As the Milwaukee Bucks gear up for the 2012 NBA Draft, I am taking a moment to look back before they move forward. SB Nation's Tom Ziller recently looked back on NBA Draft picks from 2007-2010, and that inspired me to do the same. It's an exercise often overlooked and easily cast aside in favor of knee-jerk reactions to the most recent picks, but thoughtful evaluations of prior drafts provide a greater perspective on how well the GM and scouting staff have performed relative to their peers.
The difficult part of distributing re-grades is that we know so much more about the players at this point. With the benefit of hindsight, everyone is smart enough to make the right pick now. There is always a strong urge to blurt out: "my team should have taken the best player on the board (as I see it now)!" If I'm reading the situation correctly, most discontented fans would prefer to have better players on their team. I agree. Unfortunately, that approach doesn't get anyone anywhere worth going.
Look no further than the jumpoff in Ziller's re-draft series for confirmation: the Portland Trail Blazers faced a decision between Kevin Durant and Greg Oden with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Plenty of grey area existed at the time, and solid arguments emerged for both players, but if we apply our knowledge of how things turned out Portland looks like the dumbest franchise on the planet for choosing Oden.
I think it's important to strike a balance between acknowledging hindsight and holding the front office accountable for the pick of the best player on their board in this type of analysis, so let's take a look back at the what the Bucks did in the 2007 NBA Draft.
The 2007 NBA Draft: Yi's Milkshake Brings All The Girls To The Yard
Yi Jianlian (No. 6), Ramon Sessions (No. 56)
Ah yes, the Yi draft. The Bucks assumed plenty of risk with their first round selection -- the potential reward of tapping the Chinese market undoubtedly played a factor in their decision -- and the lack of quality game film really hurt them on this one. Yi and his overbearing handlers wisely avoided head-to-head workouts prior to the draft, so everyone was forced to try and make sense of his potential armed with little more than a ballyhooed performance against a chair in private workouts and some game film against questionable competition.
Most NBA-caliber players can look like world beaters when shooting and posting up in unguarded practice situations, so that left scouts and GMs with hazy game film from the Chinese Basketball Association and some brief appearances at the Asian Championships in Qatar and World Championships in Japan, along with a potential contract issue stemming from overbearing handlers and widespread rumors about his age (at one point the CBA submitted a roster to FIBA listing Yi's birth year as 1984, but they later "corrected" the alleged error and "verified" 1987 as his true birth year).
Enter GM Larry Harris and his desperate Bucks franchise. With the No. 6 pick they decided to explore the optimistic route on all the issues noted above. The workout -- which the Bucks weren't allowed to attend -- and a few FIBA tournaments proved Yi had upside. Maybe he really was 19 years old, like he claimed, and not 22. He would be willing to play in Milwaukee, regardless of his informal demands to land in a market with a large Chinese population. As Harris said after the draft: "We had hours of film, we had hours of discussion, and when it all came down to it, what was the best player for us at No. 6, he was the best player."
Hey, at least they were conclusively right about one of those three things! After his pre-draft kerfuffle about landing in a big market, Yi joined on with the Bucks despite his agent's earlier demand and he started his NBA career in earnest. Unfortunately, it hasn't been much of an NBA career. I'm not going to mount a statistical case to prove it either. The fact that Yi is fairly useless on an NBA court is obvious. Let's not discuss it any further.
Optimism in the face of risk isn't always a bad thing. The potential payoff of hosting an NBA star with direct ties to China in Milwaukee made everyone's eyes swirl for at least a moment, but most people don't spend their entire household budget on lottery tickets. However, Larry Harris decided to play Mega Millions with the No. 6 pick. Predictably, the half-baked gamble failed.
Should I really have the license to call the Yi pick a half-baked gamble? Read this snippet from a Draft Express article posted on July 2, 2007 (four days after the NBA Draft) and tell me they didn't know exactly what Yi was all about at the time of the selection:
He's not a player you see taking over games, he suffers against physical competition, he's not always focused, and his skill repertoire is probably overrated at this point. Indeed, in his first years in the NBA you won't likely see much more than mid-range jumpers out of him on the offensive end. Besides, there are serious concerns about Yi's defensive ability and competitiveness, which ultimately might jeopardize even his success as a contributor on an NBA team, although chances are he will likely be able to iron those issues to become a useful player.
(via Know Your Meme)
And I don't really mean that in the ironic way the phrase is used now (so don't hate the player, hate the meme). They honestly nailed it with that Yi scouting report. As I've been saying for quite a while: if you want to read about the NBA Draft, always start at Draft Express.
What were the alternatives? Back in the day, Gery Wolfel suggested the Bucks had narrowed their draft day options and decided on either drafting one of two players (rumored to be Yi and Mike Conley Jr.) or trading the pick. Horford was highly rated on their board (gone at No. 3), Conley was taken at No. 4, and that left Yi after Seattle selected Jeff Green with the fifth pick.
The Bucks deserved to be railed on for having Yi above the trade option on their board. As Ziller points out in his article, the Yi conundrum is exactly why Boston traded the No. 5 pick to the Supersonics in the first place. As for other players on the board, they didn't like Brandon Wright, Corey Brewer hasn't been anything other than a role player and Joakim Noah didn't fit next to Bogut and made it clear before the draft he didn't want to come to Milwaukee.
