Thanks to all for your really positive feedback about my first-ever edition of The Diff last week about Kyrie Irving’s potential. I’m back today with more talk about the Cavs. Hope you enjoy yet again.
For weeks and weeks, one of my favorite NBA topics has been exploring and researching possible franchise comparisons for the Cavaliers and where they stand right now. I believe my mini-obsession with this topic started with Andrew’s excellent article last month titled “Is There Any Hope Beneath the Frustration for the Cavaliers?” This post really got my stats-focused brain a-churning.
Here’s where I started: In recent NBA history, who has accomplished what the Cavs are setting the course to do with building via the draft? I first thought of the exhaustive article I did back in February 2010 about recent NBA Finals teams and how they were composed, whether it was via the draft, trades or free agency. That report took an awful lot of work and instead of just doing that again, I wanted to focus on the draft while highlighting some specific case studies and comparisons1.
So here’s what I did: I looked at every single top-10 pick in the NBA Draft in the last 20 years, dating back to summer ’93. I then mapped out teams with consecutive seasons in the top 10, preferably leaning toward the top 5 or so (a la the Cavs with three top-4 picks in two years). In this post, I’ll now share these franchise’s draft results and then anecdotally write about their eventual success (or failure) as a franchise because (or despite) of those major draft picks.
Doing this type of analysis was a ton of fun for me because I got to review all of the great value top-10 picks2 along with all of the horrendous busts3 of the last 20 years. And if you’ve been reading my WFNY writing recently, you’ll know I’m a sucker for any sport’s draft4.
In relation to Cleveland trying to build the “right way” through the draft, the most popular example of excellent NBA roster-building is the Oklahoma City Thunder. But are the Thunder an actually realistic goal? I’ll start with them and then go to 5 other current comparisons I think are just as important, plus a blast from the past. In order to be fair to all sides, I’ll also share some of the feedback I received from two fellow WFNY writers and my brother Sam about my results. So let’s get going.
Oklahoma City Thunder/Seattle Sonics
05-06: 35-47 — No. 10 Mouhamed Sene
06-07: 31-51 — No. 2 Kevin Durant AND No. 5 Jeff Green
07-08: 20-62 — No. 4 Russell Westbrook AND No. 24 Serge Ibaka
08-09: 23-59 — No. 3 James Harden
I wrote a lot about the Thunder’s rise to prominence in a comment on Andrew’s article from December. I just want to pull out this line though: “In Durant’s second year and Westbrook’s first, the Thunder start 1-12 leading to P.J. Carlesimo’s firing. Scotty Brooks comes in and the team kept faltering all the way to 3-29. But they finished the year on a 20-30 run, ending at 23-59.” The Thunder won 50 games the next year. In that year and each of the next two years, they lost to the eventual champs5. This season, the team is on pace for 64 wins and the No. 1 overall seed. So yeah, that’s really darn impressive and a very quick ascent to success.
So no wonder why everyone wants to talk about the Thunder. But they also are a polarizing franchise comparison because of their handling of now-star guard James Harden. Scott wrote eloquently about this situation and how it relates to the Cavs shortly after the deal that brought Harden to Houston. The deal was pretty much just about cap space and it also means that only two of the team’s top-five picks are still with the team — Durant and Westbrook. So Ibaka was an great pick and another possible All-Star sometime soon, but no one else on the Thunder is really all that dominant (Martin, Sefolosha, Perkins, Collison, etc.) It just goes to show how it only takes a couple dominant players.
Sam: [In response to the Thunder example and what the Cavs need] We have a lot of options going forward with our cap space and tradable assets, not to mention at least two more lottery picks. The book is not written on these Cavs yet; there is a long way to go and this offseason is huge. They have to add a legit bench. It’s hard to compare us to the Thunder though for so may reasons. We have our alpha dog like Durant in Kyrie, but after that we have no clue what we have yet.
