What does "Best Player Available" really mean to the Milwaukee Bucks?

The Bucks should take the best player available at pick #10.

We can all agree with that, right? In reality, how could you not agree? What Bucks fan would want anything less than the best player available for the tenth pick? Nobody, that's who. But does anyone actually want to have a discussion about what the heck "best player available" actually means? We all recite this notion of "best player available" as a true draft strategy and nod our heads in agreement, because it's hard to disagree with something so simple and straightforward. The important question conveniently sidestepped by the basic "best player available" credo is the question of true player value within the context of an actual NBA team. Earlier this week I listened to a Bill Simmons podcast with ESPN Draft Guru Chad Ford, who said something about the draft (specifically in reference to the success of Serge Ibaka) that got me thinking...

There are so many factors that go into this, and you know this Bill. In the draft every year, there are one or two guys that can make it on virtually any team, and you know we've seen this with Blake Griffin. If Blake Griffin can make it on the Clippers, he can make it on any team. It doesn't really matter the coach, doesn't matter the front office, doesn't matter the supporting cast behind him; he's so good he makes it everywhere. For almost every other player in the draft, it's a very situational sort of thing. You've got to have the right coach, the right system, the right opportunities, the right development, make the right choices, and you can be a really good NBA player. If none of that happens, you can have a lot of talent and flame out in the league. (emphasis added)

Here is my takeaway from the quote excerpted above: "best player available" is a concept highly dependent on the circumstances for anything outside of the top five picks. Average level skills are more fungible than above average skills, and above average skills are more fungible than elite skills...that is just the way the world works. Elite talents define the context of how a team operates, and mediocre talents merely try to thrive within that context. Each non-elite player on an NBA roster still has individual talents and skills, and each has individual value in his own right, but when players with duplicative talents (especially at the same position) are collected on the same team, you eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. No matter how many great rebounders a team has, there is still only one ball to rebound. No matter how many great isolation players a team has, there is still only one ball. There are only 48 minutes in a regulation game, teams are allowed only five players on the court at time, and teams are only allowed to dress twelve players for each game. Eventually, depth can compromise the value of individual players. In other words, when overly similar talents are accumulated on a roster, at some point the individual talents and skills that each player possess can no longer be maximized in actual games.

I still see the general logic to the best available player approach, which typically manifests in a tiered draft chart to ensure need is not unnecessarily prioritized at the expense of potential, but there are limits to how far the tier approach can go in the modern NBA. First off, the traditional positions have been blurred by the expanding skill sets of players. In the tier system, players like Yi Jianlian, Anthony Randolph, and Andrea Bargnani can earn credit for having great size according to the traditional positions, but none of these players actually has in-game responsibilities reflective of those traditional roles. To me, it feels more useful to think of player roles as a set of on court assignments rather than a positional label like PF or C. This way you get a more realistic feel for what a player can provide relative to their skills and build, rather than trying to impose traditional positional labels that inject an unnecessary set of biases and assumptions into the equation. Sometimes it feels like players fluctuate between tiers based on the position assigned to them, regardless of how well their style or skill actually fits the traditional assignments of those roles, and this has become especially true in the era of combo guards, swingmen, and tweeners. The lines have been blurred so much that the tiers approach can only segment players into rough groupings rather than precise tranches. This is where my idea of finding a niche for a prospect to maximize their talent and skills comes into play. For non-elite players, the value of a prospect only truly becomes value when the right opportunity is planned, presented, and executed. 

When it comes to opportunity, I see three types that generally exist for first round prospects: (1) For picks 1-9, the opportunity is generally immediate and flexible, because you are typically dealing with losing, rebuilding teams that have 3-5 year plans to become a competitive playoff team and can incorporate a high level talent as a centerpiece to their team, (2) for picks 10-20, the opportunity is often poorly defined and prone to fluctuation, because you are dealing with a team in NBA Hell (a state of perpetual late lottery picks or low playoff seed) that is adding a mediocre talent to a team already filled with average players--and is thus likely trying to win enough games to squeak into the playoffs and avoid the lottery, and (3) for picks 21-30 the opportunity is rigid and scarce, because you are dealing with a highly competitive team operating in a 3-5 year championship window that is adding a middling prospect to a team with above-average players at most positions and a set of successful role players. This is a generalization to be sure, but I think we can all agree the current iteration of the Bucks belongs in that nebulous second group for the sake of this discussion. The opportunity for any player they add in the draft will be almost completely up in the air, and the best chance for such a player to make an immediate and meaningful impact will be highly dependent on how the player's skills fill team deficiencies and how the player's weaknesses are mitigated by team strengths.

With these contextual factors in mind, what exactly does "best player available" really mean to the Milwaukee Bucks

I want to parse the phrase into two separate segments to effectively answer the question at hand: (1) to me, the "best player" portion implicates the team environment the prospect will enter into upon being drafted, so I will break down the strengths and weaknesses of the current Bucks roster, and (2) the "available" portion refers to the prospects likely still on the board when the Bucks pick at #10, so I will review the projected NBA skills of these prospects with the help of Draft Express. Part One is presented here, and Part Two will be published in the near future. Here we go:

(1) The "Best Player" Element: What Type Of Skills Would Be The Best Fit For The Bucks?

