With a 1.7 percent chance at receiving the number one overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers walked away from the lottery all smiles yesterday, having displaced eight teams for the top selection. Immediately following the announcement, ESPN’s Heather Cox brought a microphone over to the least excited top-2 prospects I have seen in some time: Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. In all likelihood, each will be sentenced to a circle of basketball hell come the NBA Draft next month. I’ve misplaced my copy of Dolan’s Inferno, but we’ll say Milwaukee and Cleveland are eighth and ninth respectively.
The Cavaliers’ front office now has a difficult decision to make: Whose soul do they snare? Both players are anticipated to be franchise changing athletes. Wiggins, a scoring small forward with length and speed; Embiid, a dominant 7-footer with a concerning history of injury (in this case, stress fractures in his back). Wait—this is sounding all too familiar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A struggling team walks into the NBA Draft Lottery and orders the number one pick. The commissioner asks, “Would you like a side of hemming and hawing for the next month?” I would go on, but I don’t think the Trail Blazers could be the punchline to a crueler joke than history.
The fact is, there are remarkable similarities between the decision Portland faced in 2007 and the one Cleveland faces now. Kevin Durant was a scoring machine poised to take the league by storm, while Greg Oden was a somewhat fragile basketball behemoth. Oden had higher upside in theory, but came with higher risk. The Trail Blazers gambled (if you can call it that) on a sure thing, as either player was sure to pan out, just as Wiggins and Embiid are supposed to. The Trail Blazers’ well-documented misfortune following that draft still affects drafting today, and we are about to see it as the Cavaliers do some hemming and hawing of their own.
Oden’s legacy casts a longer shadow than his body ever could. Before Oden’s storied downfall, there is no way a team looked at two players of Wiggins’ and Embiid’s magnitude and gave the decision a second thought. It was the big man 10 times out of 10. Even with mild injury risk, the prospect of a truly dominant player with a truly dominant frame could not be passed up. The 2007 debacle changed the culture of the NBA Draft. A decade ago, the Cavaliers might have kept their intentions quiet for media hype to build, but Embiid’s face would be stamped on season ticket packages before June.
Now the decision is much more difficult. Cleveland will legitimately weigh the risks of becoming their own punchline (again). Through no fault of his own, Embiid can no longer be considered a sure thing and the Cleveland Cavaliers organization needs one after drafting could-have-been D-leaguer Anthony Bennett with the number one pick in last year’s draft. So although Embiid has an arguably higher ceiling, Wiggins appears to have a higher floor. Risk management must enter into the Cleveland’s decision next month.
At this point in time, it looks like a coin toss between the two. The Cavaliers could draft Wiggins so that they do not have to start Alonzo Gee at small forward when Luol Deng walks, or they could draft Embiid to replace Spencer Hawes and provide flexibility with Anderson Varejao’s $10M team option. The usual factors at play are dead even: Player talent is comparable, positional need is comparable, but health of the prospects could be the tipping point. Cleveland bears the burden of Portland’s scars. Of course, they could just draft Doug McDermott in true Cavaliers’ fashion and save themselves the headache.