We need a home run in this year’s draft, which may be asking a lot. We have all that cap room too, it won’t just sit there. They can make trades. A lot can happen. It’s not all about draft picks. But as much as this team needs to hit on the pick this year, we really need to bring in a veteran or two as well. We can’t just trot out the D-League as our bench. It hurts the culture of the team.
98-99: 13-37 (adj: 21-61) — No. 1 Elton Brand AND No. 16 Ron Artest
99-00: 17-65 — No. 4 Marcus Fizer AND No. 8 Jamal Crawford
00-01: 15-67 — No. 2 Tyson Chandler AND No. 4 Eddy Curry
01-02: 21-61 — No. 2 Jay Williams
02-03: 30-52 — No. 7 Kirk Hinrich
03-04: 23-59 — No. 3 Ben Gordon AND No. 7 Luol Deng
04-05: 47-35 — (no picks)
05-06: 41-41 — No. 4 Tyrus Thomas
06-07: 49-33 — No. 9 Joakim Noah
07-08: 33-49 — No. 1 Derrick Rose
That’s 10 years (only 9 count) of Bulls drafting in your face. And so much disappointment. Elton Brand played 2 seasons in Chicago before his trade led to the Chandler selection, who, along with Artest and Crawford, had his finest days outside of the Windy City. Fizer played just 289 career NBA games with a 13.4 PER, Williams lasted just one year before a freak motorcycle accident and Thomas is a clear bust who also plays elsewhere nowadays.
Deng was a really solid value at No. 7, while it’s tough to complain too much about Hinrich and Gordon because of their relatively productive years. So in the end, the franchise’s two best top-10 picks in this stretch are the most recent ones: Noah (a fringe All-Star) and Rose (a former MVP who has battled injuries for a couple years now).
My point about Chicago: It’s incredibly tough to replace a legend, as Chicago hoped to do after MJ’s retirement. There was so much Thunder-esque hype about the Bulls for years, but now the franchise is at a partial crossroads between being good/not great enough6. Maybe just simply a better version of the Hawks (more on them soon)?
94-95: Expansion — No. 6 Bryant Reeves
95-96: 15-67 — No. 3 Shareef Abdur-Rahim
96-97: 19-63 — No. 4 Antonio Daniels
97-98: 8-42 (adj: 13-69) — No. 2 Mike Bibby
05-06: 49-33 — No. 8 Rudy Gay
06-07: 22-60 — No. 4 Mike Conley
07-08: 22-60 — No. 3 O.J. Mayo
08-09: 24-58 — No. 2 Hasheem Thabeet
The Grizzlies (a team that just sent a first-round draft pick to the Cavs for Jon Leuer and cap space) are an intriguing case study. Their pitiful drafting history is pretty clear in these two separate four-year patterns. Those first four franchise picks in the top 6 were pretty brutal; none of those players emerged as stars and arguably the best one, Bibby, had his best years elsewhere. So only the picks from 2006-2008 were pretty good, but that success again is tempered by the awful Thabeet selection in ’09.
Memphis is on pace for a franchise-best 53 wins this season, yet it’s not that crazy to assume their franchise ceiling still ain’t that great. Many are unsure how the franchise plans to keep Gay, Conley, Randolph and Gasol long-term, even after their cap-saving trade with the Cavaliers yesterday. And do people really see them as a title contender? I’m not certain yet.
03-04: 28-54 — No. 6 Josh Childress AND No. 17 Josh Smith
04-05: 13-69 — No. 2 Marvin Williams
05-06: 26-56 — No. 5 Shelden Williams
06-07: 30-52 — No. 3 Al Horford AND No. 11 Acie Law
In the likely scenario you are not a diehard Atlanta sports fan or an NBA historian, here’s your mind-blowing fact of the day: The Atlanta Hawks have never been to the Eastern Conference Finals. Ever. In 42 full seasons since moving to the Eastern Conference in 1970. That also includes this most recent iteration of the Hawks, who despite being an overachieving 23-18 this year, appear to have peaked with three straight years of EC semifinal appearances from 2009-2011.
