Charlie DeBoyace/The Diamondback
As the Cavaliers close in on draft night, now just two nights away, it seems options are narrowing. As they should. When you have the No. 1 pick, you have the luxury of not having to do near as much contingency planning. You control your own destiny, so as draft night approaches, you should more or less have a pretty good idea what you are going to do.
As with any draft, all media speculation should be taken with as much caution as possible. I’ve written about this plenty before, but when it comes to the NFL and NBA draft, front offices love to leak information that sometimes isn’t 100 percent accurate. This is why we seemingly have contradicting reports of Nerlens Noel vs Alex Len. A lot of it depends on where the info is coming from, and why these sources want to leak this information in the first place.
But is there really a chance the Cavaliers will take Alex Len with the #1 overall pick? And if so, would it be one of the biggest mistakes this franchise could make?
There are things to like about Len’s game for sure. His pure size is tantalizing when you envision what someone with that size could do if the basketball skills develop. You hear the comparisons to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and there’s no doubt that over the last three seasons the Cavaliers have sorely missed Z’s tip-ins and rebounds. Z wasn’t an all-time great player, but he made a tangible impact to the team. Alex Len can be that kind of player.
Furthermore, in the NBA you can try to adapt to the way everyone else is playing, or you can build your team based on talent available and hope you find a niche to exploit the trends of the game. Big centers are a thing of the past. Playing small, fast, and athletic is the current trend. But look at what Indiana is able to do with Roy Hibbert. They are preying on the hole created by teams trying to play small and finesse basketball. So there’s probably a role for a player like Alex Len in Cleveland.
But we’re talking about the No. 1 pick here. Lets just look at the past 10 picks taken No. 1 overall:
The jury is out on Anthony Davis. Greg Oden’s career was derailed by injuries. Bargnani and Bogut have been serviceable players. But Irving, Wall, Griffin, Rose, Howard, James. These are impact players who have changed the complexion of the teams who drafted them. That’s what you want in a No. 1 pick. And that’s not what Len is. If the Cavaliers draft Len, the team is going for Bargnani or Bogut rather than Griffin or Howard.
This is why the team has to take Nerlens Noel. He’s the only player in this draft who has the potential to make the list of elite difference makers. There are no guarantees, but when you have the #1 pick, making the safe play just isn’t worth it.
But even then, is Len really that safe of a play?
Take a look at what Kevin Cowherd of the Baltimore Sun has to say about Len’s potential as a #1 pick in a piece titled “Talk of Alex Len going No. 1 in draft? NBA scouts must be crazy”:
We can debate forever whether or not Turgeon and his staff drew up the right plays to use Len effectively, and whether they went to him enough all game long. (I think they tried everything possible to get him involved.)
And we can wonder how much the stress fracture he apparently suffered late in the season limited his effectiveness.
(If Len had been lighting it up for weeks and his production dropped off dramatically, sure, maybe you blame the injury. Me, I’m not buying it.)
But to think a player coming off such a disappointing season could be taken No. 1 in the NBA draft is mind-boggling.
If the Cavaliers go ahead and pull the trigger and make Len the top pick Thursday, they’re crazy.
Sure, they’ll be doing it on raw potential, rather than production, which is a gamble a lot of teams seem willing to take. And since this is a mediocre draft class, Len will probably go higher than he should, which in this case is probably at No. 6 or No. 7 on the board.
But nothing about his game makes him worthy of going No. 1.
This is someone from Maryland who, presumably, has seen plenty of Len’s games. I’m sure the Cavaliers’ scouting department has watched plenty of game tape as well. Probably more than Cowherd. But typically the local media supports local prospects. The fact that a local guy is skeptical is a huge red flag to me.
Another thing we thought we knew about the Cavaliers front office was that they value 1 metrics and projections. Well, if this is the case, then how are they even considering Len with the #1 pick?
Kevin Pelton released his projections for the prospects in this draft (ESPN Insider account required) yesterday. It’s no surprise to see Nerlens Noel ranked No. 1 with a projected Win % of .488 and WARP of 3.6. But where does Len rank? He ranks No. 23 with a projected Win % of .366 and WARP of 0.3. That WARP number is alarming.
Furthermore, the WARP gap from Noel (3.6) to the #2 prospect, Otto Porter (2.7), is 0.9. That is by far the biggest gap between any 2 players on this list. The 2nd largest gap is 0.4, and the gap between Len and the #22 prospect (Tim Hardaway Jr) is 0.3. So not only is Len nowhere near the top projected player in this draft, but he’s not even all that close to the No. 22 prospect. This is a problem for any justification of drafting Len.
And while projections are just projections, and nothing more, you can look at Pelton’s WARP projection history and decide for yourself how meaningful they are. When I look at past drafts, I see some merit in his projections and I tend to apply some value to his work.
When Chad Ford did his secret poll of sources from around the league, Noel finished a surprising 2nd in the list of the Secret NBA Draft Big Board. Len finished at No. 6. The No. 1 prospect was Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.
Heck, even when Chad Ford and Jay Bilas were both asked whether Alex Len was safer pick than Nerlens Noel, they both answered ‘No’. So any notion of Len being the safe pick is pretty misguided, in my opinion.
I don’t presume to know more about basketball than Chris Grant and his staff. And for the most part, I’ve held back from opining too much on this year’s draft because I’ve come to realize that my opinion is insignificant. Chris Grant and his staff pick the player they like for their reasons. They don’t care about draft stock, consensus, big boards, etc.
But I also know that if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when a draft prospect’s stock climbs after he’s done playing games. Nobody was projecting Len to be the #1 pick during the season. Only afterwards has his stock risen so high. To me, this just feels like the Cavaliers are out-thinking themselves (assuming the rumors of their interest in Len at No. 1 are true).
If the Cavaliers pick Len, I’ll support him and pray that a year or two from now we look back at this article and laugh at my stupidity. But right now, today, I’m saying that picking Alex Len will be a mistake, and one that the team will regret for years to come. Nothing about Len’s game says “elite prospect” to me, and with the No. 1 pick, I’m going to be selfish and say I want more than that.
Perhaps all of this is for nothing and the truth is, Nerlens Noel is the player they intend to take. Perhaps they still might trade the pick. Just two days from the draft, absolutely nothing feels certain about this draft. But the one thing that at least feels certain to me is that Alex Len being picked No. 1 overall would be a mistake. Perhaps a huge one, even.
And nobody wants to be the Bluth Family of the NBA:
some would argue over-value