How to win with one top draft pick in four decades

yup, a top draft pick

Using #3 as a cutoff for ‘top pick’ what does a premium selection look like? Clear successes include Grant Hill, The Human Highlight Reel and Bob Cousy but try not to step on Chris Washburn or Adam Morrison on your way to Springfield.  Odds are if you hold the third pick you will get someone like Benoit Benjamin, Ben Gordon or Elmore Smith.  Capable starters all but not pillars of championship teams.  Focusing the search on highly productive winning players we find the number 3 pick offers you an 18% chance at a superstar while the #1 pick comes in at 32% and number 2 at 23%.

Put yourself in the shoes of a GM slated to pick third.  Who do you anticipate falling in your lap?  Recent #2 picks include Evan Turner, Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley and KD.  All these guys were viewed as franchise cornerstones on draft night.  The GM’s at three went with Horford, Mayo, Harden and Favors. Not quite sure things but pretty high ceiling guys.

Seeing the sample of #3’s would you trade up to get that slot?  Would you ask your team to tank in April to get more ping-pong balls?  Seems the 3 pick is a generous cutoff for “top pick”.

Territorial selections from the league’s early days skew what the #3 looks like. In 1965 Rick Barry was the 2nd pick in the regular draft but there were three territorial selections before #1 Fred Hetzel.  For all we know Barry may have been viewed as the 5th best player in the land.  All six picks were eligible for inclusion as top 3 picks in this study.

Side note…of the 21 territorial picks from ’49-’65 we count 10 HoF’ers! This doesn’t even include Philly natives Walt Hazzard of Final Four fame and 4-time all-star point guard Guy Rogers.

There were a max of three teams each season included in the study, the two NBA finals participants and the team with the most regular season wins.  The team with the most regular season wins did not even win their conference title in 23 of 41 seasons (including 11 of the last 13).  Bragging rights are won in June but let’s acknowledge teams that best survived the 82.  In nearly all cases these teams are in the finals the year before or after their great regular season run so they prove to be multi- year contenders.

Here is the breakdown for the last 41 seasons

  • Finals Champs                   36 with top picks (88%)
  • Finals Runner-ups            35 with top picks (85%)
  • Best in 82                             19 with top picks out of 23 total teams (83%)
not a top pick

The five champions without top 3’s are the ’08 Celtics, ’83 76ers, ’79 Sonics, ’74 & ‘76 Celtics.

Boston in ’08 unified the title by also winning the most games in the regular season (66-16 overall and 25-5 vs. West).  They won just 24 games in ’07 before trading six of their top eight players for KG & Jesus Shuttlesworth (5th picks in ’95 & ’96 respectively).  The Hawks and Cavs each pushed them to 7 games so their ’08 playoff mark stands at “only” 16-10.  They emphatically answered any doubters when they beat LA by 39 points in game 6 to clinch the finals.

The Sixers were of course led by Moses (“fo-fo-fo”), Dr. J and Mo Cheeks. Moses posted a most impressive 26 Player Efficiency Rating in 13 playoff games in ‘83.  Looking at draft positions, Malone was the 27th pick in the ’74 ABA draft and 5th pick in the ABA dispersal draft (’76).  The Doctor was made the 12th selection in the ’72 NBA draft before jumping to the ABA and winning three league MVPs and two titles with the New York Nets.

The Sonics won their only title in ’79 while leading the league in attendance.  The NBA’s best defense (104 PA/G and 46% opp FG%) was led by big man Jack Sikma (8th pick in ’77) and guard Dennis Johnson (29th in ’76), while “The Wizard” Gus Williams averaged 27 pts, 4 ast, 4 reb & 2 steals in 17 playoff games with Seattle winning 12.  From ’74-’78 there was a dearth in top picks paying off as eight eventual franchise players were drafted, yet none picked higher than 6th overall.

Coach “Ack-Ack” collected his two titles with Boston in the mid-‘70s.  These were rather vanilla championship teams, the core of which included Cowens (4th pick), Havlicek (7th), Silas (10th) and Jo-Jo White (9th).  While not the best team in either regular season (’74-Mil, ’76-GS) they managed a 12-6 playoff mark both years.

The 1970 draft class was absolutely loaded! We saw Lanier, Rudy T., Pistol Pete, Cowens and Sam Lacey filling the first 5 slots.  Later picks included Calvin Murphy, Tiny Archibald and Dan Issel.  I am not sure anyone had Cowens in the top 3 of that bunch.

There was only one more runner-up without a top 3 than the actual champs.  The 2010 Celtics, ’97 & ’98 Jazz, ’93 Suns, ’82 Sixers & ’76 Suns.  Also the ’80 Sixers who lost to LA in the finals had #1 overall pick Doug Collins but he played just 36 regular season games and saw no playoff action.

Jerry Sloan constructed some offensive juggernauts in Salt Lake.  From ’92-’98 the Jazz 112 Offensive Rating was tops in the NBA.  Small school stars Stockton (16th) & Malone (13th) led them to a 22-6 record against the West in the playoffs in ’97 & ’98.

The ’93 Phoenix team posted a 113 ‘O’Rating and was the highest scoring in the league by a full 3 points/game, while also ranking 9th in defensive efficiency (107).  First year Suns Barkley (5th) and Ainge joined forces with veterans K.J. (7th) and Thunder Dan to take one final (they thought) beating for the West at the hands of Mr. Jordan and John Paxson.

The ’76 vintage was just 42-40 and upset the high powered defending champs GSW in 7 games to win the West.  Rookie of The Year “Double A” (4th) had stormed the league while ranking 5th with a 22 PER.  Phoenix had a chance to go up 3-2 on Boston before falling in 3 OTs in game 5.  They would lose 87-80 in game 6.  Coach John MacLeod did produce three future skippers from this club, Riley, Westphal and Wetzel.

It’s worth noting that the 2001 Spurs had 4 top picks and were clearly the best team in the 82 but were swept by LA in the conference finals.  No team in the study had 5 top picks but the ’87-’89 Lakers had 4 #1 overall picks.  Riley went back-to-back with this group.  Phil Jackson should punt the questions about how easy it is to win with talent over to Riles.

On the other end Boston appears on the list 13 times and has a total of three top picks (The Chief went 8th in ’76 & Larry 6th in ’78).  The ’80 team won 61 games with Pistol Pete as their 8th man.  Walton played 19 MPG in ‘86 while they unified the title.  McHale was the only other top pick Boston had during their winning seasons in the past four decades.  Nice work Bill Fitch, K.C. Jones and Doc Rivers.

Do you need a top pick to win in the Association?  Just 15 of the last 105 great teams lacked a top-flight draft pick.  It certainly won’t hurt to have the #1 pick (insert Clippers joke here) but you are twice as likely to land a non-superstar than a franchise changer even at #1.


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Pushing the limits of basketball thought.

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