The NBA Draft is a game of poker.
NBA front offices have become massive intelligence agencies — gathering information on prospects and opponents and trying to get an understanding of what their thinking is and what they will do.
That activity as an intelligence agency only gets bigger at the draft.
Front offices are trying to gather as much background information on a slew of prospects — learning not just their games, but their work habits behind the scenes, their personalities and a whole lot more. On top of that is trying to figure out who is actually going to be available when you pick and the potential for trades throughout the draft.
Everyone is playing offense and defense here. They are trying to hide their own intentions while trying to discover others’ intentions.
No wonder Orlando Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman joked Monday that it is any wonder that teams are able to execute trades at all.
Obviously, there are conditions when interests and players align that lead to trades. And the Magic are certainly active in those conversations — expect them to get phone calls for help throughout the offseason to use their cap space in trades as the Magic aim to complete their roster.
Still, there are very few secrets in the NBA. There are a lot of leaky boats around the league — and plenty of well-connected reporters happy to pass information to the public and by extension to teams around the league.
So everyone was stunned when the Magic pulled off one of the stealthiest draft processes in the league. Even confounding local Orlando media with some insider information they were unable to share.
The Orlando Magic stunned the league in picking Paolo Banchero revealing in their secrecy and misdirection exactly how the team operates.
Orlando kept its pick and its true intentions a secret — even from it seems the player the team intended to take.
The Magic pulled, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN put it on Friday, “one of the great stealth pre-draft processes” the league has seen in some time. Wojnarowski added that teams around the league gained a lot of respect for the Magic in the process.
In a world where information goes flying around with ease, the Magic stayed completely buttoned-up.
The question everyone is asking is not necessarily the how of what the Magic did. It is the why.
Why with the number one pick did the Magic feel the need to conduct such massive misdirection? They controlled the whole draft, why such misdirection?
Everyone believed the Magic were going to select Jabari Smith Jr. with the top overall pick. Every indication was that they would do so. He had a public workout in Orlando and spoke to the media. NBA sources even confirmed Chet Holmgren met with the Magic for two days.
Banchero meanwhile never made it to Orlando. By some reports (which Orlando Magic Daily can at least partially confirm), Banchero kept pushing back his scheduled workout. Banchero was scheduled to workout at one time in Orlando but the workout was never acknowledged or outright canceled.
In the end, Orlando only was able to meet with Banchero in a series of teleconference calls. The team was still able to get the medical information, personality profiles and interviews done that it needed to complete its prospect profile.
Certainly, that is doing some work to signal to the rest of the league that Banchero was not their guy. The rest of the league — and keen observers like myself — bought it hook, line and sinker.
Weltman addressed some of the misdirection head-on after the draft took place:
“You never know what’s going to come up,” Weltman said after making the first pick on Thursday. “You never know what other teams are trying to do behind you. I c an tell you We’ve had conversations with every team including those right behind us. I could kind of flip the question and ask, ‘What’s to be gained.’ To me, I think it’s the best way to do business. I think it’s important that people know information is managed discretely with us from every corner of this business — from agents to other teams to the media. Obviously, I don’t know when you are playing poker you don’t put your cards on the table.”
Weltman would not say if there was a “when” for deciding to pick Banchero. The team was meeting and deciding even into draft night. It was hit upon at some point that this would be the strategy for the team if Banchero remained an option.
Executing this kind of strategy though would suggest the Magic settled on Banchero pretty quickly and always had him as the guy they wanted to exit the draft with. Especially considering how quickly Jeff Weltman and coach Jamahl Mosley met with the media Thursday night.
They were pretty clearly thrilled and happy with the final decision.
As Adrian Wojnarowski and ESPN analyst and former New Jersey Nets general manager Bobby Marks noted in the clip from NBA Today, certainly the Orlando Magic wanted everyone to think they were taking Jabari Smith and feed that narrative to try to see if hey could get either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Houston Rockets to move up from their spots.
Orlando, in this sense, perfectly laid down and crafted a clear narrative they were trying to tell. Perhaps they did it a bit too well as it seemed the Rockets were going to be pretty happy taking Banchero. That might be why the Magic ultimately did not make a deal.
At the end of the night, the Magic’s goal was to get Banchero whether it was with the first pick or some other pick. If no deal emerged that left the Magic confident they would get their guy, then they were right to stand pat and make the pick anyway.
The question everyone has is if Banchero was always the guy, why get cute about it? Why craft this secondary narrative?
That kind of gamesmanship might have been special to this draft too.
This year’s draft did not have a clear-cut No. 1 player. There was a real debate between three prospects. And that created the opportunity to move around if one team valued one player so much more than the others. That would necessitate the Magic hiding their true intentions.
Orlando really let others tell the league what it was thinking publicly. It follows the team’s organizational philosophy of keeping everything buttoned up and operating quietly.
“There’s so much subterfuge going on and so much gamesmanship,” Weltman said during his pre-draft press conference Monday. “I think one of the things that we have done well and do well — and I’m really proud of our guys for being able to say this — is that we are buttoned-up. I think it’s really important to act that way. Whatever the chatter is, whatever the rumors are, I’ll never get involved in that. I will not ever get into speaking about details of visits or this and that.
“Honestly, I think that serves a good purpose because not only is it important to keep our information discretely so the players know that they can trust us, but it is also important when teams call. I do believe we are a team that other teams know they can make discrete phone calls and it won’t get out. The way you manage information is a big part of this business.”
Certainly with all the attention on the Magic — really for the first time since Weltman took over — everyone was trying to understand how the Magic operate. With the light shining on them brighter this time around, everyone got to see Weltman and his staff in action.
Or, in this case, seeming inaction.
In that sense, everyone around the league got some information on how the Magic operate. The curtain got peeled back a little bit.
In the end, the Magic got the guy they wanted. They played their hand to try to create opportunities but still end up with Banchero, the guy they ultimately wanted.
The opportunities to move did not emerge. The subterfuge and misdirection was probably for nothing in the end.
The end results were all that mattered in the end.