Dominance in the NBA is cyclical. The main way to rise from the dregs of the league to championship contender is to draft a stud and build around him (think ‘00s Cavs or the present-day Bulls). But there are only one or two studs in every draft class, meaning that, for the majority of bad teams, it usually takes several years of picking in the lottery in order to lay the groundwork for a 50-win team or a top-four seed.
That’s certainly the case for most of the lottery teams this year, as it seems that the Raptors, Kings, and Clippers have been going through rebuilding forever. So why is it that these teams haven’t been able to escape their fate? Is it simply due to poor drafting, or is there something larger at work? Here’s a look at how every 2011 lottery team has fared over the past five drafts.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (from Clippers; Cavs also hold #4 pick)
2010-11 record: 19-63, last in Central Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: No picks; 2009: Christian Eyenga (#30); 2008: J.J. Hickson (#19); 2007: No picks; 2006: Shannon Brown (#25), Daniel Gibson (#42)
Picking in the lottery has been unfamiliar for the Cavs recently, as they had some pretty good teams when a guy by the name of James used to play there. Most of Cleveland’s picks over the past five years have come late in the draft, and there were two years that they didn’t pick anyone at all, having traded away all their draft choices in what would ultimately end up as failed attempts to build a supporting cast around LeBron. Of their recent selections, Hickson and Brown have had the most success, but neither is much more than a decent bench player (Hickson starts for the Cavs, but wouldn’t for most teams). It’s tough to get a read on how effective GM Chris Grant is at evaluating talent; this will be his first draft with the team since they didn’t have a pick last year, but I have to applaud him for snagging the Clippers’ pick this year, which turned out to be the #1 pick in the whole draft.
All indications are that they will grab Kyrie Irving at number one, and though they’d like Derrick Williams at #4, he may not be available by then. This is the Cavs’ first chance to do some meaningful rebuilding, and the outcome of this draft will likely determine the fate of the franchise for the next five to ten years.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves (also hold #20 pick)
2010-11 record: 17-65, last in Northwest Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: Wesley Johnson (#4), Lazar Haywood (#30, from Wizards); 2009: Ricky Rubio (#5), Jonny Flynn (#6), Wayne Ellington (#28); 2008: Kevin Love (#5, from Grizzlies); 2007: Corey Brewer (#7); 2006: Randy Foye (#7, from Celtics)
It’s been dark days in Minnesota recently, as the team has been on a steady decline since reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2004. They traded Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, but they haven’t gotten anything out of that deal, as the centerpiece, Al Jefferson, was shipped to the Jazz last summer. Their draft history over the past few years has been spotty at best. They selected Brandon Roy sixth overall in ’06 but flipped him straight up for Randy Foye, and it’s clear who won that trade. Brewer has been decent, and the TWolves probably shouldn’t have traded him this season, but he’s in Dallas now. Kevin Love was acquired on a draft night trade with Memphis for O.J. Mayo and some salaries, and he really came into his own this season, winning the league’s Most Improved Player award to go with his rebounding crown.
Things got weird in David Kahn’s first draft with Minnesota in 2009, as he selected three point guards in the first round (he traded Ty Lawson to Denver). That included two of the top six picks, one of whom, Ricky Rubio, has still yet to play an NBA game (though that should change next season). Basically, the ’09 draft was a big mess for the TWolves, mostly because of Kahn. They chose Rubio even though they knew he’d be reluctant to come to Minnesota, and immediately used the next pick as a de facto insurance policy in case Rubio decided to stay in Spain. The result is 32 wins over the past two seasons, while the team still lacks a viable point guard.
If Rubio turns out to be maestro that many painted him as two years ago and Wesley Johnson continues to develop and David Kahn doesn’t do anything crazy (like failing to draft either Derrick Williams or Enes Kanter), Minnesota could be on the road back to respectability. But right now, this team is more like a bunch of puzzle pieces on the floor. Some of them might not be oriented correctly, some of them might be missing, and some of them might not fit quite right. It’s going to take a while for this puzzle to be completed.
3. Utah Jazz (from Nets; Jazz also hold #12 pick)
2010-11 record: 39-43, 4th in Northwest Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: Gordon Hayward (#9); 2009: Eric Maynor (#20); 2008: Kosta Koufos (#23); 2007: Morris Almond (#25); 2006: Ronnie Brewer (#14), Paul Millsap (#47)
The Jazz are a franchise in a state of flux. A year ago, they had an identity: they ran Jerry Sloan’s flex offense, with a lot of pick and rolls centered around the two key pieces of their offense, Deron Williams, and Carlos Boozer. Now that all three are gone, along with Sloan’s long-time assistant Phil Johnson, it’s unclear what, exactly, the Jazz are. New head coach Tyrone Corbin went 8-20 during his stint at the end of last season, and instead of a core of Williams and Boozer, they now move forward with Devin Harris and Al Jefferson.