The Hawks, in my mind, are the perfect example of No. 4-seed mediocrity in the NBA. Many people like to discuss No. 8-seed purgatory — the land of first-round playoff exits and no chance in the lottery. But the reality of the Hawks nearly is more frustrating: Good enough to occasionally win a playoff series, but never quite actually great enough to seriously contend.
And if you need a reason for that related to the current Atlanta team, you can point to the draft. So many busts, so many failed picks. They famously passed on Chris Paul in 2005, then followed it up with Shelden Williams the next season. Any time you do something that bad, maybe it’s just the basketball Gods damning you to the worst hell possible in the NBA.
Andrew: [In response to the Hawks example] I would imagine to people who don’t watch the Cavaliers, the names Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters sound an awful lot like Shelden Williams, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, etc.
Which is kind of my point. We give these players a longer leash and more benefit of the doubt because they are Cavaliers and we want them to succeed. I just don’t think Tristan will ever live up to a normal #4 pick. Maybe he will live up to the #4 pick in that weak draft, but not in a normal draft.
05-06: 33-49 — No. 7 Randy Foye
06-07: 32-50 — No. 7 Corey Brewer
07-08: 22-60 — No. 5 Kevin Love
08-09: 24-58 — No. 5 Ricky Rubio AND No. 6 Jonny Flynn
09-10: 15-67 — No. 4 Wesley Johnson
10-11: 17-65 — No. 2 Derrick Williams
Kahn strikes again! Not really, but it’s just fun to re-live all of the greatest David Kahn moments. Take away All-NBA Kevin Love and transcendent-yet-still-recovering Ricky Rubio, and this is a giant pile of Minnesota stink. Similar to the Bulls, although obviously not at the same scale, the T’Wolves began this drafting era trying to recreate the success of the city’s greatest basketball star: Kevin Garnett. Yet the results have been mixed at best thus far.
In the 2012-13 season, Minnesota has had an earth-shattering unlucky share of injuries. Yet the team is still 17-21. So do I think they’ll be much better if/when Love and Rubio play for a full season with some of their other intriguing players like Kirilenko, Shved and Pekovic? Absolutely. They really should be playoff team in the No. 6-8 seed range right now. But will those injuries ever subside and will this current Minnesota iteration ever become a true contender? I’m not sure, especially based off the big Love-Kahn scandal that Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski uncorked earlier this season.
06-07: 33-49 — No. 10 Spencer Hawes
07-08: 38-44 — No. 12 Jason Thompson
08-09: 17-65 — No. 4 Tyreke Evans
09-10: 25-57 — No. 5 DeMarcus Cousins
10-11: 24-58 — No. 10 Jimmer Fredette
11-12: 22-44 (adj: 27-55) — No. 5 Thomas Robinson
The T’Wolves might have a worse track record of picks/disappointments, but the Kings are by far worse right now. They stand at 16-26 at the moment and are now on the verge of moving to Seattle after this season. Cousins is a great talent7 but who is the franchise’s second-most valuable asset? Evans has clearly regressed, Robinson can’t find consistent playing time and Jimmer is Jimmer. It’s a whole lot of yuck after that too.
Sure, the Kings only have had three top-five picks in this span of drafting. And if they land an All-Star wing in the draft to couple with Cousins and some more rotation players? Yeah, then they could be relatively good pretty quickly in Seattle. But it’s looking pretty bleak right now. Poor Tom Ziller.
