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Debate in the Paint: Forget No. 1 Pick, Give Me Cap Space

Aug 11, 2009 – 10:15 AM
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Matt Steinmetz

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Every Tuesday this offseason, two of our NBA experts will go at it on a topic. We came up with the catchy title, Debate in the Paint. This week: Would you rather have a No. 1 pick or cap space?

Give me cap space over the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft every year. OK, maybe not every year but just about every year. Certainly most of the time.

It's pretty simple, really. We know the three ways to improve a team: free agency, trades and the draft. Of those three, the NBA Draft is the least effective.

Sure, this is where you talk about some difference-makers over the past 15 years or so at No. 1: Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Yao Ming and Tim Duncan. But for every one of those, I'll give you an Andrea Bargnani, Andrew Bogut, Kwame Brown, Kenyon Martin, Elton Brand, Joe Smith and Glenn Robinson.

While getting the No. 1 pick might energize your fan base (in June, by the way), the fact of the matter is that you're still at the mercy of the draft itself. What good is the top pick if you come away with just a nice player or a role guy? Or worse?

And that's what you get a good portion of the time. It's not enough to simply get the No. 1 pick in the draft. You need to have that pick in a draft where a superstar resides at the top. And that's never a sure thing.

How good is Blake Griffin going to be? Who knows? Maybe he'll be pretty good. Maybe not. Perennial All-Star or just a banger? Skilled or limited? Bogut ... Bargnani ... Brown. See what I mean?

That's why we'll take the sure thing: Cap space. Of course, just because you have money under the cap -- let's say $12 million or so, give or take -- doesn't mean you're an automatic winner.

But it gives a GM more options and allows him to be more active than reactive. Bottom line, cap space gives a GM more chances to succeed than with just one pick. The argument, of course, is that having cap space doesn't guarantee you a superstar.

It doesn't. But acquiring a superstar is only one thing you do with an abundance of cap space. There's other stuff, too. Nothing wrong with saving your money for a rainy day, or at least another free-agent class.

If you've got enough money you can go out and try to get two good players instead of just one really good one. Don't quibble for now about whether or not Ben Gordon and/or Charlie Villanueva necessarily fit that description, just know that's basically what Detroit's Joe Dumars did this offseason.

Money under the cap makes you a player in the sign-and-trade game and also a viable third-party trade broker. Having cap space allows you to make a trade without the money having to match up. Having cap space keeps you in the game.

It can help in plenty of ways, not just the obvious one of trying to sign a star. If you're under the cap and you're a GM, you're likely in good standing with your owner.

That's a lot better than trying to explain why you picked Michael Olowokandi.

More Steinmetz on Twitter: @matt_steinmetz
Filed under: Sports