A lot of NBA fans and pundits were thinking the top of the 2014 Draft was beginning to make some sense.
Then Thursday happened.
And it’s not just Joel Embiid’s newly discovered bum wheel, either. A lot of new perspectives have appeared that could mess up the consensus within the top 5 — and therefore impact the Jazz’s draft outcomes directly.
So today we head around the rumor mill, notebook-style, and try to clean up the pieces as they relate to Utah’s draft position.
The biggest news today centers around Embiid, who had already been subjected to a proverbial red flag or two because of back issues, and now has a broken foot to boot1
Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski tells us it’s a stress fracture, which I’ll admit does worry me a lot more than some freak trauma fracture. But the reality is that every injury is different. We had this conversation two weeks ago when the NBA Finals started and a bunch of people said, “I’ve had cramps like LeBron James, and I could play through them.” Congratulations. Not the same thing. There’s a pretty broad continuum of severity to any injury. My sprained ankle could be a lot worse than your sprained ankle, your back spasms could be significantly more tame than that guy’s back spasms, and Embiid’s navicular stress fracture… well we just don’t know.
There are other variables, too. Some human beings heal differently from others, some treatment options carry better or worse percentages, and then of course there’s just good old dumb luck.
It’s tempting to immediately draw comparisons to other high draft picks whose careers were derailed by back and foot issues: names like Greg Oden, Sam Bowie, and Jazzman of yore Curtis Borchardt2 have come up. And sure, those guys represent a new “worst-case scenario” for Embiid. His best-case probably hasn’t changed that much. If the injuries turn out to be a minor obstacle in the long term and he reached his full potential, he could wind up being the best player in this draft and one of the best big men in the league. So that represents the new reality for Embiid: Oden or Hakeem?
The moral of the story: we just don’t know.
Here’s what I do know, though: at some point in the draft, he’s worth the risk. From what we’re hearing, Cleveland has decided he’s not worth the risk at #1. But at #2, is the tantalizing prospect of what he could be in the best case scenario? What about at #3? #4? And, as our SCH community is no doubt wondering… what about at #5?
My educated guess: the Jazz probably don’t wind up having to make that decision. Yes, I think he’ll be gone by #5. Someone sitting in the 2-4 range will weigh the risks and decide it’s worth it. If not? I think the Jazz have to.
They can instead add a very solid player, but as we’ve discussed all year, a roster of solid players rarely presents a legitimate title challenge. At some point you have to swing for the fences and land a star. If I thought that there was another potential franchise changer on the board, I might say go the safe route. But in this case, “safe route” means settling, at least relative to the players’ ceilings. Embiid being there at #5 means that Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Dante Exum and Noah Vonleh are likely all off the board. Sorry, but I’m not passing on Embiid to take Marcus Smart or Aaron Gordon. I’m rolling the dice.
The fact that half of last year’s top six were that high in spite of major injuries tells me some GMs would agree with me. Again, there’s a point in the draft when the reward/risk calculation starts to lean heavily towards “screw it, let’s try this.”
And honestly, that point is probably before #5.
Rising stock by default
Wiggins and Parker now get to battle for the label of favorite for the overall #1. But Australia’s Exum might benefit from Embiid’s bad news as much as anyone.
Until Embiid’s worst-case scenario dropped clear down to the Oden/Bowie range, Exum was regarded as the player with the widest gap between his ceiling and his floor. Suddenly, Exum looks like a relative “safe” bet. Cleveland wants an up-close look at the 6’6″ guard now and, while he probably doesn’t go #1 overall, he’s now suddenly very much in the mix.
Vonleh is another guy who this helps. Even before word circulated about the injury, Vonleh’s name was already sneaking into the conversation, and he was being regarded as a very real option for the Magic at #4.
Who this doesn’t help
The team this hurts the worst is probably Philly. You could argue that the news devalues Cleveland’s pick substantially, but they’re going to get a potential franchise guy no matter what.
Philadelphia’s supposed target all along has been Wiggins, and this top 3 shakeup all but ensures Wiggins won’t make it to #3. That might make it more likely that the Sixers try to move up or down.
Another team it hurts in terms of the trade landscape: the Jazz. A lot of the scenarios whereby they could get up to take Parker or Wiggins just vanished.
Another juicy bit came out today that impacts the top of the draft by not impacting the top of the draft.
After the Warriors’ about-face in terms of their willingness to surrender Klay Thompson in a trade for All-star Kevin Love, they have reportedly moved ahead of Boston as frontrunners on Minnesota’s trade board.
This impacts the Jazz because part of Boston’s pitch for Love included the #6 pick, and if it’s not being used to bring Love to Beantown, then suddenly the #6 is back in play. That’s competition for the Jazz on two fronts. It’s another mid lotto pick available to teams wanting to move up, impacting the supply end of that equation. And it’s another mid lotto pick from a multiple-pick team that might be hoping to move up, impacting the demand there. In either direction, that’s not a particularly good thing for Utah. Bidding in a demand-rich market (for 1-4) and taking bids in a supply-rich market (5-10) are not the positions you want to be in, so it could have helped Utah’s options to have the #6 out of play.
Ford on Parker
Finally, we’ll relay one guy’s opinion on Parker, a favorite target of many Jazz fans because of his LDS faith and the assumption that he’d be more likely than any other pick to stay in Utah at the end of his rookie contract.
ESPN’s Chad Ford magnanimously joined Jazz broadcaster David Locke for a two-part mega-podcast in which he chimed in on the theory of Parker’s Utah affinity.
Ford, who is also LDS and who has spent time getting to know Parker, essentially said “not so fast.”
He has spoken to Parker and offered, somewhat cryptically, that he thinks Parker would have no problem leaving Utah for a better basketball situation.
“They feel like Jabari, because he’s LDS, would never leave Salt Lake for more money or somewhere else,” Ford told Locke. “All I have to say to that is: I know Jabari a little bit, and Jabari is a lot like other people. If he thinks his career will be better off or his chances of winning a title are better [elsewhere], I’m sure he would leave Salt Lake.”
Personally, I know plenty of devout Mormons who don’t want to live in Utah. I know plenty of non-Mormons who live in Utah and for whom Utah is one of their very favorite places. Assuming that someone’s Mormon experience and living preferences have to look like yours is frankly a bit myopic.
There’s also a chance that Parker might not want the pressure of becoming, in one June evening, the unofficial ambassador for a team, a state and a religion all at once. If Parker’s value to the Jazz has a lot to do with the fact that he can connect a couple million Utah Mormons with the team, then isn’t he under an intense amount of scrutiny off the floor? What 20-year-old wants that kind of pressure? So how we do know Parker’s Mormonism makes him more likely to stay, or to want to join the Jazz in the first place?
Jimmer Fredette dealt with the hype admirably but was never expected to be a franchise player. Mark Madsen once sat next to me at a Summer League game and told me about how he stayed grounded and spiritually connected throughout the NBA season, but he was an end-of-bench hustle guy and he never played in Utah. For Jabari, playing in Salt Lake means that for many people, he’d be the unofficial representative of their favorite team, their state, and their Mormon experience. That’s heavy stuff for a 20-year-old who, by the way, has shied away some from being portrayed as the “Mormon phenom.”
That said, there are plenty of basketball reasons to take Jabari. If they find a way to get him, I’m sure it’s becasue they like the idea of building a team around him on the court, and nothing to do with his diligence on his home teaching route. So how does the fan factor play into Utah’s decision?
Ford says: “The Jazz like Jabari… It does factor in that he would be very popular with the fans, [but] I promise you that Wiggins and Embiid will be popular with Jazz fans once they start playing.”