The most successful franchises in the NBA usually share quite a few similarities, great coaching, a focused direction, a superstar or a two, and a great fan base. But perhaps the defining characteristics that separates success from dominance, is the rare franchise that can maintain success by optimizing their draft selections despite consistently low draft picks. Some teams manage to contiue to improve through the draft by guile or slight of hand; Riley’s Lakers got Worthy as the number overall one pick after winning the title two of the last three years (thanks to a trade with Cleveland for the Cavs ’82 first round draft pick for Lakers forward Don Ford – guess the Cavs thought they would finish better than dead last in the league) and Byron Scott number four overall in ’83 after appearing in three of last four finals (thank you Clippers for being awful at everything that pertained to basketball for three decades).
Teams like the Lakers, and the Celtics before them, showed an adept ability at manipulating other teams into trading players who either were, or were to become, very high picks, and consequently maintaining a standard of excellence for their franchise despite a draft set-up that’s installed to mitigate dominance.
Yet in this day and age of analytics and advanced scouting, franchises have become outright stingy with their picks, and the potential for betterment through the lottery is typically the realm of a redundant few. So while teams like the Jazz, Cavs (let’s not forget what the franchise looked like before this offseason, Lebron could change the Washington Generals’ fortunes), Magic continue to struggle/tank, draft high, and then repeat, it’s the teams that find a way to maintain through the draft by sheer wealth of knowledge, rather than value of pick, that have prolonged success. Yes, the Spurs became great because of players like Sean Elliott, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan; superlative performers that everyone expected to perform at all-star caliber levels, but the Spurs are dynastic because once those players were selected and laid as foundations, San Anotnio has been able to build upon them with players like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Leandro Barbosa amongst others; late first-round or second-round draft picks whose output is almost always above value in terms of their draft order. And while the Spurs were able to get Kwahi Leonard via trade with the Pacers (as the 15th overall selection in ’11, Leonard was hardly a known commodity out of college), San Antonio has not drafted above 24th themselves since they selected Duncan first overall in ’97.
Consistently selecting that low over a time-span of 17 straight seasons obviously belies an almost metronomic manner of success, but it also shows that Spurs, who are not typically a big free-agent landing spot (anyone remember when Jason Kidd spurned them to stay with New Jersey?), have an incredible track record with back-loading talent through the lower levels of the draft. Following in the Spurs foot steps, teams like the Rockets who have had several top twenty picks, but have a great track record of selecting outside of the lottery over the last ten years (Aaron Brooks, Nicholas Batum, Nicola Mirotic…), Grizzlies (Grievus Vasquez) and Thunder (Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Quincy Pondexter…) have been consistently successful franchises in no small part due to their ability to evaluate talent in the later parts of the draft and turn that talent into assets on the court or in a trade. Notice that all of these teams have great track records with European talent, as its easy to see how talent can go be far less conspicuous 4,000 plus miles away.
Success is the sum of diligence and intelligence, and the elite franchises in the league apply this to their approach in the draft. While nothing is perhaps more of a setback than missing on a high lottery pick (anyone remember what happened to the Clippers post Olowakandi, or the Wizards with Kwame, and although the Bulls have since recovered from their misstep, I still think there’s a moratorium on the utterance of the name Tyrus Thomas (may his game rest in peace)), nothing buoys a franchise more than finding that rare commodity that so many other teams passed on. It’s like getting the hot girl who didn’t blossom until it was too late for her to realize she was now out of your league. Here’s a list of a few wallflowers of the last three drafts that are now ready to be swooned over.
Draymond Green (35th in 2012) -To refer to Draymond Green as a steal is almost to do a disservice to how good he’s been for the Warriors this season. The Warriors have arguably been the best team in the NBA thus far, (and if record dictates, there is no argument as the Warriors stand at an NBA best 19-2), and Green has been as integral a part of the team’s success as anyone not named Steph. The former Spartan has become a fantasy owner’s dream as he has become a stat-stuffer since taking over the starting role from the injured David Lee. Green is averaging 13.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3 apg, and throwing in a steal and a block per game as well, and has proven himself to be a dangerous long-range shooter (he hit a career high 7 three’s against Chicago on Dec.5).
Out of college Green was a lumbering big, with a bit too much weight and a bit too little touch, but three seasons into his NBA career Green has slimmed down and now become a dangerous threat offensively and has assuredly usurped David Lee as the starting power forward for the exciting Warriors. He’s also in for a big pay day as his contract runs up after the season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th in 2013) – In just his second season, the “Greek Freak” continues to improve by quantum leaps and bounds. While still raw and unseasoned, Giannis continues to show the athleticism that set him apart from almost anyone at his height. At 6’11, a reasonable argument could be made that Antentokuoumpo is the most unique athlete to ever play on the perimeter. His combination of length and foot speed make Antentokuoumpo a nightmare defender and defensive match-up, as he is either too tall for normal wings or too athletic for those his height. Giannis has seen improvement in all major statistical categories (12.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.0 apg) and has clearly looked far more comfortable on the floor. When his mind catches up to his body, NBA beware.
