At the time, this wasn't a very controversial pick. Robinson was viewed as possibly the most NBA ready prospect in the draft, and had been ranked as high as #2--behind Anthony Davis. The perception was that he fell to the Kings, picking 5th, and it was a no brainer to grab him. With Jason Thompson's future with the Kings undetermined, and the only other power forward on the roster being Chuck Hayes (whom I think could have handled it fine, by the way), most people would have agreed the Kings could have used a quality power forward for the future--and certainly didn't need yet another young guard.
Immediately excitement began to grow, with the possibility of Robinson and DeMarcus Cousins forming what could be an elite 4-5 punch that could dominate the league in rebounding for years to come. Unfortunately, as we all know, Robinson had a abysmal summer league showing and never really came back from that. After receiving a questionable amount of minutes for a "NBA ready prospect" on a lottery team, he was traded to the Rockets only 8 months after being drafted by the Kings.
Thus began the era of, "Why didn't they pick Lillard?"
Damian Lillard was selected 6th in the 2012 draft, directly following Robinson, after shooting up mock draft boards during pre-draft workouts. Ranked the 22nd best prospect in the draft as late as February by Draftexpress, Lillard soon climbed to 13 in March and eventually 10th just 8 days before the draft. We all know the story from there, Lillard Dropped 23 points, 3 rebounds, and 11 assists while playing 35 minutes in his debut as a Trailblazer. He went on to never average less than 17.6 points or 5.5 assists per game in a month, with high water marks of 21.3 points in March and 6.9 assists in December. He finished out his 1st season with a well deserved Rookie of the Year award, beating out the pre-season favorite and #1 draft pick Anthony Davis--partially due to Anthony Davis's inability to stay healthy and on the court.
So, in hindsight, the Kings passed on the Rookie of the Year to take a guy who not only wasn't necessary after the Kings locked up Jason Thompson on a 5 year contract, but didn't deliver on the NBA ready tag scouts had put on him. However, with Isaiah Thomas, Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton, and Tyreke Evans creating a logjam of sorts in the backcourt, should the Kings really have drafted Damian Lillard?
The answer to this question--from quick scan on StR and from the national sportswriters perspective is--DUH, yes!
Its true, Damian Lillard is a very good young point guard and he had a exceptional rookie season. If we just leave it at that, it seems pretty simple, you don't turn down good young point guards when you're a rebuilding team. If you compare Robinson to Lillard, they are miles apart at this point in their prospective careers, and that may never change. However, after seeing so many opinions that Lillard was the correct pick, I decided to see if that was really true.
In my search to answer this question for myself, I started in the same place I always start when looking for answers--statistics. For me to say yes, the Kings made a mistake by not drafting Lillard, he has to be a better option at point guard than our current point guard--or be without question the best available player for the Kings future. So lets take a look at the statistical comparison of Isaiah Thomas and Damian Lillard during each of their rookie seasons.
Scanning along Damian Lillard's stats, one thing immediately jumps out at you. No, its not the points per game, the 3 point shots made, or the assists. Its the Minutes played. Lillard played a mind boggling 38.6 Minutes Per Game (and played in every game of the season to boot!)!! This ranks 8th in all rookies since 1980 and 3rd for all players this season. While it is certainly worth praising Lillard for being able to handle this many minutes all season--especially as a rookie--and it does make his stats more reliable due to the larger amount of on court time, its clear to me that I'll need to rely on per minute production to compare these two players, as Isaiah only played 25.5 MPG in 65 games his rookie year.
What you start to see when you compare per 36 minute numbers from both these players is, they are very similar. Lillard has a slight edge in points, at 17.8 to 16.3, as well as assists (6.0 to 5.8--with the percentage of team field goals they assist coming in at 28.8% and 25.6% respectively.), and 3's (2.1 to 1.8). However, IT2 holds an advantage in turnovers (2.3 to 2.8), steals (1.2 to 0.8), and somehow--standing 5ft9' in shoes--rebounding (3.7 to 2.9). Based on these stats I would say Lillard was objectively the better rookie. He contributed more in the important stats, and we can be more sure of his numbers because we are scaling them down instead of artificially expanding them as is the case with IT2's. However, lets dig a bit deeper before we call this one.
