Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Best Draft in Sports

The NFL draft is the reason why football is becoming my favorite sport.  Simply put, it's the best draft in sports.  There are just so many options for teams to consider.  Each team has to decide which need they’ll fill, with which player, in what round.  Are they going to draft a lineman in the first round and a receiver in the second, or vice versa?  Are they going to draft a good player for depth or a pretty good player for need?  Are they going to trade up to get a player they like?  Or trade back to get a relatively comparable player at, theoretically, a better value?  The possibilities are endless.

But it’s not just the abundance of possibilities of how the draft will play out that makes it the best one in sports.  It's also because every pick means something.  That's not the case with basketball.  With exception of the first ten picks, the NBA draft is pretty lackluster.  The general feeling for why this is the case is because basketball is very top-heavy when it comes to talent.  In the last five years, there have only been seven guys drafted after the 10th pick that made an All-NBA team: Manu Ginobli, Zach Randolph, Tony Parker, Carlos Boozer, Gilbert Arenas, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant.  This isn't to say that, talent-wise, the draft is pointless after the 10th pick (or even the first round).  The second round can provide some good to very good players.  Look no further than six of this year's top seeded playoff teams, where the Spurs (Ginobli, Blair, Green, Bonner, Jackson), Lakers (Barnes, Blake, Ebanks, Sessions), Grizzlies (Gasol, Arenas, Cunningham), Bulls (Boozer, Asik, Korver), Heat (Chalmers, Jones, Turiaf), and Celtics (Bass) all receive significant contributions from second round picks; the Thunder and Pacers are the only top-4 seeds that don't.  The problem is that only five of the guys mentioned are with their original team.  So why put a ton of stock into the draft, when player movement will pretty much negate it?  There's not really a reason to get to invested in players that may not even be around for the long haul.  For the most part, teams don't build through the draft.  Teams with a blue chipper don't really need the draft; they can find talent elsewhere (through trades and free agency).  So the only teams that need the draft are teams that don't have a blue chipper. And since those only come in the first 10 picks (top 5, majority of the time), the draft is pretty much only relevant for teams with one of those picks.

The MLB draft doesn't fare much better.  Because of the way baseball is set up, the draft is basically pointless; as far as relevance to the fans (with exception of the first round, of course).  With basketball and football, the draft is the differentiation of talent; it's the filter of good and bad players.  With baseball, it's not really the draft that serves that purpose, it's the minor leagues.  Being drafted isn't the stamp of approval to play at the major league level.  It's the stamp of approval to have a shot at getting the stamp of approval to play at the major league level.  This means that the draft, to a certain extent, produces an unfiltered talent pool.  On top of that, draft picks almost always spend a few years in the minors.  So basically, the minor league system is multiple unfiltered draft classes.  Not only does this make it extremely difficult to follow every draft pick, there's not really a reason to.  A sizable percentage of them will never make it to the majors full-time, let alone make a significant contribution.  You really only need to follow the ones who perform exceptionally well, or are highly touted by scouts, since they're the only ones who even have a shot at making it to the majors.  In other words, you don't follow picks, you follow prospects. 

The problem with this is that it makes baseball (seemingly) absent of "Cinderella stories," so to speak.  With the absence of knowledge of draft selection comes the lack of expectations.  If you have no expectations of what a player can achieve, how can they surpass them?  Take Albert Pujols, for example. Is the perception of Albert Pujols' greatness any different than that of Alex Rodriguez?  Not that I'm aware of, but shouldn't it be?  Shouldn't it matter that the best player of the last decade was a 13th round draft pick and not a first?  But because no one seems to care about the draft itself, I bet many fans don't even know that he was drafted in the 13th round.  For those who followed him before his major league debut, Pujols was probably just seen as a great minor league player that became the best player in baseball.  Not as a 13th round draft pick that became the best player in baseball.

With football, draft position matters.  That's why Tom Brady being a 6th round pick and becoming the best quarterback in the league is such a big story.  The improbable nature of it is what makes it meaningful.  Granted, that type of story (to that extent) isn't exactly commonplace.  However, it's not exactly rare that late round picks become stars.  Michael Turner, Robert Mathis, Asante Samuel, Dashon Goldson, Brandon Marshall, Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans, Jay Ratliff, Brandon Lloyd and Jared Allen were all drafted later than the third round, and all have been to the Pro Bowl in the last two years.  It adds a little something extra when a non-first round pick becomes great.  Another similar example is Navorro Bowman.  Bowman was a third round draft pick two years ago, where he spent most of his rookie season backing up Takeo Spikes.  Last year, Spikes left and he became the starter.  Not only did he perform well, he became an All-Pro who reportedly could be confused with Willis on film.  To think that any player can resemble Willis on film is crazy.  If a first round pick did that, it would still be cool.  But a third round pick doing it makes it that much cooler.  Knowing where a player was drafted can make it that much more rewarding when they become great.

But rising to Pro Bowl status isn't the only reason to follow every draft pick.  Because with football, multiple draft picks can be immensely valuable to a team in a variety of ways.  They can become a quality starter, a valuable backup (a swing tackle, a pass rush specialist, a nickle corner etc.) or a special teams player.  You can really build a team from the ground up and find multiple pieces in one year.  That's what makes the NFL draft so great.  There's a reason to care about every pick your team makes, because any and all of them could help the team in different ways.

With basketball, you can follow picks from day one.  With baseball, you can't (even if you live near a minor league affiliate, you're still only seeing a portion of their minor league career).  Basketball's draft has too few picks.  Baseball's has too many.  But with football, you can follow a handful of picks and you can do it from day one, with the possibility that one or more could become very good players.  Which is why it's the best draft in sports.

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