Neither of those guys are bad, but they’ve been in the league a combined 14 seasons now, and it’s clear that if they’re your two best guys, you’re not going to be very good. In a stronger year, two high draft picks would be just what a team in Utah’s position needed to rebuild. Instead, with the 2011 crop of prospects, the future doesn’t look too bright. Expect more of what we saw during the team’s 8-20 finish than the three 50-win seasons in four years that preceded it.
As far as past draft history, the Jazz have had a few effective picks and a few stinkbombs. Koufos and Almond were complete busts, though that becomes more likely the further you go down the draft board—it’s difficult to get a quality player picking at #23 and #25. Gordon Hayward didn’t do much last year, and I’m not too confident on his future as a player. He can shoot a little (49% FG, 47% 3FG on 74 3FGA), but he lacks strength and toughness, and frankly, I don’t think he’s athletic enough to guard the best small forwards in this league. But 2010 was a weak draft, so I’ll give the Jazz somewhat of a pass on that one. Maynor’s numbers aren’t great, but he’s been successful running the point for the Thunder’s second unit. ’06 was clearly the best draft among those listed, in which 12-year GM Kevin O’Connor got both Brewer, who’s now a nice bench piece for the Bulls, and Millsap, who blossomed as his first full season as a starter in ’10-’11. O’Connor’s draft record may not be spotless, but he landed Deron Williams at #3 in 2005, and has been largely out of the lottery since then (the Jazz’s#9 pick last year was originally the Knicks’ selection).
5. Toronto Raptors
2010-11 record: 22-60, last in Atlantic Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: Ed Davis (#13); 2009: DeMar DeRozan (#9); 2008: No picks (Roy Hibbert, #17, traded to Indiana along with others for Jermaine O’Neal); 2007: Giorgos Printezis (#58, from Spurs); 2006: Andrea Bargnani (#1)
It’s becoming more and more apparent that 47-win season and Atlantic Division title in 2006-07, GM Bryan Colangelo’s first year at the helm, was a massive aberration. They were lucky to play in a horrible division and were badly exposed in the playoffs, losing in the first round to 41-win New Jersey. Colangelo’s five drafts in charge have been, quite simply, incompetent. For two consecutive years, the Raptors either failed to make a selection or traded away their only pick.
Bargnani is a very weak #1 pick, and even though the ’06 draft wasn’t bursting with talent, it was clear from the outset Bargnani was never going to be a guy that you could build a team around. DeRozan made a leap last season, but I wonder how much of it was due to increased ability and how much was due to the simple fact that someone had to score with Chris Bosh gone (DeRozan shot 47% last season as opposed to 50% the year before). Ed Davis could give the Raptors something down the road, but he projects as more of a Brendan Haywood-type defensive big off the bench. I don’t know how much longer Colangelo’s going to stay around, but he needs to try and build through the draft as Toronto ranks near the bottom among NBA free agent destinations. I don’t have much optimism about this franchise, and, with the fifth pick in a poor draft, that isn’t likely to change soon.
6. Washington Wizards (also hold #18 pick)
2010-11 record: 23-59, last in Southeast Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: John Wall (#1), Kevin Seraphin (#17, from Bulls), Trevor Booker (#23, from Timberwolves); 2009: No picks; 2008: JaVale McGee (#18); 2007: Nick Young (#16); 2006: Oleksiy Pecherov (#18)
After a series of teams that were good enough to make the playoffs, but never good enough to make the conference finals in the mid-2000s, the Wizards have been one of the NBA’s worst franchises over the past three years, winning 19, 26, and 23 games. The pattern for GM Ernie Grunfeld over the past five years seems to involve drafting a raw, underdeveloped prospect and hoping that he evolves to become part of the Wizards’ core going forward. The one exception came in 2009, when Washginton sent the #5 pick to Minnesota for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, neither of whom are on the team today. The issue that has hampered the Wiz over the past few years, though, is that most of the guys Grunfeld has drafted have yet to take the next step.
McGee is still somewhat raw, but it’s clear he’s making strides, and the Wizards should be pleased about his development. Pecherov couldn’t make it in the NBA and now plays in Italy, while Booker and Seraphin didn’t show much off the bench as rookies last season. As for Wall and Young, right now they’re both volume scorers that don’t shoot particularly well. Wall also has a turnover problem that needs to be worked out. Wall has room for improvement—he is still 20, after all—but Washington still needs a guy that can score in the post and a knockdown shooter, and they’ll only be able to get one of those (if that) in this draft.
