by Jacob Osborne
The NBA draft is really starting to warm up. The lottery teams are known, the complete order will be found out on May 24 and a couple of teams' interests are already starting to leak out. Within the last week word has come out that Marvin Williams is sitting a top the Bobcats draft board. Over the last couple of days the same thing happened as New Orleans Hornets head coach Byron Scott was interviewed on a local radio show in New Orleans. In the interview Scott said that he feels that the small forward spot is the most important position in the NBA and that he loves Marvin Williams. He sees him as a couple of inch shorten version of Kevin Garnett and that he is also atop their draft board. He also made it a point to mention that he isn't really sold on Andrew Bogut. Denver Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe was quoted in the Denver Post saying that he would prefer using one of his two first round picks on a promising international prospect he could keep overseas for more development, according to the Denver Post. Sources say the Houston Rockets have been combing Europe lately looking for a player who fits into their system that they could spend their 1st round pick on. The Charlotte Bobcats are reportedly looking to use one of their two draft picks on a North Carolina player, in order to boost attendance next year. With over two months remaining before the draft, teams appear to be falling over themselves to reveal their plans. Where there's smoke there's fireright? Or are all these vague or not so vague statements just smokescreens? It's hard to say. We might have a better idea on June 29th, but that doesn't help any of us right now. This is one of the things that make the draft so fun, and so hard to predict.
So what is a smokescreen?
The term smokescreen is a military term that is defined as an action or statement intended to conceal or confuse or obscure. When the term is used in regards to the NBA draft, it usually refers to a statement (usually via the media) that is made as a way to try and manipulate the draft. It could also be an action like bringing a player in for a workout the day before the draft, even though that team has absolutely no intention of drafting him.
Sometimes teams will know, or think they know that there are a few teams that are interested in a player who might go in the area they draft in, or slightly below them. If they want to make them sweat or maybe force a team into making a trade with them to move up, they can come out and say that they really like the kid. This will usually be reported via sources or sometimes they'll even come out and say it outright.
Let's say there are two teams that are interested in the same player. Now, the team with the lower pick finds out (or suspects) that the team with the higher pick plans on selecting their targeted player. They could make a trade to move above the other team and get their guy. That's why it's important not to let anyone suspect who you like, and a good way of doing that is sending out mixed signals on a number of players, to keep people guessing about what is the truth.
So how do teams get the player they want, but manage to make it to the draft without anyone else finding out who their targeted player is?
As soon as teams figure out what players they want to target for the draft they develop a strategy to get them and one common strategy is to use a smokescreen. The basic idea behind a smokescreen of this kind is to let on that your team is interested in a particular prospect when in reality there isn't very much interest. At best, it makes other teams think you have your sights set on one particular prospect and it throws them off course of your true intentions. At worst, it keeps other teams guessing and forces them to work that much harder. Over the next couple of months, there will likely be several more smokescreens being sent out from teams and new ones will probably come up all the way up until draft day.
Let's take an in depth look at one possible smokescreen that you might not have heard about yet.
To say that this season didn't go as planned for the Los Angeles Lakers would be a major understatement. This is the time of the year that their season is usually just about to begin, but not this year. Instead of a finals appearance they have now found themselves in the lottery for the first time since the 93-94 season. The sub par season has led to a declining attendance. An attempt to ease the concerns of the season ticket holders; management decided to hold a town hall meeting on Thursday, April 14 for their season ticket holders. This was basically a question and answer period where the Lakers General Manager (Mitch Kupchak) was made available to answer any questions that were on the minds of the season ticket holders.