Rudy Gobert (27th in 2013) – At 7’1, with a terradactylesque 7’9 wing-span (an NBA record), Gobert had the tangibles. And while clearly a good athlete, Gobert’s slight frame (he’s listed at a generous 220 lbs) and athletic awkwardness saw the French product drop to the bottom of the first round. But after a strong summer league and a breakout stretch during this past summer’s FIBA’s, Gobert has started to look like more than just a project. While his output doesn’t immediately jump off the page (5.4 ppg and 5.1 rpg) that’s due to Utah’s rotation of bigs. Gobert’s per 36 minutes averages are nothing short of impressive (12 ppg and 11.4 rpg) and were he to play enough time to qualify (18.2 mins is necessary, Gobert logs just 16.1), Gobert would lead the league in the league in block percentage at 7.1%, .2% above Brendan Wright (go figure).
Gobert is still quite raw, but his touch is soft and he has good hands for his size. Pair that with a motor you rarely see from man of his stature and Gobert’s play may just may make either Derrick Favors or Enis Cantor expendable, as someone is always looking to overpay for size and Gobert may now have the most upside in Utah’s young rotation of bigs, especially when juxtaposed to the other bigs salaries.
Isaah Canaan (34th in 2013) – The Rockets are a team that has shown their miserly manner in terms of stocking picks (the team managed to procure 3 top-twenty picks in 2012), but now that the team looks to be a consistent Western Conference force, they have to become comfortable with surrounding Harden and Howard with players like Nick Johnson and Isaah Canaan. Fortunately Canaan has been the perfect compliment to Harden this season as a spot-up shooter at the lead guard spot.
Canaan’s success this season is due in part to Harden’s ability to create from the off-guard position and allow Canaan, who is more of a scoring point guard than a true point (his assist to turnover ratio is almost 1:1), to spot-up. With Patrick Beverly hobbled for most of the start of the year, Canaan has more than ably filled-in, though in a far different manner. Opposed to Beverley’s trademark tenacity and defense, Canaan is averaging a healthy 9.6 point per game with an adjusted shooting percentage at 58%.
Tony Wroten (25th in 2012) – Though Wroten was initially selected by The Grizzlies, who later let the athletic lefty go for basically nothing, the Sixers saw the talent in the former Huskie. Wroten saw significant playing time for the perennially rebuilding Sixers last year, and played well in spurts, but this season he’s seen his numbers soar in his first starter’s role this season.
Wroten is averaging nearly 18 points per game and 6.7 assists per game, an impressive average considering that he is often the secondary ballhandler. The biggest question is whether or not Wroten is legitimately the player his output reflects, or if he is simply getting numbers on a team where someone has to. Either way, Wroten has been impressive, but must improve his questionable shot selection, as the athletic guard is settling for far too many perimeter shots (4.3 attempts per game from range) for what his percentage is (26%). Fortunately for Wroten, his minutes seem secure on a Philadelphia team that doesn’t mind losing while their players work on shortcomings, of which they abound.
Evan Fournier (20th in 2012) – While Denver got the better current player in dealing Fournier for Arron Afflalo, the extremely young Magic may have found a prominent perimeter contributor for years to come in the French swingman. While Fournier was initially thought to be more of a bench rotation guy, Orlando seems to have seen the potential that Fouirnier has shown this season. The versatile scorer has seen his minutes escalate to a robust 33.2 per contest and has responded by averaging 15.8 points per game (though it should be noted that those paying attention may have foreseen this as Founrier’s points per 36 mins. prior to this season have been in-line with his surge this year; 15.3 in 2013 and 17.0 in 2012).
Gorgui Dieng (21st in 2013) – In the absence of incumbent starter Nikola Pekovic, the Timberwolves may have found their future starting center as the team continues to focus on a youthful rebuilding. While not quite the bruiser Pekovic is on the offensive end (Dieng is averaging a respectable 8.4 ppg and 7.9 rpg), he has been a far better rim protector (he’s averaging a respectable 1.2 blocks per game this season, versus .2 by Pekovic before his wrist injury), and has shown the passing ability that made him such a great teammate while at Louisville. Dieng’s 2 assists per game don’t jump off the page, but his ability to pass from both the high-post and double teams makes him quite the asset for a perimeter-oriented team such as Minnesota.