We’ve all heard the mantra before: tank, bottom out, draft a top pick, work your way up. That was the NBA formula for the longest time. Succeeding in the NBA without first bottoming out and drafting a top 5 pick was uncommon and usually based on luck.
But there's something interesting happening recently: aside from pure moral repugnance as elegantly argued by Brad, it seems that more than ever before teams are finding ways to uncover top-level talent and re-establish themselves as top teams without the need to completely bottom out. Take a look at the top 10 teams in the NBA in terms of win percentage this season:
Top 10 Teams in 2016/2017
|Cavaliers||Irving (1st), James (1st)|
|Celtics||No notable draftees|
|Jazz||Hayward (10th), Gobert (27th)|
|Rockets||No notable draftees|
|Warriors||Curry (7th), Thompson (11th), Green (35th)|
|Wizards||Wall (1st), Beal (3rd)|
Out of those ten teams, only four teams drafted top five to get key players. I say "only" four because that, from my experience watching the league, is low. Just compare that to the top ten teams from five years ago in the 2011/2012 season:
Top 10 Teams in 2011/2012
|Thunder||Durant (2nd), Westbrook (4th), Harden (3rd)|
Seven out of those ten teams had drafted top five to get to where they were.
Go back ten years to the 2006/2007 season:
Top 10 Teams in 2006/2007
|Dallas Mavericks||Nowitzki (9th)|
|Phoenix Suns||Stoudemire (9th)|
|San Antonio Spurs||Duncan (1st)|
|Houston Rockets||Yao (1st)|
|Utah Jazz||Williams (3rd)|
|Cleveland Cavaliers||LeBron (1st)|
|Chicago Bulls||Gordon (3rd)|
|Toronto Raptors||Bosh (4th)|
|Denver Nuggets||Anthony (3rd)|
Again, seven out of ten teams tanked at one point for a top 5 pick to help them climb up.
Still don't believe me? Go back 20 years to the the 1996/1997 season:
Top 10 Teams in 1996/1997
|Chicago Bulls||Jordan (3rd), Pippen (5th)|
|Utah Jazz||Malone (13th)|
|Miami Heat||Mourning (2nd)|
|Houston Rockets||Olajuwon (1st)|
|New York Knicks||Ewing (1st)|
|Seattle SuperSonics||Payton (2nd), Kemp (17th)|
|Los Angeles Lakers||Jones (10th)|
|Detroit Pistons||Hill (3rd)|
Six out of ten teams had at some point tanked for a top 5 pick to get them where they are. I'd wager that this ratio stays pretty consistent throughout NBA history. Tanking has been as fundamental to rebuilding an NBA team as apple pie is to America.
But now, for the first time since I can remember, there are more teams who climbed their way to the top of the league who didn't bottom out than there are who did. Moreover, look at the teams that were built through top 5 picks: the Cavaliers and Wizards are here to stay, but the Clippers are in decline after years of competing, and the Thunder are in limbo since Kevin Durant left in free agency.
The Warriors drafted just outside the top 5 to get Steph Curry (7th), but never blew up their roster and straight tanked into the bottom of the league. The Spurs built Kawhi Leonard in some secret basketball lab after taking him 15th. The Jazz did actually bottom out, selecting Dante Exum fifth overall in 2014, but their rise has more to do with Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward’s brilliance, with Exum barely a footnote this season. The Raptors made a great pick with DeMar DeRozan, and shrewdly traded for Kyle Lowry. The Celtics and the Rockets both acquired their best players by trade.
Looking at some of the up-and-coming teams in the league, it doesn't look like this trend is going to be reversed. You still have teams that tanked the traditional way like the Timberwolves, who grabbed Karl-Anthony Towns first overall. You have teams like the Bucks, whose best player Giannis Antetokounmpo was drafted with the 15th pick, relying much less on their top 5 pick Jabari Parker. The Blazers are basically a lesser version of the Warriors: one player drafted just outside the top 5 (Damien Lillard at 6), but they also nabbed steals via later in the draft (CJ McCollum) and trade (Jusuf Nurkic). And then you have teams like the Nuggets who got their franchise player Nikola Jokic in the second round.
