Indecisiveness during draft season is to be expected. In many respects, it’s a positive sign radiating from organizations at the top of the order. A general manager who remains open to multiple possibilities keeps the trade value of his selection high, in addition to the benefits of due diligence as it pertains to judging each prospect thoroughly.
This is a different story:
Fans and semi-amateur analysts of the sport playing armchair GM are entitled to this type of thinking. But anyone running an NBA franchise who would gravitate toward the second selection instead of the first is unqualified to sit at the head of the table.
Being put in that seat is like placement in any other high office — you are trusted to make the final call and live with the fallout of each and every decision. Ascending to general manager is the dream of any would-be executive and front office staffer. Everything from the head coach to the players to the training staff is within your control on some level. Control is paramount in these positions. Presumably, wanting that level of power is why you’re here to begin with; there are few (if any) who accept jobs as heads of basketball ops begrudgingly.
By extension, ownership of the No. 1 pick is the ultimate exercise in control. You have the ability to select any player eligible for the draft and then command his rights on a team-friendly deal for what is likely to be the next eight years. Historically, the first selection has outproduced every other pick’s expected value by a fairly significant margin, whether measuring by individual efficiency or team success:
The only rationale for preferring the second selection is simple: self-preservation. A GM who can claim he didn’t have the chance to select the stud who went first overall has a case to convince his boss he deserves to stick around. Likewise, the GM selecting first who swung for the fences and missed is more likely to be fired than the man who just took the player leftover in a two-player draft.
That’s all well and good, but an executive running a basketball team based on his personal security is barely fit to run a Denny’s, let alone a billion-dollar property. Scared GMs make for poor stewards of franchises. Ownership is vital in this regard; if an executive’s decisions are made with one eye always looking over their shoulder, expecting fruitful results is delusional. But that’s not an all-encompassing excuse.
The prospect of drafting first overall is not thrust on teams as a surprise in the dead of night. Thanks to the timing of the NBA Draft Lottery and subsequent NBA Draft, teams and their scouting departments have over a month to consolidate the information they’ve collected over the past year(s) in addition to any extra intel they can get their hands on before draft night.
Here we see another layer of choice — selection of staff. The experts surrounding a GM are typically a collection of trusted allies they’ve worked with over the years, in addition to organizational holdovers they saw fit to keep around. Basketball ops are not a dictatorship, but each front office tends to be an extension of the GM and the ownership that empowers him. Robust departments of professionals — ranging from number crunchers to gym rats — pound the table for their method of evaluation and the player(s) they feel can lead the franchise to prosperity.
Sifting through all the information and making the best decision is a GM’s only job, even if it permeates across countless contexts. That principle applies far beyond the question of, “Who should we select with our pick?” to identifying the right coach for your franchise, the right free agents to target and even how much to pay them.
If you aren’t confident enough to use your own talent-evaluation skills, information & opinions compiled by chosen staff and the gift of time to make a confident decision for your franchise, why should anyone allow you run one at all?
Perhaps it would be understandable for a GM deferring his final choice to another senior staffer whose opinion he trusts instead of making the call himself. This is something else entirely. This is a sitting President sitting next to the nuclear button, their own knowledge supplemented by endless prep from members of his trusted cabinet, only to throw his hands in the air and go, “Actually, I think I’d really prefer if Canada would decide our fate for us.”
When you’re an amateur scout commiserating with people on Twitter and scouring draft boards to gain an idea of consensus, hesitate away. When you’re a seven-figure executive armed with unparalleled resources and absolute control, ceding value and your future to another competing franchise is so monumentally stupid as to disqualify you from holding your job. Pray for the day you have access to the No. 1 pick, and be happy if you ever get the chance.