“Be Careful What You Wish For.” – Some Smart Person
I think of this wise adage when I hear or read fans requesting for a small amount of misfortune to befall their favorite sports team, person, or thing. All in hopes that they will be rewarded with a bounty of good fortune on the flip side.
This is a syndrome that is unique to the rooting interests of the sporting world.
How many times can you recall a fan of Johnny Depp wistfully wishing, “I hope they decide to go for a ‘Lone Ranger’ sequel. Then maybe after they pump out that catastrophe, Johnny will role out his next Oscar worthy project.”
I doubt most reading this will pray for a pink slip tomorrow, in the hopes that a six figure income is around the corner while browsing the postings on Monster.com.
Yet when it comes to the local basketball team, a vocal group of Mavericks fans routinely wish doom and gloom on Cuban’s bunch. The big payoff being a coveted top pick in the NBA draft.
The logic behind this mindset isn’t faulty on it’s face.
The team with the NBA’s worst record gets the highest chance of getting the number one pick in the draft, or the number two, or three, and so on and so on.
Since the NBA went to a draft lottery weighted in the favor of teams with the worst records, only six teams with the most putrid results on the court fell out of picking in one of the top three spots.
By comparison, in 27 such draft lotteries, the team with the league’s worst record drew the top pick six times. That left 15 other times with a losing team picking second or third.
Picking lower than third also yielded a fair return for most in the way of talent.
Denver acquired Dikembe Mutombo in ’91, Dallas took Jamal Mashburn in ’93, Chicago drafted Eddy Curry in ’04, and Memphis picked up Mike Conley in ’07.
We’ve established that a team with the trashiest record among its peers ends up with a quality player to build around moving forward, but how does that organization fare in the years to follow?
We’ll set the cutoff for the playoff results from the ’90 to ’12 seasons. Teams that drafted after ’12 are still considered a work in progress.
That leaves us with 25 teams drafting 25 players over 23 years.
The Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors in ’02, and the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets in ’03 had identical garbage records.
If we’re assuming that these high draft pick players are added with the idea that they will be around for years to come, then let’s determine how long they’ve stuck around with their original rights holders. For convenience sake we’ve counted a player traded away mid-season from the team that drafted them as half of a season suited up in that squad’s uniform.
Those 25 players played an average of 4 years with the teams that drafted them.
That somewhat abbreviated tenure might still payoff with lengthy playoff runs, so let’s turn our attention there.
There have been 48 playoff appearances made by the teams that possessed one of these high draft picks while that player was in their service. Those teams made 4 Conference Finals appearances, and the NBA Finals a total of 3 times.
Those Finals teams are the Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Orlando Magic, and they happened to draft once in a generation talents in Allen Iverson, Lebron James, and Dwight Howard.
The 76ers would draft again in the lottery in ’97 (Keith Van Horn) and ’98 (Larry Hughes). Neither of those two would be on the ’01 Finals roster. The Cavs took Luke Jackson and Sean May in the ’04 and ’05 lottery. They too would not wear a Cavs’ jersey for that franchise’s ’07 Finals appearance. Fran Vazquez and J.J Redick were chosen by the Magic in the two seasons following the Howard draft, with Redick sticking around and averaging 6 points during their Finals run.
Would you believe that these 3 organizations put in place a plan to be the worst of the worse in hopes of landing a Hall of Fame player, or is it that they were rewarded in the draft from bottoming out organically?
There is where we find the rub.
Of the teams that ended up with the NBA’s bottom record; the Mavericks, Clippers, and Bulls drafted twice in six or less seasons as a bottom feeder. Neither of those teams had playoff success as a direct result.
Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban is guilty of energizing the ‘Team Tank’ mantra, with several of his comments warning about the downfall of the Mavericks once they entered the mediocrity treadmill. Dallas fans and the team’s owner seem to have confused a lack of success in the post-season with an inability to occasionally or routinely draft among the top spots in the lottery.
Nothing that I can find assures that a planned or natural bottoming out in the standings leads to future success.
Teams that rise above their current failures do so not because of a quick fix in the draft, but as a result of a philosophy that identifies the superior talent that they have to work with at all phases of team building.
They find that talent with a plan to draft wisely at any position, sign free agents who fit their system, and trade for players to fill in the remaining gaps.
That’s how the Mavericks built a perennial playoff contender, and eventual champion.
They’d be wise to avoid the promisses of a quick fix