You’d probably make the call, too, whether your experience with college hoops either meant watching hours on end of the stuff from Midnight Madness onward or cramming in the days leading up to the NBA draft. Do you take the studly power forward with the square frame from the squarest of NBA breeding schools in Kansas, or the (probably) 5-11 point guard from Weber State? “Weber” as in “Weeb Ewbank,” mind you, and not “Chris Webber.”
Last June, the Sacramento Kings decided to go for Thomas Robinson, out of Kansas, instead of Weber State’s Damian Lillard. Because the team’s only bright spot in a miserable 2011-12 season (one the team’s owners would have probably preferred canceled due to the lockout) came in the form of sprightly rookie guard Isaiah Thomas it made sense. If the team chose Lillard with the fifth overall pick we would have shouted that it would have meant that the franchise’s clueless front office had no clue what it had in Thomas. Then we would have unfolded our arms and written a smarmy column about it.
Lillard, taken one spot later by the Portland Trail Blazers, will probably win this season’s Rookie of the Year award. His Blazers are struggling through a rebuilding year, but the potent guard is averaging 18.4 points and 6.4 assists in nearly 38 minutes per game. At age 22, he’s been able to step right in as a team-leading contributor, while Robinson has struggled. To hear former Kings beat writer and current USA Today NBA maven Sam Amick tell it, the only reason Sacramento drafted Robinson over Lillard last June was not the orthodoxy I previously detailed, but because the team’s ownership was frightened it couldn’t re-sign a player you can’t pick out of a lineup without a scorecard in Thompson to his second contract. From Amick’s report:
According to three people with knowledge of the situation who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, part of the reason the Kings drafted forward Thomas Robinson fifth overall out of Kansas in June instead of Rookie of the Year frontrunner and Weber State point guard Damian Lillard (who went sixth to Portland) was because of internal doubt about ownership's ability or willingness to pony up for restricted free agent forward Jason Thompson.
There was strong support for Lillard among the team's front-office and scouting staff, but the unexpected chance to grab Robinson when he slid was seen as a safer option in case the Maloofs didn't pay the market price for Thompson and the team was left with Cousins and veteran forward Chuck Hayes on the frontline. The Kings were legitimately excited to take Robinson, who was seriously considered as high as No. 2 (Charlotte), but Thompson's situation was a factor.
Thompson’s situation should never be a factor. No player’s “situation” (not to make fun of Amick’s choice of words, but the Kings’ own thinking) should ever be a factor in the high or even late lottery. This is NBA-styled thinking from decades ago, and it’s anachronistic even if the player that could be on the verge of leaving is a star in the making. The fact that the report names Thompson, an above average 26-year old player at a position with an endless array of replaceable options, makes this all the more infuriating.
Damian Lillard (Getty Images)Don’t completely excuse Sacramento GM Geoff Petrie from blame here, either. He above all should know that Thompson is quite replaceable even if his owners declined to spend a penny on the big forward. He, above all, should know that scouts are to be listened to 10 times before an owner is to be feared for a single second.
Again, all reasonable strains of NCAA-averse, NBA thought were aligned behind the Robinson selection. I was, as well, because I don’t have the time to keep up with two basketball associations at once and am clueless about NCAA basketball. NBA teams, full of scouts dedicated entirely to keeping up with one or the other, aren’t as daft. Amick’s report indicates that the Kings’ staff, however decimated by ownership’s decision to cut it in order to save money, wanted to go for Lillard. Because that staff, unlike this guy, actually knows college basketball.
Kings ownership, fearful of what it would cost to re-sign a player that would eventually return for around the league’s average salary, made the decision to draft for need. More damning? It was a perceived need.
Again, though, perception doesn’t matter. Thompson could be an All-Star in the making that both old school scouts and new era numbers enthusiasts obsess over. That’s not the point. NBA teams can’t draft for need. Especially that high in the process. You take the best player; and if that best player happens to fill a need, all the better.
And you don’t pass up on who you think is the best player – regardless of whether or not Isaiah Thomas is your new favorite pizza guy – because you’re worried about matching terms on a reserve-level power forward.
Unless you’re the owners of the Sacramento Kings. Who we won’t mention by name, because they love that sort of thing.