As can be imagined, most of the questions centered on the loss of Shaq. It got pretty redundant. Once the focus got off of Shaq, Kupchak talked about the offseason. He said that obviously this is a very important offseason for the Lakers and that it will start and end with the upcoming draft. Someone asked about getting a better point guard through the draft and Kupchak responded by talking about how they are currently trying to decide between drafting a player that can come in and help out right away, but not have as much potential or drafting an unnamed high school prospect that has the potential to become a great player. He said that when they picture three years from now they don't want to see this particular high school player in another uniform. One season ticket holder said that he got the impression that Kupchak has major interest in a particular high schooler and he thought that it was very odd how Kupchak responded to the question about drafting a point guard by talking about the risks/rewards of drafting a high school player. This should set off alarms for draft junkies everywhere. Either Kupchak has fallen in love with an unnamed high school prospect or he is trying to make everyone think that he is to use it as a smokescreen. Let's examine this a little bit closer.
Looking at where the Lakers will pick is likely the tenth spot unless they luck into a top three pick or lightning strikes and someone below them does. There is probably only one high school player that is worth of lottery consideration this year and that player is Gerald Green, but he will likely be gone by the time the Lakers are on the board. Add that to the fact that the Lakers already have Kobe Bryant at the shooting guard position along with five small forwards (most notably Lamar Odom and Caron Butler) and you can see where this high school talk starts to sound suspicious.
Why would Green even be realistic? Kupchak was interviewed on Friday and was asked whether the Lakers would draft based on need or based on talent (the interviewer even joked that they won't have to worry about looking at anymore small forwards). From an objective standpoint, any casual observer would look at the Lakers' roster and assume that they would select one of the many PG's in this draft. Kupchak's response was that the Lakers would draft on talent and not to count out them taking another small forward. He even made reference to the infamous 1984 draft where the Portland Trailblazers selected Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan because they already had Clyde Drexler. What about Green likely being gone? There has been talk circulating that the Lakers plan on trying to acquire one or two more first round picks, possibly by trading with Indiana for Jonathan Bender and their 1st round pick. That is good ammunition to trade up in the draft. Moving up and selecting Green would also fit into the Lakers (unlikely) plan on freeing up salary cap space for the summer of 2007 where they hope to lure Yao Ming or Amare Stoudemire to LA. This would be right around the time when Green should start to have an impact on the league, but would have a cheap rookie contract. Another reason why it works is because the two season ticket holders that I talked to both had varying opinions on this situation. One thought that it was likely a smokescreen, but the other thought that Kupchak was telling the truth in talking about their interest in high school prospects. Sounds like the creating confusion part may have worked, at least on the fans.
Why is Green unlikely to be their target? I don't think Kupchak will take a project in this year's draft. He needs to get immediate impact from this player. Not necessarily for the Lakers sake, but for himself. His job security isn't exactly at its all time highest right now. After what happened around the trade deadline (Jack Haley jumping the gun on a trade for Carlos Boozer) it is very likely that Kupchak will play his cards close to his vest. Also if the Lakers draft history is looked at since Kupchak took over the GM duties, there is a history of him using smokescreens in past drafts.
In 2002 there was a lot of talk about the Lakers trading up to select Qyntel Woods. This story was made popular by ESPN Insider Chad Ford because he found out that the Lakers secretly worked out Woods even though he was expected to go in the lottery. Draft day came, Woods started dropping like a rock and the Lakers had a chance to select him with the Toronto pick they acquired in a draft day trade, but instead used that pick to grab Kareem Rush. Rush wasn't even their target. Tayshaun Prince was supposedly their actual target that year, but Rush fell on draft day and the Lakers thought his talents were too great to pass up. In 2003 the talk that surrounded the Lakers was that they were going to draft Zaza Pachulia. Mark Heisler and Chad Ford is how word spread this time about the Lakers being interested in Pachulia. The Lakers had two chances to select Pachulia, but passed on both.
It makes sense not to leak a smokescreen every year because if that happens none of the other teams will take the leaked information seriously. So last year there was a lot of talk about the Lakers selecting Sasha Vujacic, and lo and behold, that ultimately became the pick. Chad Ford correctly called it last year, citing inside information and pointing back to the previous year where the Lakers showed a lot of interest in Vujacic at the Chicago pre-draft camp. Vujacic ended up pulling out of the draft that year.
