What if all of the self-induced suffering—the losing, the lousy basketball, the humiliation—wasn't worth it? What if you tanked the NBA season, only to find there was no glitzy reward awaiting you in June? What if, after all the breathless hype, the 2014 draft didn't produce a single transcendent player?
"We're looking at a draft that still may not have a single transcendent player," Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst, said by phone Sunday afternoon.
Forget transcendence. What if there were no "game changers" in the draft?
"There aren't any game changers in the draft," Danny Ainge told Boston Celtics season-ticket holders last week.
What if the celebrated class of 2014—Wiggins and Parker, Embiid and Exum—was, in fact, simply not that great?
"I think it's a poor one, myself," Jerry West told ESPN radio in February.
Next question: What if the hype simply outpaced reality for this year's NBA draft?
"The mistake that was made in this year's draft," said an Eastern Conference executive, "was everything was predetermined before the players had an opportunity to necessarily prove it."
Well, then. With the NCAA tournament winding down, and draft preparations ramping up, a reassessment is probably in order.
Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid will almost certainly be the top three choices in the June 26 draft. That much, nearly everyone agrees on.
Whether any of them can save a franchise is very much in question.
That may be surprising to anyone who got caught up in the season-long frenzy about this draft class.
From the moment Wiggins and Parker burst into the public consciousness, as high school phenoms, the 2014 class has been projected as an all-timer. The emergence of Embiid, Dante Exum and Julius Randle heightened the frenzy.
The belief in 2014 draft-class exceptionalism fueled another breathless narrative: NBA tanking. The thought being: If Wiggins and Parker were truly great, they were surely worth sacrificing a season for. Conversely, if so many teams were allegedly tanking, these prospects must truly be spectacular.
Alan Greenspan might call this irrational exuberance.
In truth, few teams are truly tanking for this draft. And that's probably a good thing, since it's quite possible there will be no certified saviors awaiting them in June.
Hedging Their Bets
"There's definitely a chance that some of them will fail, too," said Jonathan Givony, the president of DraftExpress. "I mean, they're not can't-miss guys."
"I do think it's a better class than we've seen the last few years," Givony added. "I think this looks like a solid draft, to put it in the most boring way possible."
Solid! Boring! Not can't-miss!
So, not exactly the life-altering draft bonanza some have been trumpeting since last summer.
Opinions, of course, are varied, and there are still scouts and NBA executives who are projecting greatness—or better—for Wiggins, Parker, et al. But the skepticism about this draft class has clearly grown over these last few months, as scouts have had a chance to pick over every prospect's perceived weaknesses.
Fraschilla sounded like a lone voice in the wilderness last fall, when he tweeted that the 2014 class was "very deep," but was lacking a "transcendent player like LeBron/Durant." Some important voices have since joined the contrarian camp, including Ainge, West and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who in December told ZagsBlog.com, "I think there's a lot of good players, talented players, guys who will be really good NBA players. But I'm not sure there's transcendent players there."
Wiggins was once the unchallenged darling of the class, a sleek, 6-8 forward with athleticism, grace and a 7-foot wingspan. He began his freshman season at Kansas as the consensus No. 1 pick.
As the months went by, Wiggins lost that spot to Parker, the Duke swingman, and then to Embiid, his Kansas teammate. For a time in early December, Kentucky's Randle even appeared atop some mock drafts, demonstrating the fickle nature of this entire exercise.
The lack of a clear-cut No. 1 seems to undermine the very definition of "can't-miss." If any of these players was a sure thing, wouldn't we have a consensus choice by now?
Givony said he sees All-Star potential in Wiggins, Parker and Embiid, but he adds, "There's definitely no guarantees that those guys are going to be (All-Stars)."
College Season Reveals Flaws
A full college season exposed some frailties that perhaps were not as evident last fall.
Scouts worry about Wiggins' ball-handling, his jump shot and an occasional lack of aggressiveness.
"His skill level really just isn't there at this point, offensively," said Givony. He added, "A lot of guys who are average ball-handlers coming into the NBA stay average ball-handlers their whole life."
The 7-foot Embiid shot up draft boards on the strength of his nifty footwork, his defensive tenacity and, of course, his size. But a late-season back injury has raised some concerns, and some scouts view him as untested.
"He's not a perfect prospect by any means," Givony said. "You have to look at the fact he's a 7-footer playing in the land of midgets. It's not going to be that easy for him to do what he's doing against Dwight Howard. His best games all came against 6-7, 6-8 non-athletes."
Parker has long stood out as the most polished and most complete offensive player, with an offensive arsenal that has drawn comparisons to Carmelo Anthony. But Parker is considered a serious defensive liability, with limited lateral quickness, and scouts have raised concerns over his weight and endurance.
"He's been this elite prospect since he was 15 years old," Givony said. "Now he's 19 and still a bit on the heavy side. It makes you kind of wonder a little bit."
Exum, a tantalizing 6-6 point guard from Australia, brings another sort of intrigue. Most team executives have never seen him play live, adding another layer of uncertainty to the lottery.
Comparing 2014 to Other Big Drafts
This draft will at least be deep, with worthy prospects throughout the top 10, including Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Indiana's Noah Vonleh and Arizona's Aaron Gordon, among others.
But historic? That seems unlikely. It would take a lot to match 2003 (James, Wade, Bosh, Anthony) or 1996 (Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson), or 1984 (Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton).
"I've been saying all year long that the experts on ESPN and so forth are blowing this draft out of proportion," Ainge said in a live video chat. He did say there would be "a lot of nice players" in the draft. "But they're not going to come in and turn our team around in one year or two years."
Not everyone is so dour about this class' prospects. Another Eastern Conference general manager said this draft could still produce multiple stars.
"I think Jabari Parker will be," the GM said. "I think Embiid is a freak. That guy changes the game…. I think Wiggins has been overscouted. I think he's a special talent."
It's worth noting that the 2003 draft class was not pre-ticketed for the Hall of Fame, either. But everyone knew James was a can't-miss star—and the clear-cut No. 1—long before draft day arrived. James, Wade, Anthony and Bosh all improved their play and their stock over the course of the pre-draft season.
That 2003 class came of age in a pre-Twitter era, without the amplifying effects of social media and the blogosphere. James aside, there was actually less pre-draft bluster about the 2003 class than there is about the 2014 group.
"It became a draft with franchise-changing players based on the play of those players in that season," said one Eastern Conference executive.
We now have the inverse: a draft class that was exalted before it had proven anything and might never meet expectations. Flaws and skill gaps have been exposed, to the point where, in the words of that same executive, there's now "more skepticism than there is certainty."
By this time in 2003, he said, there was much more certainty about James, Anthony and Wade. By this time in 2007, there was little doubt that Durant would be a special player.
Forget 2003. Can the 2014 class even match 2008? (Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka.) Or 2009? (Blake Griffin, James Harden, Stephen Curry)? Or 2010? (John Wall, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins)?
Can Wiggins and Parker, Embiid and Exum even live up to their own November headlines? And can any of them justify an NBA team's decision to swap victories for ping-pong balls?
"If you're just talking about getting a nice shot in the arm, then no, they won't be disappointed," said the Eastern Conference executive. But if you sold your owner on the promise of a franchise-changing talent, "then you're probably nervous now."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @Howard Beck.
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