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A Brief History of Consecutive Top-5 Picks

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Based on past trends, the future looks bright for the Kings.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets
A Recent Pair of Top-5 Picks
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

(Editorial Note: Welcome Richard Ivanowski to the Sactown Royalty team! You might recognize him from the FanPosts, under his old name of twowayplayer)

Now that the Kings are slated to have their second top-5 draft pick in as many years, I decided to examine the recent history of teams that have been in their position. I looked through the top of each draft over the last few years and found that it’s a fairly common occurrence. Since the 2010 draft, sixteen teams have had a top-5 pick. Of those sixteen, more than half have had the honor in at least two consecutive years.

While it usually stops at two, there are some exceptions. Philadelphia has drafted there in each of the last four seasons and Cleveland actually had five top-5 picks from 2011 to 2014. Two other teams, the Magic and the Lakers, drafted there three years in a row, but interestingly both teams traded away one of those picks before their rookie deals were done. The aforementioned Sixers did the same and Cleveland actually moved on from three of their five picks. So the only three-deep core of top-5 picks since 2010 is the Fultz-Simmons-Embiid triumvirate in Philly, and they have barely played together due to various major injuries. So really, these examples are about highly touted duos.

The point is that there have been ten instances of consecutive top-5 picks since 2010 and the Kings will become the eleventh this offseason. While each teams path from that point has not been identical, they have more similarities than differences and are easy to compare on general terms. So I went looking for trends and I found a lot of them. Spoiler alert: They spell very good news for the Sacramento Kings.

In the figure below, I have compiled the win percentage of the last ten teams to pick in the top-5 twice in a row. From left to right, you will see the team name, the year of their second top-5 pick, their win percentage in the year before that pick, and their win percentage in the three years following that pick. With a situation like Philadelphia, where a team drafted in the top-5 more than twice, their timeline on the chart does not change. The Sixers made their second consecutive top-5 pick in 2015, so that’s where their data begins. Following the chart is a brief summary of the picks and progress for each team.

Win% Following Consecutive Top-5 Picks

Team 2nd Top-5 Pick Previous Win% Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Team 2nd Top-5 Pick Previous Win% Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Celtics 2017 0.646 0.671 ? ?
Suns 2017 0.293 0.256 ? ?
Lakers 2016 0.207 0.317 0.427 ?
T'Wolves 2016 0.354 0.378 0.573 ?
76ers 2015 0.220 0.122 0.341 0.634
Magic 2015 0.305 0.427 0.354 0.305
Wizards 2013 0.354 0.537 0.561 0.500
Bobcats 2013 0.256 0.524 0.402 0.585
Cavaliers 2012 0.318 0.293 0.402 0.646
T'Wolves 2011 0.207 0.394 0.378 0.488
Average 0.316 0.392 0.430 0.526
The Last Ten Teams with Top-5 Picks in Back-to-Back Years

2017 Celtics

If any team were not representative of this sample it would be the 2017 Celtics, as they were already a 50-win team by the time they made their second top-5 pick. No other team on this list had even 30 wins when they made theirs. The Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum following Jaylen Brown’s rookie year, with their rebuilding process already near completion. Both picks came from other teams in previous trades. Regardless, they don’t distort the numbers as their improvement was actually less than average in the one season they have played since. The two youngsters have been stunning together in their first year as teammates, and are currently lighting up the postseason.

2017 Suns

Josh Jackson joined Dragan Bender last offseason as the second consecutive 4th overall pick on the Suns roster. They were one of only three teams on this list to see their win total drop in Year 1. It’s tempting to try rationalizing their performance by noting that neither pick was top-3 or that they purposefully tanked late in the season, but the reality is simply that these two players have yet to pop (particularly Bender, as Jackson hit a stride in the second half of the year). But with the top pick in the upcoming draft, improvement in Year 2 is very likely.

2016 Lakers

The Lakers drafted Brandon Ingram with the 2nd pick in 2016, one year after they took D’Angelo Russell in the same spot. They have shown consistent improvement and even drafted another 2nd overall pick in Lonzo Ball after trading Russell away. Due to their success in the last few drafts, they are poised to sign some big name free agents and make a serious run at the playoffs. That is an aspect of high draft picks that often is forgotten. When a team builds a young core on rookie scale contracts, it leaves plenty of space to bring in elite free agents. The Lakers are an attractive destination on a number of levels, and will head into the offseason with the most cap space in the league by a mile.

2016 Timberwolves

Minnesota is a textbook example of an efficient rebuild. They won only 16 games in 2014-15, but landed their franchise player in Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick. A year later they won 29 games – a big improvement, but not enough to keep them out of the top-5 in the following draft. In 2016 they selected Kris Dunn, who was eventually used to help bring Jimmy Butler in from Chicago via trade. They added another couple pieces in free agency and BOOM – playoffs.

2015 76ers

The Sixers are a unique case. They picked Embiid in 2014, but he didn’t play a single game until two years later. Their second top-5 pick was a bust in Jahlil Okafor. They stayed bad enough to land Ben Simmons 1st overall in 2016, but he also missed his entire first season. Trading and pick hoarding helped them get back to the top spot again, and strangely enough, they got another player who couldn’t stay on the court. They have had an extremely unconventional rebuild, but a successful one nonetheless. They nearly tripled their win percentage from Year 1 to Year 2, then almost doubled it again in Year 3, going 52-30 on the season.

