The Hasheem Thabeet Problem

February 26, 2011

Hasheem Thabeet – the #2 draft pick in last year’s NBA Draft – was shipped from Memphis to Houston on Thursday in a trade that barely registered on anyone’s radar screen. The Rockets dealt Shane Battier and Ishmael Smith for Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll, and a first-round pick.* Smith does not figure into the Grizzlies’ future plans and Battier’s contract is up in four months, so they essentially traded away the second pick in the 2009 draft, the 29th pick in the 2009 draft, and a first round draft pick in 2013 to rent Battier’s services for a potential playoff push. Wow.

* Carroll was the Grizzlies’ 29th pick in the 2009 draft. He has scored eleven points this ENTIRE SEASON. Not a good draft for Memphis. These are things that happen when Chris Wallace is your GM.

I am not sure what is more stunning: that Memphis gave up on a #2 draft pick that soon or that the trade was completely lost in the shuffle over the weekend. It’s fine to be overshadowed by the Carmelo trade…but it’s pretty sad to see Thabeet being overshadowed by Baron Davis to Cleveland for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams.

When I say stunning, I mean theoretically stunning. On a personal level, I am not at all surprised that Thabeet has been an absolute train wreck. I knew he was going to be a huge bust on February 16, 2009 – a full four months before he was drafted. On that date, I had my longest career ESPN Streak for the Cash streak going. Sitting on eleven consecutive wins, I went with #1 Connecticut at home against #4 Pittsburgh. A couple minutes into the game, this happened:

DeJuan Blair finished with 23 points and 22 rebounds, while Thabeet put up five points, four rebounds, and two blocked shots. And just like that, my streak went up in flames. So did my faith in Thabeet.

What NBA team could watch that video and not realize that Thabeet’s CEILING was a Tanzanian Shawn Bradley? Blair is 6’7″ and 265 pounds and put up 22 rebounds on Thabeet – what made anyone think he could handle the bigger and taller centers in the NBA?

I understand the arguments for drafting him. You can’t teach height. Even if he can’t rebound, he will block and re-direct shots. He has only been playing basketball since he was 15, so he will learn more. And so on. I get the arguments. I just think they are all stupid.

It is true that you can’t teach height. I should know – I am pretty deadly from three-point land, but no NBA team has drafted me yet because I am only 5’10”. If I could grow nine more inches, I would absolutely be playing in the NBA or be the top porn star in the world, depending on where that nine inches went. It is also true that you can’t teach instincts in the NBA. You can try, but you probably won’t be successful. Try to name a skinny, raw young center that actually filled out his frame to become a dominant center after being thrown around for his first couple of years int he league. Seriously…I’ll wait.

Moses Malone maybe? He was a skinny high school center. I’m not even sure he counts though, because he had some of the greatest rebounding instincts of any player in NBA history. Beyond that, the list of “project” centers is littered with a bunch of stiffs. I didn’t think Thabeet would be any different, so I’m not sure why any other team would think Thabeet would be any different?

I swear I don’t mean to sound like Bill Simmons, but Thabeet is a perfect example of the upside phenomenon in the NBA Draft. NBA teams are obsessed with upside, but there is a catch-22. An NBA team can only carry 15 players, 12 of whom are active for each game. Realistically, an NBA team cannot develop a raw player with upside other than by being patient as he gets torched by better players. The NBA Developmental League is not a feasible solution. It could be, but there is a stigma with sending draft picks to the league. Look no further than Thabeet’s two-week journey to the Dakota Wizards last season for proof of that. The media KILLED him.

All American sports leagues are obsessed with upside, but none more so than the NBA. Just watch an NBA Draft – as Simmons observes in his annual NBA Draft Diary, they speak in code words: wingspan, great feet, long arms, incredibly athletic, etc. NBA teams love players with upside. They look to what players can be, rather than what they already are.

Unlike the NBA, other sports leagues actually have the ability to develop players. MLB teams are well aware that every single draft pick is a developmental project, hence the five levels of minor league baseball. Rarely do you see any top pick make an impact in the majors in less than three years, so busts don’t really hurt teams. Similarly, the NHL draws players from leagues all over the world. Other than a few standout prospects each year, a team does not really know what they are getting, so busts really don’t sting these teams either. In the NFL, a team can carry 53 players plus another eight on a practice squad. If a player isn’t ready, you let him learn and watch from the bench for a couple of years while playing on special teams.

Most NBA teams play nine or ten man rotations. That really only leaves two spots for a developmental prospect. But you really can’t even use those for an extended amount of time because of the stigma attached to them. Analysts expect top draft picks to contribute right away. When they can’t, they are forced into action when they aren’t ready. They don’t learn anything but getting destroyed constantly and their confidence is shot.

To top that off, if a team is actually a contender, they cannot even afford to develop a project. Memphis drafted Thabeet knowing that he was an extremely raw center they would have to develop his skills to make him an NBA center. The team turned out to be surprisingly good this year but are a piece away from contending. Project over. Now it is the struggling Houston Rockets’ turn to try to develop him into an NBA center.

All of this leads to a unique phenomenon in the NBA in which you can actually pick out the busts before they happen, and teams draft them anyway. In the last five years, I saw the biggest three busts from the top three picks well ahead of time. In addition to Thabeet, I had a long debate with a Portland fan at my work on why they should draft Durant over Greg Oden in 2007. Sadly, I could not find a video of Oden running, but any 19-year old that runs like a 38-year old probably shouldn’t go first overall. Portland drafted him anyway because they did not want to be the team that let a franchise center slip away. Four years later, Oden has played 103 career games, Durant will win his second scoring title this year, and “Oden over Durant” has already joined “Bowie over Jordan” in Portland lore.

Adam Morrison with the #3 pick in the 2006 Draft was also a bust waiting to happen. This one is just a matter of common sense. Watch this video for all the proof you need:

How many unathletic white guys who wore a t-shirt in college and cried on the floor after a game were worthy of a #3 overall pick in the NBA Draft? Zero. Adam Morrison was no exception.

Before that, there was Darko Milicic in 2003 and Michael Olowokandi in 1998. Both Detroit and the Clippers took raw prospects in an attempt to hit a home run. Both failed miserably. Their failures are only exasperated by the players drafted after them: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade for Milicic, and Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce for Olowokandi.

As these failures keep adding up, you’d think that NBA teams would forget it out. But I doubt it. Taking a big swing to try to hit a home run is always more exciting than a base hit.

In the meantime, I will get to brag that I saw all these busts coming before they happen. Now I even have a blog to commit these predictions to writing.