The options for rebuilding appear to be much more diverse than ever. This era could be written of as a random blip, a small sample size when compared with the rest of NBA history. But I don't think its random; I actually have a theory why more teams are reaching the top without benefitting from drafting top 5.
The common thread between teams that were bad but became good used to be top 5 draft picks to find star players. But that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Star players are still the most important ingredient, but finding one doesn't seem to demand a top five draft selection anymore. Some teams do have top five picks, but others don't.
Here is my subjective list of core players on the top 10 teams in the NBA:
Core Players on Top 10 Teams
|Team||Player||Acquired via||Draft Pick #|
|Team||Player||Acquired via||Draft Pick #|
|Cavs||Kevin Love||Draft day trade||5|
|Cavs||Lebron James||Draft/Free Agency||1|
|Celtics||Al Horford||Free Agency||3|
|Rockets||James Harden||Free Agency/Trade||3|
|Spurs||LaMarcus Aldridge||Free Agency||2|
|Warriors||Kevin Durant||Free Agency||2|
The draft is still the best spot to grab core players. Out of that list, 14 players were acquired in the draft by that team (I'm including Lebron on that list since I don’t think he would have went back to the Cavaliers if he was drafted somewhere else) while 9 were acquired by trade or free agency. Out of those 14 players, six were top five picks and eight were taken after. Just to underline the point: there are now more core players on top teams drafted outside of the top five than drafted in the top five. That, in and of itself, is honestly amazing.
The common denominator isn't nabbing a Top 5 draftee anymore, its player development. Its more important to teach prospects how to play at the NBA level than it has ever been before. The reason why this is the case is because of rule changes implemented in the 2000s and the NBA's analytics revolution.
First, the rule changes: in the 2000s, a fellow by the name of Jerry Colangelo helped push the NBA to allow zone defenses in the game, which changed the way that NBA teams played defense. The aim was to push for a faster tempo and end unseemly “clear-outs” that were sucking the life out of the game.
Second is the analytic revolution and the push for more and more efficient offense. Points per possession has replaced points per game, and true shooting percentage has replaced field goal percentage. Offenses obsessively hunt for efficient shots like spot-up threes and layups. But not rigidly: some players have efficient midrange games. NBA teams merrily follow wherever the math takes them.
Because of these two developments, NBA offenses are more complex than ever before. Playbooks are thicker and require players to learn more complicated schemes on both offense and defense. And the dominant playtype has become the pick-and-roll, replacing the isolations and post-ups of the 90s and 2000s. According to the Synergy’s playtype stats, NBA teams as of today have run 44,246 plays for a pick-and-roll ballhandler. Compare that to a total of 19,072 isolation plays, and 17,298 post-ups. You're reading that correct: NBA teams have run more pick-and-rolls than isolations and post-ups combined.
The rule changes on zone defense have basically choked off one-on-one play in isolations and post-ups. Before the rule change, NBA defenses had to choose between a hard double-team or single coverage. Any defender caught in the no-man's land between two offensive players was whistled for illegal defense. But with the ability to zone, you can put defenders anywhere without legal consequences. Teams can use "soft" double teams, with defenders marauding in space without the need to be attached to an offensive player. This means that a help defender can help on the ball while still keeping the option of getting back to his man in his pocket. Isolations and post-ups simply do not generate as efficient looks as they used to, and with NBA offenses focusing so heavily on their numbers, they are adjusting accordingly.
The pick-and-roll is king because it generates shots with high points per possession value. Think of all of the options available in a pick-and-roll. The ballhandler can hit the roll-man going towards the rim. The screener can pop out for a jump shot. If the defense collapses, the ballhandler can pass to the weakside for those sweet, sweet spot-up threes. If the defense leaves the ballhandler, that's a wide open shot. And if the defense switches on the screen, that's an automatic mismatch for someone.
