In the NBA, the difference between a championship contender and irrelevancy often comes down to a draft pick. The Portland Trail Blazers understand this more than any franchise in basketball.
In 1984, the Blazers selected Sam Bowie with the second overall pick. Michael Jordan — the greatest player ever — was taken next by the Bulls. In 2007, Portland selected Greg Oden first overall. Kevin Durant — league MVP, four-time scoring champion and finals MVP — was selected next.
General managers, investment bankers and meteorologists are paid handsomely to predict the future, in part because it’s incredibly difficult. Most experts projected Bowie and Oden as more valuable than Jordan and Durant. They were wrong.
The Blazers rely on the draft to acquire talent more than most teams because they struggle to sign, or hold on to, free agents (See Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge). When the Blazers selected Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in 2012 and 2013, the franchise was instantly catapulted into playoff contention; that’s the power of the draft to a mid-market team.
To their credit, the Blazers have made sound decisions in recent drafts, like scooping up Caleb Swanigan and Allen Crabbe near the end of the first round. They’ve also made some head-scratching decisions, like trading a first-round pick and Will Barton for 25 games of Aaron Afflalo. Portland’s poor draft decisions have contributed to the team’s current lack of depth and young talent.
Let’s look back at the last five Portland drafts and reevaluate decisions made by Neil Olshey and the Blazer’s front office. Like every young, millennial blogger, I’ll arrogantly pretend like all of these decisions were easy.
Round One: Zach Collins (Pick 10, from Pelicans), Caleb Swanigan (Pick 26, from Cleveland)
Passed On: Malik Monk, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma, Jordan Bell
Was anyone genuinely excited when Adam Silver (aka Nosferatu from Spongebob) announced the Blazers were drafting Zach Collins? Portland traded the 15th and 20th picks to move up to 10 to draft an interior scorer whose highlight tape looks like a 1978 low-post clinic starring Kevin McHale. Collins is a skilled seven-footer who finishes with both hands and blocked a lot of shots in college, but it feels like Neil Olshey — with a glass of merlot and a plate of cheese — fell in love with Collins during his dominant NCAA tournament performance.
Among those Olshey passed on were Malik Monk and Donovan Mitchell. Isn’t it inevitable that either Monk or Mitchell becomes a 12-time all star and the best player on a championship team? Monk looks like a cross between Jamal Crawford and Bradley Beal, with the ability to drop 25 points on any given night. Imagine this coming off the bench and playing alongside Lillard or McCollum:
Portland selected Caleb Swanigan, who looks like a potential starting power forward, with the 26th pick. A starting power forward at the end of the first round is excellent value, except Kyle Kuzma — who’s been the steal of the draft this season — was taken by the Lakers one pick after Swanigan. Kuzma (averaging 15.2 points and 6.8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting) teased the Blazers in the Moda Center with 22 crafty points on Nov. 2.
I understand it’s way, way too early to evaluate the Collins and Swanigan picks, but you don’t get to write for a website without making some ridiculously early predictions. I don’t think Collins is going to be as valuable as Monk or Mitchell, and Portland fans — whether they are willing to admit it or not — will be forced to watch both players become multiple-time all stars (A Clockwork Orange style).
If I could steal the remote from Click and redo the 2013 NBA draft, this is how it would play out.
The (way too early) Perfect Re-Draft — 2017
|1||Jayson Tatum||76ers (from Nets)|
|3||Dennis Smith Jr.||Celtics (from Kings)|
|5||Jonathan Isaac||Kings (from 76ers)|
|7||Kyle Kuzma||Bulls (from Timberwolves|
|10||Malik Monk||Trail Blazers (from Kings)|
Round Two: Jake Layman (Pick 47, from Bulls)
Passed On: Yogi Ferrell, Ron Baker
Grade: D (because of the Aaron Afflalo trade)
Portland didn’t have a first-round pick in 2016 because they traded the 19th overall selection to Denver (along with Will Barton, Victor Claver and Thomas Robinson) for Alonzo Gee and 25 games of Aaron Afflalo, who became a free agent after the season. Afflalo was the prized asset in the trade for the playoff-bound Blazers in 2015, except he averaged just 10.6 points on 41.4 percent shooting before injuring his shoulder in the last week of the regular season. He returned for game three of the first round against the Grizzlies, but scored just five total points in the final three games of the series, which Portland lost.
Basically, the Blazers traded the 19th overall pick and Will Barton (averaging 15.1 points and 5.4 rebounds this season) for Aaron Afflalo’s five playoff points. Even if Afflalo didn’t get injured and helped Portland win a first-round playoff series, is that worth a first-round pick and Will Barton? Denver selected Malik Beasley with the pick, but among those still available were Malcolm Brogdon, Ante Žižić and Dejounte Murray.
