Phoenix Suns vs. Boston Celtics Recent Drafts and Misses, Part 2 - Drafting for Need vs. Best Player Available

Scott Halleran

In retrospect, the quality of an NBA team's draft is about having taken the best player at the slot they took them. Good isn't good enough if someone great was taken later. And bad looks better if everyone else was worse. Let's look at the last five years of Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns drafts.

The Phoenix Suns recently hired Ryan McDonough away from the Boston Celtic front office to lead them into a new era. That new era has to be based on quality draft picks, so we can only hope that McDonough is better than the last ten years of guys who drafted for the Suns.

Yesterday, we saw how the Boston Celtics used one #5 overall pick and a bevy of players not drafted any higher than 15 to acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007. Those acquisitions were a perfect storm of genius, luck and timing to turn a flagging franchise into a title winner overnight. And the draft picks were the key to the deal.

At the same time, the Phoenix Suns were riding a talented young core already in place to contend for championships themselves, while using the draft for money-making (or, cost avoidance) while they young players were getting extensions left and right.

By 2008, both teams experienced change in their draft philosophies. The Celtics, regularly drafting in the twenties, were looking for gems while the Phoenix Suns were trying to supplement their remaining players with "need-based" picks rather than Best Player Available.

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The Celtics bombed this draft, for sure. They missed on a half-dozen better players when they chose J.R Giddens at the bottom of the first round.

But the Suns did even worse because they were picking 15 spots higher, and thus missed on more than a dozen players who were either more talented than Robin Lopez or had better NBA careers, or both.

The Suns were filling needs in 2008. They still saw themselves as potential title contenders but they knew Nash wasn't going to last forever. They drafted for need in both rounds - taking Lopez to be a mobile center in an up tempo offense, and a point-guard-of-the-future in Goran Dragic. Dragic was a steal where he was taken, but Lopez was most definitely not.

Note: #24 had previously been traded in the KT dump, and was used by OKC to Serge Ibaka. Ugh.

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Boston had already traded their 2009 pick to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett, who helped them win a title and dominate the eastern airwaves for years. I'd say that's a better use of a late-first pick than Phoenix did in the KT trade.

For the Suns, this was a coulda shoulda woulda draft. The Suns almost acquired Steph Curry in this draft, and thought they had acquired him so they took a big man at 14. But Curry fell through and the Suns were stuck with a huge BUST in Earl Clark.

Again, Clark was a pick of need - the Suns needed a do-it-all big man and they thought Clark was the best fit. To their credit, only Taj Gibson became a big man worthy of having been taken at 15 overall. What they absolutely did NOT need was a PG because they had the veteran (Nash) and the second-year backup (Dragic). No less than 4 starting PGs were drafted after Clark.

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2010 was another banner year for the Celtics front office. In what turned out to be a bad draft for late-first rounders to succeed in the NBA, Avery Bradley was the best possible player for them at 19 when they picked. It is common knowledge that McDonough was the one who pegged Bradley for that pick.

For the Suns, the best part of the 2010 Draft was making the playoffs and not having to give a LOTTO PICK to OKC as final payment for taking KT off their hands. The 2010 pick had been unprotected.

As it turned out, OKC only got pick #24, which was used for Quincy Pondexter.

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Boston traded down two spots to pick up a future second rounder, taking JaJuan Johnson at 27. Johnson has done little in the NBA, though Etwan Moore has been okay. The Celtics missed bigtime in this draft, where the could have taken Jimmy Butler or Chandler Parsons at that spot and been much better off.

The Suns once again drafted for need. They openly wanted to get tougher, add rebounding, etc. They wanted a prototypically-sized PF. When you slot for one profile, your options dwindle. The Suns passed on a handful of better players who would be a better option than Morris at the 4 for the future. This is a "what might have been" draft, for sure.

Note: the Suns had acquired and traded #23 within three months, and could have taken someone like Brooks, Butler or Parsons if they'd kept the pick. Also, they had previously traded the second rounder for Hakim Warrick.

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Now we come to last season. The Suns, again, drafted for need and took a point guard knowing they were going to let Steve Nash go. Again, options dwindle when you pick for one position. Marshall was the highest-rated remaining point guard, so they took him. Just like Lopez was a mobile center they wanted in 2008, Clark was the highest-rated remaining big man in 2009, and Morris looked like the best pure 4 in 2011. But in each of those drafts, there were better players available at different positions.

Boston drafted for need here as well, and got good value in Sullinger... that is, until his feared back condition became reality and he went down for the season. Melo was a need as a defensive center, but has not yet developed into that.

Where these two teams are picking, the winners of the 2012 draft are still completely up in the air.

Summary

In summary, there are four takeaways for me:

  1. Boston has drafted better than the Suns with worse picks
  2. Don't trade away future unprotected assets unless you're going to replace them in other deals later!
  3. Don't draft for need if it makes you "reach" for the player. That almost never, ever works out
  4. Take the best player available, regardless of position
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