When the Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics, they received an assortment of intriguing pieces in return. Five months later, that return seems far less shiny.
Jae Crowder’s performance has dropped off a cliff. Isaiah Thomas doesn’t look like the same player. Ante Zizic fills a roster spot, but doesn’t appear to have much upside. The jewel of the trade — the Brooklyn Nets unprotected first round pick — appears likely to end up somewhere between No. 5 and No. 9 overall.
On one hand, this is quite disappointing. However, a pick between 5th and 9th is still quite valuable. I examined a 10 year sample of historical drafts, and in a ‘normal’ draft picks five through nine typically produce one All-Star, three long-term starters or rotation players and one journeymen or bust.
So, is 2018 expected to be a normal draft? Most draft pundits seem to agree that this draft class is quite strong, particularly within the top-10 picks. Opinions regarding the depth of the draft vary, but the top ten includes the most accomplished European prospect ever, a guard that’s drawn Steph Curry comparisons and one of the most physically gifted big men in the one-and-done era. While these three are likely to be gone before the fifth pick, their presence at the top of the board pushes some very solid prospects down into the expected range of the Brooklyn pick. I would posit that fifth through ninth in this draft class is equivalent to third through seventh in a ‘normal’ draft class.
Who might the Cavaliers target in that range? One possibility that should be available is Mikal Bridges, whom is eighth or ninth on most big boards right now. The Villanova junior reminds me of Paul George (No. 10 pick in 2010) with his ability to defend multiple positions at a high level, athletic drives to the rim and accuracy from beyond the arc. On offense he’s like a scaled down version of George, with similar shot distribution but on lower usage, likely becoming a third option in the NBA. On the other end his athleticism and seven-foot wingspan will allow him to defend point guards, power forwards and everything in between. He’s an ideal fit for the modern NBA.
Another good option would be Jaren Jackson Jr. The Michigan State freshman is currently projected to go off the board in the five to seven range. His game is very similar to Myles Turner (No. 11 pick in 2015), a shot-blocking machine that can reliably drain jump shots. He has great defensive instincts, particularly for one of the youngest prospects in the class. I’d argue that he’s a little better at defending out to the perimeter than Turner was at his age, which should help his transition to the pick-and-roll heavy environment of the NBA. His jump shot, despite his somewhat unconventional form, may also be a little ahead of Turner at this point. His father was a three-and-d guy on the San Antonio Spurs team that won the championship in 1999. Take that pedigree and pair it with a 7’4” wingspan and this is the result: a complementary offensive player that is highly impactful on defense.
The Nets pick may yet yield a future superstar. Presently Brooklyn is only 2.5 games ahead of Atlanta. However, the more likely scenario of it ending up in the between fifth and ninth is still very valuable. Either player mentioned above could contribute to winning basketball right away if LeBron chooses to stay, and would be an excellent fit piece to start a rebuild with should he choose to leave.
Giving up a player of this caliber with eight or nine years of team control for slightly improved odds at a title seems unwise. No player the Cavaliers can bring in would be enough to make them favorites in the NBA Finals, should they make it that far. For this reason, I think that next year and beyond should matter more than producing the best possible team this year. Rebuilding can be a very long process, and having a pick like this prior to even one year of losing can go a long way toward shortening the process. If the Cavs trade it for short term gains, that process may prove very long indeed.