It’s been a long time since we’ve covered the NBA Draft extensively here at Roundball Mining Company. Two years, in fact. (Last year we published almost nothing but rumors and breaking news regarding the front-office overhaul that took place leading up to the 2013 Draft.) So I have to say, it feels good writing about one of my favorite hobbies again. Really good. And on top of my already sunny disposition due to simply writing about the draft is the ongoing realization that for the first time in over a decade the Nuggets have a pick in the lottery. For draft-obsessed, wannabe GMs like me, life really doesn’t get any better.
Before we dive deeper into individual player analysis, it’s important to understand where the Nuggets stand in this draft. This is without question the most important draft selection the Nuggets have had since 2003 when they took a guy who kinda turned out to be a pretty good ball player. When drafting in the lottery, you’re put in position to nab a young, athletic, innately gifted player on a rookie contract who stands a decent chance of morphing into an All-Star one day. If you’re the Nuggets — a team still loaded with talent, looking to return to the playoffs next year — you simply HAVE to hit on this pick. Selecting this high in such an ostensibly historic draft is an opportunity you absolutely can’t afford to screw up. And though I’m nothing more than a guy behind a computer, I can offer up a detailed blueprint of the strategy Denver must possess to put themselves in position to succeed come June 26.
Denver will have three picks in the upcoming draft: 11, 41 and 56. The problem with this scenario (as has been mentioned at RMC lately) is that the Nuggets will likely have only two roster spots available — assuming Tim Connelly and Co. exercise Quincy Miller’s option for next year, and Nate Robinson and Darrell Arthur both accept their player options. Additionally, the Nuggets still own Erick Green and Joffrey Lauvergne’s rights from last year’s draft. And this isn’t even taking into account team needs the Nuggets might desire to address in free agency.
So no matter how you slice it the Nuggets must figure out a way to jettison at least one player prior to the start of next season. That alone won’t be difficult. What will be, however, is maneuvering enough of the roster around so that come fall the Nuggets head into training camp with a more compatible team than they did in 2013. That isn’t something Tim Connelly — who recently went on record saying the Nuggets were going to be “aggressive” this summer, thank god — will be able to accomplish in one night. And it’s certainly not something he’ll be able to do by executing a few lateral moves. If the Nuggets really want to steer towards a bright future it must start by either nailing the 11th pick in the draft, moving up into the top 10 or trading for an All-Star-caliber veteran.
If you’ve followed RMC for the last several years you’re likely already aware of my propensity for trading up in the draft. Perhaps I’m a bit naive; I won’t deny that. But before you write me off as a fantastical, overzealous blogger, realize first that I’m only advocating this move because of the Nuggets’ impressive roster depth, middling franchise success over the last decade and current state of today’s NBA. If the Nuggets were a team with a superstar or even a few regular stars, I would not be promoting this position. Conversely, if the Nuggets were in constant contention for a top-three selection in the lottery, I would not be promoting this position (for obvious reasons). But the Nuggets are neither. The Nuggets are a deep team with many fringe All-Star types and a few impressive role players. Between Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and even JaVale McGee, there is enough talent (in combination with the Nuggets’ three draft picks this year) to move up into the top 10. With teams like the Kings, Lakers, Bobcats and Celtics (who possess picks 6-9 this year) all eager to get back to the playoffs, the opportunity to strike gold and move up in the draft could never be more ripe.
Usually there are two main problems with trading up in the draft and they both revolve around misjudgement of talent. On one hand, there’s the consensus that in order to move into the top 10 you must offer up every last asset you’ll ever possess plus your best player. This, of course, is not true. Take last year’s draft for example. Not only did the Sixers land the sixth overall pick (which turned into Nerlens Noel, what will likely end up being the steal of that draft after Michael Carter-Williams… who the Sixers also selected five picks later) in exchange for Jrue Holiday from the Pelicans, they also received a first-round pick in this year’s draft. At the time of the trade Jrue Holiday was having a career year, coming off an All-Star appearance and seemingly well on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s premier point guards. Fastforward one year later and Michael Carter-Williams not only has a Rookie of the Year trophy under his belt, but already looks like a better point guard than Holiday. Now Philadelphia is poised to reign supreme for years all because the Pelicans grew impatient and arbitrarily decided making the playoffs NOW was much more important than making the playoffs in 2015. Moral of the story being: Impatient lottery teams do stupid things. It’s in the Nuggets’ best interest to (A) not be one of those teams, and (B), capitalize on those types of teams’ ineptitude.
The other blockade that often prevents teams from trading up is the overvaluing of their own players. For example, if I were to throw out a slew of trades with Ty Lawson as the centerpiece, most of your responses would likely involve something along the lines of demanding my head on a
silver blue and gold platter. I’ll admit, the idea even makes me question my own blogging credentials a bit. But that’s only because Ty Lawson is the best thing Denver Nuggets fans have going for them right now. He’s our greatest hope right this second. Yet that’s only because we’re viewing him through the lens of the present, which displays nothing more than what we already know. If the Pelicans knew Carter-Williams would have turned out to be such a stud, don’t you think they probably would have thought twice before answering the phone to Sam Hinkie on the other line?
