We've been talking a lot about the "right path" to follow in the NBA lately. We've turned our back on Philadelphia and have praised the Blazers. Now, the reality is that there's not some set rule for what works in the NBA. That said, in a league of copycat teams, it's surprising that a model that's been used for franchise players seems to get ignored.
First off, I noticed an interesting thing while looking at Finals MVPs yesterday. Here's a rundown of Finals MVPs from the last ten finals:
- 2015 - Andre Iguodala, drafted 9th (not by Finals winning team)
- 2014 - Kawhi Leonard, drafted 15th*
- 2013 - LeBron James, drafted 1st (not by Finals winning team)
- 2012 - LeBron James, drafted 1st (not by Finals winning team)
- 2011 - Dirk Nowitzki, drafted 9th*
- 2010 - Kobe Bryant, drafted 13th*
- 2009 - Kobe Bryant, drafted 13th*
- 2008 - Paul Pierce, drafted 10th
- 2007 - Tony Parker, drafted 30th
- 2006 - Dwyane Wade, drafted 5th
- 2005 - Tim Duncan, drafted 1st
Of the past ten Finals MVP players, only three went to a top three draft pick. And only Duncan was with his original team. But I want to talk the biggest category, the ones you'll notice have asterisks by their name. Kawhi, Kobe, and Dirk all went to their respective teams on draft day. However, none of them were selected, originally by their squad. The Pacers drafted Kawhi and then traded him to the Spurs. The Bucks drafted Dirk and then traded him to the Mavericks. Although, the specifics of that trade are more complicated, and likely the Bucks would never have drafted Dirk. The Hornets drafted Kobe and then traded him to the Lakers.
Now, we can argue over the semantics of a draft day trade vs. actually drafting the player. That said, all of these players ended up on teams that traded for them on Draft Day, and this happened near the middle of the first round. Additionally, none of these players was immediately expected to produce. Kobe Bryant only started seven games in his first two NBA seasons. Dirk Nowitzki played less than one thousand minutes his rookie year and only started in half of his games. Kawhi came off the bench twenty-five games his rookie season and only barely cracked 1,500 minutes.
An argument I've heard a lot is: players not finishing their college career hampers their development. Every great from former eras seems to think that modern bigs would be better if they'd stayed in school and learned "the fundamentals." I say, attitude problems and all, Dwight Howard would have feasted on most bigs in NBA history in his prime. But that said, player development is important. And the classic "star model" of the draft is a top pick comes to save a horrible franchise. They're expected to make an impact immediately. And I've heard people explain to me how the 76ers with all of their picks are closer to "mediocre" squads that are currently in the playoffs.
But outside of Tim Duncan, name a top three pick from the modern draft era that has anchored their squad to a title. Even Tim Duncan is odd, as the Spurs were David Robinson's team. Sure, top picks like Shaq and LeBron have taken their draft teams to finals. And then they've hopped ship to take other franchises to win. Some of the most recent franchise players that have "willed their team to win" in the finals have all been taken with another model. A team grabs a talented young player that maybe isn't ready to be a star. They spend a few seasons developing that player, ideally with other stars. Then these players turn into franchise players and ideally stay with the team for a long time, ensuring a few title shots and hopefully a few titles.
Winning a title in the NBA is rare and challenging. It requires multiple stars. Every franchise is looking for "the player" to get them there. And it's just slightly odd that one of the most successful models (note, we're talking "baseball average" level of success here, at best) isn't copied more. GMs will hem and haw about needing a top pick and avoiding the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity. And they'll ignore that in NBA history, some storied franchises targeted the treadmill head-on and got a franchise player that played amazingly on the grandest stage.