On draft day, all's right with the world
The NBA draft, like every other draft, is a time for upside and optimism. Ain't it grand?
So here come some of the worst teams in the NBA, lining up near the top of the draft list, prepared to select and spend a stack of money on a bevy of players who, league history strongly suggests, won't be the saviors of their franchises -- or even around very long, for that matter.
And you know what? It's fine. The whole deal shapes up just fine.
Optimism in sports isn't dead. Cynicism, although it makes a strong play now and again, does not exclusively control the industry. Pro sports is built very essentially on hopefulness, with the occasional fatalist thrown in for good measure. Fandom in most places is about tomorrow every bit as much as it is about today.
Get me to draft day -- in any league -- and I'll show you a few hours in which teams and their fans are wholly willing to invest in the upside of the equation. It's a beautiful thing.
Just don't look too closely.
The part of the NBA universe in which I live happens to land between two certifiably awful teams. The Golden State Warriors have reached the postseason once since 1994, which is a fairly impressive streak of submediocrity so long as you aren't the fan who actually has had to watch it all unfold. The Sacramento Kings, after putting together a nice eight-season run under Rick Adelman, have fallen off the table to the point that the franchise itself is under a suspended threat of relocation.
But by Thursday night in New York, those storylines stand to get gleefully shoved over to one side. The Kings, choosing seventh in the lottery, went into the day thinking of Kemba Walker or Kawhi Leonard or a trade that might bring in an immediate starter -- say, Denver guard Raymond Felton. Golden State, at No. 11, had visions of Klay Thompson or Tristan Thompson, maybe Leonard, if he slides down a few spots.
And look, I just rattled off a bunch of names of guys who, by all assessment, are pretty good -- not great. It isn't a deep draft. What's a fan to do? A fan invests hope all the same.
A fan invests hope in Brandon Knight, fully aware of the holes in his game. A fan looks at Kyrie Irving, knowing he isn't necessarily the guard to end all guards but loving the pick all the same. Give them this much! Give 'em an hour or two of unbridled good feeling.
It's remarkable how often the GMs of these teams get the draft-day process utterly wrong. Most of them want to stay low-key, make sure they don't raise unreasonable expectations or say anything ridiculous. (Mr. Kahn, you are hereby thanked and excused from the conversation.) Maybe they don't want to be on the hook for some bold statement a couple of years later, when their draftees might not even be on their rosters any longer.
Accordingly, you have to be prepared to hear a bunch of tripe Thursday evening about long-term projections and to be inundated with cautious praise, a whole bunch of "If he does everything we think he can" and "There's still a lot of work to do" and other rot.
They are the NBA-appropriate things to say -- totally supportable in the academic sense. ESPN The Magazine's researchers crunched the numbers not too long ago and came up with the finding that, since the inception of the current system in 1985, an NBA lottery pick lasts an average of fewer than four seasons with the team that drafts him. After that, it's a trade, a cut, a free agency -- something goes south.
Based on that, a certain caution sounds reasonable. But if you're one of those who is still trying to figure out on what statistical platform a player such as, say, Jimmer Fredette might become a high lottery pick, the answer is, you're looking in the wrong place.
Fredette could get people excited about watching an everyday NBA game. He has the effect of making a normal fan hopeful for reasons that might not ultimately add up. He allows a team to wax optimistic, which is pretty much all a fan wants on draft day. That's the full formula. Never underestimate the value of planting "upside" in a fan's mind.
If the Cavs take Irving at No. 1, it ought to be a party right then and there. How many chances do they (or any of the teams) get for that sort of thing? That's what most fans are craving -- a day free and clear of clouds. There is always time -- as soon as Friday morning, say -- to begin picking apart the choice, looking at the holes in Irving's game, wondering how much of his college work will transfer with him to the paying pros.
Perfectly understandable. In fact, any self-respecting fan would go there with enthusiasm. Just give him a minute or two to dream.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August by W.W. Norton. Reach him at email@example.com.
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