“The draft doesn’t matter. We’ll let you guys draft the talented ones and find the hidden gems each year, and then we’ll just sign them away from you in free agency.” - A direct quote from my Laker-fan coworker. Something I’ve been getting used while living in LA.
For the last several weeks, most of the buzz surrounding the Jazz has obviously been about the draft. On the other hand, most of the greater Los Angeles area probably didn’t even realize the draft was happening last night. With the Lakers having only one pick at #48, it’s no wonder.
But it got me thinking about the importance of the draft for small market teams versus teams in cities such as LA. Let’s face it, the top tier of free agents don’t list Salt Lake City as one of their places-I’d-love-to-play-AND-live-in. That’s not to say we can’t attract some decent players with the right offers, but if we want to be competitive, it’s going to come from the draft.
Which is what made last night so important. Hats off to Dennis Lindsey and the other Utah brass for pulling some MacGyver-like moves to land Trey Burke.
It’s different in big markets, though. The consistent sentiment I deduce from Lakers fans is that no free agent is out of the question. Athletes will always want to play in LA, because they know, for the most part, they’ll be competing for a title.
And so it goes. The reason the Lakers ended up with only Ryan Kelly last night is because they are willing to trade away draft picks year after year to recruit the biggest names around the league.
Small markets don’t have that luxury. They are constantly looking for an alternative route, trying to mimic the successful models of teams like San Antonio or OKC (even if the Thunder haven’t won a title YET, they are clearly a conference favorite). But even those models are principally rooted in draft success and a little luck.
In my opinion, it requires more than one successful draft pick to gain relevancy in this league. It’s also like asking for lightning to strike twice.
Think about it. OKC drafted Kevin Durant 2nd overall in 2007, and he has become a cornerstone for their franchise. But it was the addition of Russell Westbrook, the 4th overall pick the following year, that solidified them as a threat. The rest of their cast formed around that core. KD could be a superstar on his own for any team, but as we saw this year in the playoffs, he still needs that second fiddle.
For San Antonio, Tim Duncan is the type of player every franchise dreams about drafting. He’s the epitome of stability. Before their current big three, Duncan arrived as the second piece that finally helped David Robinson capture that elusive title. Once the Admiral retired, the Spurs supplemented their roster with an unbelievable picks in Manu Ginobili at #57 in 1999 and Tony Parker at #28 two years later. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else.
You could even argue that Utah was the original small market success model. But again, it all started with two mid-round picks that no one saw coming: Stockton at 16th overall in 1984 and Malone at 13th in 1985. Without the draft, Utah never gains any prominence in the NBA. Who knows, maybe the team wouldn’t even be in Utah anymore.
On top of everything else, there’s still one looming problem for every small market teams: Will the draftees stay? Especially in today’s culture, it’s difficult to find guys that are willing to stay in your city rather than looking for greener pastures. The common denominator for these three examples is finding guys like Durant, Duncan and Stockton who care about winning more than sponsorships.
So welcome to the team, Trey. You too, Rudy Gobert. No pressure or anything, but the franchise kind of depends on you. Sorta.