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Hornets must be smart as well as lucky
The jokes came easy Wednesday night because they always do in David Stern's NBA, where miraculous things seem to happen with the regularity of a Benny Hinn revival.
Here were the New Orleans Hornets, the ink barely dry on Tom Benson's agreement to buy the team from the league office, and that $338 million purchase price suddenly looked every bit the bargain.
It follows the tinfoil hat tradition of the NBA that the Hornets — who the NBA had bought out of bankruptcy in 2010 before selling to Benson last month — would snag the No. 1 pick in next month's draft, surpassing three teams that had better odds of landing it.
Somehow, some way, the NBA can never leave behind the ghost of its Patrick Ewing-to-the-Knicks moment, spawning howls of conspiracy across 27 years of draft lotteries. We heard them when the Cleveland Cavaliers landed LeBron James from nearby Akron, Ohio.
We heard them when the Chicago Bulls, a borderline playoff team, had native son Derrick Rose fall into their lap. And since nothing motivates an apathetic city to embrace its team like a new owner and a No. 1 draft pick, we'll hear them when the Hornets welcome Anthony Davis.
It's a huge moment for New Orleans' NBA future, no doubt. In a draft where only one player stands out as a certain All-Star, getting the 6-foot-11 power forward from Kentucky sets the Hornets on a much different course than picking where they were slated at No. 4.
But here's the reality of this lucky turn: The draft pick New Orleans is going to make on June 28 isn't as important as the one they're going to make next year. And even the most elaborate conspiracy theory in the world can't save them if they screw it up.
See, the Davis pick is easy. It's obvious. Davis may or may not turn out to be the franchise player everyone expects, but all 30 NBA teams would take him No. 1 if given the opportunity, and it's nothing more than luck that the Hornets get to do it.
Every franchise needs some luck like that to become an elite franchise, but that's only half the battle.
It's nice that the Hornets are going to be able to pair Davis with Eric Gordon, a 23-year-old shooting guard who averaged more than 20 points per game in his first season with the team. It's also encouraging that New Orleans' young coach, Monty Williams, went 21-45 last season with a roster that didn't seem capable of winning 15 games.
But the Hornets need help. A lot of help. So much help that they're almost certain to be back in the lottery next year, and that's when the real test will begin.
Davis is a great prospect and maybe a superstar, but he's not a LeBron-like presence who can transform a franchise by himself. He'll need help, and the only way New Orleans can get it is by drafting well. The Davis and Gordon combo is a nice start, but it's just a start. From here on out, skill in selecting other draft picks — New Orleans also owns the No. 10 pick this year as the result of a trade — is going to matter a whole lot more than luck. Those are the ones you have to get right.
There is no better proof of that than these Western Conference finals, matching teams from small markets in San Antonio and Oklahoma City where there is neither the budget nor cachet to attract high-priced free agents.
The Spurs were insanely lucky to land Tim Duncan in 1997 and watch him blossom into the best player of his generation. But he's 36 now, and the true marvel is that San Antonio has given him a third act despite not drafting in the top 10 in ages. Tony Parker was the 28th pick in 2001 and Manu Ginobili the 55th in 1999 — and the wonders don't stop there. The Spurs start Danny Green (No. 46 in 2009, by the Cavaliers, who later waived him) and rookie Kawhi Leonard (No. 15 last year), then bring the likes of Gary Neal (undrafted) and Tiago Splitter (No. 28 overall in 2007) off the bench. This is not a coincidence.
Likewise, the Thunder have made it this far not just due to Durant — a pure luck pick at No. 2 — but because of the pieces they collected in subsequent drafts.
Many considered Russell Westbrook a reach at No. 4 in 2008, but he has had a far better career than the two players taken directly in front of him (Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo) and several others who were projected ahead of him. Few saw a future All-Star.
The next year, Oklahoma City took James Harden at No. 3 overall, which was far from a consensus pick. They also had scouted Serge Ibaka and took him 24th in the same draft as Westbrook. Had the Thunder picked Tyreke Evans instead of Harden and D.J. Augustin instead of Westbrook, you're probably not looking at a group making its second straight trip to the Western Conference finals.
Luck matters in the NBA, and all the conspiracy jokes aside, New Orleans got lucky Wednesday. But if they don't get next year's lottery pick right, Davis will be nothing more than a potentially great player on a middling team. Even David Stern's ever-present healing powers won't be able to fix that.
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