Portland’s current lack of young talent can be attributed to three straight drafts (2014-2016) without a first-round pick. This is why Neil Olshey signed Meyers Leonard to a four-year, $41 million contract and Evan turner to a four-year, $70 million contract; he didn’t have superior young talent to plug in the lineup.
The Perfect Re-Draft — 2016
|7||Domantas Sabonis||Nuggets (from Knicks)|
|8||Thon Maker||Suns (from Kings)|
|9||Buddy Hield||Raptors (from Jazz)|
The drop off from Ben Simmons to everyone else is enormous.
Round Two: Pat Connaughton (Pick 41, from Nets), Dani Díez (Pick 54, from Jazz)
Passed On: Norman Powell, T.J. McConnell
In a draft where Larry Nance Jr. was taken 27th overall, Portland didn’t have a first-round selection for the second straight year. The Blazers traded the 23rd overall pick and Steve Blake to the Nets for Mason Plumlee and the 41st pick, which turned into Pat Connaughton. The Nets selected Rondae Hollis-Jefferson with the pick, and Tyus Jones, Larry Nance Jr. and Willy Hernangómez were available.
Connaughton has provided a spark off the bench this season, with early-season injuries to Al-Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard. Connaughton is shooting 42.2 percent from three, while averaging 7.2 points in 21 minutes per game. He’s turned into a crafty role player, which is a good value at the 41st pick in the draft.
Following a 51-win season, Portland lost LaMacrus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews to free agency, and because they traded away their first round pick, they didn’t have an opportunity to replace Aldridge and Matthew’s production. Two straight seasons of empty drafts will eventually bankrupt an NBA franchise (see Cavaliers and Clippers), and the effects of the 2014 and 2015 drafts have surfaced in Portland’s current lack of depth.
The Perfect Re-Draft — 2015
|7||Kelly Oubre Jr.||Nuggets|
|9||Larry Nance Jr.||Hornets|
Is Porzingis really going to drag the Knicks into the playoffs and win a scoring title at 22? This draft falls off a cliff after the seventh pick.
No Draft Picks
Portland didn’t have a selection in the 2014 draft because they traded a 2011 first-round pick, a conditional 2013 first-round pick and cash considerations to the Bobcats for Gerald Wallace. Michael Jordan actually made a quality trade as a general manager, and then promptly traded the pick to Miami where the Heat selected Shabazz Napier with their “Please stay in Miami, LeBron pick.”
The Blazers also traded their second-round pick to the Nuggets back in 2011 for Raymond Felton. So the 2014 draft, which saw Nikola Jocić and Jordan Clarkson taken in the second round, was a no-show for Portland.
The Perfect Re-Draft — 2014
|9||Jusuf Nurkić||Hornets (from the Pistons)|
|10||Dario Šarić||76ers (traded to Magic)|
Side Note: The Cavs could’ve drafted Giannis and Embiid in back-to-back drafts, but instead drafted Anthony Bennett and traded for Kevin Love (David Griffin grabs bottle of scotch).
Round One: C.J. McCollum (Pick 10)
Round Two: Allen Crabbe (Pick 31), Jeff Withey (Pick 39)
Passed On: Giannis Antetokounmpo
One could argue the Blazer’s 2012 and 2013 draft picks were the most successful two-year run for a GM (besides Golden State) in the last 15 years. 24 days after Neil Olshey was hired in 2012, he selected Damian Lillard with the 6th overall pick and then C.J. McCollom 10th overall one year later. Both players were undersized for their position and came from mid-major universities. Both were slam-dunks and organizational tipping points.
The 2013 NBA draft is probably the least talented draft of the last 10 years, with just one all-star appearance (Giannis Antetokounmpo). For the Blazers to acquire a franchise cornerstone and offensive juggernaut like McCollum, and then steal Allen Crabbe — a serviceable role player with three-point shooting — in the same draft is incredible.
Portland passed on the “Greek Freak,” which doesn’t sting so bad considering how valuable McCollum has become. Antetokounmpo was more of a mythical figure from Greece than an NBA prospect when he declared for the draft at 18 years old. Since then, he’s become a top 5 player in the world.
The Perfect Re-Draft — 2013
|4||Victor Oladipo||Bobcats (now the Hornets)|
|6||Otto Porter||Pelicans (traded to 76ers)|
|9||Tim Hardaway Jr.||Timberwolves (traded to Jazz)|
|10||Tony Snell||Trail Blazers|
McCollum instead of Snell seems like a good tradeoff (my God, this draft was bad).
You can follow (or yell at) Jack Rieger on Twitter @JackRieger.