98-99: 22-28 (adj: 36-46) — No. 8 Andre Miller AND No. 11 Trajan Langdon
99-00: 32-50 — No. 7 Chris Mihm
00-01: 30-52 — No. 8 DeSagana Diop
01-02: 29-53 — No. 6 Dajuan Wagner AND No. 34 Carlos Boozer
02-03: 17-65 — No. 1 LeBron James
03-04: 35-47 — No. 10 Luke Jackson
10-11: 19-63 — No. 1 Kyrie Irving AND No. 4 Tristan Thompson
11-12: 21-45 (adj: 26-56) — No. 4 Dion Waiters AND No. 17 Tyler Zeller
My last franchise case study is a blast from the past. Looking at the four years of drafting pre-LeBron, what significantly separates the Cavs from the Kings and Timberwolves of the world? Nothing, really. Andre Miller has had a really solid overall career, but there still are four other busts from No. 6-11 on the draft board in four straight years. Couple that with Luke Jackson at No. 10 in the first draft after LeBron, and you can easily see how flaky the draft can be8.
Now, dealing with the future of this current Cavs roster, it all begins with these last two drafts. Irving is a tremendous star, a guy who could be one of the top 10 players in the NBA, as I showcased last week. Thompson has been averaging 14-12 since Andy’s absence, so at just 21 years old, the book certainly isn’t closed on him. Those two seem to be as good of picks as the Cavs could have made and they certainly showcased their potential last night against the Celtics. Waiters and Zeller have shown decent flashes this season too, but they’re likely not enough even in their prime to help bring this team to title contention.
After looking at these case studies, here was the gist of my response back to the WFNY crew:
First, this disclaimer: I cherry-picked these case studies for what looked good and what didn’t. I obviously wasn’t going to go team-by-team for all 30 NBA teams, nor find a specific case study for all possible circumstances of good, bad and mediocre teams. But these case studies still can show trends of success and trends of failure. So here’s what I’ve come up with.
In my opinion, the draft is where franchise-building matters 90% of the time. That’s where franchises are made, in most normal situations. So yeah, sure, I’d like getting a Rudy Gay-esque talent in a trade, but the possibility of that happening and the possibility of that working extremely well is so rare historically when compared to the magnitude of importance of just getting this next draft pick right. That’s what has separated the Oklahoma Citys from the Minnesotas most substantially.
But in the end, the draft is so incredibly volatile and what Oklahoma City did in such a short span is unprecedented historically. The fact they got elite talents like Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka in three drafts in a row is sensationally rare. More often, teams will struggle to find the signature piece or two that can bring them out of lottery and/or first-round playoff exit purgatory.
The Bulls, Grizzlies, Hawks and Timberwolves all have shown flashes of success in the last few years based on their high draft picks. Yet, their franchise ceilings appear limited. Maybe, just maybe, those franchises are the absolute ceiling of an Irving/Waiters/Thompson/Zeller foursome in the primes. That seems OK on the surface, but should actually be terrifying. They’d always be good to make the playoffs and maybe win a series, but never quite good enough to truly contend.
Going toward the future, yes, there’s still quite the variability in the future potential for this Cavaliers unit. A lot rides on the potential of this next lottery draft pick — whether it’s Shabazz Muhammad, Ben McLemore or someone else. Or it could be one of the many other draft picks that Chris Grant has acquired for the next few years too9.
But if this next pick or an eventual talent isn’t a Westbrook/Harden/Ibaka future All-Star that can be an elite No. 2 player on a NBA Finals team, then what’s next? A half-decade of Hawks-esque mediocrity? As I tried to show here, that reality is way more historically common than the Thunder example.
Now, for today’s final word, I’ll pass this over to Ben who had a fantastic response to one of my various WFNY emails about this research:
Ben: [In response to my critique of the Thunder] Eh. Of course it’s sensationally rare. Winning a championship is rare! The problem is, Cavs don’t really have a choice but to try to replicate it. I just hate hate hate constantly comparing them to OKC (although Gilbert did too when he came down to the booth the other day). I mean they didn’t create some crazy formula; the Cavs got Daugherty, Harper and Price in one draft.
