Like franchise quarterbacks, NBA superstars worth the wait

By
Updated: Friday, May 1, 2015 12:00 PM

Watching last night’s NFL draft, the culmination of 4 months of Marcus Mariota fetishization from Philadelphia Eagles fans, was interesting.

According to a report from Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, the Eagles were talking about a package of two 1st round picks, a 3rd rounder, and 3 young starters on the defensive side of the ball: Fletcher Cox, Brandon Boykin, and Mychal Kendricks.

The proposed deal was met with almost universal praise: #DoTheDeal flowed throughout twitter as Eagles fans showed their willingness to mortgage the short term future to get a guy they thought could be built around.

Whether or not the rumored deal was actually on the table is a topic of debate, but it’s a moot point in the current context. What I found interesting was the overwhelming support the trade received from football fans and the local media. I’m writing about fan acceptance, not reporting on the plausibility of the trade happening.

Not that such a trade, or at least the idea of such a trade, is without merit, of course. History has shown that franchise quarterbacks, while perhaps not absolutely necessary if you have an all-time great defense, provide an incredible advantage to those teams lucky enough to have one, and are incredibly difficult to obtain. The confluence of these two truths drive up their value, and makes otherwise insane trades rational.

The thing is, such a trade represented a huge risk as well. Gutting the defensive side of the ball while handing the ball over to a rookie quarterback, even one familiar with Chip Kelly’s system, would have likely resulted in a step back over the next year or two. The loss of draft picks — two 1st round picks and a 3rd round pick in the Mariota trade, and a 2nd round draft pick (2016) and a 4th round pick (2015) in the Bradford deal — would have made it difficult for the team to replenish the talent gap in the immediate future.

And, if Marcus Mariota ended up being who everybody hoped he would be, you could justify that incredible loss of talent. It’s the long game, after all, and if you’re talking about a 10+ year career of greatness, it’s a small price to pay.



But if Mariota wasn’t who we thought he was. It’s the type of move that can set a franchise back for half a decade. It’s as risky of a move as you can make in the NFL, and one that history has shown rarely works out. For every Andrew Luck or Donovan McNabb there are failures as well: from unmitigated disasters like Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell, to injury disappointments like Sam Bradford, to just disappointing like Mark Sanchez. But the city embraced the risk of taking a QB in the top-5 because the reward was high enough.

There was risk. There was unknown.

(Related: why, when NFL teams screw up, do we pin the blame on the NFL teams rather than on the inherent risks in the draft? Why do we go “Man, the Raiders will be the Raiders”, or “Can you believe the Bengals hitched their future to Akili Smith?”, but in the NBA it’s “The Los Angeles Clippers extended period of irrelevance is proof that building through the draft doesn’t work. My column:” ?)

The same can be said about the NBA and superstar players. While no individual NBA position is head and shoulders more important than the others, like a quarterback is in football, getting a top-20 player in the league is a virtual prerequisite to being relevant.

And, since the NBA’s salary cap is geared towards allowing teams to collect multiple top-20 players, whereas NFL teams having two franchise quarterbacks is a rarity, and a rarity that is usually short-lived, one could argue that legitimate franchise-changing players in the NBA are just as difficult to get your hands on.

It’s also worth pointing out that, while the NFL is geared towards more parity and quick turnarounds, the NBA is built around dynasties. Upsets in the NFL playoffs happen, the low sample size and inherent randomness almost guarantee them. Get in the playoffs, and you have a chance. In the NBA that doesn’t happen: great teams stay great, “average” teams are borderline irrelevant, and moving up in the ladder is an incredibly difficult endeavor.

This just increases the need for real difference makers. Without them, you’re not really risking anything, and with them, the reward is tremendous.

