The Celtics and the Warriors show that you don’t have to spend multiple years tanking to build a winner through the draft.
With the Boston Celtics facing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, there are stakes at play for both franchises. A Warriors win would mean four titles in eight seasons, something only four teams have ever accomplished: the 1950s Minneapolis Lakers, the 1960s Boston Celtics, the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers and the 1990s Chicago Bulls. For the Celtics, winning the series would give them 18 championships all-time, one more than their bitter rivals from L.A. The two teams share more than the pursuit of history. Their very compositions are, at the same time, similar and outliers.
Boston and Golden State both allot about 70 percent of their minutes this postseason to “homegrown” players, defined as players who have only played for one team in their careers. Steph Curry and Jayson Tatum are homegrown; Derrick White and Andrew Wiggins are not. The Celtics and Warriors are well above the 47 percent average between all 16 playoff teams. It may be tempting to draw an obvious conclusion from these numbers: teams that draft well and develop their own players put themselves at an advantage over those who don’t. But is that really true?
Golden State missed the playoffs for five years in a row from the 2008 to 2012 seasons. In that stretch, they drafted Curry and Klay Thompson in the mid- and late-lottery, plus Draymond Green in the second round. Boston has made the playoffs 14 out of 15 years, but the bounty they received from the 2013 trade that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn plus the 2017 draft night swap with Philadelphia landed them Tatum and Jaylen Brown, approximating the haul you’d expect from a team that spent years tanking; the one year the Celtics missed the playoffs, in 2014, they drafted Marcus Smart.
So the implication is clear: lose badly long enough and fortune smiles down on you, yes? Not so fast. The most infamous tankers in recent memory, the Process 76ers, have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs. The only player left on their roster from all those wasted years is Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s fate is closer to the norm than Golden State’s. Since the draft lottery era began in 1985, 23 NBA franchises have combined to miss at least five consecutive postseasons a total of 34 times. That’s a good enough sample size of history and different organizations to see what trends we can identify. A few jump out.
The Celtics and Warriors acquired draft capital without multi-year tanking campaigns
Of those 34 stretches of ineptitude, only three led to a team winning a title with talent they drafted during their years roaming the desert: the Celtics missed the playoffs from 1996-2001 and landed Paul Pierce for their troubles; Cleveland was out every year from 1999 to 2005 and had LeBron James fall into their laps; and the aforementioned Warriors drafted Steph and Klay during their years of famine. Even if you expand the search from winning it all to reaching the Finals, that only adds the Allen Iverson Sixers and Devin Booker Suns to the list. Five out of 34 doesn’t seem a promising yield.
Lower the benchmarks and you’ll see it’s still unusual for a team to be bad for years and have any wins to show for it. Only 16 of the 34 examples studied featured teams winning 50 games in a season with players they drafted directly, and the level of impact those players had on winning varies wildly. It’s one thing to point to Carmelo Anthony ending up in Denver and leading them to a 50-win season, quite another to look at players like Kirk Hinrich, Shane Battier and Stromile Swift and give them the same credit.
Repeated lottery appearances give an organization more tickets to scratch off. But think about real life: if you buy a ticket and win a prize, but the prize is winning another ticket to try, what have you won? You’re just multiplying bad odds by bad odds. Thirty-four times since 1985, a team has missed five or more playoffs in a row. You know how many times they drafted a top-75 player in those 34 eons of losing? Seven. Iverson, Pierce, LeBron, Steph, Carmelo, Garnett and Jason Kidd. That’s it. Wanna open it up to All-NBA selections? Welcome aboard, Derrick Coleman, Andre Drummond, Karl-Anthony Towns and Blake Griffin. There’s everybody.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that losing long enough does seem to ensure the arrival of an All-Star. 22 of the 34 losing runs saw the teams draft an All-Star during those down years. If stars win championships and stars are drawn to play alongside other stars, that may be reason enough for teams to continue losing.
It’s long been said winning it all boils down to a combination of skill and luck. The year Curry was available to draft, the Timberwolves had two lottery picks and needed a point guard. They took Ricky Rubio and Johnny Flynn. For Boston to land Tatum, they needed Philadelphia and the Lakers to want Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball instead. Luck smiled on this year’s NBA Finalists on those nights, and they’ve done a ton since to build two teams worthy of the stage. Maybe in the end, the luck you take is equal to the luck you make.