With the NBA and NHL drafts recently completed, the baseball draft just three weeks in the past and the Patriots set to head to training camp next month with a host of key draft picks on defense, now seems as good a time as any to play a little game:
If you were going grocery shopping and wanted someone to push the cart, who among Boston's four general managers would you chose for the job? You can only have one. Who is the best at picking them.
It's a tough call, because for the time ever (I think) all four GMs are worthy of discussion. And at least three -- Bill Belichick, Theo Epstein and Danny Ainge -- are among the very best at what they do. As hard as it is to chose one over the other, we'll give it a shot below.
Keep in mind, this ranking only involves drafting ability. We're not addressing trades, salary cap management or other aspects of the job. This is purely about walking into a high school gym or a college athletic facility and judging who can play and who can't.
Here's how I'd currently rank them:
Surprised? Don't blame you. He's got one ring with the Celtics while Bill Belichick has three and Theo Epstein has two. Ainge wins this battle despite a roomier trophy case, primarily because I think it’s harder to build a champion in the NBA than it is in any other league. And the way he did it is nearly impossible.
Consider this: Since 1980, a grand total of seven NBA franchises have won the championship. Think of that. Seven teams in nearly 30 years. And virtually all were led by singular talents. If you had Larry, Magic, Isiah, Michael, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, D Wade or Kobe, you won. If you didn't, you didn't. It's the nature of the beast in the NBA -- the best players almost always win, and there are only a handful of them to go around. And the salary cap has only made it tougher. One bad deal can kill you for years. Drafting high every year means nothing. If you're a bad team in cold-weather city, star players won't come to you. Assembling a collection of good-but-not-great talent that plays well together isn't nearly enough. The 2001 Patriots don't happen in the NBA. For the most part, you have to be fortunate enough to be picking high in the lottery the year a franchise player is available in the draft. That's how most NBA champions other than the Lakers have been built.
What Ainge has done is rare. Yes, the Celts bottomed-out with 24 wins the year before they won the championship -- but this team was not built with lottery magic. It was built through excellent draft picks in the teens and lower over a period of five years, picks that yielded players who are either contributing to the current mix or were dealt for the stars who really made it happen.
Al Jefferson (picked at No. 15), Ryan Gomes (No. 50) and Gerald Green (No. 18)20helped get you Kevin Garnett. Delonte West (No. 24) helped get you Ray Allen. Rajon Rondo (No. 21, as part of a draft day deal with Phoenix), Kendrick Perkins (No. 27, as part of a draft day trade with Memphis), Glen Davis (No. 35, as part of the Allen trade) and Leon Powe (No. 49, as part of a trade with Denver) stayed to become key parts of the equation.
Notice that none of the above-mentioned players came high in the first round. In fact, Ainge has had just two single-digit picks with which to build with: The No. 5 pick in 2007 (Jeff Green) was used to land Allen. The No. 7 pick in 2006 (Randy Foye) was shipped to Portland for a pile of garbage (Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair). The rest of Ainge’s selections came from back in the pack. Jefferson. Gomes. West. Rondo. Perkins. Davis Powe. There are teams who have been drafting in the top 10 for a decade and haven't pulled in that many useful players/trading chips.
This isn't to say that Ainge hasn't whiffed. Of course he has. Green was a bust, as was Marcus Banks (taken at No. 13, in the Memphis trade).
Ainge has also had some incredible luck. Had the ping pong balls spat out in a different combination a few years ago, the C's would have had Greg Oden and not Garnett. And, of course, it's good to have friends in the right places. Thank you, Kevin McHale.
But the bottom line is the bottom line. The Celts didn't win the lottery the year Hakeem, Duncan or LeBron were available. They aren't in a major-market, warm-weather city where NBA players wanted to go. And still Ainge managed to turn them back into a champi on.
Neat trick, that.
Two things skew the assessment of Belichick as a talent evaluator: 1. His ability as a coach. 2. Tom Brady.
There's also the winning. Three Super Bowl titles, eight-straight winning seasons and six division crowns tend to generate a lot of credit -- and so Belichick has justly received it.
But when it comes to picking the groceries, the analysis isn't as clear-cut. Belichick is such a good coach and has built such a consistently successful program that a lot of his draft picks end up looking good just because of their surroundings. And Brady only adds to that. Take the offensive line. We look at how it was built and see draft picks across the board, giving the impression that unit was built on the strength of college evaluation. But would Matt Light (second round) be an all-pro in any other system playing in front of any other quarterback? Hard to imagine. We all look at Dan Koppen (fifth round), Logan Mankins (the 32nd pick in the first round) and Nick Kaczur (third round) as solid picks. And they were. But Brady makes them look like great picks.
Belichick certainly would have run away with this competition a few years ago, but his record hasn’t been as strong since the Pats last championship in 2004. And his back-to-back weak drafts in 2006 and 2007 were particularly glaring.
