NEW YORK – Trey Burke – his mouth slightly agape, his face wide with dread – clapped for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Detroit Pistons’ pick at No. 8 in the 2013 NBA Draft. Then, Burke turned his head to the right and stared off into an murky and potentially disastrous future.
A day ago, after meeting with the Pistons, Burke said his draft range was No. 2 through No. 8. He hadn’t worked out for any teams picking shortly after the Pistons, and he worried he could fall far.
But the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted the former University of Michigan star one pick later, agreeing to send him to the Utah Jazz for two first-round picks. Burke didn’t know about the trade when he shook David Stern’s hand, and he had to sit in a backroom until it became official.
“My mind was pretty much everywhere,” Burke said.
Burke’s purgatory lasted minutes. The Pistons’ could last a decade.
Right reasons for Trey Burke
Defenders of the Caldwell-Pope pick will claim Detroit fans wanted Burke only because he played at Michigan.
They’ll bring up 1987, when Indiana Pacers fans booed Reggie Miller as their team passed on Indiana University star Steve Alford with the No. 11 pick. But Miller, not Pope, was listed nationally as a top prospect before the draft. If the Pacers didn’t take Miller, the Washington Bullets would have snatched him up at No. 12. When the Pacers passed on Alford, he lasted all the way to the second round.
Burke was gone a single pick after the Pistons passed.
These situations are nothing alike.
Chad Ford’s top 100, ESPN’s expert panel, ESPN’s sampling of NBA evaluators, Kevin Pelton of ESPN, DraftExpress and Mike Prada of SB Nation – every credible draft board I could find – all ranked Burke ahead of Caldwell-Pope. None of those evaluators have a Michigan bias.
Wrong reasons for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
There would be a very simple and defensible reason for the Pistons to draft Caldwell-Pope ahead of Burke: Joe Dumars believes Caldwell-Pope is a better prospect that Burke.
I disagree with that assessment, but Dumars should have every freedom to make his own determinations, draft accordingly and deal with the consequences. Picking a player simply because of his local ties will do the Pistons no good in the long term. To draw fans and make money, they need to win. And to win, the Pistons need better players.
Unfortunately, it seems Dumars prioritized drafting a wing over drafting a good player.
“The draft really doesn’t come down to a popularity contest. It comes down to teams trying to fill their needs.”
"We are basically desolate at the wing positions," Dumars said. "It was just a major focus of ours, going into this draft, that we have to upgrade the wing athletic shooting. Just don’t have enough wing long athletes. And so that was going to be a priority for us."
“When you look at our board, there is not a name up there where we say ‘two guard,’ ” Dumars said, talking about his team’s depth chart. “We have Khris Middleton and Kyle Singler (at small forward); we have (Rodney) Stuckey and Brandon (Knight), who are more combo guards. But just in terms of wing athletes, we don’t have enough and it was a position we knew we had to fill. When you look at the game today, you see more of the wing-athletic-shooters and you have to have that. It was time for us to address that.”
What’s missing from those quotes? Dumars saying Caldwell-Pope was the best player available.
Drafting Caldwell-Pope over Burke because he ranks higher makes sense. Drafting Caldwell-Pope over Burke because they’re in the same tier and wing is a greater need than point guard (which is not a positional preference I share) is understandable.
But simply cutting off other options to draft the best wing available is foolish.
Does Dumars, ignoring need momentarily, rank Caldwell-Pope equal to or ahead of Knight? I’d love to hear Dumars answer that question.
Update: Dumars did address whether Caldwell-Pope was the best player available. As transcribed by Sean Corp of Detroit Bad Boys:
We felt that he was the best player. And we also felt that he was a need as well. Sometimes it comes together like that. It’s a little bit like Drummond last year. We had a definite need. We didn’t have that kind of big and he was the best talent on the board. Sometimes it comes together like that.
This is the first time in a while that you can’t say that someone just fell to us. It was a deep draft at the two-guard spot. I don’t know what’s happening now, what’s going on with the draft right now but there is going to be several more two guards that are going to go off in the first round. Guys that are going to score.
It was that draft. It wasn’t one of these monster drafts. But in that particular position you were going to get a good player.
Here’s one Dumars more quote via Corp (emphasis mine):
We felt like in this particular draft that the two-guard spot especially was pretty deep in terms of this draft. And so we knew that at 8 we knew that one of those two guards would be there and so we focused on that early on in the process.
Dumars’ frequent references to need were quite different than previous drafts, and I find that telling. Also, is someone who focused on shooting guards early in the process necessarily qualified to say definitively whether a player at another position was better? You be the judge.
The Pistons outsmarted their second pick, Tony Mitchell, too. After an interview with the Pistons he described as “intense, really intense,” he never thought they’d draft him.
All around, this was a clever draft by the Pistons. But did they outsmart themselves?
The last time Joe Dumars identified an NBA trend it was stretch fours, and that got Charlie Villanueva the huge contract that’s still saddling Detroit. The Pistons don’t need “wing-athletic-shooters.” They need good players.
The Pistons don’t have anyone who has proven himself to be a good point guard and is under contract for next season. Point guard is an area of need, if the team isn’t trying to shortcut it’s rebuild, just as much as wing, but that just confuses the main point.
Drafting for need when better prospects are available is usually a poor approach.
Unknown result with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Caldwell-Pope is a good prospect – I ranked him No. 7 on my pre-draft board – and the Pistons should be pleased to have him. He could easily turn into a very good player.
But that can no longer be the standard for determining whether he was the right pick. Outperforming Burke, fair or not, is the only measure that will be accepted.
If Burke excels in Utah, Dumars will have pushed away even further a fan base that has already distanced itself from the Pistons. That will almost certainly play into Tom Gores’ decision whether or not to retain Dumars after this season, and Dumars has to have known that when he passed on Burke.
Dumars isn’t doing himself any favors, hiring a coaching with a track record that rarely indicates future success and now passing on Burke for Caldwell-Pope. But it’s a long offseason, and with $20 million-plus in cap room looming, it’s way to early make any roster prognostications.
It’s unclear whether Dumars’ emphasis on a wing means he still views Brandon Knight primarily as a point guard or whether the Pistons will target a point guard in free agency. It’s unclear whether Maurice Cheeks has learned from his mistakes in Portland and Philadelphia or whether he’s in over his head. It’s unclear whether Caldwell-Pope’s 3-point shooting and athleticism will make him the immediate contributor Dumars needs him to be or whether an extended transition to the NBA will keep Caldwell-Pope benched.
Burke would not have singlehandedly answered all the questions facing the Pistons, but he could have answered some of them. Instead, Dumars and Caldwell-Pope are left to show why the Georgia wing was so appealing.
This could all work out, and just because passing on Burke looks foolish today doesn’t mean it will seem that way in a year or two. For all the grading we do this week, the real results don’t come in until much later.
Time will tell whether Dumars outsmarted all of us or outsmarted himself. For the previous three years, he’s let highly rated players – Monroe, Knight, Drummond – slip to him and then comfortably drafted them. Passing on Burke to draft Caldwell-Pope was anything but comfortable, and that indicates how confident Dumars was in his decision.
Or how stubbornly wrong he was.