Which makes much of the reaction to what the Sixers are doing odd to me. If we’re willing to embrace risk in trading the farm for Mariota, and willing to take a step back in terms of short-term competitiveness for long-term gains, why isn’t the same true for basketball? If the potential reward of an unknown outcome makes it a necessary risk to take in acquiring a franchise quarterback, why do we focus so intently on the unknown aspect of the Sixers plan?

Here’s the cold, hard truth: there is unknown in every rebuild, in every sport, for a team trying to achieve greatness.

It’s nights like last night with the Eagles why I sit here and look at some of the columns about the Michael Carter-Williams trade with absolute disbelief. When did we become so beholden to “known”, even if the known wasn’t good enough? When did we become so terrified of the unknown, so unwilling to accept risk, and, especially, in such denial about the risk present in every climb to the top?

When did we, as a Philadelphia fanbase, become so scared of losing mediocre? Growing up in this town in the 90’s and pre-2008 Phillies, all the town ever talked about was what they would do for a champion. Not NFL East champion, not NFC champion, but NFL champion. We live in a city that regularly derides Andy Reid, the winningest coach in Eagles history, for the game that he didn’t win.

Yet we sit here and worry about the “risk” in trading Michael Carter-Williams? Deride the unknown nature of the Lakers pick? We sit here worried about the “risk” in moving on from the team centered around Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young to one centered around Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and <insert 2015 draft pick here>? All this just because the rewards aren’t immediate?

Why is willingly taking a step back in the NFL just part of the process, but in the NBA it’s a moral affront to everything sacred about sports? The timeframe is the same and the objective is similar, but one is accepted and the other criticized?

Progress is not linear, and it is not without risk. That’s not unique to basketball, or to the NBA draft.


 

Which brings me to my second point: Joel Embiid is a better NBA prospect than Marcus Mariota is an NFL one, and superstars in the NBA have a similar impact as franchise quarterbacks do the NFL.

So why the lack of excitement? And does that tie into fans acceptance of risk in the NFL draft, but not the NBA?

The popularity of college football, and the familiarity most fans have with that, is likely a big reason.

Besides the fact that many more NFL fans watch college football than NBA fans watch college basketball, the NFL draft benefits by being littered with developed, experienced players, whereas  in the NBA draft even the best prospects frequently only dominate some of the time in college. Even NBA studs like Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook flashed brilliance in college more than they dominated.

That doesn’t make the NBA draft riskier, but it does change our perception of risk. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

But our lack of familiarity doesn’t make a move, or a strategy, right or wrong, and the difference between risk and unfamiliar drives the narrative far too much.

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Derek Bodner

Derek Bodner covers the NBA draft for USA Today and DraftExpress.com. He was previously the 76ers Insider for Philadelphia magazine. Contact Information: derek.bodner@draftexpress.com / @DerekBodnerNBA

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  • First off, I was never in the ‘do the deal’ camp. If the eagles were moving up I preferred Winston over Mariota. I don’t think he’d be a superstar even in Chip Kelly’s system in the NFL, so that’s where I’m coming from.

    When the Williams deal was done I popped on 97.5, and most of the negative reactions I heard were from people talking about how he was Rookie of the Year or talking about points per game. Most of the negative reaction seemed to be from the same kind of people who hated Iguodala cause he didn’t score 20 points per game. (I can’t listen to 97.5 online after the end of their mid day show, Misanelli makes me sad). They seemed a bit deluded in thinking that somehow ROY of means star and you can’t trade a star. They didn’t see how Williams (to me) is the epitome of what Hinkie is trying to do. Find an asset, increase its value and move it for a more valuable asset (until you have the super stars you need) going forward.

