It was an exciting weekend for basketball fans. No, there were no games played, but the NBA draft is unofficially the start of next season. The draft was Thursday night and fans and analysts spent the next few days trying to see how improved their local teams were.
Hopes (and season ticket sales) in Cleveland and Denver may have gotten a boost, but where do 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. Two years ago during the summer of 2001, the favorites to win the 2002 NBA title were the Lakers at even-money and the Spurs at 6-1. Last summer, the favorites to win this past season’s title were the Kings, Lakers and Spurs. None had high draft picks those years.
Bad teams almost never turn things around in one season. Only two 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-Jabbar). 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, post a league-best 61-21 record.
The greatest turnaround ever was the 1998 Spurs, going from 20-62 to 56-26. 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 fell 42 below .500 because center David Robinson missed the season. They lucked out with the No. 1 pick in the draft (with an 8% chance), nabbed Tim Duncan and have since won two titles.
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 Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Abdul-Jabbar, 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 No. 1 overall draft picks).
Look at last season, with 7-foot-5 Yao Ming as the top pick. While he didn’t dominate, Ming certainly wasn’t a bust with a productive rookie season of 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Yet, the Rockets didn’t even make the playoffs. Clearly there are giant steps from the lofty expectations of being a high draft pick, to blossoming into an All-Star and turning your team’s fortunes around. Winning is tough and takes time. Just ask the Clippers, Nuggets, Warriors, Wizards, Cavaliers and Grizzlies.
Two things stand out: The Vegas linemakers are pretty good, aren’t they? None of those teams ”” all with high draft picks ”” even made the playoffs.
There are so many unknowns with draft picks. A scout can evaluate a 20-year old player’s jumping ability and passing skills, 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. Looked what happened to Chicago guard Jay Williams last week ”” a promising career now up in the air because of foolish motorcycle accident.
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 percent before Olowakandi, to 9-40 (18 percent in the strike year), 15-67 (18 percent), 31-51 (37 percent), 38-43 (47 percent) and 27-55 (33 percent) last season.
Even the great Michael Jordan didn’t win his first NBA title until his seventh season. In 1984, the Bulls went 27-55 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.
Good luck, LeBron and Carmelo! Fans and sports bettors need to understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Draft day is fun, but rarely do organizations turn things around in one offseason.
Look at the projected over/under win totals over the last two seasons for the worst teams in the NBA and then the actual number of games they ended up winning:
2001-02 season following NBA Draft
Team OV/UN Actual wins
Grizzlies 18 wins 23
Bulls 19 wins 21
Warriors 23 wins 21
Cavaliers 27 wins 29
Nuggets 27 wins 27
2002-03 season following NBA Draft
Team OV/UN Actual wins
Nuggets 16 wins 17
Cavaliers 23Â½ 17
Grizzlies 28 28
Warriors 28 38
Bulls 30Â½ 30