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NBA Draft "Busts": Unfair Label?

With the 2010 NBA Draft finally here, I wonder if it is unfair to call a player a "bust." Are "busts" just a figment of our imagination?

If there was a dictionary made especially for sports terminology, the definition of ‘bust' would be defined by a brief sentence about the Golden State Warriors "war room" failures on draft day, featuring the pictures of almost every Warrior ever drafted with the exception of Run TMC, Latrell Sprewell, and Jason Richardson.

But for some reason, there are several Warriors that are unanimous decisions when it comes to tagging them with the scarlet letter, B. Todd Fuller, Chris Washburn and Joe Smith have made several lists (here, here, and here) not just for their pedestrian production but more for the fact that they were chosen ahead of many bona fide stars. 

With that said, do we judge busts purely by better players that teams COULD have picked?  Or is it purely based on a particular ratio of production to hype? Is there a mathematical equation that can churn this out? 

With no clear cut answer and the 2010 NBA Draft finally here, perhaps the more appropriate question to ask is,should the ‘bust' label even exist?  

Various hoops analysts and everyday fans (who are analysts in their own right) have tried to judge what makes a bust and more often than not it's less about the player than what kind of expectations us fans and critics go into the draft already believing the players should be producing from jump (or tipoff). Granted, most often than not, any high lottery pick (an arbitrary distinction, say between pick 1 to pick 9) that fails to produce statistically over 10 points per game for their career is deemed a bust by most "greatest NBA draft busts" lists. The lone exception may be Shane Battier (#5 in 2002), who apparently was drafted for character, leadership, and defense.

But how often are players drafted in the lottery, ending up as "role players," exempt from the bust label? Not very often. 

Last year, Dime Magazine asked the same question and blamed our wild expectations and the hype machine that is the NBA Draft itself as reason why we perceive busts to be busts:

"Anybody can look smart years after the fact. One reason I never bash Michael Jordan too much for taking Kwame Brown is because, back in 2001, EVERYBODY thought Kwame would be a star. If he'd slipped past the Top-5 in that Draft, in the next morning's papers GMs would have been ridiculed for not taking the kid. I remember reading scouting reports on Kwame from ‘01 that called him the future of the power forward position, the next Kevin Garnett, and all the same praise you hear about Blake Griffin today."

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. So it may be unfair to blame Kwame Brown or even the greatest player (and possibly lousiest GM) ever, Michael Jordan, for this epic failure that has since tied their two names together for the last decade when we mention "busts." 

This isn't to say we shouldn't expect any straight out of high school or college "stud" to live up to some expectations, but it refocuses our critical lens to take into account our own  participation in the making of a bust. That is, we help create a tidal wave of hype only to set them up to coming crashing down for failure. 

In critiquing Chad Ford's midseason evaluation of the NBA rookie class of the 2009/2010 season, Dylan Murphy of the Pardon the Opinion blog claimed it was too early to make a judgment of players based on their age and their lack of experience in the league:

"It's not completely fair to label either Jordan Hill or Greg Oden as busts. Oden is still only 21 years old. Jordan Hill, the New York Knicks' first round pick this year, has barely played half of an NBA season. So why does Chad Ford consider these players busts? He falls into the trap that many others do: comparing draft picks to the success of others of the same class. The success of Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings and Kevin Durant has made them look terrible."

Is this another unfair metric of someone's bust-ness? Murphy believes that "busts" do exist but that it is determined by "a player's draft potential vs. where he was picked." But he reminds us that it is also about "players who were given opportunities" citing Peyton Manning's rookie season of 28 interceptions and further success through experience as part of how unfair judging Darko Milicic might be, who was never given consistent chances to begin with.

Using another method of comparison, a commenter responding to an forum thread asking a similar question of ‘what makes a bust' suggested that comparing the PER/efficiency rating of a player drafted with the PER/efficiency rating of others drafted at the same draft position in past drafts. Does accounting for relativity based on draft position provide a more equitable and balanced evaluation of a player? With this argument, does this mean that certain draft positions can never be busts? Does that mean that if you're a late lottery pick, you won't have to worry about getting labeled as such?  Or any 1st round pick in the twenties mean you're free from criticism?   Is my hate for Mickael Pietrus, dubbed the "French Jordan" and #11 pick by the Golden State Warriors (2003), uncalled for because I think he's should be more "Jordan-like" when really I should just worry if he beats out another former Warrior drafted at #11 position, Tyrone Hill (1990)?  Or am I unfairly judging him because he was a lottery pick, albeit a lower one? 

All this is to say that it's nearly impossible to determine who is and isn't a bust.  Various analysts have given us good reason to re-think whether and to what extent ‘busts' are really ‘busts' or just illusions that we've created to satisfy our dreams and desires for the next great thing...and quite possible, our desires for the next great failure.

Lord knows my friends and I love making lists of draft busts and trying to out-do each other of our knowledge of great draft tragedies. And to a certain extent, the excitement of the NBA draft is not just guessing who will be a star, but who will ultimately join the pantheon of great busts (DeMarcus Cousins is everyone's favorite so far) in NBA history. In short, busts are just fun to talk about (no pun intended)!

As we close in on the 2010 NBA Draft, with more and more talk about sleepers and megabusts, we have to wonder whether or not we're unfairly judging players based on a loosey -goosey assumptions with no clear parameters to judge them on.  Unfair or not, talking about ‘busts' may be one of the most fun things to do.