Ah, one of the premier not-actually-a-game sports nights of the year is upon us once again. Let's forget for the moment that we're careening towards a lockout. Let's abstain from griping about this year's draft class being shallow, or lacking potential franchise guys, or however else you want to say "this draft sucks." Because that's an awfully narrow view to take. How can you boil down the experience of the NBA draft into one raw criterion of "superstar talent"? It shortchanges everything else that's great about the night. True, the next LeBron is not lurking among those on the board, and we're unlikely to see a Steve Nash-ian rise from 15th pick to one-of-the-best-ever-at-his-position status. True, our projected Number 1 has logged around 300 total minutes of NCAA hoops, and a few Euro lottery guys are staking their positions based on so little film that scraps of grainy footage are being bandied about the internet like definitive proof of Big Foot's existence. But for all that, I'm finding reasons to be as giddy as ever about tonight.
This draft, ladies and gents, still has "tremendous upside." Five reasons why:
1. Draft day fashions. Do you ever watch pre-awards red carpet shows or catch any footage from a big fashion show and think "who in the hell would actually where this crap in public?" Of course you do. Maybe I'm just not forward-thinking or savvy enough to get it, but some of the ensembles people trot out as supposedly hip or stylish at these events leave my mind thoroughly boggled. Oft-used adjectives like "daring" and "exquisite" seem to me like thinly-veiled substitutes for what the majority of us are really thinking: "What the ^#%$ is that?"
However, as silly as these things can be, no red-carpet awards show or runway walk in Milan or Paris comes anywhere close to the jaw-droppingly perplexing fashion hilarity of the NBA Draft. One of the best parts of the night is always, always seeing these kids trying to out-flamboyant each other. Oh, Jimmer will probably wear some conservative suit, but I'd guess we get at least 5-8 truly eye-bending ensembles to gaze upon tonight. As a matter of fact, there aren't any big awards shows on right now, are there? Why can't we fly in Melissa Rivers or someone similar to do a draft red carpet show on ESPN2? I'd watch that bad boy. Better yet, get sports-savvy fashionistas to do this; that way they can ask smart questions about where players are expecting to go in the draft and why they went with the plum-and-azure Armani suit with a lemon-yellow bow tie. (I'm looking at you, Hannah Storm and Michelle Beadle.)
Note: if this lockout persists, NBA TV needs to get some high-fashion minds and run a once-a-week retrospective fashion analysis show for every draft we of which have sufficient footage. They can fill air time and entertain us in the process. Can you imagine the commentators' barely-concealed disgust by the time they hit like 1987? High comedy, I say.
2. Greeting Stern. In general, I'm a huge David Stern fan. 99% of his decisions have been brilliant moves to advance the popularity and appeal of the league, and I love him for it. But let's be honest: the guy looks and talks like an assistant principal, which always makes his interactions with the draftees downright hysterical. Nothing can beat huge athletes, drunk on the exuberance of having their names called, encountering Stern at the podium. He's so clearly trying to maintain the dignity befitting his role in the proceedings, but rarely are his young compatriots obliging in this endeavor. Every year, we see everything from tame handshakes to the hand-clasp-half-hug to the full-on smushy embrace. The commish's facial expressions during the more, ah ... enthusiastic greetings from these young men are never short of comedic gold.
By the way, I'm still waiting for someone to absolutely shatter the ceiling on these moments. Every year, I secretly hold out hope for an event that never seems to happen. When is one of these kids going to go all out? I want to see someone attempt an Olympic-gymnast, 10.0 level of difficulty handshake with Stern:
The convoluted, 12-step shake-clasp-slap-backslap-shake-it-around-re-clasp-top-bump-bottom-bump-pound-explode-re-re-clasp-hug. If Stern botches the whole thing, it will be funny as hell. If he pulls it off, he'll be the smoothest, pimpin'-est old dude on the planet. Either way, we could expect 4,372 replays on Sports Center. Can someone make this happen, please?
