Former Hawks GM Wes Wilcox Talks Draft And Why This Free Agency Will Be The Craziest Since 2016

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The 2018-19 NBA season has come to a close with the Raptors winning their first NBA championship, but in the blink of an eye, the NBA offseason has come in like a lion.

With the draft on Thursday night and free agency right around the corner, front offices are working overtime to get plans together to add talent to the roster, while also working the phones to see what may be available on the trade market. Anthony Davis’ trade to the Lakers opened up the NBA’s transaction period with a bang, and thanks to the names on the free agent market and teams with copious amounts of cap space, many around the league are expecting this summer to be one of the biggest in recent memory.

To look ahead at all the craziness that could be coming our way in the next few weeks and to get an executive’s perspective on this time of year, we chatted with Wes Wilcox, former GM of the Atlanta Hawks who will do TV work with NBATV during the draft and free agency. Wilcox offers his thoughts on this draft, his favorite players outside of the consensus top-3, the Anthony Davis trade being a win-win, teams to watch in free agency, how front offices structure their offseason plans, and why even the GMs knew they were giving out contracts that would likely look bad in the future back in the crazy summer of 2016.

Where do you see the value at in this draft, either positionally or guys you like outside of what seems to be the consensus top-3 of Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and R.J. Barrett?

It does seem that there’s a consensus as you lay out. One thing we know about the NBA Draft is we’re going to be surprised somewhere along the lines, and in general, there’s opportunity in every draft. We love to evaluate the draft from a distance and say, “This is a strong draft, this is a weak draft,” and what people mean by that is different to everybody. Oftentimes, that means there’s only one or two great players, or maybe two or three great players, and that’s a strong draft. Or maybe it’s a deep draft with rotation players and people would define that as a strong draft.

This draft seems to be, the consensus at this point, is that it’s a deeper rotation level player draft, but lacking the elite, franchise-altering players outside of Zion at the top. But that’s consensus, and no one thought a guy like Giannis at 15 or Donovan Mitchell at 13 were going to be the elite level player they are now, and one would think a player like that is going to be somewhere within this draft that nobody’s really talking about right now.

Everyone seems to have someone they like in that group right after the top-3. If you were picking fourth, or looking to trade into the fourth pick, who is that guy you like in that next group of players?

A player that I really like in this draft is Coby White. Great size, great competitor, the background on the kid is very, very strong, and he can score the basketball in a bunch of ways. Every player has questions. Some question if he’s a true point guard. I don’t know, but I think Coby White is going to be a very good NBA player. I’ve watched a ton this year, watched him live, and when the background comes back as positive and the measurables come out what they are, and you add that to what he did as a freshman, how he improved over the course of the year, and then going back to high school where he’s the all-time leading scorer in North Carolina high school state history. I’m very intrigued by Coby, so much so that I’d consider him, outside of Zion, as a guy that should be considered amongst that second tier after Zion.

Another player I’m really interesting, though he’s a harder player to evaluate, is Darius Garland. Just the size and skill, only getting to play five games, but having been able to see him, he too is another fantastic kid, fantastic person, with just an elite level of skill. As you get outside the consensus group, those are two players that personally seem to check the boxes. We all have preferences in evaluating players and those guys check some of those boxes.

And, another player that I’m happy to mention that I like that may actually be moving down, in terms of consensus, is Grant Williams. A little bit older, undersized for the position, and doesn’t have a great Chicago [workout]. Another fantastic person, great competitor, smart as heck, great hands, strong. He reminds me physically of Darvin Ham. I think he’ll be able to stretch it out and shoot the ball. He’s a guy that’s moving down because of what he did in Chicago and people don’t like his size and height, but his internal makeup, his internal substance, I’m a big fan of those characteristics. So he’s a player that may be moving down, but I would bet there’s an opportunity for a team with a player like that.

When you’re a GM and you’re going through your draft board and what your team needs, how do you balance potential with where you see a guy’s floor, and how do you evaluate when to take the risk on a high potential guy who is raw as a player, but might have a lower floor than some of those older college players?