    I’ve always thought the idea of Philadelphia as a basketball town was grossly over stated in terms of the NBA. Sure it’s a college town with the traditional big 5 and all that, but honestly, on a pro level I’ve always felt the sixers come in fourth, even behind the flyers, when they’re NOT winning. When a team is winning, they tend to go to the front of the line in most cities, people get excited about the winning, but if the team is mediocre like the phillies are now, or the sixers are working towards (as part of the process) then you’re down to your ‘core’ fans who are there through it all, so a lack of conversation about it isn’t surprising. The lack of talk about Embiid isn’t really that surprising either, you don’t play you got forgotten. People didn’t seem to talk a lot of Noel when he wasn’t playing. Heck, when Blake Griffin went down before his rookie year, people kind of ignored him until he was playing big time in his ‘second’ rookie year.

    People are still old school in terms of sports in many ways, many of them, they also have short memories (as you elucidated perfectly in your warriors article). They only see what’s in front of them, and if you’re not trying to win, you’re not doing it right. That’s how people see it.

    And come on, let’s face it. The NFL has a lot of problems, but it’s the primary sports power in the USA. They have figured out a way to be a year round thing that people are always interested in. If Mariota went down at the first rookie camp (On the eagles) conversation about him might vanish if it was ‘torn ACL out for the year’. People are going to forget about guys (for the time being) if they’re not playing.

    I bet if you tried to have a conversation about where Embiid would rank in this years draft, most people would disagree on how high you put Embiid because they’re still thinking about his injury and not how darn good he is. It’s just the absence thing, people forgot about him. Hopefully he comes out in Summer League like Noel did last year (but you know, better since his offensive game out of college is so much better than Noels was) and the buzz will start. (Though woe betide to the reaction if Embiid doesn’t come out and show some domination in summer league. People might freak out)

    • tk76

      I’d think by now you’d have lost any interest in Philly sports talk radio- especially being out of the region where you have to go out of your way to stream it. But anyhow, I think there is some basic coherent logic when casual fans are frustrated by the Sixers:

      Most people have no interest in following a losing team (as proven by the Phillies attendance drops.) Sure, that makes you a casual fans… but most basketball fans in Philly fit this description. You don’t have to “embrace mediocrity” to still be disappointed that the Sixers are terrible at basketball for an indefinite period of time. And while I think 90% of fans are on board with the general notion of a rebuild- you can still be disappointed by moves that by their very nature confirm that the team will be losing a ton of games for several more seasons.

      So when the team drafts multiple players who won’t play for a year (or two) or gives up on a former lottery pick for a player who is a year or two away from even being drafted- that is an open acknowledgement that the team will go on losing for that much longer. You can understand the basic logic behind the moves… and still be disappointed by them because of what that means for a fan going forward in the near team.

      I’ll make the analogy of the great recession. Once it started people knew that pain was inevitable and even necessary to get navigate the crisis. But that understanding does not mean people won’t legitimately grumble as those painful things actually come to fruition. We know that Hinkie’s plan requires patience and a whole lot of losing. But every time a move is made that necessitates further losses and patience people will feel the pain. And I don’t think that is necessarily short sighted.

      • Derek Bodner

        I mean, this was very little about accepting losing and much more about the reaction to risk. From the NBA draft to the MCW trade, it seems peoples perception of risk is somewhat warped.

        • tk76

          My sense is that people are not risk averse. But they are losing averse- even when logic suggests otherwise.

          If the Eagles were coming off consecutive 3 win seasons and they drafted a guy who will need a year of rehab coming off of stress fractures in their back and foot… and that player had only put up decent numbers in a half of a year of college… you would see the identical reaction.

          I think that even with losses, you will see the pendulum rapidly swing in the Sixers favor once there are clearly rising stars on the court. A casual fan is going to try and convince themselves that MCW will be one of those stars. And had they traded MCW for a similar young player then they could have easily pivoted. But when a team is already bad, to say that they will get an unknown promising prospect in a few years is understandably frustrating- even if it is logical.

          • Derek Bodner

            To be honest, I think the fans have been pretty supportive. More supportive than I expected. A lot of this was more aimed towards the media, who I think have a responsibility to look at it at a deeper level than “I dislike losing”, and should at least focus a little bit on “how do I get from point A to point B.”

