is an exciting month for basketball fans. The NBA Finals between Miami and
Dallas was a thriller, and every team gets hope for next season because of this
week’s NBA draft and the chance for new blood.
(and season ticket sales) in Toronto, Minnesota, Sacramento and Washington
should get a boost. There is hope everywhere, even in Cleveland. The Cavs
watched LeBron James leave a year ago, spiraled into a 19-63 season, and now
have two of the top four picks.
where do most teams stand in the NBA hierarchy after draft day? The truth is,
in terms of wins, losses and chances at winning the title, NBA teams look
pretty much the same as they did a year ago, and this is nothing new. The draft
is more a media-circus than an opportunity for teams to seriously upgrade their
roster and outlook.
past season was a bit of an aberration, with the Miami Heat being transformed
from a mediocre playoff team to the team to beat in the East with LeBron
playing general manager, by bringing in himself and Chris Bosh to South Beach.
Still, let’s not forget that Miami made the 2010 playoffs and already had a
star in Dwyane Wade.
Last year’s NBA
Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title and have been a perennial playoff contender,
including a trip to the Finals in 2006, a veteran team that has been knocking
on the door for years. A year ago the top players drafted were John Wall
(Wizards), Even Turner (76ers), Derrick Favors (Nets), Wesley Johnson
(T-Wolves), DeMarcus Cousins (Kings), Ekpe Udoh (Warriors), Greg Monroe
(Pistons) and Al-Faroque Aminu. I only recall one of those teams in the
playoffs (76ers). And Turner was sixth on the team in scoring during the
playoffs, only one slot higher than he had been during the regular season when
he averaged 7.2 ppg. Turner is a nice young player to build around, but he
certainly didn’t help turn the 76ers from mediocre to great. They finished the
regular season 41-41.
back ten years ago, during the summer of 2001, and who were the favorites to
win the 2002 NBA title? The Lakers at even-money and the Spurs at 6-to-1 (the
Lakers did). In 2003, the favorites to win the title were the Kings, Lakers and
Spurs (San Antonio did). In the summer of 2005 the Spurs, Heat, Pistons and
Mavericks were the preseason favorites to find glory in June (two of them met
for the title). A year ago the preseason favorites were Miami (2-to-1) in the
East and the Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks in the West.
teams almost never turn things around in one season. Only four teams in history
stand out. The 1968-69 Milwaukee Bucks went 27-55 as an expansion team and
56-26 the next season, because they were fortunate enough to draft Lew Alcindor
(later Kareem Abdul-Jabaar). In his second season, the Bucks went 66-16 and won
the NBA title. The 1979 Celtics went 29-53, and the next year with Larry Bird
on board they had the best record in the league, 61-21.
1998 Spurs had a remarkable turnaround, going from 20-62 to 56-26, but that
wasn’t so much a magical flip-flop as it was a fluke. San Antonio was a very
good team for several years but went 20-62 because center David Robinson missed
the season. They lucked out with the No. 1 pick in the draft, nabbed Tim Duncan
and won four titles.
Building a team takes
patience and luck
fact is, building a contending team normally takes time, patience and more than
one high draft pick. The NBA draft is as much a crapshoot as rolling dice or
picking numbers out of a hat. For every franchise player like Akeem Olajuwon,
Shaquille O’Neal and Abdul-Jabaar, there are twice as many highly heralded
underachievers, such as Joe Smith, Pervis Ellison, Joe Barry Carroll, Kwame
Brown, Michael Olowokandi and Derrick Coleman (all were No. 1 overall draft
picks). Yao Ming and LeBron James were recent No. 1 picks who were not busts
and improved their teams, but they are still a ways away from contending for a
2008 Celtics were an incredible story, from worst to first in year, but they
weren’t built through the draft. In fact, they were built the opposite way,
trading the No. 6 pick in the draft (Jeff Green) to Seattle for Ray Allen, and
then swapping young talent and picks for Kevin Garnett.
are so many unknowns with draft picks. A scout can evaluate a 20-year olds’
jumping ability and passing skills, for example, but can you measure a player’s
heart and intelligence with a test? Can you quantify a player’s understanding
of team-oriented play, his work ethic or his interest in improving his game?
No. Unforeseen outside factors can also complicate things, such as emotional
difficulties, injuries, a marital breakup or drugs.
players simply don’t improve their game. The seven-foot Olowokandi was the No.
1 overall pick out of Pacific in 1998. The Clippers looked to build around him,
but after five years (and other high draft picks) they have yet to make the
playoffs. The Clippers’ win total went from 17-65 (20%) before Olowakandi, to
9-40 (18% in the strike year), 15-67 (18%), 31-51 (37%), 38-43 (47%) and 27-55
the great Michael Jordan didn’t win his first NBA title until his seventh
season. In fact, the Bulls went 27-55 in 1984 without Jordan, to 38-44
and 30-52 the next two seasons with M.J. That’s still a lot more losing than
winning, at least in the short term. Fans and sports bettors need to understand
that Rome wasn’t built in a day. NBA Draft day is fun, but rarely do
organizations turn things around in one offseason.