BY Ric Bucher
Thank the basketball gods for the Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers. Without the two franchises that seem to be perpetually reinventing themselves, early indications are 2015’s NBA draft might be one of the tamest in years, at least based on blockbuster draft-night deals.
It still could be a relatively quiet night, but thanks to the tremendously patient and seemingly unorthodox roster-building philosophy of Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie and the restless approach of Kings majority owner VivekRanadive, there is at least some intrigue about something memorable transpiring in Thursday’s draft.
While Kings vice president VladeDivac told Ailene Voisin of theSacramento Bee a trade of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins “is not happening,” that’s not the same as insisting the team has not explored moving Cousins or wouldn’t consider moving him.
The Kings apparently took a page from the Golden State Warriors playbook—not for the first time—by making it known Cousins was available and then reacting publicly as if they were fending off interest, according to an executive with direct knowledge of the conversation involving Cousins. “[Divac] has fished that around, I know that,” the executive said. “I doubt anything gets done, but I know they talked to the Lakers and they wanted the No. 2 pick. The Lakers just don’t have enough else.”
The Warriors played a similar angle last summer. League sources say they initiated talks with Minnesota about swapping Klay Thompson for Kevin Love and then steered the conversation toward a deal that would’ve involved Harrison Barnes instead, all while portraying the Timberwolves as the aggressors.
Ranadive , for now, has ordered everyone within the organization to stop discussing any and all deals involving Cousins, league sources said. But the team is expected to use the interest inspired by Cousins to move one of its other readily available pieces, apparently including small forward Rudy Gay, shooting guard NikStauskas and power forward Jason Thompson.
As for the Sixers, the consensus among most GMs is that the first two picks in the draft will be the two prized big men, Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, in order or in reverse. Philadelphia holds the third pick.
“The draft begins there,” one Eastern Conference assistant GM said. “You just don’t know what Philadelphia is going to do.” The candidates to be taken third are believed to be Latvian stretch power forward KristapsPorzingis, Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell and point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who played in China last season. League sources say the Sixers have made it known, however, that they’d be willing to trade the pick to move down in the draft and acquire additional picks or assets.
Here are some of the other pertinent storylines going into Thursday night’s proceedings:
Who Goes First?
The general consensus—including Las Vegas oddsmakers and Odds Shark—is the Minnesota Timberwolves will make Towns the No. 1 pick, although he denied a report this week that the Timberwolves already assured him they would. One league source who has worked with Timberwolves president and head coach Flip Saunders made a case as to why Saunders’ track record and current position makes Okafor the more logical choice.
“He’s an offensive guy,” the source said. “When he looks at a player’s value, it’s 80-20 offense to defense. As president and coach, he’d also be more inclined to take a guy who can help him right away. When you’re just the GM, you might be on the road scouting for 20 percent of your losses. They don’t cut as deep. But when you’re down there on that bench for every one of them, you’re more inclined to get somebody who can play right away. All of that would lean toward Okafor.”
Towns is considered to have the greater overall potential, but neither his physique nor his array of skills are fully developed. Okafor, on the other hand, is regarded as the player most ready, both physically and skill-wise, to contribute immediately.
Despite being projected as the first pick, Towns is considered a risk, largely, but not exclusively, because he is almost highly regarded more for what he is expected to be than what he is right now.
The disclosure in many reports while at Kentucky was that he has an imaginary friend named Karlito who sits on his shoulder and to whom his talks made at least one executive nervous. Denying the Timberwolves’ promise by stating he’d be getting fat on ice cream if that were the case had to raise eyebrows as well.
The other dice-roll types at the top of the draft are Porzingis and Mudiay.
No one questions Porzingis’ shooting ability—he and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky are far and away the best jump-shooting big men in this draft—and concerns about his willingness to take contact or fight for position in the post are not major obstacles. The bigger issue is that his Spanish club, Sevilla, went 12-22 this season, raising questions about—individual statistics aside—just how impactfulPorzingis can be.
“The other question you have to ask yourself on both Towns and Porzingis is, ‘How long will it be before their bodies fill out and they’re able to defend their positions?'” said one talent scout.
Mudiay ‘s performance overseas is even more troubling. After a solid start for the Guangdong Southern Tigers, he sprained his ankle and missed the majority of the season. Even after he recovered from the injury, the Tigers elected to keep him inactive until the very end of the season.
“He’s a risky pick because of how high you have to go to get him,” said the scout. “I guarantee you the majority of GMs in the league never saw him play live. When you’re the GM and you have to answer that question in the press conference after you take him, it has to make you at least pause. There’s no body of work on Mudiay.”
The situation is reminiscent of that surrounding onetime No. 10 pick Brandon Jennings, who, like Mudiay, elected to join a team overseas rather than go to college to prepare himself for the NBA. Jennings joined a team in Italy and, also like Mudiay, played sparingly, but teams were able to watch his practices and came away convinced he had NBA talent. Tigers practices with Mudiay, on the other hand, have been closed to outsiders.
“He’s this year’s Dante Exum,” said the scout, referring to the Australian guard taken fifth in last year’s draft by the Utah Jazz. Exum played in high school in Australia but then simply waited a year before entering the NBA draft. “And there was still more on Exum because there’s the mystery of what happened with Mudiay that they weren’t playing him.”
• Aside from the 76ers and Hinkie’s kindred spirit, Celtics GM Danny Ainge, league sources say both the Knicks and Lakers are open to trading their picks to move down in the draft if it means acquiring a veteran who could play for their talent-starved rosters right away.
Ainge has publicly announced the team is willing to trade both of its picks, Nos. 16 and 28, for one higher in the draft.
• While it’s no secret Warriors power forward David Lee is available, he is not expected to be included in a draft-night trade.
Reason No. 1: The Warriors would prefer not to sacrifice a draft pick to move his $15.5 million off their books, which is the only reason to expedite a deal. Reason No. 2: If they wait until the free-agent market plays itself out, there’s a chance a team that has salary-cap room but comes up empty will see acquiring Lee as a consolation prize without having to impair their chances of playing the more talent-rich market of 2016.
- The Cavaliers’ No. 1 pick in 2013, Anthony Bennett, dealt to the Timberwolves as part of the Kevin Love trade last summer, could be on the move again. League sources say Minnesota has made him available in talks.
- The Brooklyn Nets are in a tricky position with center Brook Lopez, who doesn’t have to declare whether he’s opting into the final year of his contract until June 29. Some league executives wonder if that might inspire the Nets to move him on draft night for fear of not being able to re-sign him and having him walk without any compensation. Of course, whoever acquires him would be dealing with the same question, so the return for the Nets still would be extremely limited.
- Whether it’s in a draft-night trade or later in the summer, sources say the Phoenix Suns have explored moving one of the Morris twins, Markieff or Marcus. The latter had a well-publicized shouting match with coach Jeff Hornacek in January, although Marcus later apologized and both quickly brushed it off.