2015 Magic

The Magic had easily the most disappointing results of any of these ten teams. They picked Oladipo 2nd in 2014 and followed that up with Aaron Gordon at pick 4 in 2015. They improved greatly in their first year together, taking their win total from 25 to 35. But management made the curious decision of trading Oladipo the following offseason in a package for Serge Ibaka. It appears they gave up on him too soon, as he has only gotten better while the Magic’s win percentage has dropped each year since his departure. Of the six teams on this list who have played three full seasons since their second consecutive top-5 selection, they were the only one to fail to hit the 40-win mark.

2013 Wizards

The selections of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter in consecutive years has certainly been a boon for the Wizards. They immediately jumped up to .500+ basketball, but also seemingly hit their ceiling. Part of their success, and their inability to take the next step, is related to an earlier top-5 pick. The Wizards drafted John Wall with the 1st overall back in 2010. And while he has now appeared in five straight All-Star games, the timing of these picks has become a problem for Washington. All three players have been extended on maximum deals, which means it will be difficult for them to get any better without tearing their core apart. Despite that limitation, four playoff appearances in the last five years amounts to a very successful rebuild.

2013 Bobcats

The Bobcats, who became the Hornets after Year 1 in the above table, are the most difficult situation to parse of all these teams. They drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 2nd in 2012 and saw their win total rise by 14. Then they got Cody Zeller 4th in 2013 and watched their wins rise again, this time by 22. That improvement was the second largest of any of the teams on this list, behind only the 76ers of this past year. The thing is, Neither MKG nor Zeller lived up to their lofty expectations. Kidd-Gilchrist was immediately a serviceable starter and has remained exactly that, but has never come close to All-Star consideration. Zeller, on the other hand, took a while to reach starter level and has since been average at best. The truth is that the credit for their success belongs to the 9th pick in 2011 (Kemba Walker) and the acquisition of Al Jefferson through free agency in 2013.

2012 Cavaliers

The Cavaliers actually had two top-5 picks right off the bat, drafting Kyrie Irving 1st and Tristan Thompson 4th in the 2011 draft. The following season they chose Dion Waiters with the 3rd pick. Sometimes it only takes one guy to hit for a franchise to turn around. Knowing they already had their guy in Kyrie, they moved a secondary prospect for pieces and brought in free agents. The Cavs used Waiters similarly to how the Wolves used Kris Dunn. This time it was J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and a future 1st rounder that were acquired. The free agent, of course, was LeBron James. It might be easy to attribute all of their success to LeBron’s arrival, but that would be an oversimplification. The Cavs went from 21 to 33 wins without him, and they would have had no chance to sign King James without the flashes of superstardom that Kyrie was already showing.

2011 Timberwolves

This earlier example of a Wolves rebuild was very similar to the Bobcats (now Hornets) situation. The Wolves picked Wesley Johnson 4th in 2010 and Derrick Williams 2nd in 2011. The team showed consistent improvement each year after their second consecutive top-5 pick, watching their win totals steadily rise from 17 to 26, 31, and finally 40. But both picks proved to be busts, and were traded away within their first three seasons. The progress was almost entirely due to the emergence of Kevin Love, who became a superstar on a team that couldn’t put the right pieces around him. So after topping out just below .500, the Wolves moved him to Cleveland and began the rebuild again. With their similarities to the present day Hornets, one can’t help but wonder if Charlotte needs to do the same this year with Kemba Walker.

Summary of Progress

Timeline Win% Improvement Total Wins Added
Timeline Win% Improvement Total Wins Added
Year 1 0.076 6.22
Year 2 0.114 9.33
Year 3 0.210 17.25
An Average of All Ten Teams Listed

What is in store for Sacramento? Well, sometimes you have to look to the past to predict the future.

2010 Kings

The last time the Kings had consecutive top-5 picks was 2009 and 2010. Fans will remember this well. Tyreke Evans was taken 4th and went on to win Rookie of the Year. He was joined by the 5th pick in the following year, DeMarcus Cousins. Expectations spiked in Sacramento again, and it felt certain that a return to the playoffs was not far off. But a high rate of turnover among the roster and coaches coupled with nagging injuries to their prized picks (combined to miss 87 games) spelled stagnation in their three years together. The Kings won only 24, 22, and 28 games. Evans departed in free agency and Cousins was eventually traded when his situation grew to be similar to Kevin Love’s in Minnesota. It’s now been twelve years since the team had a winning season.

2018 Kings

Clearly it’s too early to be sure what the next few years will hold. The draft is still two months away and we can’t even be sure that Kings management doesn’t trade out of the top-5. Though it’s clear, after reviewing recent history, that doing so would be a mistake. It comes down to making the right picks and keeping them around long enough to grow together. If their picks bust like the 2011 Wolves or 2013 Bobcats, it might take an unlikely hero to improve the Kings fortunes. If they start moving on from players too early, like the 2015 Magic, they may end up back at square one. But if they build a core of young players and add to it through free agency, the sky is the limit for these Kings.

So will history repeat itself or will this new combination of top-5 picks match the recent trend? If they are able to just keep pace with the performance of the last ten teams in their position, their win totals project to be 33 next year, 36 in Year 2, and 44 after that. Think it’s crazy? The rest of the league doesn’t seem to agree. It will take time and a little bit of luck, but if the Kings play this right there could be playoff basketball in Sacramento again by 2021.