The success of the Golden State Warriors has been a divisive development within the NBA community. The simplest reason is that their dominance was hard for some to grasp due to its out-of-nowhere nature. It was also the definitive final strike for Charles Barkley’s antiquated “you can’t win a championship shooting jump shots” mantra. Another factor that threw people off is that, dating back to Michael Jordan’s first three-peat, “Alpha Dog” point guards just didn’t win titles. Steve Nash and John Stockton retired without rings, while Gary Payton and Jason Kidd got theirs as bit players supporting Hall of Famers in their prime.
With those debates largely cast aside, a new point of contention has emerged. In a league with the ever-controversial Philadelphia 76ers and their trusting of the process, old school NBA people who may have once doubted Golden State’s style of play have now latched on to them as the anti-Sixers in regards to team building. The Warriors have a couple high lottery picks on the roster, but they’re Andrew Bogut and Shaun Livingston, quality but aging role players with lengthy injury histories, as opposed to their stars. For those who think the Sixers are a black eye for the league, a core of Stephen Curry (picked seventh), Klay Thompson (11th), Draymond Green (35th) and Harrison Barnes (seventh) isn’t an outlier, it’s proof that tanking isn’t necessary.
But is that true? Or are the odds of grabbing a franchise changer without the aid of ping pong balls greater than commonly thought? Let’s examine recent draft history.
These are somewhat arbitrary cutoffs, but our sample size includes players who entered the NBA in the last 25 years and fit at least one of the following:
-5+ All-Star team selections
-2+ All-NBA First or Second Team selections
-Active All-Stars who are locks to hit the criteria barring serious injury
Basically we’re looking for players with sustained peaks who could reasonably be considered top 10 players in the league at some point in their career.
Our pool of players, sorted by draft class: Gary Payton, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, Ben Wallace, Tim Duncan, Chauncey Billups, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, Tony Parker, Yao Ming, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, Marc Gasol, Derrick Rose (an exception due to how much he accomplished at a young age before the injuries), Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, James Harden, Stephen Curry, John Wall, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard
(Notable exclusions: Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson are uncertain bets for either, as they’ll have two All-Star nods at age 26, and have heavy competition for breaking into First/Second All-NBA. Also, Rajon Rondo could conceivably still join the club with his four All-Star selections and Third Team All-NBA. Latrell Sprewell, Vin Baker, Peja Stojakovic, Elton Brand, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy and Joakim Noah were the most decorated players excluded.)
First, if teams don’t need to tank, bottom out or get lucky in the lottery to land a transformational player, that means picking the next Curry outside the top five, so we’ll throw out everyone selected in that range.
Eliminates (32): Payton, Mutombo, Shaq, Mourning, Webber, Penny, Hill, Kidd, Garnett, Iverson, Allen, Duncan, Billups, Carter, Pau, Yao, LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade, Dwight, CP3, LMA, Durant, Rose, Westbrook, Love, Griffin, Harden, Wall, Kyrie, Brow
Remaining (14): Kobe, Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, Big Ben, T-Mac, Dirk, Pierce, Joe Johnson, Parker, Amar’e, Marc Gasol, Curry, Paul George, Lillard
Well, over 70 percent of the field has already been thinned out. Now let’s remove high schoolers, since that’s a high-risk, high-reward market that can no longer be mined. High schoolers often fell because of the high bust rate and the difficulty projecting players so young to the NBA game (Harrison Barnes is just one example of a player scouted more accurately after college than high school). With the one-and-done system, much of the uncertainty is now gone, providing more clarity for front offices.
Eliminates: Kobe, Jermaine O’Neal, T-Mac, Amar’e.
Remaining: Nash, Big Ben, Dirk, Pierce, Joe Johnson, Parker, Marc Gasol, Curry, George, Lillard
Now we can filter foreign players, since they’re the current version of high schoolers. As young players (Giannis, Porzingis, Hezonja, etc.) in lesser leagues, they can be hard to project and their buyout situations or delay in coming overseas can artificially deflate draft stock (think Nikola Mirotic or Dario Saric).
Eliminates: Dirk, Parker, Gasol
Remaining: Nash (Canadian, but went to Santa Clara), Wallace, Pierce, Iso Joe, Curry, George, Lillard
That leaves just seven players, and only five who’ve actually hit the criteria. Of the seven, it’s fair to say only Nash, Pierce and Curry put their teams into title discussion on a consistent basis. Now, this omits other young stars picked outside the top five like Kawhi Leonard and Andre Drummond, except those guys are in the same sub-category as George and Lillard. Maybe one or more jump up a level, but as now, there’s essentially been three franchise changers in the last 25 years who played in college, and Nash didn’t even hit his peak until pairing up with Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix.
The Warriors have done plenty of smart things since getting the franchise in order, but other teams passing on Curry and him then turning into one of the greatest players ever (he’s moving beyond just shooting-related accolades) isn’t exactly a blueprint to copy. The opposite is true of the Sixers, as although there are definitely faults they’ve committed along the way, they’re giving themselves the best chance to draft an elite player. Only 46 players overall made the list, a pace of under two a year entering the league, so Philly missing out on one thus far can’t be that surprising. The Warriors are simply an anomaly. They’re not to be replicated, merely appreciated.