Do You Need a Top Draft Pick to Win?


This year’s draft is supposed to be stocked. Andrew Wiggins is destined for Los Angeles. And I’ve been told that even a team doesn’t secure the #1 pick, that this lottery is deep, and will change the fortune of many teams. This seems unlikely, one of the first pieces Arturo and I did was on the lack of top talent in most drafts. Something we do know is that to win you need a top player.  In examining the top players in the NBA, a top draft pick didn’t make up a majority of players. Let’s review a few things.

Data via the NBA Geek – for this article I looked at all players with 10.0+ wins.

Draft a Star!


Currently four of the top 24 players are on their rookie contract. These are:

  • Stephen Curry
  • Jimmy Butler
  • Kenneth Faried
  • Paul George

But let’s put a few notes on this. These players were drafted 7th – Curry, 10th – George, 22nd – Faried, and 30th – Butler. The only players still on rookie deals that were marquee last season weren’t the most coveted picks. Faried and Butler were picked up by teams with over 50 wins. The notion that you need to be the very worst in the league to get a top player is in jeopardy.

Restrict Your Star


One of the biggest edges about drafting a player is you get restricted free agency. When their rookie deal is up, you get to match any offer sheet they sign. This typically means players will re-sign with the teams that draft them.  The players that fit this description currently are:

  • Kevin Durant
  • Serge Ibaka
  • Marc Gasol
  • Joakim Noah
  • Mike Conley

Not so fast! Let’s put both Gasol and Ibaka in the same boat. These players were not selected with high draft picks. Ibaka was selected with the 24th overall and Gasol was picked up in the second round.

Next, Ibaka, Gasol, and Noah weren’t actually “earned” by the team that drafted them. In all three cases, their draft rights were traded – Gasol’s from the Lakers, Noah’s from the Knick’s and Ibaka’s from the Suns.

In fact, people will miss this fact. Kobe Bryant wasn’t drafted by the Lakers, he was picked up by the Hornets. Dirk Nowitzki was selected by the Bucks — although the deal was worked out ahead of time. Anyway, if you select a player via a pick you trade for, it’s hard to say you need to “earn the pick.”



I’ve been talking for a while now about the Spurs savvy ways to winning. Invariably though, they are used as an example of tanking, because, you know, Tim Ducan, right? Tim Duncan is on (correct me if I’m wrong) his fifth contract with the Spurs. Yes, you can credit his first contract as being drafted. You can credit his second contract as well, given restricted free agency (although I’m not sure if the rules were the same when he signed) However, every contract after has been Duncan’s own decision. Yes, the team has advantages like Bird Rights and being his home. However, Duncan by no means counts as a draft pick!

The other player in this boat is Dwyane Wade. Again, Wade had the option of leaving Miami. You can’t count Wade as a draft pick any longer.

Kobe just missed the list, but I feel inclined to point this out with him as well. It is simple ludicrous to call someone that has been in the league 17 years, a “draft pick”.

Summing Up

In the end half of the players in the top echelon of the NBA ended up on their current team via trade or free agency. Even of those drafted, only four (Curry, George, Durant, and Conley) ended up their with a draft pick the team had. Getting your hand on top players is the way to victory. But this can, and often does, come at the cost to another team. Teams that tank, take the bullet. The data shows though, that it just doesn’t always pay off.


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