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The Draft vs. Free Agency

Mon, 06/25/2012 - 6:16am

This week is always one of the more interesting weeks on the NBA calendar. While the confetti is still being cleared away down in South Beach, executives of each and every team are huddled together in boardrooms across the country finalizing their plans for draft day later this week. As a team that was built through free agency prepares for a championship parade, NBA draft hopefuls are undergoing final workouts to prepare for arguably the most important night of their lives to date.

It therefore seems that there is no more appropriate time than this to tackle a question that has divided executives and fans alike for decades on end. Should a team be built through the draft or free agency?

Kevin Durant and Russell WestbrookKevin Durant and Russell WestbrookOne only has to look as far back as last week to the NBA Finals to see prime examples of each method. The Oklahoma City Thunder are built around a core group of young players that all became members of the team the same night they shook David Stern’s hand on draft night.

The Thunder’s plan to build a team through the draft, and its consequent success was based upon three elements- bottoming out, luck and the astute eye of General Manager Sam Presti.

It sounds ironic that one of the keys to the Thunder’s success is being terrible, but that is ultimately indisputable. The NBA draft only produces a handful of true superstars each decade. In order to draft one, you almost certainly need to be coming off one of the worst records in the NBA. The biggest exception to this rule was when the Chicago Bulls overcame the odds to win the draft lottery and select Derek Rose.

Kevin Durant was a no-brainer. The only question was whether to take him with the first or second overall pick. This is where the element of luck played its part. Most draft boards in 2007 had Greg Oden as the top selection, with Durant following closely behind. There was certainly no surprise when the Blazers selected Oden number one overall. We all know how that turned out.

The Thunder also had to bottom out at the right time. Many drafts do not produce any future superstar players, yet alone two, and more often than not, the best player is selected with the first choice. To be able to draft a superstar with the second pick is a very rare occurrence. To put things in perspective, the second overall selection the following year was Michael Beasley.

With all that being said, one superstar is not enough by itself to make a team a championship contender. Just ask LeBron James. This is where the talents of Presti came into play. Many eyebrows were raised when he selected Russell Westbrook with the fourth overall selection in 2008 and James Harden with the third pick in 2009.

It was Presti’s ability to surround his superstar with other star players that has enabled the Thunder to transform from a good team into a championship contender for years to come. Building a team through the draft does not require just luck or skill- it requires both.

That brings us to the other manner through which to build a team- free agency. The Miami Heat were not far removed from a 15-win season, when they suddenly became instant championship favourites with the additions of James and Chris Bosh, to play alongside Dwyane Wade. While it took them a year longer than most thought it would, the Heat have already managed to turn their championship dream into a reality.

The hurdle for most franchises wishing to build a team via free agency is the city in which the team is located. Most superstars want a large media market and warm weather. It is much more likely for a star to choose Miami over Salt Lake City. It has been, and always will be this way. Shaq chose Los Angeles for this reason, and it’s why Dwight Howard is so intent on going to Brooklyn.

Building through free agency also brings with it inherent risk. In order to lure a player to a team, an owner will often overpay to finalize the deal. Two current examples that immediately come to mind are Carlos Boozer’s contract with the Bulls and Amare’ Stoudemire’s contract with the Knicks. Early into each deal, it is clear that both teams would love nothing more than to rid themselves of these respective contracts. The only problem is there are no teams crazy enough to take them on.

The most overlooked key to building a team through free agency might actually surprise you. It’s happening later this week. That’s right, the draft.

The draft is what provides the foundation for a team to be able to build a team through free agency. I have already mentioned location as a determining factor in a free agent’s decision to go to a particular team. The other factor is the players already there. To prove my point, just think about this- if location were the only factor then Dwight Howard would have opted out of his contract already and would now be preparing for his Brooklyn press conference with Nets part owner Jay-Z.

Teams that have reached the pinnacle after a key free agent signing have all already had a foundation in place via the draft. When Shaq went to LA in 1996, they had just drafted Kobe Bryant. When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen decided to join forces in Boston, they knew they would be playing alongside Paul Pierce. And when Miami (the team that has come to define free agency) attracted the talents of James and Bosh, the foundation was already in place via the presence of Wade, who was selected with the fifth overall pick by the Heat back in 2003. Lets be clear here- James and Bosh would not have come to Miami to play alongside Darko Milicic.

So as teams prepare to make their selections in this week’s NBA draft, they are not just preparing to select a player. They are selecting what could act as the basis for the ultimate sales pitch years into the future when the next superstar hits the free agent market. If you thought the NBA draft was important before, just think about how important it is now.

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