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Weak draft could still provide assets for later

POSTED June 18, 2011 11:07 p.m.

NEW YORK (AP) — You can’t draft a Big Three, and Miami’s was beaten in the NBA finals by a Dallas team built almost entirely through trades and free agency.
So although next week’s NBA draft isn’t considered particularly strong, perhaps that shouldn’t concern league executives, at least not the ones in charge of assembling the league’s elite teams. While kids are fine on teams trying to get better, they rarely have a place on the ones angling to be the best.
The Mavericks were loaded with players in their 30s who went through the draft back in the 1990s. The Lakers and Celtics won their recent titles in part by getting rid of young guys to make way for more accomplished ones.
But assets are needed to acquire those types of players, which is why someone selected next week could someday be used to land a Pau Gasol or Tyson Chandler, a final piece to a championship puzzle.
ESPN.com draft analyst Chad Ford says the draft is the easiest and cheapest way for the bottom teams to find much-needed talent, but it can only take them so far.
“As they move from a lottery team into an eighth seed or a seven seed, you’ll still see a lot of those young players still playing a role on that team,” he said Thursday during a conference call. “But as they move toward a championship team, you do need veterans, but a lot of times those draft picks and those young players can be the chips that allow you to get the sort of elite NBA veterans that you need to win titles.
“You don’t see a lot of NBA rookies or guys in their second or third year winning NBA championships or leading their teams to NBA championships, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not a very important part of that process.”
Fit tightly between a fantastic finals and a looming lockout, this year’s draft is flying low on the NBA radar. It was weakened in part by the labor uncertainty that likely played a role in persuading expected high lottery picks such as Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and Harrison Barnes of North Carolina to stay in school.
There’s some good point guards, including expected No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving of Duke, national champion Kemba Walker of Connecticut, and Kentucky’s Brandon Knight.
There are plenty of Europeans, though likely no Dirk Nowitzkis, so it’s tempting to downplay the draft, especially since it had so little impact on the teams that just played for the championship.
The Mavericks played nobody in the finals they drafted with their own pick — unless you count Jason Kidd, who was selected in 1994 and went on to two other stops before coming back to Dallas in a trade. The Heat went the free agency route to put LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together, even trading recent No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley to Minnesota to free up salary cap space.
Now the Timberwolves have the second pick and are in the position of trying to decide if they want to keep going younger, or consider dealing it for an experienced player who can come in and lead their young core.
“I still think the draft is important. You’ve got to build,” assistant general manager Tony Ronzone said. “Look at Oklahoma City and Memphis, two examples of teams that just build through the draft. We’re in the same position. We’re doing it through trades also with getting Beasley and (Anthony) Randolph, but the draft, to me, is still important.”
Outgoing team president Donnie Walsh pointed to free agency from the moment he arrived in New York in 2008, making moves to get the Knicks far enough under the salary cap to afford two maximum salary players in 2010. He traded top-10 pick Jordan Hill after he played just 24 games, along with a 2012 first-round pick and the right to swap 2011 first-round picks last year in a deal with Houston just for more cap space, and later dealt former No. 6 pick Danilo Gallinari in the blockbuster that brought Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to Madison Square Garden.
Yet Walsh denies putting any lesser importance on the draft.
“Not at all. When I started I said the fastest and surest way to rebuild the team was to get under the cap and get into free agency, but I never implied that the draft was not a priority,” he wrote in an email. “It is very important to have draft picks and to pick the right players in building a team. Now that we have Amare, Carmelo and Chauncey in place, it is a great part in filling out your team with quality players. Managing the cap and wise use of draft picks is very important.”
The Thunder, with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are the best of the current teams constructed mostly through the draft, reaching the Western Conference finals this season. Most teams prefer a quicker building strategy.
Boston turned itself from lottery loser to perennial power in 2007 by acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in separate trades. But the Celtics could only do that because they had stockpiled assets, sending emerging big man Al Jefferson to Minnesota in the Garnett deal and dangling the No. 5 pick in that year’s draft as the big chip in its deal with Seattle for Allen.
The Lakers jumped to the top of the West, where they would stay for three seasons, the next season by acquiring Pau Gasol from Memphis, including the rights to his younger brother, Marc, as part of their package.
Cleveland has the first and fourth picks, and perhaps could consider the latter to deal for a veteran to fast-track the rebuilding following James’ departure. Washington and Sacramento are teams with young talent, poor records, and similar decisions to make with their picks.
The players taken next week may never contribute to a championship with the team that picks them. But the clubs that capitalize on a weak draft will be in the best position to be stronger later.
“The draft process is a great way to gather information,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said. “There may be guys that you see and interview and deal with during the draft that you don’t get a chance to select, but maybe later on you get to know them, you find out they’re somebody you really like and later on there’s somebody that you decide to go for in a trade. So this is a valuable process for every team whether you have a high pick or not, and I think the best people in the NBA really utilize the draft to their advantage.”

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