But let's entertain a world in which the Bucks actually did put the trade option above drafting Yi. It's a pretty sad world, honestly. Why? The Celtics made their big move to avoid Yi by trading the No. 5 pick (Jeff Green) for....Ray Allen! The Bucks may or may not have cock-blocked themselves on the trade market thanks to a lingering mistake (the original Ray Allen trade), so their potential failures reach into alternate realities and touch upon the worst of their past mistakes. Good times.
In any case, some toxic combination of bad scouting, overoptimistic appraisals and a lack of enticing alternative prospects produced one of the true busts of the 2007 NBA Draft. It's no wonder the Bucks ended up back at the draft lottery in Secaucus, New Jersey after the next season ended.
Think if they had done a better job scouting Yi (or perhaps had consulted the staff at Draft Express) and instead they turned the pick into a veteran asset like the Celtics did. That's what good franchises do. The Bucks didn't do that. I've connected enough of the dots to make you sad or angry, right? On a hopeful note, John Hammond partially corrected Harris' error when he traded away Yi and Bobby Simmons for Richard Jefferson before the 2008 Draft. The former all-star was reshaping his career after ankle surgery, and his defense was already in decline, but the move upgraded the roster by shipping out two net-negative players from an awful team in exchange for a former all-star. As for the concurrent Joe Alexander fiasco, we will get to that in the next post of the series.
In true Larry Harris form, he hit on the far-less-meaningful pick in the second round. By selecting Nevada point guard Ramon Sessions with the No. 56 pick, Larry got his late pick exactly right. Sessions is not someone who alters an NBA game, and he really isn't cut out to be an NBA starter due to serious limitations on his shooting range (which popped up again during the 2012 NBA Playoffs), but he's still a talented slasher and distributor capable of playing a complimentary role on a winning team. That's all you can reasonably ask for from a second-round pick.
He gave Milwaukee some good moments, too. On April 15, 2008, he recorded 20 points, 24 assists and eight rebounds in a goofy 151-135 loss against the Chicago Bulls -- it marked an NBA season high in assists for a single game and a new Bucks franchise record. At the time, Frank discussed several possible nicknames, including Razor, Ramonster, Noodles and Memo, but none of them really caught on. The No. 56 pick went on to set his career-high in points with a 44-point performance against the Detroit Pistons on February 9, 2009 and he dazzled in his first triple-double on April 9 of '09 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ramon's value clearly exceeded his pithy second-round salary, and he signed a four-year, $16 million offer sheet with the Minnesota Timberwolves in September of 2009 to leave the Bucks for greener pastures. Harris executed the role player pick and whiffed on his chance to chance the direction of the franchise via trade or with a savvier selection. Welcome to Bucks basketball in the new millenium.
Steve von Horn's 2007 NBA Draft Grade, Milwaukee Bucks: C-Minus-Minus
Being stuck with Yi is precisely why the Boston Celtics traded out of the lottery, sending their No. 5 pick to Seattle for Ray Allen.
Sessions was a second round win, but didn't actually win anything for Milwaukee as he bounced at his first opportunity as a free agent.
SUPER IMPORTANT FINAL NOTE
While researching some of the forgotten details from the days and weeks leading up to the 2007 NBA Draft, I stumbled across an awesome article (entitled: "Yi's Milkshake Brings All the Girls to the Yard") by Frank back before Brew Hoop existed. He dissected a strange Chinese milk commercial that featured Yi, and I loved every word of what he had to say. For the sake of posterity, I've reproduced the video link and Frank's analysis for everyone to enjoy:
------- Everything included below is Frank Madden's original analysis from 2007 --------
Here's a Yi commercial for a Chinese milk producer that might be the most confusing thing I've ever seen (Deadspin, RealGM). That said, it also suggests Yi not only loves milk, but views it as a means of luring attractive girls into love triangles. Who said the Dairy State wasn't a great location for Yi? He's going to have a field day in Wisconsin. The UWM sorority girls won't know what hit them.
I suppose I could find a translation of what's going on, but I can't imagine it would make any sense to me, so here's my interpretation:
- The beginning is actually the end. Non-linear narrative! This is going to be like a Tarrantino movie.
- Yi is late for a basketball game, which makes the hot manager girl nervous.
- Where is Yi? There he is! Speeding on his bike, the 7'1" 240 lb Yi absolutely annihilates a cute girl with a violin who's lost and standing in his way on the sidewalk.
- She's OK! Her elbow hurts and her precious violin is wrecked, but Yi immediately wins her over by offering a small juicebox of milk. Problem solved.
- Yi gives her a lift to the game, where the manager chick is waiting and not pleased. But she knows the violin girl! Sensing the potential for a hot threesome, Yi immediately runs away.
- Cut to the game. Yi dunks. Victory is assured.
- Meanwhile, violin girl is off practicing on an invisible violin, since Yi totally wrecked hers. Yi shows up, with more milk. And a replacement violin. Smooth.
- Violin girl is eating it up and all over Yi. But then manager chick shows up and sees her making a move on Yi. The only thing that can allay her sorrow is her juicebox full of milk, which she promptly offers Yi to win him back.
- Manager chick needs a new angle--so she's joining a band. Yi shows up at practice, with milk. NICE. And now violin chick is texting both of them. Meet her on the bridge? OK...kinky.
- Violin girl is leaving. Alas, time's remorseless arrow! But she's got milk for both of them! And she seems to be enjoying her strawberry milk. And you know what? We all learned something today.
- Close with shot of Yi slo-mo running after violin girl and manager chick. For obvious reasons.