To refresh: With Deion Branch's contract battle and Corey Dillon's decline as the likely motivations, the Pats went with offense in the 2006 draft -- and failed. Laurence Maroney, Chad Jackson, Dave Thomas and Garrett Mills were the first four players off the board, and all have been disappointments or flat out busts. The next year saw a different approach, with a second-round pick being sent to Miami for Wes Welker and a fourth going to Oakland for Randy Moss. Those deals were terrific for the Pats, but they also left a big hole between their first-round pick (No. 24) and their next selection at No. 127 in the fourth round. So after safety Brandon Meriweather came off the board, the rest of the weekend was essentially a waste. Only Meriweather and reserve defensive back Mike Richardson remain from that draft class.
Those two years caught up to the Pats this past year, when they ranked 31st in the NFL in the red zone, 31st in touchdown passes allowed and 26th in third-down defense. Belichick has spent the last two drafts digging out of it, and if history is any indication, the defensive woes that plagued the Pats the past couple of years will be history themselves soon. Belichick has proven that once he puts his mind to correcting a problem, it usually gets solved. Whether it's 2008 draft picks Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley, or rookie Patrick Chung and Darius Butler, or some combination of Meriweather, Sanders and veterans Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden -- the Pats figure to tighten in the secondary this season.
And if they don't? We’ll have to look even more critically at Belichick’s ability to pick ‘em, especially in the secondary. Remember, Brady doesn't play defense.
He promised to build a player development machine when he took over, and that's pretty much what’s happened.
Jonathan Papelbon (fourth round), Dustin Pedroia (second), Jacoby Ellsbury (first), and Justin Masterson (second) have contributed directly to the Sox' run. Kevin Youkilis (drafted in the 8th round by Dan Duquette), Manny Delcarmen (a Duquette second-rounder) and Jon Lester (drafted in the second round by Mike Port, with Theo serving as assistant GM, in 2002) were developed under Epstein's program. Daniel Bard (first), Clay Buchholz (first), Michael Bowden (first) and Lars Anderson (18th) are in the pipeline.
This is Epstein's legacy. It's not his failures at shortstop. It's not his prior futility in landing setup guys (something he's=2 0corrected the last few years with Hideki Okajima, Masterson, Ramon Ramirez and Takashi Saito). It's not JD Drew's salary or the pursuit of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Fans like to bitch about those things, but they pale in importance to building a system.
The 2007 title was his. The 2004 title has to be shared with Duquette, especially given the importance of guys like Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield and Pedro Martinez to that team. But the Sox wouldn't have won that first title without Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, Kevin Millar, David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Dave Roberts, Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz. So if you're asking me who was MORE responsible for 2004, Theo or the Duke, I'm going with Epstein.
As we stand today, Epstein's seven-year resume as GM of the Sox looks like this: two titles, four ALCS appearances and five trips to the playoffs, with an excellent chance for a sixth this season. As Larry David would say, that's pretty good.
4. Peter Chiarelli
Before you start to fit the Bruins' general manager for his genius hat, read this.
So Chiarelli thought he was going to get Tomas Kaberle AND the Leafs' No. 7 overall pick on Friday? Not quite. The Leafs were under the impression that the Bruins would be the ones giving up a first-rounder and the deal blew up. Quite a misunderstanding, wouldn't you say? Anyway, Chiarelli's heart is in the right place. Landing a skilled defensemen is the Bruins' No. 1 need this offseason, and Kaberle fits the bill. I have no problem with him using the incomplete and inconsistent Kessel as bait, even though he scored a team-high 36 goals last year.
As for Chiarelli's record, it's stronger on the development end than the drafting end -- at least so far. Most of the B's current young core was drafted by Mike O'Connell or his assistant Jeff Gorton. Patrice Bergeron (second round, 2003), David Krejci (second round, 2004), Mark Stuart (first round, 2003) and Byron Bitz (fourth round, 2003) were drafted by O'Connell. Milan Lucic (second round, 2006) and Kessel (first round, 2006) were selected when Gorton was technically in charge of the board over the transition summer of 2006.
So Chiarelli didn't necessarily pick those groceries, but he cooked them up very well. That has been perhaps the biggest change from th e old Harry Sinden/O'Connell regime. The new age Bruins have begun to develop players and cultivate talent through the system. That's on Chiarelli. He also deserves credit for trusting some of the prospects he inherited. Many GMs want "their guys." Chiarelli didn't get hung up on that (the Kris Versteeg deal notwithstanding).
As for Chiarelli’s own picks, we’re going to have to wait and see. His 2007 first-rounder, Zach Hamill (No. 8 overall) had disappointing 13-13-26 totals in 65 games in Providence last season. His 2008 top choice, defenseman Joe Colborne, will head back to the Denver University next year.
Overall, given what Belichick, Epstein and Ainge have accomplished, Chiarelli (one playoff round win) has a long way to go.
How would you rank them? Let me know and we’ll hash it out in the mailbag on Thursday.
Felger can be seen on "Sports Sunday" on Comcast Sportsnet, Sundays at 10 p.m. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org