Getting lucky in the NBA draft goes beyond the lottery. Look at the Bucks
The ping pong balls can do but so much.
With the 2019 NBA draft lottery changing the landscape of the league on multiple fronts this past Tuesday, it’s worth considering the impact luck has on building any team around amateur players. We talk about luck in the context of the lottery so frequently and, frankly, rather exclusively.
But luck in the draft isn’t just all about ping pong balls. It’s about fortunate timing. It’s about avoiding other teams falling in love with your chosen prospect. It’s about taking a dice roll on an international prospect for whom there is no blueprint, and a razor’s edge of chance him becoming an infamous bust and a future superstar.
Consider the Milwaukee Bucks.
In 2013, the Bucks made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth with a 38-44 record. This was at the height of the tanking debate, as Sam Hinkie was prepared to impose The Process on Philadelphia. The story went that mid-tier NBA franchises couldn’t pull off an institutional tank job over multiple years without alienating the tenuous fandom that funds the operation. Tanking, then, was a net drain in the end, even if the on-court results eventually penciled out.
The Bucks were supposedly one of these teams who couldn’t take the gamble. Instead of selling off the team’s best players to boost their odds at adding high draft picks, they’d fight for the No. 8 seed, even if that meant ritual basketball dismemberment by, say, the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat, as it did mean for Milwaukee in 2013.
Because they were the worst playoff team that season, the Bucks ended up with the No. 15 selection. They eventually selected Giannis Antetokounmpo with that pick.
The following season, the Bucks attempted to make the playoffs again, but Larry Sanders got hurt early and the tank came for Milwaukee, as I wrote in November 2013. The team didn’t need to go deeper in the tank by trading veterans, because the roster as assembled was bad enough on its own.
Giannis, meanwhile, was not a very good rookie. He made second team All-Rookie ... but this was a hideous year for rookies overall. The five players on first team All-Rookie — players who were better than Giannis their rookie years, mind you — were Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Mason Plumlee, Trey Burke, and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Needless to say, the Bucks were awful: 15-67, worst record in the NBA, four games worse than even Hinkie’s 76ers, who were explicitly trying to be the worst team in the league. By the grace of the NBA draft lottery, Milwaukee ended up with the No. 2 pick in what appeared to be a two-player draft, due to Joel Embiid’s highly concerning injuries. Lucky, right? The Bucks took Jabari Parker, the almost consensus No. 2 choice behind almost consensus No. 1 Andrew Wiggins.
In 2013, the Bucks’ draft fortunes were considered unlucky: they foolishly aimed for the No. 8 seed and ended up out of the lottery, relegated to the No. 15 pick. In 2014, the Bucks’ draft fortunes were considered lucky: with the league’s worst record, Milwaukee fell just one spot to No. 2 and got a chance to take a 19-year-old future star. Except they ended up with a future MVP with the 2013 No. 15 pick and a totally unfortunate twice-injured wash-out now on his third team with the 2014 No. 2 pick.
Which is to say that being lucky in the NBA draft goes beyond the lottery.
Luck is imbued throughout the draft. Timing is everything. Having a very high pick in 2014 didn’t work out for Milwaukee (or many other teams, honestly). The 2013 draft was pretty awful at the very top as well, beyond Oladipo. But 2012, the year before the Bucks nabbed Giannis at No. 15, had multiple future stars go high, including Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, and Damian Lillard. And 2015, the year after the Bucks picked up Parker at No. 2, had Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis at the top.
It’s not just about being so atrocious you boost your odds for a top pick, and then being lucky and getting that top pick in the lottery. It’s about doing it all in the right season so you get the right player. There are a lot of moving parts, all subject to the whims of fortune.
Doing the work to be prepared for all draft circumstances is massively important, of course. That’s why you can give the Bucks credit for plucking the rarely seen and quite raw Giannis in 2013.
But since he was drafted all the way down at No. 15, poor luck could have meant that Antetokounmpo wasn’t around for the Bucks to take. Other teams (Hawks, Raptors) were rumored to be interested as well. All it would have taken is for one of those teams to slip into the late lottery and yank him for Milwaukee’s past half-decade to have gone very, very differently. Heck, Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson wanted to take Giannis No. 13, but Mark Cuban overruled him to make a minor cap space move to make a free agent chase at ... Dwight Howard! That’s pretty lucky for the Bucks. Picking Giannis at No. 15 means you had to avoid 14 other teams missing what you saw in him (and realistically, the other 15 teams either missing it or being unable to trade up into the top 14 to grab him). That requires just as much luck as a series of ping-pong balls landing you the No. 2 pick.
These playoffs are littered with cases like this. The Warriors stunk for the better part of two decades with a brief intermission of joy led by Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, but they never tanked, and were rarely among the very worst teams in the league. In 2009, Golden State picked up Stephen Curry at No. 7 and almost traded him to the Suns for Amare Stoudemire. Lucky they didn’t. Two years later, the still-mediocre Warriors picked up Klay Thompson at No. 11. The team actually tanked toward the end of that following season because they owed the Jazz their pick if it wasn’t in the top seven — the Warriors really wanted to keep their pick. They did. The effort paid off when they ended up with Harrison Barnes at No. 7. Oh, and Draymond Green, who other teams had lots of interest in but couldn’t move up to nab him, at No. 35.
The Blazers picked up Lillard at No. 6 in 2012, but not with their own pick: Portland’s own selection was No. 11 (Meyers Leonard). The Blazers got that No. 6 pick by trading Gerald Wallace (on an expiring deal and, frankly, an expiring career) to the desperate Brooklyn Nets for an unprotected first. Moving Wallace was intended to help the Blazers get worse for draft benefits; Portland was rebuilding, had no intention of re-signing Wallace, and could use all the picks it could grab. Brooklyn ended up remaining awful that season, leading to that No. 6 pick for the Blazers. The Kings, picking No. 5 that year and in desperate need of a point guard, took Thomas Robinson. How lucky for Portland.
Look at the Raptors. Only four of Toronto’s nine core players are homegrown. Of them, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam were picked Nos. 23 and 27 respectively, Norman Powell was a second-round pick, and Fred VanVleet was undrafted. Any other team could have had them.
And look where the other major Raptors were drafted. Kawhi Leonard? No. 15, after many forward-needy teams passed on him. Kyle Lowry? No. 24. Serge Ibaka? No. 24. Marc Gasol? No. 48. Danny Green? No. 46. There’s not a single lottery pick in that rotation. Credit to Toronto for finding these players, but fortune isn’t just about the ping pong balls.
This is not to say that luck in the lottery doesn’t matter. There are occasionally surefire future NBA stars who crop up in the draft, like LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Zion Williamson. The only way to get them is to get really lucky in the NBA draft lottery.
But most of the time, for most of the picks, it’s not as much of a sure thing as you’d think. Luck isn’t confined to the hopper on a Tuesday in the middle of May. Luck is about timing, luck is about other teams making errors, luck is intertwined with skill in analysis and evaluation. Luck goes all of the way through the process and beyond.