Percentages. This is where it starts to get interesting. With Per minute stats ending up with Lillard taking a slight lead, IT2 is much more favorable in nearly every percentage, shooting and advanced statistics. First, we look at shooting. Thomas appears to have been the superior shooter in his rookie season, putting up a field goal percentage of 44.8, a 3 point percentage of 37.9 and a free throw percentage of 83.2. Lillard comes up short, although he's no slouch either, putting up 42.9 fg%, 36.8 3pt%, and 84.4 ft%--only free throw percentage meets or beats IT2. On to more advanced shooting stats, like True Shooting %--a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2 point field goals, 3 point field goals, and free throws--a stat that for the most part sums up the previous 3 shooting percentages. In this case, Thomas, at 57.4% is nearly 3 percantage points higher than Lillard at 54.6, with effective field goal percentage showing similar differences between the two players shooting performances.
Lastly lets look at a few stats that sum up each player's overall impact and how they were utilized (or under-utilized) by their respective teams. Despite their very similar per 36 minute stats, usage rates tell a very different story. Lillard sports a usage percentage of 24.2%, meaning he used 24.2% of the teams plays when they possessed control of the ball. All things being equal, with 5 players on a team, 20% would be average, with each player using an equal number of possessions. Somehow, Thomas managed to compete with Lillard in stats on a per minute basis while only receiving 19.8% usage. While we don't know for sure how Thomas would perform and impact the game with a higher usage percentage like Lillard, we do know that Thomas was the more efficient player in the minutes he did get. Thomas had a PER (a hybrid statistic called Player Efficiency Rating that is standardized for a PER of 15 to be the league average) of 17.6 his rookie season, while Lillard's PER was 16.4. According to statistics, Thomas also contributed more wins to the Kings than Lillard did to the Blazers, with a Win Share per 48 of 0.124, compared to Lillard's 0.088 (0.100 being approximately the league average). Though neither player should be especially proud of their win shares because both teams finished the season with poor records, Portland with 33 wins this year and Sacramento with 22 wins in Thomas's rookie season.
Looking forward, there are many unknowns with both players. Can Lillard improve on his great rookie year--Tyreke Evans says good question. Can Thomas continue to improve with more experience, minutes, and usage? And can he overcome his height disadvantage and become a valuable starting point guard in this league? I can't answer any of these questions, but there's nothing that makes me think they can't both succeed.
In the end, its a false dilemma to ask which player the Kings should have chosen for their point guard of the future, Thomas or Lillard. While the possibility remains that the best option would have been to have both on the same team, the Kings have much more pressing roster issues than trying to aquire two great point guards. Yes, it was a mistake to draft Thomas Robinson over Damian Lillard, but I feel it would have also been a mistake to draft Damian Lillard over say.... Andre Drummond.
Drummond was viewed as a big time project for any team that took him. Although, if you look back at DraftExpress's mock draft rankings for Drummond, he was ranked as high as #2 overall as late as March, just a month before the draft. As we know now --and yes hindsight is 20/20--Drummond is a fantastic rebounder, especially on the offensive glass, an elite rim defender, and explosive finisher at the rim. Do any of those things sound like something the Kings needed this season, and have been lacking for years? Yeah, they all do. In addition, Drummonds main weakness coming into the NBA was his poor offensive game (and free throw shooting, obviously). Not exactly something the Kings are hurting for.
So when I read posts lamenting our missed chance to have Damian Lillard on our team, I can safely say that while Lillard was a better choice than Robinson, he wasn't the best choice. Passing on Drummond--or even Harrison Barnes--was the real missed opportunity for the Kings in the 2012 draft.