They didn’t know it at the time, but on June 27, 2013, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a mistake that, if you choose to believe this random schmuck on the internet, completely altered the course of NBA history. Maybe.
The 2013 NBA draft was always gonna be a shitshow. The projected number one pick, Nerlens Noel, was a prospect with clear and significant flaws, even before he tore an ACL late in his lone season at Kentucky. Three other players were reportedly considered worthy contenders for that first spot; Indiana guard Victor Oladipo, Georgetown forward Otto Porter, and Maryland center Alex Len, and even back then, they weren’t exactly seen as world-beaters.
We all know how things actually played out. The Cavs saw that magnificent pu-pu platter, shrugged, and filled in the “None of the Above” bubbles on their little scantron, thus netting them an asthmatic tweener from UNLV. Four of the eventual top 15 picks, including the class’s RoTY winner, are either already out of the league or close to it, and barely a third of those top 15 guys are likely to still be with their original teams in the 2017-18 season.
In the words of Jeremy Clarkson, “That’s not gone well.”
Bennett himself ended up as an unessential extra in the Kevin Love deal a year later, and is currently riding the pine for a team overseas. The Cavs wasted yet another draft pick, and the world carried on, entirely unsurprised.
A few years later, LeBron finally brought a Larry O’Brien home, but the Cavs’ horizons seem oddly bleak. I despise the defeatist attitudes that people seem to be taking on in the face of this Warriors super-super-team, but with the Cavs, it actually makes some sense. The front office just exploded, LeBron might be getting cold feet again, and the California SuperFriends lurk over their shoulder, spawning tanks and crushing dreams.
There are rumors of splashy moves and polarizing trades among NBA corridors, and it’s likely that the Cavaliers will trot out a retooled roster on opening day next season, but even so, the situation isn’t optimal.
Cleveland did finally get their championship, so most fans are content with the way things played out, and honestly, that’s perfectly understandable. I, however, am a nitpicky little shit who, as an a self-proclaimed elite basement GM, can’t just let things lie. I look back at that Bennett pick and I see one of the biggest missed opportunities in NBA history.
What if the Cavs had picked Nerlens Noel instead?
Normally, you can counter these what-ifs with the good ole “Hindsight is 20/20” schtick, but it doesn’t really apply here. NOBODY had the Cavs taking Bennett in pre-draft mocks. Most thought Nerlens Noel or Otto Porter would end up wearing the wine and gold, and the UNLV product wasn’t even part of the discussion. Bennett was seen as a solid lottery prospect, but he wasn’t seen as top five material.
If they had instead taken Noel, we might be in the midst of a LeBron-led dynasty right now.
Now, I’m no StatGod (if you listen to No Backboard, you already know this), but I did crunch a few numbers here. It’s almost sad to see how things could have come together.
See, Anthony Bennett was awful as a rookie. Absolutely awful. When I say that he was a throw-in for the Love deal, I’m not exaggerating. If memory serves, the Timberwolves tried to push Bennett onto Philly, but Philly insisted that they’d rather have Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Seriously. The Cavs probably wouldn’t have been as eager to include a still-unknown quantity like Noel in the deal, and by all accounts, the trade would’ve likely gone through even without him. The Wolves had next to no leverage in this deal, and my oddly-large group of Minnesota friends (yeah, I dunno either) all confirm that they almost certainly would not have gotten Noel in the trade.
The next season, a healthy Noel probably makes Tristan Thompson somewhat replaceable, and with an extension looming, they probably move Thompson at the deadline. Before you guys attack me, no, I don’t (necessarily) think that Noel is better than Thompson. I just think that Noel on a rookie deal is more appealing than Thompson on a near-max.
Does a core of LeBron, Kyrie, Love, and Noel still win a ring in 2016? I’m not really sure. I guess that they do, but I could be convinced either way. At the very least, it’s debatable.
Noel’s length and defensive versatility significantly surpass Thompson’s, even though those are two of Thompson’s strengths. Noel wouldn’t have as big an impact on the boards, but I think his overall offensive footprint would have been larger. The Kentucky product is a better lob target, and he’s a naturally-gifted passer. Thompson’s failure to distribute as the Warriors crashed on the PnR cost them dearly in this year’s Finals. Plus, Nerlens has a semi-consistent 15-footer and he better meshes with Love on both ends. Does that result in a bigger overall impact than Thompson? Again, I’m not sure. Either way, it’s a fun discussion to have.
All the while, the Cavs see the cap explosion in the distance, and work to maintain cap flexibility. Kyrie, Love, and LeBron all still get paid, but the surrounding pieces are shifted around to make sure that everyone is ready for when shit starts to go down. And in the summer before the 2016-17 season, said shit goes down.
The cap boom would’ve left the Cavs, sans Thompson contract, with a perfectly-attainable max contract slot. Yep, you probably see where this is going.
The Cavs could have possibly had Durant. Or, if Durant still chose Golden State, they could’ve used that space to either sign a lesser free agent or deal for Melo and maybe even another piece. Thanks to LeBron’s (relatively) low cap hold prior to his August signing and Noel’s rookie deal, the possibilities are endless.
Let Noel walk the next year, and maybe the Banana Boat finally assembles. If the Cavs indeed got Durant, I don’t know if they’d lose more than 30 games in the next three years. A pairing of Durant and LeBron, even without Love, Kyrie, and Noel surrounding them, is a match made in heaven. It’d be tough to think of a better fit, at least on paper. I like to think that I know basketball pretty well, but I honestly don’t know how I’d even begin to approach scheming against that duo on either end. They’d be terrifying, and not in a sp00ky way.
With Durant in Cleveland, maybe Golden State holds pat. Maybe they chase Paul George. Maybe they shrug and sign Horford. Who knows. We’re getting too deep at this point to really be able to assess the state of the league.
What does happen, however, is a certain GOAT discussion shifts quite a bit. Jordan v. LeBron gets a lot more interesting. Again, it’s all hypothetical, but LeBron with a full hand of rings makes it pretty damn close, even if I probably still stand firmly behind the Jumpman’s lines.
A whiff on a draft pick can be excused away all you like, but some judicious application of the butterfly effect can make any mistake seem crucial. This particular time, however, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all. Anthony Bennett, you changed the league, man. Congrats.
Kwame and the Kandi Man send you their regards.