Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Drafting reality

There’s an interesting debate in NBA circles over who should be the top pick in June’s draft, Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James. Anthony, a freshman at Syracuse University, recently led his team (almost single-handedly) to a NCAA title. James led his private high school team to an Ohio state championship despite being technically ineligible under state amateurism rules. For almost two years, James has been hyped by various media pundits as the next basketball Messiah, a successor to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant if you will. Anthony’s NCAA title run, however, may complicate things.

Here’s what gets me. A number of pundits, many of them seasoned NBA beat writers, argue that the team with the #1 pick should select James even if they believe Anthony is the better player. The argument goes like this: James has more hype, so he’s more likely to sell tickets during his rookie season. This conveniently ignores the fact that few NBA players who came directly from high school ever amount to much before their third season in the league. For all the hype, there’s nothing which indicates James is any more likely to have an immediate impact than other now-greats like Bryant or Kevin Garnett, both of whom required several seasons to achieve their potential. Anthony may only have one year of college experience, but that experience showed he could lead a team against top competition. Most knowledgeable NBA scouts (who seem to have less influence than the pundits) would take Anthony over James.

Even the business argument doesn’t make much sense. James may sell out arenas early on as a curiosity, but if he’s warming the bench for a non-playoff team, a likely assumption, his effect on attendance will be temporary. Even Michael Jordan didn’t become Michael Jordan overnight. Heck, Jordan wasn’t even the top pick in his draft year.

Frankly, if I was an NBA owner, and the general manager told me “Anthony is the better player, but we have to take James or the media will rip us,” I would fire that GM on the spot. Anytime you make a decision based on something other than objective facts, you betray your obligation to act in the best interests of your business. When it comes to the NBA draft, that means you take the best player available, period. If that player doesn’t fit your immediate needs, you trade him or trade the pick. You don’t take a player based simply on hype or media acceptability. If businessmen in other fields behaved that way, they’d find themselves hauled before a federal regulatory agency of some kind.

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