While it is true that there are other ways to build your team from year-to-year, the draft is the only organic way to acquire talent. Free agency is great - you get a known commodity (usually!) but it is dangerous to count on, since you never know for sure what players you are able to sign. In order to field a strong team, you need to acquire talent through the draft - if you trade them away to land other assets, it still took an astute evaluation of the talent to get the players you need.
How are championship teams actually put together? Lets look at the last 5 NBA champions and see how they built their teams. We will look at the top 3 or 4 players in PER*MP for each team.
2012 - Miami Heat
LeBron James - 71408 - Free Agency
Chris Bosh - 37932 - Free Agency
Dwane Wade - 42737 - Drafted
2011 - Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki - 58594 - Drafted
Tyson Chandler - 37886 - Trade
Shawn Marion - 38301 - Trade
Jason Terry - 40768 - Trade
2010 Los Angeles Lakers
Andrew Bynum - 39935 - Drafted
Kobe Bryant - 62086 - Drafted
Pau Gasol - 55029 - Traded
2009 - Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant - 72224 - Drafted
Pau Gasol - 66578 - Trade
Lamar Odom - 38445 - Trade
2008 - Boston Celtics
Kevin Garnett - 58898 - Trade
Paul Pierce - 56330 - Drafted
Ray Allen - 43033 - Trade
2007 - San Antonio Spurs
Tim Duncan - 71149 - Drafted
Manu Ginobili - 49646 - Drafted
Tony Parker - 53479 - Drafted
Only 8 of the 17 players that were the major contributors to a title had been drafted by the team that they took to a championship, but only 2/16 were actually signed in free agency. This just shows that (at least over the last six years) it is vitally important to acquire assets in the draft so you can play them, or at least trade them for who you want.
In today's NBA, free agency greatly favors the stronger teams - great players want to win. And in order to trade for the players you need to complete your team, you need to have assets - thats where drafting wins you championships. The Heat don't land LeBron without drafting Wade. Every championship team is built by acquiring talent, and the biggest part of that is on draft night.
I've analyzed the NBA draft for the last ten drafts - 2002-2011 (2012 would be useless to analyze, since they haven't played yet). I compared the results for each team with their winning percentage over the last ten years. For each team, I compared the value they got out of their draft with the Expected Value of the picks they got "credit" for. To get "credit" for a draft pick, the team must either draft with their own pick and keep the player, or acquire a player's draft rights near draft time (usually on draft night, but occasionally afterwards).
Over the ten year span, I have winning percentages for each team, ranking from .358 (Charlotte) to .706 (San Antonio). Then I have the draft successes. Of the 30 teams, 15 have gotten over 100% of their Expected Value, and 15 have gotten less. The most successful team (Boston) has gotten 149% of its expected value. The least successful team drafting, the Clippers, has only gotten 68.5% of their Expected Value.
Can You Win Without Good Drafting?
While everyone knows that drafting better players correlates with winning basketball games, its nice to know that the system works, so lets analyze the results. Only 4 teams have a winning record over the last 10 years without also getting over 100% their Expected Value on draft night. The teams are: Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, and
Denver has only had two bad drafts in the last decade: 2002 (picking Nikoloz Tskitishvili 5th) and 2005 (picking Julius Hodge 20th). Since then, they have consistently had good drafts or gotten rid of all their picks (you can't mess up a draft if you trade the picks for proven commodities). They also turned Carmelo Anthony into a lot of assets. Still, definitely an exception with overall poor draft performance and a .551 winning percentage.
Phoenix is an even better example of poor drafting and yet still winning, having had only two good drafts in the last decade. Their Nash aqcuisition really propelled them a long ways, with a .595 winning percentage and one great pick (Amare).
Houston has drafted just below 100% of their Expected Value and yet has a winning percentage of .562. They have been good enough since they drafted Yao Ming in 2002 to avoid any high draft picks. While they are at 98%, they are only 13966 points away from being at 0%, the closest of any team to breaking even.
So, to recap - only 4 teams posted winning records without good draft results, and one of them was very close to breaking even.