This year there might be a lot of talk of Lakers moving up to grab Green, or maybe even reaching to take Monta Ellis, but they likely have another player in mind. If moving up doesn't work out, don't be surprised to hear about the Lakers being interested in someone else (that's not expected to go before their pick at 10) in hopes a team ahead of them taking that player so their target gets bumped down to their pick. That's the beauty of positioning yourself in the NBA draft, and what makes it so hard to project considering that you need to get into the head of 30 different organizations and one unlikely turn of events throws off everything.
Smoke screens also make it extremely difficult to make a fairly accurate mock draft. Last year the Utah Jazz owner, used car salesman Larry Miller, announced that if Rafael Araujo was available at 14 the Jazz would select him. Whether it was smoke or not is unknown since Araujo was taken before the Jazz could pick, but nearly every single mock draft had the Jazz selecting Araujo with their pick because it was assumed that that would be the highest anyone would take a look at him. Would the Raptors have taken him otherwise or did this smokescreen work? We'll never know, but Babcock certainly did a poor job of preparing Toronto fans for that possibility. It's worth keeping an eye on the Jazz this year once again, as besides their colorful and blunt owner they also once again have multiple picks. Larry Miller has already openly talked about not thinking too highly of Bogut even though the coaching staff and fans would love to select him.
Last year everyone talked about Dallas' interest in Pavel Podkolzin. Apparently they told Chad Ford a couple of months before the draft in Treviso that they would take Pavel with the #1 pick if they had it. When the Mavericks obtained the fifth pick last year there was talk circulating that Pavel might be their guy there or that they might trade down to the 10-15 pick range to select him. They ended up getting him, but with the 21st pick (obtained in a draft day trade with Utah). Pavel and the Mavericks made it very difficult for the experts who put mock drafts together. Andris Biedrins was rumored to have a guarantee from Golden State. Some weren't sure if this was just a smokescreen, but he basically confirmed Golden State's promise a couple of days before the draft, in an interview here with Draft City.
No other team wreaked as much havoc to mock drafts as the Boston Celtics, owners of three picks and possibly the most aggressive team in the draft last year in terms of working out players and talking in the media. The early reports had them giving Robert Swift a promise with one of their late first rounders. Swift didn't work out for anyone and somehow still ended up climbing up to Seattle's pick. There was a rumor of Ainge going out to Southern California for a secret workout with Swift, but there is no way of knowing whether or not that was true. Another player that was connected to the Celtics was Sergei Monya. Monya was rumored to have a guarantee from the Jazz (who picked #14 and #16), but he only worked out for the Celtics (who had pick #15). The probable reason the Celtics worked out Monya was to try and force Utah to take him with the #14 pick. The Jazz called their bluff and selected Kris Humphries so the Celtics ended up with one of the biggest steals in the draft in Al Jefferson. Their target with that pick (according to Danny Ainge) was actually Sebastian Telfair, but Portland took him at #13. As you can see, just one team's smokescreen can effect the decisions of several other teams, and potentially the entire draft.
Over the next couple of months there will be a lot smoke being blown around. Don't believe everything you hear about team's interest in certain players. The closer we get to the draft, the less likely it is for teams to tell anyone outside the small circle of decision makers inside the organization anything of substance. Especially if that person is from the media. A lot of times if there is a lot of talk that connects a player to certain team. That information should be looked at very closely. Be sure to closely analyze how much sense it makes. Also look at comparable players and how they might fit in with your team. Besides teams putting out smokescreens, agents also feed information to the media in hopes of moving their client up, or rival players at a similar position down, so be leery. The draft season is officially upon us. From here on out, it will consistently get more interesting all the way up to the June 28th. Hopefully we'll be able to see through all of the smoke to get a good look at the draft picture.