AUBURN HILLS – The NBA draft is to the NFL draft as a butterfly is to a microwave. Which is to say they are almost nothing alike, except that they exist.
Oh, I suppose the parallels run a little deeper than that. There are similarities in structure – teams with worst records get first crack at spinning the roulette wheel, with the NBA adding another game-of-chance element to the equation with the lottery setting the order for the top three picks among non-playoff teams.
Both can be transformative with luck sometimes playing every bit the role as brilliance. The New England Patriots are today’s paragon of a smartly run franchise. But if the Pats knew Tom Brady was on a path to become the greatest quarterback in football history, would they have risked waiting until the 199th pick – in the sixth round, with six other teams drafting a quarterback ahead of him – to strike?
Put another way, the Patriots apparently thought Adrian Klemm, J.R. Redmond, Greg Robinson-Randall, Dave Stachelski, Jeff Marriott and Antwan Harris were all better football players than Brady. They picked all six before getting around to the guy who would quarterback them to all those Super Bowls.
The NBA draft is, at once, more important and less likely a tool to rebuild a team’s roster than the NFL draft is.
That bit of incongruence springs from the indisputable fact that one player has a greater impact on a basketball team than on a football team. Even a quarterback? Well, Brady missed New England’s first four games last year and the Pats went 3-1; Russell Westbrook sits for five minutes of a playoff game and Oklahoma City implodes.
Any given NFL draft produces scores of rookie starters and double-figure future Pro Bowlers. There are some NBA drafts that don’t produce two handfuls of long-term starters.
The 2000 NFL draft that produced Brady at pick 199? Here are the top 10 picks of that year’s NBA draft: Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift, Darius Miles, Marcus Fizer, Mike Miller, DerMarr Johnson, Chris Mihm, Jamal Crawford, Joel Przybilla, Keyon Dooling. Combined All-Star game appearances: one (Martin). Miller had a long, solid career and Crawford remains one of the league’s top sixth men. That was a lousy draft by NBA standards, but not atypical in that every NBA draft’s top 10 produces multiple players who fall vastly short of the hope of every team making the pick: landing an above-average NBA starter.
So while there is far less likelihood that an NBA first-round draft pick will have any lasting impact on a franchise, every first-round draft pick is that much more important for the possibility of finding the Paul George, the Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Kawhi Leonard, the Rudy Gobert that isn’t picked in the top three or top five.
All four of those players, taken since the 2010 draft, led their teams to the playoffs this year. Is there any question all of those teams would be in the lottery if not for those picks? You could argue San Antonio. Except (a) I doubt it and (b) if the Spurs hadn’t picked Leonard, there’s no way LaMarcus Aldridge signs there as the prize of the 2015 free-agent class.
So they’re burning the midnight oil at 6 Championship Drive as the June 22 draft is now 55 days away. They didn’t anticipate having a lottery pick this year after a 44-win season and playoff berth last spring, but then the Reggie Jackson injury happened. The upside is that it’s regarded as a deep draft, where they just might find a gem the quality of Leonard or Antetokounmpo.
But if you’re playing the odds, remember that there are 150 starters in the NBA and 704 in the NFL, not counting kickers and all those other special teamers. There’s about the same likelihood that the guy the Lions take in the third round tonight makes an impact in the NFL as there is of the player the Pistons wind up taking in the lottery leaving a mark on the NBA.