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The Wizards' rebuild depends on the 2011 NBA Draft

Another day, another blowout Wizards loss, another piece on the Wizards' long-term rebuilding efforts.  This time, it's from Carla Peay of the recently revitalized Washington Times, and it really doesn't say anything that hasn't been said already.  The Wizards are not playing to win now, they're playing to win in the future, collect assets, maintain flexibility, yada yada yada.  We get it.  

For most of us fans, we're beyond the stage where the model needs to be explained or justified to us.  I don't want to speak for everyone, but I think most of us are on board with the idea of building around young talent and staying patient.  We've seen 25+ years of quick fixes, and we've also seen a different team in our backyard succeed using the same model.  The rebuilding is painful, but that doesn't mean the plan isn't sound.  The angst is more over whether the model is being executed correctly, not whether the model itself is the way to go.

Basically, we've spent enough pixels of surface analysis already.  What has to happen for this to actually work?  Here's where I'll throw out something that I've been thinking about for a while.  To me, the most important step, by far, is the 2011 NBA Draft, specifically that first pick.  I'd go as far to say that the entire rebuild hinges on it.

NBA fans like myself sometimes get carried away with the "Assets! Assets! Assets!" step of it all.  When Sam Presti turns six months of Kurt Thomas into a truckload of draft picks, we swoon.  Hell, when Ernie Grunfeld turns five months of Kirk Hinrich into Kevin Seraphin, Jordan Crawford and maybe Kenneth Faried (just a possible example), some swoon too.  That's nifty.

It also is very, very secondary to the real task at hand.  Think about it this way: what really separates Sam Presti from David Kahn?  Sure, one different is Presti got lucky to draft Kevin Durant, whereas Kahn inherited Kevin Love.  But think about some of the "creative" trades both guys have made thus far:

  • Presti traded Ray Allen and the 32nd pick for the fifth pick, Delonte West and Wally Sczcerbiak; Kahn traded Mike Miller and Randy Foye for the fifth pick, Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila and Oleksiy Pecherov.
  • Presti traded for Kurt Thomas and two picks, then traded him to San Antonio for a third first-round pick; Kahn traded two second-round picks for Michael Beasley.
  • Presti traded a first-round pick for Thabo Sefolosha; Kahn traded Corey Brewer for Anthony Randolph.
Is there that much of a difference between the two with those trades?  In all three instances, the GM traded something that had little value to his teams for assets that had more value.  As much as people laud Presti for turning nothing into something so often, Kahn has done that too in trades.

So then what's the difference between the two men?  Simple: one drafts way better than the other.  Presti fulfills the most fundamental duty of a "build with young talent" rebuild, while Kahn has no clue.  

Specifically, there was one moment in the Thunder rebuild where Presti had to make an extremely difficult decision.  Durant's rookie year in Seattle was very much like John Wall's rookie year here.  Both teams were carrying a rag tag group of players, shouldering the load all by themselves.  Neither set the league on fire like expected, but that's because they were adjusting to the league themselves.  About the only difference is that Durant had to also carry the relocation stuff on his shoulders.  Otherwise, though, as much as we are tired of this season, so to were fans of the 2007/08 Sonics. 

That made the 2008 Draft crucial.  Presti needed to find Durant a running mate, and got unlucky to fall to fourth in the lottery.  The 2008 Draft was deep, but there was also a sense that the talent pool from 3-11 was pretty even.  It would have been very easy for Presti to draft the wrong guy that didn't fit the Thunder's system.  In the end, Presti surprised pretty much everybody and drafted Russell Westbrook.  Westbrook, people forget, was the third-best player on his college team and was ranked behind guys like Brook Lopez, Love and even Eric Gordon or Jerryd Bayless. This was no slam dunk pick.  In fact, many felt it was a reach.  

But Presti knew Westbrook could play, and picked him anyway.  Three years later, Westbrook is one of the best players in the league.  That is a product of Presti seeing his talent, the Thunder's ability to develop him well and the way he fits in with Durant and the team's style of play.  

Contrast that to Kahn, who blew his huge opportunity in 2009 when he had four first-round picks in a draft that ended up being deeper than everyone expected and walked away with Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington.  Ellington has made the most impact of the three players, which is a major indictment on Kahn.  He screwed up when he had the chance to get a high draft pick.  That, more than anything, is why Minnesota is terrible.

Fast forward to 2011.  The Wizards are going to have a high draft pick and a major opportunity to continue the rebuild.  When we talk about rebuilding around young talent, what we're really saying is rebuilding around Wall and high draft pick X.  This is "high draft pick X."  The Wizards have to get the right guy and develop him.  They just have to.

Much like 2008, the Wizards won't have an obvious guy to get, even if they get the No. 1 pick again.  Each of the possibilities have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Which ones succeed and which ones fail will come down to fit, development and a hell of a lot of scouting.  The right pick will provide Wall with a running mate for the next 10 years.  The wrong pick will be a huge missed opportunity.

Luck no longer matters.  The Wizards have to make the right decision.  Ernie Grunfeld, you're on the clock.