I don’t see it as following the “OKC model” but simply building through the draft (and getting super lucky that there are top prospects when you’re picking high). And just because it’s rare doesn’t mean the Cavs should be doing something different. They can’t follow Lakers/Heat model of attracting Big Name free agents. It’s also a culture thing; the Cavs need stability and professionalism for this thing to work (if crazy person Russell Westbrook lands on the Kings, how does his career go?). There’s a reason this team has been stocked with Good Guy veterans who aren’t that good but won’t be fighting for shots or making waves in the locker room.
You either draft high and get the right guys or you collect assets and flip them for a Big Name. And for the Cavs, collecting assets means collecting picks, expiring contracts and players drafted in the lottery (and keeping your capspace open). Look at the Clippers. They landed Chris Paul by flipping Eric Gordon (drafted 7th by LAC in 2008), Chris Kaman (drafted 6th by LAC in 2003) and Al-Farouq Aminu (drafted 8th in 2010) and Minny’s 2012 1st round pick (which they got in a Sam Cassel/Marko Jaric deal -WTF). That’s other side of this blue print. Hope the players that you take in the lottery are studs or you package a few of them (with picks!) and flip them for a stud. Because the Cavs aren’t getting that stud through free agency.
Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
- Another notable caveat about why I didn’t want to do the same NBA Finals-based research: The NBA landscape has changed in the last 3 years. Teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, etc, have been majorly impacted by sign-and-trades in attracting major talents to their big markets. That obviously happened in the past too, on a smaller scale, but it definitely means the landscape is different. And building through the draft, while not as common at the moment, has more historical case studies. [↩]
- Examples: Brandon Roy (No. 6, 2006); Richard Hamilton (No. 7; 1999); Luol Deng (No. 7; 2004); Andre Miller (No. 8, 1999); Dirk Nowitzki (No. 9; 1998); Shawn Marion (No. 9, 1999); Paul Pierce (No. 10, 1998); Joe Johnson (No. 10, 2001). [↩]
- As I emailed to the WFNY crew once: “So here’s your lil stat nugget of the day: What do Shawn Respert, Adonal Foyle, DeSagana Diop, Rafael Araujo and Joe Alexander all have in common? All were No. 8 picks — ’95, ’97, ’01, ’04 and ’08.” [↩]
- Recent NFL Draft posts: November, December and January. Recent NBA Draft posts: January. [↩]
- 09-10 season: 50-32 record, West No. 8 seed and lost in first round to Dallas Mavericks. 10-11 season: 55-27 record, West No. 4 seed and lost in WC Finals to Los Angeles Lakers. 11-12 season: 47-19 record (adj: 58-24), West No. 2 seed and lost in NBA Finals to Miami Heat. [↩]
- I struggled writing that last sentence. Could it be true? At the moment, the peak of this current iteration of the Bulls franchise is was a 62-win regular season and an EC Finals appearance in 2010-11. Will they ever be better than that? In my mind, with Rose’s injury status and no knowing about the future potential of the rest of the team, probably not. They’re still on pace for 50 wins this season, but don’t mistake them for a true contender. [↩]
- Hmm. Let’s play a quick game. In the context of my “Where does Kyrie Irving rank among NBA players?” argument from last week, how much more would you rather have Irving over Cousins for the next 10 seasons? Yes, Cousins is 1.5 years older and a significant head case. But he’s also 6-foot-11 and averaging 18-10 for the second straight season. I’m intrigued. Debate amongst yourselves. [↩]
- Because of the franchise’s drafting failures directly before/after LeBron, it’s possible that led to the team never having a stable young core, thus relying upon trades/free agency for occasional patches here or there (Larry Hughes, Antawn Jamison, Shaquille O’Neal, etc.) Obviously, in hindsight, that didn’t work well. But there’s certainly evidence to point specifically at the draft for the catalyst for eventual failure at the highest level. [↩]
- Confused about what the Cavaliers’ own related to the draft? RealGM and Pro Sports Transactions are my two favorite resources here. [↩]