            • My problem with the media coverage of the sixers (especially nationally) has been how they demonize Sam Hinkie for what he’s doing (though some writers admit that many GM’s privately tell them that they envy Hinkie having the freedom to do what he’s doing). And that somehow Hinkie’s plan requires the NBA to make massive (and ludicrous) changes to how the draft order is determined.

              Yet at the same time the media chronically seems to ignore that
              A. Neither season have the sixers had the worst record, you got teams TRYING not to suck finishing worse than the sixers, how about calling out the gross incompetency of said franchises a bit more – cause incompetency is worse for professional sports than intelligent design (ugh sorry) taking advantage of the available system.
              B. The Knicks run by the great and powerful Phil (who is so far a laughable GM) decided that once their over paid and franchise hamstringing superstar was injured that winning wasn’t something they would try to do and went in to obvious tank mode, and I saw very little comment about how Phil was destroying the NBA.

              Sadly those two guys who are no longer on 97.5 that I mentioned earlier actually did a great job of looking a little deeper – they could understand and one of them even liked – the way Hinkie was going about things, but that doesn’t get you good ratings 🙂

              • Derek Bodner

                I actually like Eytan quite a bit.

                • He’s alright, not a huge harry fan though – really liked jon and sean though – most rational pair of Philly radio hosts I’d seen in a long time.

                  Eytan’s Mariota nonsense really got to me – I can’t take anyone seriously who ever thought it was a good idea to sell the farm to make that move 🙂

        • I think you might be giving people too much credit in understanding the concept of risk reward and asset collection (like the lakers pick). It’s easier to understand wins and losses.

          TK – Primarily I listen to 97.5 from 10-2 east coast time. A while ago it was 2 shows, one of which i liked a lot better than the other. The two guys who hosted the show I liked have ‘moved on’ and now they have one four hour block that isn’t as good, but it’s the only way I have to stay truly informed. Sometimes I have to hit the mute button (today a lot – some eagles fans are either drunk or crazy).

          • tk76

            BTW, I think I was out in your area for an interview at Cottage last month. Checked out the area and home prices were… interesting. Nice to know that 800K can still get you 700 sq feet. The weather is great though.

            • The weather is boring, and sometimes annoying, it’s been 80 by 10 AM all week…the lack of water is making things rough, and yeah, house prices are nuts, even in the housing crisis a few years ago SB was hit much less than anywhere else.

              Cottage is a nice place

  • AaronMcKie4MVP

    derek –
    great reading…. love the comparison to football and specifically embiid to mariota…. Embiid IS a better relative prospect by far… and is worth every bit of risk IMO.

  • tk76

    Like you said, highly rated QB’s tend to be superstars in college even before draft day. So someone like Mariota is like a cross between Embiid and Doug McDermott, so the hype machine is amplified. It is actually fairly rare for a #1 pick to be completely dominant in college. Even less so in the one and done era.

  • pdobie

    Interesting comparison between NFL & NBA. Let’s take it one step further.

    Hinkie identifies potential franchise players in 2013 & 2014 drafts, but both not available for one year. Hinkie takes long-term view on Noel, Embiid, Saric and the MCW trade. Local media accuse him of treading water to keep his job indefinitely, which is the lamest of all the Hinkie criticisms.

    Eagles on the clock in last year’s draft at #22 after GB took Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, who was last first round rated guy for Eagles. Cleveland calls wanting to move up from #27 to get their franchise QB. Chip Kelly knows that his franchise (multiple-SB winning) QB is coming out in 2015. He also knows that Cleve has two first round picks in 2015. But he wants Jordan Matthews there and Howie wants Marcus Smith who they take instead. Cleve would have been thrilled to use future pick to get Johnny football. But Eagles don’t ask for 2015 pick because NFL teams never think ahead like that. Why? If Eagles had Cleveland’s #12 pick, Mariotta is an Eagle today.