2021, Basketball, Sports

Scottie Barnes and Uncertainty

During the 2021 NBA Draft, the Raptors drafted Scottie Barnes 4th overall, their first draft pick this high since Andrea Bargnani in 2006.

Raptors Twitter reacted like it was the end of the world.

Barnes at #4 Was Not a “Reach” or “Off the Board”

The number of Raptors fans on the internet who reacted to this pick as if it was “a reach” or “off the board” seemed to outnumber anyone who had any idea of where Barnes was ranked on various draft boards.

Seven years ago, when the Raptors drafted Bruno Caboclo at 20, that was “off the board.” (It was so off the board, Stephen A. Smith infamously said Bruno was “2 years away from being 2 years away.” He was not wrong.)

The Spurs drafting Canadian Josh Primo (whom the aggregate board had at 28) at 12 was “a reach.”

Drafting a player ranked 5th at 4th is not a reach, it’s literally personal preference.

Barnes is not Bargnani

I saw more than one Raptor fan claiming that drafting Barnes ahead of Jalen Suggs was like drafting Bargnani. This is absurd for numerous reasons, but here are a couple:

  • This Raptors front office was not the Raptors front office in 2006 and it’s absurd to suggest that there are similarities in thinking about player development between these two iterations of the Raptors front office.
  • Bargnani was not entirely the consensus #1 pick in 2006 but he also was also preferred by a plurality of experts. More than one draft expert thought Bargnani could be the next Dirk. So, if you think the Raptors “reached” with Barnes you cannot also believe that they reached with Bargnani. A clear majority of mock drafts did not prefer Aldridge (or any other player.) The situations are just not comparable.
  • Barnes is supposed to be literally the opposite of Bargnani as a player. Bargnani was drafted for his shooting ability at his size, and that’s basically it. There were questions about his work ethic and commitment to basketball but the idea was that his shooting at his height could make him transcendent. Barnes cannot shoot. But he is possibly the best defender in the draft and his work ethic and commitment to basketball are considered about as good as they can be. He also excellent in transition. He is literally the opposite of Bargnani stylistically. People who think there is some comparison to be made between Bargnani and Barnes may not have actually been Raptors fans when Bargnani played for the Raptors. (And/or they do not pay attention to College and they do not actually read mock drafts and only look at the number.)

This whole thing is extra stupid given the haul Ujiri and company got from the Knicks for Bargnani.

Don’t remember that? Hmm…

“You Don’t Draft for Defense in the Top 4”

More than one Raptors fan has claimed that drafting on defensive potential in the Top 5 is a terrible idea. One must assume that a non-zero percentage of these people have also uttered “defense wins championships” at one point in their lives. Anyway…

The Top 4 in this draft were a consensus in part because scouts believe that they are good offensively and can be good defensively to varying degrees.

It’s notable that the player the Raptors skipped over has questions about his defensive effort. Yes, Barnes’ shot is bad. But Suggs apparently doesn’t try all the time on defense. Both things can be fixed, and both things are up to the player to a great degree.

But far more importantly, the NBA has seen multiple recent success stories of star and good NBA players drafted for their defensive ability who have become decent shooters or even great ones. The most obvious example is Kawhi Leonard, who was taken at 15 because he couldn’t shoot. Barnes is not Kawhi and also Kawhi was a better shooter in College than Barnes. But the Raptors have proven recent success with developing the shots of players who didn’t shoot well in college, with OG Anunoby being the most recent and most obvious example.

If Barnes doesn’t develop an NBA shot, he’s still a player in the mold of Draymond Green. Now, I think the Draymond comparisons are just typical draft hype but if Barnes’ potential without a good shot is Draymond Green, that’s a pretty pick.

The point is that drafting a transcendent defensive player in the Top 4 could actually be a great idea.

  • Kawhi is the best player in his draft, with apologies to Jimmy Butler (drafted 30th, by the way).
  • Draymond is the 3rd best player in his draft by VORP, despite being drafted 35th overall. (Many of you would take Beal over him and some might take Middleton now. That would still put Draymond Top 5.)
  • To bring it a little closer to home, OG is currently ranked 9th in his draft by VORP, despite playing substantially fewer minutes than most of the players ranked above him, and despite falling to 23rd due to injury concerns. (The player ranked 2nd by VORP in OG’s draft is Bam Adebayo, drafted in part for his defense at 14.)

The point? Why don’t you draft defensive potential in the Top 4? Don’t you want a top player in the draft? Of course we could make an equally impressive list of players with defensive potential who barely made the NBA. That’s how potential works.