Pick-and-roll play is a lot like playing chess. The offense makes a move, the defense counters, and the offense must counter in turn. Coaches are turning to more and more deception in their playbooks to keep defenses off-balance. Defenses switch up their coverages to blow up the offense's plays. The mindgames are part of what makes the NBA's modern game so compelling.
But this also means that the demands on players are so much higher than ever before. In the isolation and post-up NBA of years past, players didn't need to have an advanced understanding of the game to have an impact on offense. The best play you could draw up was typically to just throw the ball to your star player and get out of the way. But pick-and-rolls require both the mental ability to diagnose a defense on the fly, plus the passing and shooting skill to make defenses pay for their choice. And this is even before we mention all of the complicated X's and O's that coaches put into their offenses to keep defenses off-balance.
There is so much to learn at the NBA level that I believe the only NBA teams who are going to escape the cellar are the ones who can teach all of these skills to their young players, whether its through top five picks or not. Top prospects at the AAU level are ill-equipped to jump right in like before. Now, I'm not saying that lower picks are better than higher ones in a vacuum, or that natural talent isn't important. Getting top picks definitely doesn’t bar you from restoring your franchise. My main point is that the top teams now have a more important ingredient in player development, and short-circuiting the player development structure just to get a high pick is a bad, bad idea. You will still have teams who tank the old-fashioned way and make their way to the top, but I am confident that they won't be able to do it without a proper player development program.
So where does that leave the Kings? They have won four of their last six games, much to the chagrin of people watching the tanking race. Personally, I'm more interested in if the Kings are developing their players properly than hoping they lose to go up the standings. Buddy Hield had trouble handling hard double teams out of the pick-and-roll when he first got here; how is he improving? Is Willie Cauley-Stein getting better at closing out shooters? Is Skal Labissiere improving in reading offenses and defenses? Is Georgios Papagiannis getting more decisive with his moves in the paint?
And while some argue that player development and tanking can be achieved at the same time by getting young guys experience in situations where they are set up to fail, I have my doubts that this is the best way to actually develop young talent. In the same way that you don't teach calculus to a third grader, there is merit to gradually increasing the young guys' exposure to higher levels of competition while developing their skills. The sheer volume of "stuff" NBA players need to know now can be overwhelming, and players could learn faster if they are given that "stuff" in small portions as opposed to being forced to digest it all whole.
So yes, sometimes that means that Anthony Tolliver will play over Skal in crunch time. I'm ok with that. Yes, sometimes this will mean that the Kings will win more games and lose out on draft position. I'm ok with that. And yes, the Kings are not very good so they will still lose often. I’m ok with that too, as long as the young players are learning the game and consistently getting better. If you ask me, so far, so good. Papagiannis looked completely lost in Summer League last year, and now he looks like he's ready for rotation minutes. Cauley-Stein looked like a total bust in December and now he's even rebounding the ball at a high level his last few games. Buddy has improved immeasurably from what he showed in New Orleans. Skal continues to look more comfortable in the offense. And the Kings will have two more lottery picks to add to the equation, and guide them through the same lumps the rookies took this season.
Even if you think I'm completely off my rocker here, you can't deny that there is opportunity for teams to find core players without tanking. Are any of the young guys currently on the roster potential core pieces on a top team? I don't know, but I'm not ruling it out. I'm far more concerned about the franchise as a whole being committed to a proper player development structure. If that means missing out on a top pick, then so be it.
That being said, this is just a theory in my head. It could still be just a random blip in NBA history. Moreover, teams might end up getting better at identifying who is more likely to succeed in the modern game, which would make those players go higher in the draft and re-establish a need for high picks. I don’t think its random, so I’m perfectly fine with watching to see how things play out.
Either way, its best for the franchise to continue to develop the youth, and maybe the future isn’t so dim after all.