The Indiana Pacers are, as of this writing and pending any Woj bombs or Shams scoops, picking 18th in the 2019 NBA draft. It is the fourth time in a row they’ve picked between 18th and 23rd, that late-first-round ghetto where the best talent is off the board and for every Gary Harris (19th in 2014 to Chicago) or Caris LeVert (20th in 2016 to Brooklyn via Indiana), there are seemingly dozens of guys like Fab Melo (22nd in 2012 to Boston, played six NBA games) or Malachi Richardson (22nd in 2016 to Memphis, posted negative Win Shares in 70 games across three seasons including a mind-bending 0.9 PER in 22 games of garbage time for the Raptors this year.)
The downside risk of a late first-rounder is tremendous, and it’s feast or famine. Screw it up, and you not only might as well not have picked at all, you’d have been better off not picking at all because you just wasted the price of a rookie contract on a guy who will never contribute anything to you or anyone else (“anyone else” being key here because Harris ended up blossoming in Denver because Bulls fans can’t have nice things.)
Yet there always seems to be a team out there happily willing to trade a legitimate rotation player for one of those crapshoot picks, because teams that are in rebuilding mode need all the draft picks they can get and other teams trying to clear cap space to get the free agent that will put them over the hump will often part with a role player for a cheap rookie deal on their cap sheet.
Heck, I’ve already mentioned LeVert, for whom the Nets traded Thaddeus Young to the Pacers in 2016. As a fan, even knowing LeVert turned out pretty good, I’d still applaud that deal again, every single time.
Put simply, the value of a known rotation player is equal to the expected value on average of a player that rotation player is generally traded for, but the variance is so much higher that the risk becomes unpalatable.
I would still believe this even if the expected value were slightly lower. It’s the old lottery dilemma restated.
Imagine I had 104 suitcases, each with $500 in cash, so the total sum of the money in the suitcases was $52,000.
Now imagine I had 104 suitcases with varying amounts of money in them. One has $70,000. Another has $40,000. A third has $15,000. A fourth has $5,000. The other 100 have nothing.
The total value of what I’m offering in the second offer is $130,000, fully 2.5 times better than the 52 grand I guaranteed you. But with better than a 99 percent chance of ending up with less than you started with and with the “jackpot” only about 35 percent (34.6, but who’s counting) better than what you give up, who’s taking that bet?
And come to think of it, is Caris LeVert 35 percent better than three years of Thad Young now, even given LeVert’s career upside?
Maybe that’s a harder question if Victor Oladipo didn’t get hurt, but I say no way—I’d rather have Young every day and twice on Sunday given that 2016 choice again.
So let’s swing this back to 2019. The Pacers are picking 18th, and every Pacers writer in the entire Indiana media universe except me has written a wishlist of guys they want the Pacers to pick in that spot. I’ve read them. They’re good. Google “who should the Pacers draft” and you’ll get some stuff from the guys at 8 Points, 9 Seconds and you’ll get the Indianapolis Star’s take and you’ll get some stuff from Indiana Sports Coverage. All of it’s great.
I’m not doing it because A, I know my limitations and anything I tried to pull together about the draft would either be recycled from someone else or a SCORCHING HOT TAEK with nothing to back it up at all, and B, because I do genuinely believe that every team picking in the “a guaranteed contract isn’t worth the downside risk” part of the first round should try to trade the pick if they can as a matter of sound roster construction strategy.
The NBA even seems to tacitly encourage the practice, because draft day trades either of the current as-yet-unmade pick or of the handshake “pick this guy and then trade his rights to us for this player we’ll send back” deal variety don’t run afoul of the Stepien Rule.
Besides, let’s face it. Kevin Pritchard isn’t firing Nate McMillan anytime soon, and the Pacers culture seems openly hostile to the idea of developing fringe prospects through giving them quality NBA minutes—even Myles Turner had to fight Ian Mahinmi for playing time as a rookie even though Indiana wasn’t winning a championship in 2016.
Would the Pacers have developed LeVert the way Brooklyn did? Of course not! It’s the same not-even-in-garbage-time problem that’s held back T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday, the Pacers’ first-rounders in 2017 and 2018. Those guys would undoubtedly be getting more minutes on other teams because McMillan will leave his starters in up 20 until there are three minutes or less left in the game.
There is simply no good reason for the Pacers to keep the 18th pick. Trade it away and get the best possible fit for the organization, because it will be greater value than the team will get bringing a rookie up from that same slot.