We were never very good at this question of potential, cause we always reoriented and tried to focus on … OK, what are the factors of potential? Let’s define that, and then let’s evaluate to those characteristics. So what are the characteristics of maximizing potential as a player? Well, they’re probably not that different from maximizing yourself as a person in any line of work. It starts with knowing who you are as a player, is important. You’ve got to know your strengths and weaknesses. Second, be open minded to coaching or mentoring. Third, you’ve got to be an incredible worker, because, if you work really hard you’re going to get better. And fourth, you’ve gotta love what you do and be passionate about it. Because if you’re not, if you’re not passionate, then when the work gets hard you’re going to stop. You’ve got to have that resilience and that comes from a love, a work rate, an open mindedness and a self awareness. If you have those characteristics, when opportunity comes, you’re going to make the most of yourself as a player.

So, this conversation of potential, this floor-ceiling conversation, it’s not one that we really had that often. Our focus was, what are the factors of maximizing yourself as a player, let’s define those, and evaluate to those characteristics. And when you do that, you’re able to say, “Giannis checks all these boxes.” How good he’s going to be? That’s too hard to predict, but what we can tell you is this is going to be a great bet, based upon our assessment of the criteria for maximization. That’s always been the focus rather than trying to set this arbitrary range that’s difficult to do.

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The big story right now is the Anthony Davis trade. What were your thoughts on what the Pelicans got back in both players and draft assets, and what do you think the next moves are in New Orleans in trying to construct this team now around Zion?

This trade has got two winners. New Orleans, Griff, did a fantastic job of maximizing Anthony Davis and certainly set themselves up for having a really nice run in the future. Going back to this request, the next seven years in New Orleans is likely going to be better than the last seven years, because it just didn’t work. I think it was two playoff appearances, one playoff [series] win, traded a lot of first round picks and it just didn’t come together for a whole host of reasons, some of which were out of their control, like injuries and playing against great teams in the West. So, there’s a great future for New Orleans and they did a really nice job in extracting value for Anthony Davis.

From the Lakers perspective, they got two of the top-5 players in the NBA. Two great, great players. And they have some flexibility with their room, however this ends up being structured. Whether they end up with a little under $33 million in room, which would be the best case scenario, or the $23.5 million in room based upon where things are currently if Anthony were to take his trade kicker. That’s still some pretty good flexibility to add to your roster.

As for the total asset pool, that’s unknown. It’s hard to find a realistic comp because we haven’t had a player like Anthony Davis be traded recently to a place that felt he was being traded there to stay, and that’s the carve out. We don’t know that that’s the case, of course. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but the Lakers made this trade believing that they were going to be able to retain Anthony long term, which was a different construct than the decision making for Toronto and even Boston, cause Boston got two years of Kyrie, and certainly Oklahoma City with Paul George on a one year. This is a different set up to evaluate the haul or net yield for New Orleans. If Anthony Davis stays and the Lakers are able to build their team, which I would bet they would because players will always want to play with LeBron and AD and want to live in L.A., that would then drive down the quality of the total yield for New Orleans.

So, it’s unknown. One thing is you’re always sympathetic to the executives who are in these positions because we like to shotgun evaluate, “Oh, winner, loser.” Sometimes they both can win and our evaluation of a trade or draft pick changes over time. So, let’s give this time and ultimately it makes sense for both teams. How it all plays out, it’ll be fun to track what all these picks turn into for New Orleans, and it’ll be fun to see how the Lakers create another run here with two of the best players in the NBA on their roster.

There are a lot of teams coming into this summer with cap space. Some of it is max space, some of it is like the $23 million the Lakers may have. When you enter a summer and you know you’re going to have space as a GM, and there are a finite number of guys that are going to be max type guys, how do you structure your target list and go about targeting guys to make sure if you don’t get your top guy, you’re sure you’re spending that money in a wise way that’s not going to bring in bad longterm money, as we saw happen some in 2016 with the cap spike?

