Videos, measurements, combines, stats, psychological profiles, interviews, scrimmages, references ... All over the NBA, smart people are overloading themselves with information in preparation for next week's draft.
It's nervous work.
The fact is, this is one messy draft, and a lot of people are going to be made to look foolish. (Primary goal of a lot of NBA general managers: To keep their jobs.) With so much parity, it's possible -- even likely -- that a lot of the higher picks will have inferior careers to some of those picked well after them.
There are questions about literally every player in this draft.
And as the information abounds, the second-guessing gets easier. In many ways, the job of making basketball decisions for an NBA team is getting worse.
Let's just say, for instance, that Ty Lawson is one of those later picks that ends up playing much better than the players taken ahead of him. Back in the day, a basketball staff could have reminded an owner that every darned year there's someone like that. (And besides, you don't use high lottery picks on a guy who measures 5-11 without sneakers.)
But this year, you'd have John freaking Hollinger, a week before the draft, sharing his sophisticated analysis
which looks at good NBA players and what their production was like in college. Lawson, by this measure, was the best player in college.
That hurdle wasn't there in 1985.
But it's here now!
At the core of what has been changing is an old debate about tools vs. production. A 6-5 point guard has a tool -- his height. That's something a traditional scout can fall in love with. But in a data-driven world, we're learning more and more that tools are only useful if they're useful. A 6-5 point guard ought to get easier shots, have fewer turnovers because he can see better, grab more rebounds and be a more effective defender. Well, does he do those things? Players who know how to get production out of their tools tend to, you know, get production.
No matter how great their tools, there are not a lot of players who produce miserably before turning professional, but become much more productive with age. It happens, but not nearly as much as we hope it will -- and it's not much of a basis for a draft strategy. (And generally player development is not something the NBA is good at.)
This is something I first learned about in Moneyball
, when author Michael Lewis sat in as Oakland A's GM Billy Beane did 2002 draft preparations with his scouting staff. They say basketball is five or ten years behind baseball in integrating new statistics, so this might be about where some teams are right now. An excerpt:
One by one Billy takes the names of the players the old scouts have fallen in love with, and picks apart their flaws. The first time he does this an old scout protests.
"The guy's an athlete, Billy," the old scout says. "There's a lot of upside there."
"He can't hit," says Billy.
"He's not that bad a hitter," says the old scout.
"Yeah, what happens when he doesn't know a fastball is coming?" says Billy.
"He's a tools guy," says the old scout defensively. The old scouts aren't built to argue. They're built to agree. They are part of a tightly woven class of former baseball players. The scout looks left and right for support. It doesn't arrive.
"But can he hit?" asks Billy.
"He can hit," says the old scout, unconvincingly.
Paul reads the player's college batting statistics. They contain a conspicuous lack of extra base hits and walks.
"My only question is," says Billy, "if he's that good a hitter why doesn't he hit better?"
"The swing needs some work. You have to reinvent him. But he can hit."
"Pro baseball's not real good at reinventing guys," says Billy.
There's no real magic formula here. The player the old scouts hate the most out of Beane's picks is a catcher named Jeremy Brown. He doesn't look like a pro, and after six years of trying, he proved the old scouts right. He should not have been a first-round pick.
But what we do know is that production matters far more than we used to think it did. And certain kinds of production matter more than others. And over time, you can do better by mastering the art of understanding what production in college, high school, the D-League or overseas means for a prospects chances in the NBA.
The front offices that get that right will please their owners and win games. The front offices that don't? Well, that's why I said this is a nervous time.