A few months ago I found out I was going to be a father to a beautiful little girl — well, as long as she gets her mother’s genes that is. It was a wake up call that forced me to realize it was time to start investing my money in more than Arizona sports memorabilia, Funko Pop Batman figurines and movie tickets. Investing as an adult apparently means turning to the stock market and taking calculated risks to reach your goals.
I was afraid it was going to be a completely new experience for me. One I wasn’t prepared for despite having grown up with an accountant father who knew finances as well as Andy Dufresne but without the prison sentence. That was until I realized it happened to be a lot like a process I had a front row seat to over the last five years, the NBA Draft. Working for the Phoenix Suns I got the privilege of being around the process.
The key to any good investment is mitigating risk. It’s all about making sure you know the challenges that stand between you and success. It’s about understanding the little things that can sink a company. Everyone can see the product, but the good investors can tell who the people are behind the product and where they’re going to take things in the future.
The biggest fallacy about the NBA Draft is that it doesn’t follow a similar pattern and that everything is purely about a player’s basketball skills. It’s not. It too is all about mitigating risk. Every team and their scouts have seen the same tape, been to the same games and have realized the same truths about what a guy can do on the court since a prospect’s high school days. The key is understanding who they are as people, how they will be as teammates and if they’re equipped to go from eating Ramen in a college apartment to eating filet mignon in the penthouse.
Building relationships with college, AAU and high school coaches as well as with family, friends and former teammates and leveraging them to gain the best insight into a player’s psyche is one of the keys to any front office worth it’s salt. It’s not a science by any means. These front offices are more Maude Lebowski than Doc Brown. It’s an art form and like most art, in order to be good at it, it requires equal parts skill and luck. As well all know too well in Phoenix — looking at you Earl Clark — but not as well as Sacramento, there are just as many busts as there are success stories in the draft and for most guys it’s about a 50-50 chance. You can force that luck in slightly in your favor though.
The old saying goes he has million dollar talent and a 10 cent head. The draft process is all about weeding out those 10 cent heads and finding the guys who understand themselves. There is always a constant battle weighing talent vs. character and if you don’t get it right you wind up with Kendall Marshall when you could have had Draymond Green 23 slots later.
For the Suns this year it’s slightly more complicated. When you’re at the top of the draft the stakes are higher and so is the pressure to get the pick right. We’re friends here so let’s be frank and cut the bull, this is a defining moment for the future of Phoenix’s first franchise. What happens in particular with the No. 4 pick and in this draft overall will reveal the course of this team for the next five years. General manager Ryan McDonough and his staff have to weigh whether they’re looking for long-term success or short-term security. Both have their justifications, hell, just go ask Suns fans on Twitter and you’ll see it’s a constant battle.
This isn’t exactly Sophie’s Choice though. With the Golden State Warriors and rest of the elite in the West looking like they have the next half decade on lockdown, trying to compete now seems futile. A quick fix isn’t something within reach. Phoenix is a city that has been sold its fair share of false hope over its almost 50 years as a part of the NBA. Rebuild is a word that has been more off-putting than sitting on your metal seatbelt in the July sun. Reloading has been the franchise style for almost its entire existence and it’s led to a whopping 0 titles.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results most of us Suns fans could easily join Jared Leto’s Joker in having “damaged” tattooed square on our foreheads. It’s time to change that approach.
If the belief is that Devin Booker is one of the next great faces of the franchise, then commit to it. Build around his timetable. Gear your entire plan to competing for a title in his prime. Which also just happens to align with when, in theory, the Warriors should be on the decline. That is, unless they’re like the NBA’s equivalent of the Walking Dead – the Spurs – and will live forever. Don’t acquire stopgap measures in a misguided attempt to try and make the playoffs right away. Build with youth. Let them grow with a young coach in Earl Watson who has the tools but also needs time to reach his prime as the main guy guiding the ship. Trust in their abilities.
Which brings us back to the draft. When you’re investing if you’re already rich, you’re much more calculated. You don’t take big risks with high percentages of your assets because you have too much to lose. On the other hand, if you’re say, a 30-something marketing professional and blogger expecting his first kid, you take more chances based on solid research. The former is the Boston Celtics at No. 3 and the latter is the Suns sitting at No. 4.
It makes complete sense for the Celtics to pass on a Dragan Bender in hopes of taking a guy who is more “NBA ready”. Boston is in the East and their championship window has been cracked open now. They have a chance to compete as they proved this season. They need to build with short-term security in mind. For the Suns? Well, it’s a different story. Coming off the second worst season in franchise history, no bona fide star on the roster and no clear path to true contention, you have to take that calculated risk and swing for the fences.
The question is, will the Suns front office have the freedom to take a guy with the highest ceiling and potential to be a true star in the league even if it takes slightly longer to reach that potential than other prospects?
You can debate who that guy is. For me it’s Dragan Bender, for others it’s Marquese Chriss. Whoever you believe in most, they’re guys who have huge potential at power forward, a position that you have no one under contract at. Sure, it probably will take three or four years for them to tap into that potential while other picks could contribute right now, but if you’re building around Booker and for a title in the future, you have the time. The way to land superstars in the NBA is either get the No. 1 pick or take chances in the draft on high character guys with potential they’ve yet to reach. So why not swing for the fences?
The NBA Draft is an investment and if Commissioner Adam Silver comes to the podium and announces with the 4th pick the Suns take a guy like a Buddy Heidl or a Chris Dunn you’ll understand that the team is investing for the short-term and will likely reload in free agency. If the Commish announces a guy with a high ceiling but a long runway you know the Suns are investing for the long-term and looking to build a championship contender around youth that’ll take time to develop.
Both are forms of investing that work with varying results. One thing is for sure though, like most investors, whoever the Suns get at No. 4 they’ll say he’s “the guy that we always wanted”.