We all know the basic story of the 2010-11 Milwaukee Bucks...bad offense, good defense, too many injuries, not enough wins. To get a better understanding of what specific basketball skills the Bucks could most benefit from adding to their roster, I am going to break down three important skills at each position group and list where I think current Bucks players generally rank relative to the rest of the league. Take notice that I used the term "basketball skills." I don't consider things like speed, height, wingspan, athleticism and youth to be basketball skills; they are merely attributes that may or may not contribute to effective play. Also, this will not be a scientific ranking system based on hard stats (as I am typically inclined to do), and instead it will be a ranking system informed by my amateur scouting eye and cross-checked with general advanced stats to ensure some quality control. Feel free to disagree with my rankings in the comments, but if you aren't saying I'm off by at least two tiers I probably won't think much more about my decision.

Bucks Point Guards

[Jennings, Dooling]


Positional Shooting/Scoring Eff.

Distributing/Creating

Perimeter Defense

Well Above Average

Dooling

 

Slightly Above Average

Jennings

 

Average

Jennings

 

Slightly Below Average

Dooling

 

Well Below Average

Jennings, Dooling

 




Bucks Swingmen (SG/SF)

[Salmons, Delfino, Maggette]



Positional Shooting/Scoring Eff.

Isolation Scoring/Creating

Perimeter Defense

Well Above Average

Maggette

 

Slightly Above Average

Maggette

Salmons, Delfino

 

Average

Salmons

 

Slightly Below Average

Salmons, Delfino

Delfino

 

Well Below Average

Maggette

 




Bucks Tweeners (SF/PF)

[Ilyasova, LRMAM, Brockman]



Positional Shooting/Scoring Eff.

Rebounding

Perimeter/Interior Defense

Well Above Average

LRMAM

 

Slightly Above Average

Ilyasova

Ilyasova

Ilyasova

 

Average

Brockman, LRMAM

Brockman

 

Slightly Below Average

Brockman

 

Well Below Average

LRMAM

 



Bucks Bigs (PF/C)

[Bogut, Gooden, Sanders]



Positional Shooting/Scoring Eff.

Rebounding

Interior Defense

Well Above Average

Bogut

Bogut

 

Slightly Above Average

Gooden

 

Average

Bogut, Gooden

Sanders

 

Slightly Below Average

Sanders

Sanders

Gooden

 

Well Below Average

 

 

 

This is not meant to be an earth-shattering revelation on the Bucks roster; we all know the problems lie with the offense, not the the defense. In my estimation the Bucks have several above-average defenders in every positional group, but they also have several below-average offensive players in each group as well. Identifying team strengths and deficiencies among the positional groups is actually meant to serve as a foundation for acknowledging and discussing the issue of diminishing marginal utility for any players added to the roster. As the 4th best defense in the NBA, how much better can the Bucks expect to get at preventing points by adding a young prospect? Based on the numbers from last season, if the Bucks allowed two less points over every 100 possessions they would nearly be the best defense in the NBA. Meanwhile, if they allowed an additional 3 points over every 100 possessions, they would still be a top 10 NBA defense. Chasing defensive perfection seems like a fool's errand for a team that failed because of the worst offense in the NBA. Surrounding Bogut with another slightly above average defender unfamiliar with the defensive system might not even benefit the defense anyways, considering the other players on the roster are already good defenders familiar with the system. With no true lock-down perimeter defenders and no true interior defensive game-changers on the board at #10, taking a defensive-minded prospect would mean unnecessarily adding a duplicative talent to the roster. The same type of argument likewise applies to rebounding (to a lesser extent for offensive rebounding), because the Bucks finished as a top 10 defensive rebounding team, so consider my feelings on adding a professional rebounder in lock step with my feelings on adding a professional defender.

As far as I am concerned, the "best player" for the Bucks is clearly an offensive-minded player. Not to beat a dead horse (or imply that defense should be optional), but the Bucks ranked dead last in offensive efficiency, eFG%, TS%, FG% at the rim...okay, it's probably easier to just say the Bucks ranked dead last in nearly every relevant offensive category. Looking at the positional breakdown, the Bucks could use anything from a slick-shooting PG, to a swingman with either isolation skills or refined 3-point range, to a big with a post game or legitimate 3-point range. The Bucks can even afford to sacrifice a little bit of defensive efficiency and rebounding prowess as a team if the prospect is especially weak in these areas, but the Bucks cannot afford to bring back the same roster of largely below-average offensive players and expect a material increase in efficiency. The opportunity to add an offensive talent will be available to the Bucks at #10, and (barring any other serious roster moves) if they truly want to maximize the value of the prospect's talents in the pursuit of the playoffs, they simply need to take a slick-shooting PG, a swingman with either isolation skills or refined 3-point range, or a big with a post game or legitimate 3-point range.

While I am skeptical that the Bucks can upgrade their already top 10 defense and rebounding with the talent available at pick #10, I am extremely confident the Bucks can upgrade the worst offense in the NBA with a player available at #10. This makes sense now, right? It is far more likely that guys at #10 are average or slightly above average offensive talents than it is that they are well above average NBA defenders or rebounders. Even assuming, arguendo, that a player at #10 becomes a well-above average defender or rebounder, how much difference will it make on a top-4 defense when that player is likely replacing an already slightly above average defender or rebounder? How could the talents of both players be maximized on the Bucks? Welcome to the trap of diminishing marginal utility in the NBA.

Now that you understand where I am coming from, make sure to check out Part Two for a breakdown of which prospects seemingly fit for the Bucks, and which ones seemingly do not.

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