(Note: I should also point out that the 2nd round picks the Raptors make caused me to feel much more nervous about this particular draft process only because they drafted three very similar players. I would prefer variety. I think that is a much more legitimate reason to criticize the Raptors’ draft picks than the idea you shouldn’t draft high for defense.)

The Consensus is Never 100% Correct

Pick an NBA draft and go back and look at the mock drafts. There are nearly always “sure things” who don’t pan out as well as expected and there are always “projects” and players with “high ceilings” who don’t work out.

The consensus is never 100% correct. If it was, teams would never deviate from the consensus (or shouldn’t) but, more importantly, there would never be any stories of non-lottery picks and 2nd round picks turning into stars. It just wouldn’t happen. But it happens all the time.

The Raptors think they know better than the consensus in this instance but only a tiny bit. (A reminder, they only took Barnes 1 spot above where he was ranked, not 3, not 5, not 10, not 15.) They could be wrong about that, and it would be far from the first time. But it’s also possible that the consensus is wrong about Suggs. We won’t know for some time.

Do you have a model that shows when to deviate from the mock draft consensus and when to follow it?

You Can’t Have it Both Ways: Either Trust the Consensus or Trust Your Team

Another player who has been brought up as proof that the Raptors make poor draft decisions is Jakob Poeltl (a pick I supported at the time because of the “Bruno effect.”)

  • Poeltl was drafted 9th overall.
  • Poeltl was the consensus at 9 in 2016, if you don’t remember. (It’s entirely possible that the fans claiming Poeltl was a bad pick in 2016 did not actually follow the NBA draft in 2016. I don’t know why I would think that…)
  • VORP has Poeltl ranked 7th in his draft class currently, though that will likely change over time given the trajectories of the two players below him. (That would drop him down to his draft position!)
  • Yes, he was drafted ahead of Sabonis but so were other players who haven’t had as good careers as Poeltl. (Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss were drafted ahead of Poeltl and Chriss in particular was, according to the consensus, supposed to be a much better prospect than Poeltl. Thon Maker was drafted between Poeltl and Sabonis.)

So the Raptors followed the consensus in 2016 and according to some critics of the Barnes pick that some kind of terrible mistake.

But you can’t have it both ways: the consensus is right or it’s wrong. Was it wrong in 2016 but right in 2021? How do you know that? Because of the Historian’s Fallacy?

(Also, it’s worth remembering that Poeltl’s inclusion in the DeMar-Kawhi trade netted the Raptors Danny Green, the Raptors’ fourth best regular season player the season they won the championship and the sixth best in the playoffs despite one of the worst shooting slumps of his career.)

Barnes May Actually Fit the Raptors

Many of the people complaining about this pick think that Barnes cannot play with the Raptors roster as currently constructed and this means a Siakam trade.

(The trades some of these fans are suggesting are bizarre. As I posted on social media: if you think the Raptors should trade Siakam for Wiggins and Wiseman, have you ever watched Andrew Wiggins play basketball? I do not want any of these people running my basketball team.

 Pascal SiakamAndrew Wiggins
Minutes Played920218606
PER16.915.3
TS%.569.527
Win Shares25.218.9
Win Shares per 48.131.049
BPM1.2-1.8
VORP7.41
)

Despite his size, Barnes has played point guard in College. So, provided Lowry leaves, we’re looking at the following lineups with Barnes and current stars of the team:

  • Van Vleet, Barnes, Anunoby, Siakam, unknown centre
  • or smallball Flynn, Van Vleet, Barnes, Siakam, Anunoby

I understand that neither of these lineups is going to score much but, even with Barnes as a raw rookie, you have to believe that either would be among the very best defensive lineups in the entire league (provided they are not playing Anthony Davis or Rudy Gobert or some other large human).

The point is, just because Barnes is large and can’t shoot does not mean the Raptors have to trade their star player. Stop it.

This Raptors Front Office Should Have Earned Your Trust

First of all, let me just remind you that the Raptors won the NBA championship just over 2 years ago. Prior to the Kawhi trade, the Raptors winning the championship was basically an impossibility. (Oh, you don’t remember that? I wonder why…)

Prior to the 2015-16 season, the Raptors were basically a joke franchise. Their successes consisted of making the second round once and winning their division a few times, all but one of which happened in the previous few seasons to 2015-16. They are now only 1 of 2 expansion teams to ever win a championship.

So fuck off with your takes about this being a franchise-altering mistake. Anyone who thinks that taking the 5th ranked player 4th in an NBA draft is going to harm a former mickey mouse franchise’s reputation and history has not paid much attention to this former mickey mouse franchise.

