Was James Wiseman a Mistake?
The Warriors returned to the draft lottery last season, did they screw up?
Last season everything fell apart for the Warriors. The core of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Klay Thompson fell apart. Both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson were injured in the 2019 NBA Finals and missed all of the 2020 season. Kevin Durant departed for Brooklyn, so even had he been healthy, the point was moot. The Warriors inexplicably decided to offer Klay Thompson a huge deal and let former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala out the door. And to cap it all off, Curry went down injured a mere four games into the season.
The bright side is the Warriors ended up with the second pick in the draft. And this was potentially the optimal draft pick. Anthony Edwards was the top prospect, but while his points per game were high in college, his production was not. He kept that up as a rookie, with some bright spots — a story for another day. The Warriors ended up with James Wiseman. Wiseman was a good prospect and looked good in his brief three-game college career. Again, a story for another day. Here’s the bad news.
Wiseman has been horrible as a rookie. Absolutely horrendous! Before getting injured for the season, Wiseman was one of the worst players in the NBA by total Wins Produced. In fact, at the trade deadline, I noted the Warriors only needed to stop playing Wiseman to improve! I didn’t expect it to happen, and obviously, as Wiseman is out with injury, neither did the Warriors. So we can all agree he was a mistake, right?
Not so fast! Wiseman was a mistake for the Warriors, but not for the reasons you think. The easy thing to do is look at the #3 pick LaMelo Ball, who was also highly touted. What if, you say, the Warriors had drafted LaMelo instead of Wiseman! They’d be great. But that’s a mistake too! I want to compare Wiseman to two other players and situations.
I want to compare the 2019 Warriors to a team - the 2007 Boston Celtics. The Celtics lost their star Paul Pierce for most of the 2006-2007 season. They finished with the second-worst record heading into a draft with two stars, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. The Celtics got unlucky, though, and fell to fifth in the draft. The Sonics lucked into the #2 pick and got Kevin Durant. However, a funny thing happened. One could make the argument that things turned out better for the Celtics.
The Celtics had a shot at acquiring Kevin Garnett. Garnett had no interest in joining a terrible Boston team, though. So the Celtics took their #5 pick (Jeff Green), bundled him up, and sent him to the Sonics! The Sonics initially played Kevin Durant at the shooting guard, so clearly didn’t need their fading star, Ray Allen, right? Well, this gets funny.
07-08’ - 2,623 Minutes, 9.5 Wins, 0.174 WP48
08-09’ - 2,875 Minutes, 11.2 Wins, 0.187 WP48
09-10’ - 2,819 Minutes, 7.7 Wins, 0.131 WP48
10-11’ - 2,890 Minutes, 11.0 Wins, 0.182 WP48
11-12’ - 1,565 Minutes, 5.4 Wins, 0.165 WP48
Total - 12,772 Minutes, 44.8 Wins, 0.168 WP48
Ray Allen was a solid player five seasons with the Celtics. The Celtics made the playoffs five straight years with him. They immediately won a title, made it back to the Finals two years later, and were a game away from making it back to the finals in 2012 as well.
Let’s compare this to Kevin Durant’s first five seasons:
07-08’ - 2,768 Minutes, -0.1 Wins, 0.000 WP48
08-09’ - 2,884 Minutes, 8.1 Wins, 0.135 WP48
09-10’ - 3,239 Minutes, 16.1 Wins, 0.239 WP48
10-11’ - 3,037 Minutes, 10.2 Wins, 0.162 WP48
11-12’ - 2,546 Minutes, 10.9 Wins, 0.206 WP48
Total - 14,474 Minutes, 45.2 Wins, 0.150 WP48
From an aggregate perspective, it’s a push for who produced more. While Kevin Durant was ramping up, Ray Allen was a productive veteran. The Sonics and then Thunder missed the playoffs for two seasons, then lost in the first round. They did make the Finals by Kevin Durant’s fifth season.
The reason to use five seasons is a drafted player has four years guaranteed with a team. The team then gets the player’s restricted free agency. If a player really doesn’t want to re-sign with the team, they can accept a one-year qualifying offer and then leave as a free agent. So when you draft a player, you can count on five seasons. And the Sonics/Thunder obviously won the lottery! And when we compare what Kevin Durant did as a rookie and team success, you might argue the Celtics won by not getting a top draft pick! Let’s stress that Durant, with the benefit of hindsight, was obviously the best pick in the 2007 draft. Let’s look at one more player.
In the next draft, another Kevin Durant appeared. Michael Beasley put up great college numbers and fell to the number two spot in the draft. The Heat had lost their star Dwyane Wade to injury the season before but had lucked into the draft and earned the number two pick. The Heat pounced and was in a great spot as they had Dwyane Wade, an established star still in his prime. Here’s how Michael Beasley looked:
08-09’ - 2,008 Minutes, -0.6 Wins, -0.001 WP48
09-10’ - 2,328 Minutes, 0.2 Wins, 0.003 WP48
10-11’ - 2,361 Minutes, -2.4 Wins, -0.050 WP48
11-12’ - 1,087 Minutes, -1.6 Wins, -0.070 WP48
12-13’ - 1,550 Minutes, -4.5 Wins, -0.140 WP48
Total - 9,334 Minutes, -8.9 Wins, -0.046 WP48
Oof! In fact, after two seasons, the Heat decided the Celtics model was correct. They shipped out Michael Beasley for cap space and used the money to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Beasley bounced around the NBA but never turned into a productive player. The key is, Beasley was basically Durant 2.0. And a bad first season shouldn’t have even been a death knell. But, unlike Durant, he never developed. And as a result, the Heat wasted two years of Wade’s prime.
James Wiseman had a bad first season, but that doesn’t tell us anything. In fact, the San Fransisco Chronicle had an article noting that the Warriors’ analytics squad suggested Steve Kerr keep Wiseman in the starting lineup because it would help his development. And, I can’t disagree that Wiseman needs to develop more. But what I can say is the Warriors have an established star in Curry who isn’t getting any younger, and they have no idea if Wiseman will be a Durant or a Beasley. The standard model is if you get unlucky and your star gets injured, then you tank, get a top draft pick, and find a star. But the Boston model is a fascinating counterpoint. What if you look for established veterans to help and hope you’re a good-looking destination for a star. It’s worth noting, Kevin Garnett didn’t want to join the Celtics with Paul Pierce and Jeff Green but was happy to come along when Ray Allen joined. LeBron James didn’t want to join the Heat with Wade and Beasley. But he came along for Bosh. If your team has a star, getting another established veteran also might help attract more veterans. And the advantage we have in the NBA is veterans are more reliable than rookies in terms of production. The Warriors’ mistake wasn’t drafting Wiseman. We won’t know for years if that’s the case. Their mistake was gambling on a rookie next to a once-in-a-generation talent. And it cost them a title run. We’ll see where they go from here.