The lazy man’s sporting event

In three sentences, here’s everything you need to know about the NBA Draft—the greatest non-athletic event in professional sports.

No one knows anything. Everyone knows that no one knows anything. But everyone still believes it is possible to know something.

If you were so interested—and apparently a lot of people are—there are now approximately 374 websites devoted to the NBA Draft. Each one run by someone claiming to know how it will proceed. Foremost among them is Chad Ford, ESPN’s designated draftologist. Chad holds three degrees from three different universities, once worked for the United Nations and currently teaches conflict resolution at a school in Hawaii. He has watched young basketball players on every continent, except maybe Antarctica. He is well acquainted with Omer Asik.

And yet, Chad Ford once strongly believed that Darko Milicic would be an excellent professional basketball player. And if there’s one thing you can say without absolute certainty about this unpredictable and unknowable world in which we inhabit, it is that Darko Milicic is not an excellent professional basketball player.

If anyone should have foreseen that, it was Chad Ford. But that he didn’t does not reflect poorly on him. It merely points to the underlying truth of the NBA Draft.

The process by which the NBA assigns the young and powerless to their first teams is not to be confused with the drafts of the NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball. NHL and NFL teams go through seven rounds of selection. Baseball’s draft currently includes a full 50 rounds. The NBA Draft has two. And for all intents and purposes only one of those rounds matter.

As a result, the margin for error is so low as to be almost non-existent. Last week’s top picks in the NHL draft will be largely forgotten for a few years, assuming they ever appear with the teams that selected them. NFL draftees often have a more immediate impact, but league parity, large rosters and typically deep pools of talent often dull the effect of a first-round pick who acquires a taste for strip clubs shortly after his first mini-camp and subsequently loses interest in running a perfect out pattern. The MLB draft is a mix of both—the top picks usually aren’t seen for years (if ever) and the sheer number of picks given to each team makes it almost impossible not to find at least one half-decent middle reliever.

In the NBA, on the other, the draft regularly alters the destinies of players and teams. The most famous example of this is the 1984 draft, when Portland, with the second pick, went with the University of Kentucky’s Sam Bowie. The Trail Blazers already had Clyde Drexler, so they figured they didn’t need the guy who went next, a guard from the University of North Carolina named Michael Jordan. A year later, in a draft lottery regularly alleged to have been rigged, the New York Knicks won the number one selection and took Patrick Ewing, defining that franchise for the next decade.

Since then, top picks have regularly either blessed (San Antonio with David Robinson and Tim Duncan, Orlando with Shaquille O’Neal, Philadelphia with Allen Iverson, Houston with Yao Ming) or completely screwed (Sacramento with Pervis Ellison, New Jersey with Derrick Coleman, the Clippers with Michael Olowokandi) their respective teams. Shrewd selections and profound wastes of potential quickly become legendary.

Potential, as a concept, is inherently hypothetical. But in the NBA it’s often closer to mythical. Each year, young men of varying heights are widely touted as future stars, regardless of the fact that most will inevitably fail to achieve that status.

Between 1996 and 2006, all of the following were top ten picks: Bryant Reeves, Shawn Respert, Ed O’Bannon, Lorenzen Wright, Samaki Walker, Tony Battie, Ron Mercer, Adonal Foyle, Danny Fortson, Robert Traylor, Raef LaFrentz, Jonathan Bender, Marcus Fizer, DerMarr Johnson, Keyon Dooling, Eddie Griffin, Rodney White, Dajuan Wagner, Michael Sweetney, Rafael Araujo, Luke Jackson, Ike Diogu, Adam Morrison, Patrick O’Bryant and Saer Sene. All were promoted (perhaps with the exception of Araujo) as enticing prospects. All were considered, by at least someone in a position of authority, to be important assets upon which to stake one’s employment and short-term future. All—for various reasons—failed to realize their possibility.

History has demonstrated that a good percentage of first-round picks will fail similarly. But even now, on the eve of an NBA Draft that looks decidedly average at best, optimism rules. Jerryd Bayless, an under-sized point guard with one year of college experience, is going to be Gilbert Arenas. DeAndre Jordan, a 6-11 centre who averaged 7.9 points and six rebounds per game as a freshman, is being compared to Dwight Howard. Danilo Gallinari, a 19-year-old Italian, is being mentioned in the same paragraph as Toni Kukoc. 

Quite soberly, Chad Ford has compared the wonderfully named Kosta Koufos, a 7-1 centre from Ohio State, with Darko Milicic. And yet, by Ford’s guess, Koufos will be taken 11th tonight by the Pacers.

The most pivotal selection process is essentially then a a guessing game. What starts with a lottery to determine the draft order, ends with a bunch of highly paid executives, their scouts, coaches, psychologists, lawyers and private investigators, gambling irrationally on the futures of young men barely removed from high school. And all that’s on the line are the mid- to long-term futures of the franchises involved, probably including the employment status of everyone from the general manager to, at least indirectly, the guy who pours that orange, cheese-esque liquid on your nachos.

Everyone knows this. But the draft proceeds each year undaunted. Partly because no one’s come up with a better idea. Party because it’s great entertainment. And partly because it is maybe the only thing in pro sports at which fans can reasonably claim to compete with the people directly involved.

Lots of people, of course, think they could coach, manage or referee pro sports as well as the professionals. This accounts for the enduring popularity of sports talk radio. Some believe they might even be able to compete with the athletes involved. (And in the case of auto racing, that might be true in some cases.)

But all of these people are delusional. They don’t understand everything that’s involved in the seemingly straightforward and easy.

With the NBA Draft though, nothing is easy, nothing is straightforward, and no amount of work, expertise or innate ability can guarantee success. The process is ruled by irrational, subjective perceptions and dependent on trying to know that which is inherently unknowable. The average fan, presented with a basic level of information, has about as good a chance of picking a future superstar as a scout who has invested a lifetime into observing and trying to understand young athletes.

It is both genius in its construction and completely insane. The best and worst way to build a professional basketball team.