The Mavericks selection of Dereck Lively is when drafting a center makes sense

When I saw the Mavericks were picking Derrick Lively with the 12th pick of the 2023 NBA Draft on Thursday night, I was worried. I’m always a little uneasy about a traditional center in the lottery, at least one who doesn’t profile as having star potential. Cam Whitmore, top five on my board, was still available, though it wasn’t known yet by the general public how detrimental his medicals and interview process were (I’ll still live with my ranking, as many draft experts were unaware of how red flagged his knees and attitude were). I certainly subscribe to the modern NBA attitude that creators and wings are the most valuable pieces. The thing is, every draft is different, every team is different, and the limitations of each particular draft demand a different set of goals. You cannot steal value where it isn’t or create prospects out of thin air to fit your philosophy or the draft order. All you can really do is draw blood from the stone that is the draft’s inexact science.

This draft had a clear top nine-or-so made up of the most valuable archetypes — creators and two-way wings or forwards. It was a strong top of the draft, but after that things got tricky. Picks in the teens were made up of smaller scoring guards, creators more flawed than those in the top tier, and pure shooters. This is where the Mavericks’ justification of Lively comes into play. For a guard-heavy team already developing Jaden Hardy and Josh Green, Lively becomes more attractive within the same tier as a Jalen Hood-Schifino or Keyonte George.

The idea you should always take “best player available” comes up, and it might have seemed the Mavericks drafted too much for need. I think it’s usually a strong guideline to follow at the top of the draft, where differences between players are more exponentially meaningful, but I don’t think the concept should be a hard-and-fast rule if you sincerely believe none of the players within a tier have star upside. You could call fit and need a tiebreaker. The draft is ultimately more tier-based than most realize. Teams know the draft is so inexact and difficult that the idea of “ranking” prospects within tiers is basically moot, and that there are talent drop-offs throughout the draft. Where the Mavericks were picking, it’s hard to feel they made a reach (and for what it’s worth, a consensus Big Board on had Lively at…12th.)

Think of it like signing free agents; you’re likely to sign the player you need if given the choice, even if another is slightly better. The argument you will hear is “draft for talent, sign need,” but that probably overrates prospects past the top tiers. Yes, every draft there are stars taken late, but many are like Desmond Bane; projected to be a role player. That role projection is key — it’s why a player like Jamie Jaquez went before Whitmore — NBA teams want safety when they have a good idea the upside bets aren’t worth it. For all we know (or don’t know), Lively himself has upside, even if I doubt it.

I agreed with the idea that the draft fell-off after the top nine, then picked up toward the back of the first round, where upside swings and role players made up a huge tier of twenty or so players. These somewhat consensus tiers are also why the draft wasn’t near as trade heavy as expected. Many teams wanted to trade into the top ten, but we can assume the price was too high since none did. Many teams in the Mavericks’ range wanted to trade back, but besides their move back two spots, there were none, presumably because the offers were low. It’s obvious, then, that the Mavericks couldn’t trade back to get much value. My initial reaction to seeing the pick was “why didn’t they continue to trade back?” but it was unrealistic.

This is probably easier for me to justify since I, too, agreed that none of the creators in the 10-20 range were meaningfully superior. I liked Cason Wallace and Kobe Bufkin more than Lively, but see them as good players more so than star bets. I can be mad at the Mavericks for not taking Brice Sensabaugh or Leonard Miller, two guys I liked more than consensus, but I’ll recognize that almost every NBA team felt differently and it’s easier for armchair evaluators to make those bets without any real risk (same case for Whitmore). Jordan Hawkins and Gradey Dick are shooters, and I don’t feel like they have any more inherent value than centers. I just felt George, Hood-Schifino and Jett Howard were worse prospects. By trading back within the same tier to get the 24th pick, the Mavericks were able to take a wing in Olivier Maxence-Prosper that could have garnered consideration even higher. For some, that 20-45 tier started earlier. Many called the entire draft “flat” after the top, and its reputation as a generational draft was mostly dependent on the stars, and particularly softened in its middle.

Draft’s rarely have more than twenty players who stick even as low-end rotation players, and if the Mavericks get two but Cam Whitmore turns out to be Anthony Edwards, it will be hard to complain. If we’d spent all our draft capital looking for that Anthony Edwards, we’d have missed out on cost-controlled defenders in an era of new limits on spending. You don’t have to love Derrick Lively to love what the Mavericks did, because in the end you’re probably just as wrong as the teams are, and though it’s true that it’s a “a wing’s league”, they found a way to go get one of those too.

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