Can You Lose While Drafting Well?
There are ways to win in the NBA without drafting well - so of course there are other ways to lose, too. It only takes a few really horrible free agent signings to completely tank a franchise. Fortunately for my analysis, it seems the teams that draft well are more likely to run their team well - there are only 5 teams that have a positive draft record and have managed to post a losing record: the Wizards, Knicks, Hornets, Kings, and 76ers.
The Wizards are barely positive with the draft at 102% of Expected Value, but they suffered from Michael Jordan's mismanagement from 2000-2003 and then the Gilbert Arenas era (four productive years for the Wizards and two contracts signed worth a total of $170 Million).
The Knicks are the classic case of great drafting and horrible management. To quote Bill Simmons (pretending to quote Isiah) "If you look at what I've done over the years, I always drafted well: Stoudamire, T-Mac, Camby, Frye, Ariza … you want to stockpile as many assets as possible, only because it gives you more options to do something dumb." What more can I say?
The Hornets (winning percentage: .488) have gotten an impressive 131.8% of their Expected Value over the last ten years. Their winning percentage the last five years (after they moved back to New Orleans) is .530 - they had some bad years when they were in Oklahoma City.
Sacramento, despite their winning percentage over the last ten years of .456, has drafted from the second round or late in the first round the first five years of our analysis, 2002-2006. Since then, their first picks have been 10, 12, 4, 5, and 10. Their drafting record is stellar, having had only 1 year the past 10 under 100% of Expected Value (2006 when they picked Quincy Douby 19th with their only pick). Their winning percentage the last 5 years is an atrocious .320, even worse than the 10 year mark. Either the Kings are going to start winning titles now, or they are one of the worst-managed teams in the history of the league.
Philadelphia is the best example of good drafting and a bad record - boasting a ridiculous 147.3% value from drafting while posting a .474 winning percentage. The 76ers are a study of mediocrity - always playing well enough to avoid drafting too high (Iguodala 9th in 2004 being their only top 10 selection), but never having the talent to really start winning.
Ranking The Best Drafting Teams
So, to summarize the last two sections: 3 teams drafted poorly with winning records, and 5 teams drafted well and had losing records. That means 23 teams either posted winning records with positive draft results, or posted losing records with negative draft resuluts (under 100% Expected Value).
So we are left with the results! Here are the teams that have gotten the best value for their picks from 2002-2011. Of course, these rankings could all change a lot since the majority of the players are still playing, but this is how it stands today.
- Boston Celtics 148.9%
- Philadelphia 76ers 147.2%
- Sacramento Kings 138.0%
- New Orleans Hornets 131.8%
- Cleveland Cavaliers 131.5%
- Miami Heat 128.1%
- Los Angeles Lakers 117.8%
- New York Knicks 116.2%
- Indiana Pacers 113.6%
- Utah Jazz 112.8%
- Detroit Pistons 111.6%
- Orlando Magic 105.5%
- San Antonio Spurs 104.4%
- Washington Wizards 102.2%
- Chicago Bulls 101.4%
- Houston Rockets 98.32%
- Milwaukee Bucks 97.37%
- Atlanta Hawks 93.61%
- Oklahoma City Thunder 91.45%
- Memphis Grizzlies 90.72%
- Phoenix Suns 89.28%
- Charlotte Bobcats 88.19%
- Denver Nuggets 82.86%
- Toronto Raptors 82.82%
- Brooklyn Nets 80.83%
- Dallas Mavericks 80.55%
- Portland Trail Blazers 79.77%
- Golden State Warriors 77.49%
- Minnesota Timberwolves 72.65%
- Los Angeles Clippers 68.46%
And here is each team, with every pick they get credit for over the last ten years.
(note: Houston no longer has credit for Luis Scola)
(note: San Antonio now has credit for Luis Scola)
Part I: Determining the expected value of a draft pick
Part II: Ranking the Strongest NBA Drafts
Part IV: We evaluate every NBA GM since 2002 - Coming Soon
Part V: Who did they miss? Looking at the undrafted free agents in the NBA - Coming Soon