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NBA Finals Prove That Draft Success Comes From Everywhere, Not Just The Top

Is the majority of value in the draft found in the top picks? You don’t have to look any further than this year’s NBA Finals for proof that teams can succeed without high-end lottery selections, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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With the NBA Draft now only two weeks away — as is always the case — it is prime time for pundits, fans and even front offices to over-index the value of high draft picks. But one misnomer that’s subconsciously reiterated year-after-year is that the majority of value in the draft often comes in the first three or so selections. And that’s simply untrue.

First, let’s step back and state for the record that draft picks are majorly important for two main reasons: They allow teams to lock in young talent relatively cheaply for fairly long periods of time – for example, the No. 14 pick in this month’s draft will make only $2.78 million in his first season and will be locked in for at least three years. Additionally, these picks afford teams the opportunity to invest in their futures by selecting players with desirable upside. When those type of long-term picks pan out, franchises can end up with high ceiling guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 15 or Jimmy Butler at No. 30 overall.

But drafting is far from an exact science and selecting at the front end of the draft offers no guarantees that players will maximize their potential. In fact, one could argue that there is tremendous pressure on teams to hit a home run with a top-three pick. And there is more that goes into a selection than just the perceived talent alone. Of course, there’s the potential for players to develop differently than anticipated, while injuries or an inability to withstand the pressures can also derail careers –- all of the above can turn a sure thing into a bust.

Sure, the success rate of talent materializing in the NBA is at least as good as it is in MLB, NHL or even the NFL; however, there are still a lot of missteps that take place on the early side of most basketball drafts.

And the opposite is also true: There are tons of hidden gems in most drafts that go overlooked by front offices, those who end up being All-Stars, All-NBA or even MVPs. For proof, you don’t have to look any further than this year’s Finals to see that teams can succeed without high-end lottery picks on the roster.

The Golden State Warriors have a fair amount of high draft picks, most notably Kevin Durant — who was drafted No. 2 overall in 2007.

But when examining the Warriors’ core-four, Durant is the only former top-three pick. Stephen Curry was drafted No. 7 overall in 2009 from the mostly-unknown Davidson College — and after two other point guards. There was doubt around his durability and how well he would translate to the pros considering the level of competition he played against in the Atlantic 10 Conference, so six other teams passed on him. Remember, David Kahn, former President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, passed on Curry with consecutive picks — instead selecting Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn.

Klay Thompson was selected No. 11 overall in 2011 behind a number of guys who are no longer in the NBA, including Derrick Williams, Jan Vesley and Jimmer Fredette. (Of note, Fredette played for the Phoenix Suns for the final six games of the 2018-19 season after a two-plus season absence.)

Then there’s Draymond Green, who was picked No. 35 overall in 2012. The second-rounder epitomizes this concept better than any other Golden State contributor to-date. And it’s not like Green flew under the radar or came up through a less-visible program — on the contrary, he played for Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Naturally, Green was drafted just prior to the beginning of the position-less era — in which his value has increased significantly — but Green has had as much to do with ushering in this new age as anyone. And, yes, he’s developed on a very different trajectory than most pro-scouts expected, but therein lies the point.

Looking beyond the Warriors’ core-four, there are two other players worth mentioning: Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Iguodala was selected outside of the top three  — at No. 9 overall in 2004 — and Livingston went with the fourth pick in 2004.

So the Warriors support the argument in that their main rotation today consists of just player selected in the top three. But if the Warriors support the notion, then the Toronto Raptors are the fully-fleshed out realization. The Raptors’ entire team is built on the premise that talent can be identified and cultivated outside of the first few selections (and even outside the lottery).

Exhibit 1: Kawhi Leonard, the current frontrunner for Finals MVP should the Raptors pull off the upset, was selected No. 15 overall in 2011.

Additionally, Kyle Lowry was selected No. 24 overall in 2006, while Pascal Siakam — the frontrunner for 2018-19 Most Improved Player who scored a career-high 32 points in Game 1 — was taken No. 27 overall in 2016. Both are key contributors on a team up 2-to-1 in the NBA Finals. And both were less-than-heralded prospects relative to the top of their respective draft classes.

Beyond that, there’s Serge Ibaka (No. 24 overall in 2008), Danny Green (No. 46, 2009) and Marc Gasol (No. 48, 2007) as veteran standouts as well. To top it all off, the Raptors frequently utilize both Norman Powell (No. 46, 2015) and Fred VanVleet, who went undrafted in 2016, and they’ve been essential to Toronto this postseason.

To summarize, the 2018-19 Eastern Conference winner’s entire roster features zero top three picks. And zero lottery picks. Zero.

Contrast the success of the Warriors — and, more importantly, the Raptors and their limited top-end lottery picks — with that of the New York Knicks’ current squad.

The Knicks closed the 2018-19 season with six lottery picks on their roster and they finished with the worst record in the league.

While the Knicks’ front office has been led by four different Presidents of Basketball Operations since 2010 (with Steve Mills serving in that role twice) — a conclusion that has surely resulted in a less-cohesive vision for team building and development — the team won less than three games per lottery pick on its roster this past season. Ultimately, the fact that the Knicks have six former lottery picks on their roster and the Raptors have none speaks volumes.

So, then what are we to take from this?

The point is not to say that drafting early is a detriment and, needless to say, some high-end lottery picks turn into the best players — e.g., LeBron James, James Harden and Anthony Davis, for starters. But rather, it shows that selecting in the top three, five, etc. does not guarantee future successes. More importantly, perhaps, that despite all the noise made about the top prospects every season, that loads of talent exists outside the early ends of the draft.

Inevitably, the most successful teams capitalize on all draft selections — they don’t trade their mid-first round picks, nor do they package away future picks. Great organizations do their due diligence on players available to them and make the best possible selections accordingly. So, even if a team you follow is picking outside of the lottery this month, you can rest assured that there is still ample opportunity to add top-tier talent, both now and years down the line.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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