7. Sacramento Kings
2010-11 record: 24-58, last in Pacific Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: DeMarcus Cousins (#5); 2009: Tyreke Evans (#4), Omri Casspi (#23); 2008: Jason Thompson (#12); 2007: Spencer Hawes (#10); 2006: Quincy Douby (#19)
Geoff Petrie has been one of the more successful evaluators of talent in recent drafts, and apart from Quincy Douby, who lasted just four season in the league, every other first-round pick of the past five years has contributed for the Kings (though Hawes is now with the 76ers). Though it is debatable how the pieces will fit together in Sacramento, there is no denying that Evans and Cousins are both supremely talented. Evans isn’t a great shooter and isn’t point guard and Cousins is still a headcase, but you need still need talent to succeed and a team like the Kings will get it any way they can.
The bad news for Sacramento is that they are not a good team at all right now and need at least one bona fide star before they can become competitive. Acquiring said star is made more difficult by the fact that they have the #7 pick, by which time most of the big names will be off the board. Add to that the uncertainty regarding the franchise’s fate beyond next season, and free agents won’t exactly be jumping at the chance to sign in Sac-town. They can only hope to continue to stockpile talent and hope that they can eventually they get enough of it to become competitive.
8. Detroit Pistons
2010-11 record: 30-52, 4th in Central Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: Greg Monroe (#7); 2009: Austin Daye (#15); 2008: Walter Sharpe (#32, from Sonics); 2007: Rodney Stuckey (#15), Arron Afflalo (#27); 2006: Will Blalock (#60)
Joe Dumars’ personnel decisions have not been great recently, but it would be wrong to call the last five drafts a failure. Greg Monroe looked impressive in the last half of last season, Stuckey was the team’s top scorer last season (albeit at a shade under 16 PPG), while Afflalo really came into his own—for Denver. Obviously, Dumars’ most famous draft pick will forever be Darko Milicic at #2 in 2003 (when Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were all still on the board), but it’s been Dumars’ other failings as a GM—holding onto the aging core of their championship team a few years too long—that have brought about the Pistons’ malaise. The Pistons still need a head coach, and they need a good center like a fish needs water. Realistically, Detroit needs to upgrade/get younger at almost every position, so it would make sense to trade Richard Hamilton and Tracy McGrady to accomplish that task. Another thing to keep in mind: of the five starters on the championship team of 2004, only one was
drafted by the Pistons. Look for Dumars to start building his next title-winner through trades and free agency, rather than the draft.
9. Charlotte Bobcats (also hold #19 pick)
2010-11 record: 34-48, 4th in Southeast Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: No picks; 2009: Gerald Henderson (#12); 2008: D.J. Augustin (#9), Alexis Ajinca (#20); 2007: Jared Dudley (#22); 2006: Adam Morrison (#3)
2011 will mark the first draft for new GM Rich Cho, who served just one season as the Blazers’ GM before he was canned by owner Paul Allen. Cho didn’t even get to oversee last year’s draft, as, in an odd move, outgoing GM Kevin Pritchard made all the moves on draft night despite having already been fired. Cho has a reputation for being good with the salary cap as well as advanced metrics, so it should be interesting to see how his style meshes with owner Michael Jordan’s vision for the franchise. Jordan has had little success in a front-office role, as he not only oversaw the selection of Kwame Brown as the #1 pick with the Wizards in 2001, but also managed to dismantle a 44-win playoff team in a matter of months, which included sending Tyson Chandler to Dallas this past off-season for Matt Carroll, Erick Dampier, and Eduardo Najera.
As far as the Bobcats’ last few drafts are concerned, Charlotte has done okay, but clearly the Morrison pick in ’06 was a disaster, probably the worst pick of the past five years. Augustin did a pretty good job replacing Raymond Felton last season and Henderson is a decent player (though probably a bit less than what you’d expect from a lottery pick). Dudley has also found success in a bench role in Phoenix. The problem for Charlotte over the past few years is that they haven’t been quite bad enough to land a top-five pick, and the one year they did (’06), they blew it on Morrison. Consistently drafting in the lottery can get you some helpful players, but the Bobcats don’t need helpful players; they need great players.
10. Milwaukee Bucks
2010-11 record: 35-47, 3rd in Central Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: Larry Sanders (#15); 2009: Brandon Jennings (#10), Jodie Meeks (#41); 2008: Joe Alexander (#8), Luc Mbah a Moute (#37); 2007: Yi Jianlian (#7), Ramon Sessions (#56); 2006: David Noel (#39)
You could argue that the Bucks have had more success drafting in the second round than in the first. Under GM John Hammond (who took over in April 2008) and former GM Larry Harris before him, the Bucks’ second-rounder ended up being their best player in three consecutive drafts (they didn’t have a first-rounder in ’06), while Jodie Meeks has also been very good value at #41. It’s nice that Milwaukee’s been able to find talent in the second round, but it’s also telling that the Bucks have struck out on most of their first-rounders during that time. Alexander has played 8 NBA games over the past two seasons (and it’s not because he was injured), while Jianlian hasn’t lived up to the hype that surrounded his entrance to the league in ’07.
