This time of year, members of NBA front offices have their focus split. Half the league is gearing is up for the playoffs, while the other half is beginning offseason preparations. On both sides, a shared deadline is looming: the 2020 NBA Draft is about two-and-a-half months away.
For playoff teams, this means keeping an eye on how your team is playing while gearing up for the Draft Combine, pre-draft workouts, meetings upon meetings and thousands of phone calls and text messages. For the non-playoff teams, they don’t have the postseason as a distraction. It’s all about the draft.
“It’s wild. The trade deadline is crazy because it’s all happening at once. But the months leading up to the draft are like months of complete chaos,” one Western Conference executive, whose team is headed for the playoffs, told NBC Sports. “Teams are talking to you about trades. Agents want daily updates on what you think about their clients. You’re trying to find out who is declaring and who likes who. And in the middle of it, you have people hitting you up about free agency and trades. It’s non-stop.”
This year, everything is taking on a different feel though.
The NBA recently released guidelines to teams on the pre-draft process in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams are limited to four hours of virtual meetings with each prospect. They also can’t meet for more than two hours with a prospect in any given week. And during none of that time can teams ask a player to perform any sort of workout.
“It’s different for sure,” an Eastern Conference executive from a playoff-bound team told NBC Sports. “Fortunately, we push ourselves to have most of our in-person scouting wrapped before the NCAA postseason. We’re at the conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament, but we don’t want our year-long process swayed by a couple of games. It’s just another piece of information for our book.”
It’s gathering that information that has teams worried. You can watch tape and analyze stats, but not being able to see prospects in-person in their own facility has some teams concerned.
“We look for a few things when a guy shows up to see us. First, and most important of all, is the medical. If there are medical red flags, it can take a guy right off our draft board. Now, we have to trust what we get from the agent, and there’s different motivation there,” a lottery team from the Eastern Conference’s general manager said. “Then we, of course, want to see the guy workout. People laugh about going against a chair and shooting in an empty, but it’s our chance to see the guy. And you talk all throughout. We had one guy come in and bomb our shooting drill. He demanded we let him go again. That’s the competitive spirit we want to see.”
The in-person meetings are also a chance to get to know players better. Talent and skill matter, but personality and fit in a team’s culture matter a lot too.
“It’s our chance to see how they are as a person,” a playoff-bound Western Conference execute said. “We’ll get some of that over these video calls, but it’s not the same. We also like to find out who is around the kid. Does he show up with an entourage of 10 people? Who are those people? We had a player come in once with like 15 guys and girls. At first, we were like ‘What the hell?’ But as we talked, we realized it was his family and they were just excited to support him. That’s a great support system.
“We’ve also had guys show up with all these hanger-on’s and you talk to them too. Some of them are fine. Some are people you don’t want around. It’s all part of the process.”
Not being able to meet in person as a staff is also a bit daunting too.
“Normally by now the NCAA Tournament is done. Overseas leagues are wrapping up. Most of our people are at our facility. We’re used to meeting virtually, but it’s now when we start coming together. And some of our older scouts hate the technology stuff. They do their best work in the room. We’re having to drag them into this a little bit more. And thank God for our IT guys. They’re the real heroes of our organization right now!” said an Eastern Conference executive.
One lottery-bound Western Conference executive said this year’s strange process is different, but he’s excited to see it play out.
“No one will like this, but we waste a lot of time during this time of year,” the executive said. “We go to the PIT (Portsmouth Invitational Tournament) every year, but we haven’t gotten a guy from there in years. I’m also not really upset the NCAA tournament got canceled. Every year our owner falls in love with a couple of kids who have a big tournament. Every year we need to talk him down. I’m glad not to have that hassle this year.”
It’s not just owners hitting up general managers.
“Our coach is watching film on guys. He never has time for that,” the GM of an Eastern Conference lottery GM said. “Even when your team is bad, your coach isn’t looking at draft stuff until the season ends. If you make the playoffs, which we usually do, coach doesn’t look until after you get knocked out. Now, he’s hitting us up multiple times a day about guys he likes. It’s good and it’s bad. We like knowing who he thinks fits. But the draft is a 5-to-10-year decision. Our coach today probably isn’t our coach in five years. We can’t just pick the guys he likes.”
It’s not just NBA decision-makers who have mixed feelings on this new process. NBA agents are also struggling a bit.
“It’s really dependent on the player. If he had an awesome season, you might want it to stop there. Leave that as the last impression,” one agent who has as many as 10 prospects in this year’s draft told NBC Sports. “On the other hand, I’ve got some guys who were hoping to use the combine and the workouts to boost their stock. There are guys who don’t jump out at you on tape, but in-person, they’re dynamic. That’s missing now.”
Compounding matters is that this is considered to be a very flat and talent-deficient draft.
“This draft class just isn’t great,” said an executive from one playoff-bound Eastern Conference team. “There are some players for sure, but it’s not anything like last year. Last year’s group might have as many as 10 All-Stars. It was that good. This year? Maybe a couple of All-Stars? That makes it tough. And not getting all the information you can makes it even harder.”
Another area of particular concern is with international players.
“You feel good because your book on those guys is probably really thick already. Some of them we’ve been watching since they were young kids. Flip side is, it’s going to be a real pain in the butt to meet with these guys. It’ll be months for some of them since we’ve seen them in person. And virtual meetings with a guy who doesn’t speak great English and has to work through a translator? Good luck!” said the lottery-bound Western Conference executive.
The best teams and executives will learn from this year’s upside-down process.
“This draft will tell us who really does their work and when they do it,” the playoff-bound Western Conference executive told NBC Sports. “Our guys are out there as soon as kids are back on campus and as soon as the overseas teams are back together. We know people who don’t really start until the preseason college tournaments. We see them every year in Hawaii (at the Maui Invitational) and they tell us they’re really just getting started. That’s too late. My guys know if they aren’t working, they won’t be working for us. Look, it’s a bad draft, alright? There are going to be major mistakes made because teams just won’t have enough info. Having a late pick isn’t the worst thing this year.”