So, going back to 2016, the part that’s lost I think in all that is most of us knew in 2016 that the contracts that were being signed were what everyone reported they would be. The question was not that. The question wasn’t, “Do we want this player on a contract we think is valuable?” The question was, “Do we want to have the player? And are we going to pay what it cost to take to retain the player.” When you look at that summer, the team that probably showed the most restraint that’s under-appreciated was the Chicago Bulls.

On the flipside of that argument, they’ve been beat up for not doing a good enough job of building their team, but they showed great discipline and stayed away from the summer of 2016. It’s never perfect, and what ultimately dictates it is the market. The question is not, “Can we get the player at the price we want to get the player?” It’s, “Are we willing to pay what it’s going to take to get the player, understanding in the future this is what that contract is look like?” Most of these guys in these positions know what they’re doing when they’re doing it. The reality is that versus the alternative. There’s a real argument to be made to just pass and move on to the alternative. That’s a fair argument. But that also has no guarantees in success.

The basic building structure for an NBA roster is productivity for the dollars you spend. Whoever has the greatest productivity based upon the cost of their roster is going to win the most. We all know the best players, the LeBron’s and Anthony Davis’, you pay them $30 million and they’re worth $120 million in productivity. Where you run into problems is when you pay a player that’s a great, great player, but’s not at the level of say a KD or LeBron or Anthony Davis, and they’re worth $45 million in productivity. You start stacking up a couple guys like that on your roster, and it’s going to be very difficult to build a winning team unless you have a great deal of depth around them. Typically when teams have that max room in free agency, they don’t have that depth unless there’s just this anomaly like the summer of 2016 when 26 teams had max cap room. I think we’re seeing that normalize now.

There are teams like the Clippers, who have probably done the best job of any team — Brooklyn may be second — of building a really deep team with young players, veteran players on reasonable contracts, with max cap room and flexibility for maybe double max slots. That’s why you can look at a team like Brooklyn and the Clippers and say they’re a compelling destination. And if they both end up with players, Kawhi or Kyrie or Tobias or KD, that’s going to be a part of a reason why. They did a fantastic job of managing both — value signings and great draft picks — and a high level of vision with strategy to support it. That’s what it takes to be great.

We know the top guys in this free agency class. Who are the guys in that second tier maybe just below max range that you really like as impact guys that somebody that does miss out on a Kawhi or KD is going to be happy if they can bring in?

It’s interesting, I don’t know if this free agency year is going to be, like, “miss out.” You typically have in free agency, the gun goes off and there’s a couple of deals that are done very quickly and we all know that. Then there’s a pause and we wait for the domino effect. Before the market becomes highly liquid, we need the best players to go take those biggest spots and then things start to fall into place and things move really fast.

What’s interesting though in this free agency year, you have a team like Indiana, which has as much as $44 million in room. You have a team like Dallas, who is one of the more compelling teams to watch this summer, I have a model where they can have $29 [million] in room. You could see a team like Indiana or Dallas be highly aggressive on the group right outside Kawhi and KD, so there might not be fallback options. These teams could say, “We’re going to target one free agent and give him every penny we have.” Or, “We’re going to diversify this amount of money and go get Danny Green and J.J. Redick and Bojan Bogdanovic and we’re going to try and take these guys out early.”

Because there’s going to be levels of free agency going on, and I think the Hawks are interesting too. With 13 assumptions post-Allen Crabbe trade, I think I’ve got them at about $24.8-$25 million in room. They’ve got a good young core. They’ve done a nice job building that roster while creating flexibility, and who’s to say they couldn’t be a player in, not that max group, but that next group and try to go target a couple really good players. I don’t know if there’s going to be a normal free agency year, because you could have 16 teams, depending on how they try to hold players, with significant room this year. It’s more likely to be like 11 or 10 real room teams, there’s a lot of optionality this summer and so it’s likely to be a free agency that we haven’t seen since 2016.