And this is the front office that turned the mickey mouse franchise into NBA champions.

But, more importantly given our topic today, the Raptors have drafted much better than you think under Ujiri. (I saw a graphic on Twitter that claimed that no other team had drafted as well as the Raptors overall in the last decade but I am not sharing it here because I don’t know the source and I don’t know the metric used. But it might be this one.)

Draft YearPicksWin SharesVORP
20213 (4th, 46th, 47th)00
20202 (29th, 59th)1.1-0.1
20191 (59th)0-0.1
2018000
20171 (23rd)13.83.1
20162 (9th, 27th)4712
20151 (20th)19.27.3
20143 (20th, 37th, 59th)1.5-0.2
2013000

Everyone looks at 2014 and thinks about how much of a disaster it was. And it sort of was, but other teams have had 3 picks 20 and higher and also produced virtually nothing.

The real problem was more no picks in 2013 and no higher picks in 2014. (Though if Ujiri had taken Bruno higher than 20th…that would have been far worse.)

But look at the rest of it: The Raptors don’t have high picks because they have been one of the best regular season teams in the league between Ujiri’s arrival and 2021. All the Raptors’ high picks happened pre Ujiri because, as I said, we were a bit of a mickey mouse franchise. And they’ve gotten a ton of value out of those lower picks.

If you think this is a bad drafting record, I invite you to look at the other NBA franchises’ drafting records over the least decade.

And we haven’t mentioned trades yet, which are very different. Ujiri and co have won far more trades than they’ve lost, including trading

  • Bargnani for 3 players and 3 picks
  • Gay and two other players for Vasquez, Patterson and two other players
  • Salmons (acquired for Gay) for Lou Williams
  • Vasquez for Powell and a pick (OG)
  • Ross and picks for Ibaka
  • Tucker for Sullinger and picks
  • Carroll and picks for Justin Hamilton
  • DeRozan and Poeltl for Leonard, Green and cash
  • Valanciunas, Wright Miles and a Pick for Gasol
  • Powell for Trent Jr. and Hood

Most of those trades are clear wins for the franchise.

Notably, four of them led directly to the Championship (Vasquez, DeRozan, Poeltl, Valanciunas, Wright, Miles and a pick became 5 of the 8 most important players on the championship).

The bad ones (first two unlighted) are outnumbered by good ones over 3-1. And one of them at least was to fix a free agency mistake.

Which brings us to the real time to mistrust this Raptors front office: free agency.

Aside from keeping our free agents at reasonable deals (historically, anyway), this Raptors front office has been pretty bad at free agency. There are mitigating factors (Canada, the Raptors’ history, you always pay more in free agency, etc.) but they have not been good.

But, I don’t know what about their free agency track record means you should mistrust their draft decisions. For example: the Raptors’ failure to find a centre last season does not mean they should not be trusted in this draft. It’s recency bias to assume that the decision to replace Gasol and Ibaka with Baynes and Len means that Barnes over Suggs is a terrible decision.

Yes, this is the first pick this front office has had higher than 9th and only the second pick higher than 20th. But I don’t know what about the above makes you doubt their ability to evaluate talent in the draft or in trades. (Again, free agency is far more of a problem).

Nobody Knows What Will Happen

We cannot predict the future. Even NBA Presidents and GMs cannot predict the future. Even the writers of mock drafts cannot predict the future. Even Raptors Twitter cannot predict the future.

We will not know whether or not the Raptors made a good decision for some time, possibly as soon as this season but more likely it will take a few seasons. (Look at how long it took Deandre Atyon to not look like a bust: 3 seasons.) There are at least four possibilities for this pick:

  1. Barnes and Suggs will both reach their potential and maybe one will look slightly better than the other but it will mostly be a wash
  2. Barnes will have a better career than Suggs
  3. Suggs will have a better career than Barnes
  4. neither Barnes nor Suggs will turn into reliable NBA rotation players.

Nobody knows which of these outcomes will come to pass (or whether it will be another outcome somewhere on the continuum). I don’t know. The Raptors and the Magic don’t know. The mock draft writers don’t know. And Raptors Twitter certainly doesn’t know. The Raptors are betting on 2 or 1 and they think those are more likely than 3 and 4. They could be wrong but they’ve done enough for this former mickey mouse franchise to earn your trust.

If Barnes is a bust, then by all means provide your receipts and doubt any future draft picks this version of the front office makes. But let’s calm down in the interim.

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