Basketball has changed significantly over the past 40 years, going from an offensively minded game in the 1980s and early '90s to focusing more on defense in the mid-'90s to mid-2000s. It became more balanced over the next decade and finally around 2014, it shifted back into the offensive-driven game we see today, which doubled as the launching point of the Warriors' dynasty.
Smart teams can recognize and anticipate these shifts and update their team-building strategy accordingly. There is no better indicator of this than the NBA Draft, where the top-tier organizations not only identify star talent near the top but also find impact players in the middle and later stages. To further illustrate this point, I came up with a formula that valued every good to outstanding pick since 2014 to identify which teams routinely nail the draft.
Every draft pick is assigned points based upon his production and potential:
Each pick was then weighted by assigning the following multiplier by draft position to assign a FINAL DRAFT POINTS FIGURE:
After that I compiled a list of the 50 highest scores to see (a) which draft picks were the most valuable selections in the past six drafts; and (b) which teams drafted the best during that time.
NOTE: Only players whose draft value is 2.75 or greater are listed. Draft position is in parenethesis. Second-round picks are 31 and above.
Most valuable selections (five-plus draft points)
In 2014, the Nuggets used the 41st pick to select a little-known big man from Serbia named Nikola Jokic. Within a couple of years, Jokic would develop into the best passing big man the game had ever seen — an elite one-man offensive system unto himself. Today, Jokic is one of the top players in the world, averaging 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists and leading the Nuggets to the third-best record in the West. He’s easily the best value pick in the past six drafts and has a chance to go down as the most valuable draft pick ever — an MVP-caliber player at pick 41! If the Nuggets win a title in 2020s, they’ll be able to trace it back to the 2014 NBA Draft.
Jokic and Pascal Siakam are the only two players to score above five points in this exercise. Interestingly, Siakam was considered a reach when the Raptors selected him with the 27th pick of the 2016 NBA Draft. Three years later, he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player and was the second-best player on a team that won the championship. This season, he’s taken his game to All-NBA heights, averaging 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists and playing excellent two-way basketball for the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. The ability to identify a potential superstar in the middle of the draft is what makes Toronto's Masai Ujiri one of the top executives in the league.
Slam dunk franchise players (4.5 to 5.0 draft points)
These seven players, all of whom are or could be MVP-caliber players, were excellent selections. Williamson (Pelicans), Morant (Grizzlies), Simmons (76ers) and Towns (Wolves) were no-brainer choices, but the rest of them deserve additional praise.
Doncic, Tatum and Embiid slipped to the third pick in their drafts and were smartly scooped up by the Mavericks, Celtics and 76ers, respectively. The Mavs went all in on Luka and traded a future first-round pick to move up two picks. The Celtics pulled a bait-and-switch move by trading the first overall pick to the 76ers before the 2017 NBA Draft to acquire additional assets and still pick their guy, Tatum, at No. 3. And the Sixers took a huge risk on Embiid’s health by selecting him, knowing he’d likely miss his first season. (He actually missed his first two!)
Blue chippers (4.0 to 4.4 draft points)
Focusing on the mid-first round picks out of this group, Mitchell, Booker and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are already franchise players. By the end of training camp in their respective rookie years, all three had flashed skill sets that nobody realized they had in college: Mitchell was a much better ball handler and scorer than he’d shown at Louisville; Booker had a well-rounded offensive game even though he’d been relegated to spot-up shooting at Kentucky; and SGA jumped off the screen with his size, length and feel for the game.
Adebayo and Clarke have exceeded their draft-spot expectations with their defensive prowess and surprising offensive efficiency. Bam, who's 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, appears destined to be a supersized version of Draymond Green as he is one of a few players in the league who can defend all five positions (plus whatever position Giannis Antetokounmpo plays). He also handles the ball and is surprisingly adept at passing (5.1 apg.). Clarke figures to be a Shawn Marion-type player with his elite athleticism, switchability on defense and awkward yet efficient use of floaters around the basket.
Ideal third bananas (3.3 to 3.9 draft points)
This group shows how a team can find a fringe All-Star player at almost any stage of the draft. Sometimes it’s the overlooked upperclassmen who slip in the draft primarily because of their age, like Harrell and Brogdon. Other times, groupthink causes teams to disregard what a good player can do and focus on what he can’t do. You see this with guys like Robinson (elite athlete and defender but raw on offense) and Collins (great athlete and offensive player but a “tweener” on defense). Ideally, a team would love to land a superstar at the top of the draft, but all things considered, it’ll gladly settle for good players like Ayton, Brown and Murray in any draft.
Best of the Rest (2.75 to 3.25 draft points)
Besides the handful of lottery picks, this group is littered with late-first and second-round picks. Nabbing a key contributor late in the draft is no exact science though, as there are everything from raw, talented players who slipped in the draft, like Allen, Anunoby and Murray, to low-ceiling upperclassmen like Graham, Morris and Powell to everything in between.
Top drafting teams
You aren’t going to believe this (just kidding), but there’s a strong correlation between drafting well and making the playoffs. In fact, six of the seven teams that drafted at least three players in the top 50 above are playoff teams this season. The NUGGETS led the way with five players and also had the most total draft points (19.45). Is it any surprise they have one of the brightest futures in the NBA?
And while you might be surprised to know that the LAKERS had the second-most players (four) and draft points (13.25), you really shouldn’t be. How do you think they were able to stockpile the assets necessary to acquire Anthony Davis last summer? The GRIZZLIES (13.2 points), RAPTORS (11.2), HEAT (10.95) and CELTICS (10.75) each nailed three draft picks and they all could easily argue that they have just as bright of a future as the Nuggets.
As with most data-driven exercises, there were a couple of outliers, including the SUNS in the top seven. They had three of the top-50 selections and a total draft point score of 10.9. This is either a sign of good things to come in Phoenix or a referendum on how badly the team has mismanaged its roster. (Hint: It’s the latter.)
And while teams with excellent rosters like the BUCKS, WARRIORS and CLIPPERS each had only one top-50 selection in the past six drafts, the most important players for Milwaukee (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Golden State (Steph Curry) were drafted before 2014. The Clippers, on the other hand, acquired their top dogs through free agency and draft asset-heavy trades.
Lastly, in case you were wondering whether there were any teams that made zero of the top-50 selections in the past six drafts, there were four: BLAZERS, CAVALIERS, BULLS and WIZARDS. Know what they all have in common? They’ll all be watching the playoffs from home whenever this quarantine is over.