The Fading Relevance of the NBA Draft

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

LeBron James first took his talents to South Beach seven years ago, teaming with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form one of the first ‘super teams’ of the 21st century. During that same time span, the Heat won two titles, thoroughly justifying James’ decision to spurn a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise that was still very much in the midst of self-discovery and instead join a team with the best odds of becoming an NBA champion.

The move did not go unnoticed by other NBA franchises. Since James left Cleveland, the Larry O’Brien trophy has gone to three other teams that have similarly followed the Heat’s lead, including the Golden State Warriors, who this past summer signed Kevin Durant and promptly trounced the James-led Cavaliers. (Following his four years with the Heat, James famously came home and led the Eastern Conference squad to three straight NBA finals.) And we aren’t even including the Boston Celtics, who formed arguably the original super team with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen a decade ago. Forgotten amidst the formation of these power teams is the influence the NBA draft used to have when it came to building title teams.

A quick primer on the draft: The league’s worst teams are allotted the top fifteen slots in each NBA Draft, with the express purpose of landing one of the best players to provide the necessary boost to compete in upcoming seasons. From Larry Bird to Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing to Vince Carter, and even LeBron, the draft was integral to the construction of a playoff-caliber squad.

But based the draft which took place last weekend at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the event felt more spectacle than instrumental. There is a trend of teams attempting to clear enough salary cap space to sign enough top players to contend against the Cavaliers or the Warriors, the league’s two top teams. The Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has drafted the second pick for the past three years, dumped its 2015 pick (D’Angelo Russell) for the chance to land Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (who will likely be traded this offseason), while the Minnesota Timberwolves unloaded draft picks and Zach LaVine, one of the NBA’s most athletic players, for Jimmy Butler and a chance to challenge in the Western Conference next season.

Neither of these teams will actually contend in 2018—the finals, barring any unforeseen injuries, will still pit the Warriors versus the Cavaliers. But there is a contend-now mentality that seems to have overtaken the NBA, and as such, the proliferation of teams that believe the only way to win isn’t through development of draft picks but by hoping to craft the next super team-cum-dynasty. Might Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers join the San Antonio Spurs? Could Gordon Hayward reunite with Brad Stevens, his college coach at Butler, in Boston? Which soon-to-be contender will be able to pry Kristaps Porzingis from the Big Apple?

The Oklahoma City Thunder was the last franchise that attempted to build its team from the ground up—Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Durant were all first round picks, and as the team molded around the triumvirate of superstars (with Ibaka as the rim running, glass crashing big every contender requires), the Thunder seemed destined for NBA supremacy. But then Harden and Ibaka were traded, Durant left on his own accord, and just Westbrook, who was recently named the NBA MVP, remains. The Thunder’s experiment was a lesson for other NBA squads—building a contender the old-fashioned way takes a patience that few are willing to endure, and the future of the NBA is bound to be controlled by those teams that can convince enough superstars to join its ranks.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently touched on Minnesota’s moves on draft night and the swirling trends of building a championship-worthy squad:

This is almost refreshingly normal: A rebuilding team hits multiple lotteries, sees it can’t (or shouldn’t) pay all its young studs, and flips a couple of them into something helpful. Almost every dilemma like this highlights how abnormal Golden State is — how much draft skill, good fortune, and once-in-league-history timing luck the Warriors needed to collect four of the league’s 15 best players. That doesn’t happen, ever.

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