June 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.  

Hopes (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. 

So 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. 

This 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 draftees

The 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.  

Go 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. 

Bad 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. 

The 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 

The 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 title. 

The 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.          

There 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. 

Sometimes 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 (33%). 

Even 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.