3. Trades. The rumors that swirl every year about potential draft movement are always intriguing. Draft-day chess matches are just awesome that way. This year is a special treat because we're in a tectonic-shift phase in terms of team relevance and player movement, thus creating an inordinate amount of potential for huge trade moves. We know the lottery teams need help, but a lot of prominent teams are looking to make substantial moves as well. Gasol, Nash, Howard, Bynum, Parker; there are a bunch of big names who might find themselves in new zip codes in the name of rebuilding, restructuring, or salvaging various franchises. Orlando needs to get something for D-12. The Lakers need to think about their direction as an organization with Kobe's decline becoming ever-more precipitous. San Antonio is looking to do something to keep themselves in the hunt next year. Phoenix is looking to get back in the mix, and Nash is the logical big chip to get them there. And of course, Minnesota is involved in myriad rumors and discussions. Which brings us to ...
4. David Kahn. 'Nuff said. (If for some reason the Cavs elect to take Derrick Williams at #1, making yet another point guard the best player at 2, expect cataclysmic reverberations of funny.)
5. Why I'm actually hyper-pumped for tonight (specific to this draft): Roll-player UPSIDE. While we don't have the sex appeal of sure-fire greatness to bask in this evening, what we do have is a ton of guys who could be good-to-great contributors in an 8-man rotation. And we love those guys, right? If you're a fan, it's not just about the Kobe's and LBJ's of the world. Few things are more gratifying to watch than the glue guy who knows and fulfills his role on a consistent basis. We enjoy rooting for the everyman who makes good, and you can't win a title without a few of these guys on your bench. It's why Bulls fans love Kyle Lowry so friggin' much; why Pacers fans cheer whenever Tyler Hansbrough hits the hardwood. Because of the lack of overt superstar guys on the board this year, I'm more interested to see which players evolve into those types as their careers unfold. Truth be told, I generally enjoy superb bench guys on teams better than just-average starters. That's counter-intuitive to an extent, I suppose, but it's how I think.
And even better: the occasional flashes where completely unexpected player X takes over a game assassin style. For example, if you follow the NBA, I don't have to explain what "The Dragic Game" means. We can't say how Goran's ultimate arc will unfold, but we'll always have that night. We're still reeling from Barea fever, and rightly so. And no-one is likely to forget "Taj Gibson Posterization Night" at the United Center anytime soon, either. The random hurricane of dominance from a totally off-vector location is one of the best things in sports. When a guy taps into that magic, however briefly, it's special to behold.
In many ways, it's almost a better fan experience than watching superstars. We anticipate D-12 or Paul Pierce having a huge night, because it's expected of them. When Blake Griffin does something monstrous, well, he's Blake Effing Griffin. When the little guys shine, it's like watching a random pitcher throw a no-hitter. You don't really realize it's happening until you stop and mentally play it back. Bench dude X comes in because someone is in foul trouble or just needs a rest. After a while, you notice he's played more minutes than his usual allotment. "Isn't it time to bring back the Big Dawg? Why is that guy still in the floor? Wait ... has that guy missed a shot yet? And didn't he have a key steal earlier? Oh yeah, and there was that pretty outlet pass he threw 4 minutes ago! Wow, he's really feeling it. We've got the makings of a special night here!" This draft is chalked full of dudes who might never crack a starting rotation but are capable of delivering a handful of those games over their careers, and being solid and important contributors even when they're not lighting it up. (My personal bet: Kemba Walker will win like 4 Sixth Man of The Year awards, and have at least 5-8 "Holy $&%!!!" playoff games on his resume when it's all said and done.)
You could argue that even the top guys, because of the 2011 draft weakness, are more likely to go ceiling than bust, and that might be a good thing. Personally, I've enjoyed the draft debates this year specifically because we haven't had one or three hype vehicles dominating the conversation.
So let's take tonight on its own merits. Between the comedy of outfits and Stern interactions, the trade intrigue, and the "who's going where and why and to contribute how much?", it should be sufficient. The Next Big Thing can wait.