their board than anybody else did.

In his rookie season, Maker showed flashes of some really good stuff, playing well enough to start every game in the postseason. If he puts on a little muscle and figures out how to rebound in this league, he still could be really good, though probably not as a perennial All-Star. There’s plenty to like, but not enough to make any definitive conclusions about him either way.

Georgios Papagiannis, Sacramento Kings (2016) – Just a few picks later in that same draft, Sacramento nabbed Papagiannis, a Greek giant that served as the centerpiece of the trade down that landed Phoenix Marquese Chriss. Unfortunately, Papagiannas only played 22 games in his rookie season, all toward the end of the year when Sacramento had nothing better to do but play the kids big minutes, and the overall numbers were modest. He came along a bit toward the end and reportedly is working to slim down this summer, but he could struggle to stay relevant throughout his career. Looking back, there wasn’t a whole lot the Kings could have done to get more out of that selection, but Papagiannis was an especially risky selection considering how many big men Sacramento already had rostered at the time.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (2014) – In the weeks leading up to the 2014 NBA Draft, it seemed all but certain that Embiid would be the first overall pick. His combination of size, range, footwork and offensive ability drew comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, but shortly before the draft, news came out that he had a navicular fracture in his right foot to go along with a back injury, causing him to drop to Philly at number three. Frankly, players with those sorts of injuries would typically drop a lot more than that.

The pick was widely lauded at the time, with a lot of “He’ll be great if he can stay healthy” chatter, but three years later, the pick still hasn’t stopped being incredibly risky, even with those amazing 31 games Embiid finally gave us this past season. When big guys have that foot injury, it can be a big problem, and it looks like Embiid could spend much of his career fighting off injuries. Just like everybody said when was chosen in 2014, however, he’s a monster when he’s actually on the court.

Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers (2013) – Nobody expected Cleveland to take Bennett with the first overall pick in 2013, the thought being that someone like Victor Oladipo or Otto Porter would be a better for that iteration of the Cavs. Time and again, though, that front office stunned fans with their audacity and nabbed a guy who had concerns about his weight even then. What Cleveland wanted was a modern stretch four, but what they got was a player who couldn’t keep his weight under control and never exhibited the drive that has made so many other NBA players wildly successful. He was out of the league within three years and probably will go down with Greg Oden as the worst number one overall pick in the history of the NBA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (2013) – There were a lot of questions about Antetokounmpo when he was drafted, most of which had something to do with the spelling of his name. Even moderately-engaged NBA fans hadn’t heard of him, and the announcement of his name and forthcoming grainy international scouting footage were enough to confuse most draft viewers that night.

Turns out, Antetokounmpo is really, really good. He’s probably got an MVP season in his near future. There may not have been a more successful gamble in recent draft history.

Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers (2012) – Waiters wasn’t a starter at Syracuse, which is what made this pick so risky when players like Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond all still were on the board with more certain pedigrees. At the time, Waiters’ ceiling was viewed as something like Dwyane Wade, which made this past season as Wade’s successor in Miami all the more prophetic. The pick didn’t necessarily work out for Cleveland, but Waiters has come into his own and is four or five weeks from getting paid like a player who lived up to his potential.

Hasheem Thabeet, Memphis Grizzlies (2009) – This was a deeply risky second overall pick, even at the time, if only because Memphis already had Marc Gasol on the roster before drafting Thabeet, a defensive specialist that never did figure out how to do anything productive offensively. You can’t teach 7-foot-3, but even before the draft, there were concerns about his work ethic. Those concerns were validated almost immediately, as Thabeet struggled so badly as a rookie that he was sent down to the D-League in February of that season. Nobody drafted that high had ever been forced to play in the minors before, so the demotion was bad for just about everybody.

He played for six teams in his first five seasons and then never made his way back to an NBA organization. James Harden was the third pick in that draft, by the way. Stephen Curry was picked seventh, and DeMar DeRozan went ninth. In terms of risk/reward, this pick was all risk and no reward.

***

This year’s draft is no less risky, with all sorts of prospects that could metaphorically shoot the teams drafting them in the collective foot. That’s what makes the draft so fun, though.

Who will be this year’s big surprise risky pick? All we can do is tune in on June 22nd and find out for ourselves.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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