Even Jennings, who is one of the Bucks’ top players, has his faults, as he’s shooting under 38% FG for his career, which is awful when you’re a score-first point guard. It should also be noted that Milwaukee passed on Deron Williams and Chris Paul in favor of Andrew Bynum at the top of the ’05 draft—though that wasn’t nearly as bad as Atlanta, who passed on the two in favor of Marvin Williams.
11. Golden State Warriors
2010-11 record: 36-46, 3rd in Pacific Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: Ekpe Udoh (#6); 2009: Stephen Curry (#7); 2008: Anthony Randolph (#14); 2007: Brandan Wright (#7, from Bobcats), Marco Belinelli (#18); 2006: Patrick O’Bryant (#9)
Larry Riley enters his third draft in charge of the Warriors with a new ownership group (Peter Guber and Joe Lacob) and a new head coach (Mark Jackson). While Udoh did little to impress in his rookie season (4 PPG, 3 RPG, 1.5 blocks per game despite starting 18 games), Curry has a great shooter and has averaged 18 PPG in two NBA seasons. But under Chris Mullin from 2006-2008, the Warriors’ draft history gets a bit murkier. Everyone seems to think Anthony Randolph is a huge talent, but he’s now on his third team in as many seasons and still hasn’t had that breakout year. Brandan Wright’s been a mess, as has Patrick O’Bryant, while Belinelli didn’t develop until after leaving Golden State.
Going even further back, the Warriors have consistently drafted in the lottery since 1994 but have just one playoff appearance to show for it. It’s become clear that the Warriors can’t win with the all-offense, no-defense approach, and Jackson will probably choose to revamp the defense, which would involve drafting a defensive stopper at #11 this year. But it’s going to take a few painful years to fully shift the Warriors’ identity, during which time Golden State figures to make a at least a few more lottery selections.
13. Phoenix Suns
2010-11 record: 40-42, 2nd in Pacific Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: Gani Lawal (#46); 2009: Earl Clark (#14); 2008: Robin Lopez (#15), Goran Dragic (#45, from Spurs); 2007: Alando Tucker (#29); 2006: No picks (traded Rajon Rondo, #21, to Celtics, and Sergio Rodriguez, #27, to Blazers)
Notorious cheapskate owner Robert Sarver hasn’t put much emphasis on the draft during the Steve Nash era, and, as a result, the three GMs during that era, Bryan Colangelo, Steve Kerr, and now Lance Blanks (hired in August 2010), have been unable to sign some quality players during that time. In 2006, Rondo was traded for a 2007 first-rounder, which ended up being Rudy Fernandez (whom the Suns immediately shipped to Portland for cash). In 2005, the Suns drafted Marcin Gortat, but gave him up for cash. In 2004, the Suns traded Luol Deng, the #7 pick, for $3 million and a second-rounder.
All those guys would have helped the Suns, but all were discarded to keep the team’s cap figure low. Now that the Suns have Vince Carter’s $17 million salary coming off the books, money shouldn’t be an issue that prevents them from keeping their draft pick this year. Blanks has yet to fully commit to rebuilding, but that should be the move here. Despite a couple usable pieces over the past few seasons, Phoenix isn’t going anywhere with this group, and they owe it to Nash to trade him to a contender.
14. Houston Rockets
2010-11 record: 43-49, last in Southwest Division
Past five drafts (first-rounders and notable second-rounders): 2010: Patrick Patterson (#14); 2009: Chase Budinger (#44, from Pistons); 2008: Donte Green (#28, from Grizzlies); 2007: Aaron Brooks (#27), Carl Landry (#31, from Grizzlies); 2006: No first-rounder (Rudy Gay, #8, traded to Grizzlies)
The Rockets have been very active on draft night since Daryl Morey assumed his position in GM in 2007. They’ve been able to acquire some effective players in Budinger and Landry, though Morey’s advanced evaluation system sometimes gets in the way of continuity: Landry, Brooks, and Green are no longer with the team. In fact, of the 20 players that suited up for Rockets in 2010-11, precisely two were drafted by the team: Patterson, and Yao Ming, who played five games and was picked way back in 2002. So don’t expect the Rockets’ top choice this year to hang around for very long. Morey may have confidence in the moves he’s making, but it’s clear that his preference is to build through trades or undrafted free agents (such as starting center Chuck Hayes). Houston finished just three games out of the playoffs last season despite a 5-12 start, and they’re in a much better position than most of the teams picking in the lottery. They’ll be in playoff contention again next season no matter who they pick.
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