If the Nuggets could trade Ty Lawson and the 11th pick to the Kings in exchange for the eighth pick and Isaiah Thomas, that’s a trade you have to consider — because if Marcus Smart is still on the board, you win that trade. Or if the Celtics inquire about Kenneth Faried, the 11th pick and a future-first rounder in exchange for the sixth pick and Jared Sullinger, you better listen long and hard to what Danny Ainge is offering — because if Julius Randle or Noah Vonleh are still on the board, you probably win that trade. Even if Charlotte is open to trading the ninth pick and offers it straight up in exchange for Danilo Gallinari, it would be unwise to hang up — ecause if Aaron Gordon is still on the board, you might very well win that trade a few years down the road.
All I’m saying is that, as crazy as these trade scenarios sound now, they only appear that way because that’s exactly the scope in which we’re analyzing them; we’re not seeing these trades through some magical time-traveling telescope two years down the road. But that alone, that insecurity about the future, can’t be the reason you choose not to gamble, not to take a risk and pull the trigger on a trade that has the potential to pay off heavily a few years down the road. Because no matter how good Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried are now, none possesses the type of inherent potential guys like Smart, Gordon, Vonleh or Randle were born with. That fact alone should provide all the assurance you’ll ever need to consider striking a blockbuster deal on draft day.
Over the years ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford has stated that most NBA teams organize prospects in a tier format. Guys who have the potential to be superstars appear in Tier 1, those who have the potential to be perennial All-Stars fall in Tier 2, while players who have a shot at making an All-Star team at some point in their careers get slotted in Tier 3 and so on down the line. Taking a page from this book, I’ve organized a list of players into two tiers, players I believe are roughly the 20 best in the upcoming draft.
The first (Tier 1) are those whom the Nuggets would likely target if they traded into the top 10. These also happen to be guys I personally believe fall somewhere in the superstar to star tier on most NBA GM’s big boards. The second tier consists of guys I feel stand a good chance of being available at 11. These are not only players I believe will have long, successful careers in the NBA — most as longterm starters — but players I personally like based on everything I’ve learned through live games, scouting reports, rumors and other third-party analysis. Lastly, the “Undecided” group consists of two players whom I’m on the fence about. While I loved watching Doug McDermott in college, I simply do not see how he’s going to translate to the NBA. Meanwhile, Jusuf Nurkic (who DraftExpress has had going to the Nuggets virtually all year) is a guy I’m too unfamiliar with to comfortably comment on. His scouting reports are promising (he reminds me of a young Marc Gasol), but it’s hard to gauge just how good he really is when I’ve never seen him play in a full-length game and he keeps appearing everywhere from the lottery to the early second round in various mock drafts.
Anyway, here are my tiers. Players are not listed in order. They are simply organized as one giant bunch…
Tier 1: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, Noah Vonleh, Aaron Gordon.
Tier 2: Dario Saric, Gary Harris, Nik Stauskas, Zach LaVine, James Young, Elfrid Payton, Tyler Ennis, Shabazz Napier, K.J. McDaniels.
Undecided: Doug McDermott, Jusuf Nurkic.
As the draft approaches it’s looking more and more like Wiggins, Parker, Embiid and Exum will go 1-4. They’ve held the top four spots on most mocks for the last few months and it doesn’t seem like that will be changing anytime soon, unless Embiid’s back is a total red flag. Therefore, if the Nuggets trade up it likely won’t be for one of those players. Smart, Randle, Vonleh and Gordon would likely be available from 6-9. Of those players, I like Smart the most with Randle a close second. But like going to a Lamborghini dealership and picking between the red one, black one or blue one — going home with any of them is a win-win situation.
In terms of the second-tier players, if you’ve been reading anything I’ve written the last month about the draft then you already know I like Gary Harris. Last year “my guy” was Gorgui Dieng. In 2012 it was Andrew Nicholson. The year before that it was none other than Kenneth Faried. Though there are many more guys I like this year than in previous years (that’s what the lottery will do to ya!), I still think Harris is the sure thing at 11 assuming Dario Saric (who could be in Tier 1 based on talent) is off the board. Harris, to me, is the total package. He’s young for his class, he played on a winning team with a great coach both years in college, he has way more athleticism than people give him credit for, as well as deep range, fantastic basketball IQ, point-guard-like vision and above all else, he plays good defense! Harris is a true two-way player, which you can’t say about too many guys in ANY draft. That, to me, is a dead giveaway that he’s a guaranteed stud at the next level.
As for the rest of the second-tier guys, I’m also a huge fan of James Young. Oddly enough he’s the youngest (or second youngest… not sure exactly) player in the draft, yet he was often times the go-to guy on a Kentucky team that went all the way to the National Championship this past spring. Sure, Julius Randle was Kentucky’s best player, but I can’t tell you how many times I saw Young carry that team through rough patches throughout the season. Stauskas and LaVine are the other two guys I could see the Nuggets drafting if Harris and Saric are off the board. Stauskas is one of the best pure shooters to declare since Klay Thompson — who was picked 11th overall — back in 2011 and has excellent IQ to go with underrated athleticism. Meanwhile LaVine is the high riser (in more ways than one) on this year’s mock drafts. He started off the season as somewhat of an unknown but burst on to the scene with several sweet-shooting performances and has since wowed scouts with his athletic testing. When you study the draft as much as I do you learn a lot, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned most over the last few years it’s that freakishly athletic dudes with range tend to be pretty damn good players in the NBA (see: Westbrook, Russell; Lillard, Damian).