When in doubt, it seems, NBA executives tend to reach for the athletes with the longest reach at draft time. So often, the execs (many of them by then ex-execs) cringe for years watching the perimeter players they should have taken jet down the court in All-Star and playoff games.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, holders of the No. 1 selection in Thursday’s draft in much the same way the Chiefs had the top choice in the NFL during a year without an obvious top guy, have a wide array of options. Centers Alex Len of Maryland and Nerlens Noel of Kentucky are under consideration. So are shooting guards Ben McLemore of Kansas and Victor Oladipo of Indiana. Georgetown small forward Otto Porter and UNLV power forward Anthony Bennett also reportedly have been on the Cavs’ radar.
To center, or not to center, that is the question. History says the guy with his finger on the button will press center. History also teaches that to do so is to take a risk not worthwhile.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ 1983 decision to bypass Michael Jordan to take talented but brittle Kentucky center Sam Bowie remains the best argument for choosing human flight over extraordinary height, but it’s far from the only example.
In 1977, Indiana’s plodding center Kent Benson was the No. 1 player chosen in a draft that included, among others, forwards Bernard King, Cedric Maxwell, Marques Johnson and Walter Davis and guards Norm Nixon and Otis Birdsong.
In the same draft that Bowie was selected ahead of Jordan and Charles Barkley, centers Melvin Turpin and Tim McCormick were chosen ahead of John Stockton.
In 1984, the irrational run on post players continued at an even faster, panic-driven pace. Benoit Benjamin went third, Jon Koncak fifth and Joe Kleine sixth. Combined, the centers did not appear in an All-Star game. Nos. 7 (Chris Mullin), 8 (Detlef Schrempf) and 13 (Karl Malone) played in 22 glitzy mid-season exhibitions. In 1998, the Los Angeles Clippers had a sneaking suspicion they were taking the next Hakeem Olajuwon with the top selection in Michael Olowokandi, even though all the centers had in common was they were born in Nigeria. Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, who have combined for 21 All-Star selections, were taken ninth and 10th.
In 2003, the Detroit Pistons chose center Darko Milicic with the second pick and then watched Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade drop off the board with the next three. Len, 20, and Noel, 19, do have intriguing qualities, but remember this: Big men tend to break down physically much quicker than guards. The general managers who selected Bowie, Ralph Sampson and Greg Oden ahead of Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Kevin Durant need no reminder of that. Noel has had two serious injuries in the past four years to the same knee. Len, bugged by stress fractures, had foot surgery.
Noel runs the floor well and is a terrific shot blocker, but at 210 pounds, will he ever fill out enough to hold his low-block position in a league that allows so much to go uncalled? McLemore calls to mind Ray Allen. Noel seems on a path to become another Marcus Camby, which isn’t bad in some ways, except when compared to Allen. Naturally, since Camby is so much taller, he went three spots ahead of Allen in 1996.
Those in the Len camp point to his big games against Noel and Duke’s Mason Plumlee. Careful. Loyola of Chicago’s LaRue Martin was selected first overall in 1972 based largely on having big games against UCLA’s Bill Walton and Marquette’s Jim Chones. Martin lasted four years in the NBA. Len likely will have a much better career than that. He might develop into a solid starting center, a la Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 overall selection in 2005. Perennial All-Star point guards Deron Williams and Chris Paul went third and fourth that year.
The smart play lies in passing on the two pivot men. In favor of what perimeter player? A question for another day, same space. Thursday.