Which lottery team has had the greatest success in the NBA draft?
Picking in the NBA lottery is no easy task. Sure, lottery picks pan out more often that those later in the draft, but selecting among the first 14 picks—or even the top five—doesn’t guarantee a star or even a contributor. Sometimes you get Kevin Durant, sometimes you get Hasheem Thabeet.
Some teams seem to have a knack for deciding among top draft prospects, all with many strengths and a few weaknesses, while others… do not.
With the benefit of hindsight, SI.com ranked the 14 teams in this year’s lottery on how successful they’ve been picking in the lottery over the past 15 drafts, dating back to 2000.
Here are a few notes before the rankings:
- We’re including picks acquired in draft-day trades, even if those picks were officially submitted by other teams
- We’re using Basketball-Reference’s win shares stat to help assess how successful each team has been in the draft. Win shares attempts to provide a catchall measure of how many victories a player contributes to his team. You can read more about the stat here.
- Because we’re evaluating how good a team is at drafting in the lottery, not how good it is at hanging onto those players once they’re drafted, we’re counting a player’s total career win shares, not just those accumulated for the drafting team.
- Average win share figures do include recent draft picks, who admittedly haven’t had time to pan out or flop. This is more art than science.
- With that in mind, win share numbers are not the end-all in these rankings.
That Minnesota is tied with Charlotte for most lottery picks since 2000 is no coincidence. The Timberwolves made a shrewd move in 2008 when they swapped the third pick (O.J. Mayo) for the fifth pick (Kevin Love), but other than that, Minnesota’s past 15 drafts have been consistently terrible. They’ve taken Wesley Johnson fourth and Derrick Williams second. They’ve chosen two point guards in a row, including Jonny Flynn over Steph Curry. They’ve traded Brandon Roy and Trey Burke on draft night. Year after year, the Timberwolves earn a lottery pick, and year after year they blow it.
The Knicks are fond of trading their first-round picks, so they haven’t actually picked in the lottery much over the last 15 years. Of their four lottery selections, they’ve come up with two veritable busts (Mike Sweetney and Jordan Hill) and two decent players who didn’t last long in New York (Channing Frye and Danilo Gallinari). Some of that is bad luck: The Knicks were one pick away from Kevin Love in 2008 and one pick away from Curry a year later.
The Bobcats/Hornets have existed for only 11 seasons and yet have accrued 11 lottery picks during that time. And with those picks, they’ve largely avoided both massive busts and franchise-changing stars. Other than the 2006 No. 3 pick Adam Morrison, Charlotte has selected almost exclusively role players. Maybe Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrest become stars in coming seasons, or maybe they wind up a few notches above Raymond Felton, D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson in the annals of unspectacular players drafted by the Bobcats/Hornets.
Oddly, the Pistons managed to build their 2004 title team despite totally missing on their two lottery picks leading up that season. Detroit took Rodney White ninth in 2001 and—infamously—Darko Milicic second in 2003, then dominated the Eastern Conference long enough to avoid the lottery until 2010. The Pistons have done well in recent drafts, finding Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond all outside the top five. 2013 No. 8 pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remains a question mark.
Between 2007 and 2010, the Kings drafted fairly well in the lottery. They took Spencer Hawes 10th in 2007 and Jason Thompson 12th in 2008, and both developed into productive players. They grabbed Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans fourth in 2009 (but passed on Curry to do so) and snagged All-Star DeMarcus Cousins in 2010. But Sacramento’s recent drafts have gone poorly. Thomas Robinson—taken directly before Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Ross and Andre Drummond in 2012—has bounced to four teams in three years, and early returns aren’t great on Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas.
The success of the Suns’ 2002 pick, Amar'e Stoudemire, helped ensure they wouldn’t pick in the lottery again for a while. But since Phoenix returned to the lottery in 2009, results have been poor. Earl Clark was a bust, as was Kendall Marshall. Alex Len and T.J. Warren could still become reliable NBA contributors, but they’re not there yet. Of the Suns’ post-Amar'e lottery picks, only Markieff Morris has developed as hoped.
The Pacers have not held a single-digit draft pick since 1989, so their lottery success has been understandably limited. Still, finding a star in Paul George with the No. 10 pick in 2010 makes up for the two lukewarm selections that preceded him: Tyler Hansbrough and Brandon Rush.
The Lakers have chosen in the lottery only twice since 1994. And since one of those picks (2014 first-rounder Julius Randle) has played only one NBA game, we’re left with Andrew Bynum, who provided excellent value for his draft slot. The 7-foot center averaged at least 10 points and eight rebounds in five straight seasons and helped Los Angeles win two titles during seven seasons. Bynum was brittle and sometimes malcontented but clearly worthy of the 10th overall pick the Lakers used on him in 2005. Props to L.A. for nailing its only lottery selection of the decade.
The Sixers’ spot on this list is largely to-be-determined. Three of Philadelphia’s seven lottery picks since 2000 have played a season or less, with Nerlens Noel coming off a strong rookie campaign and Joel Embiid and Dario Saric yet to play. Of the team’s other lottery picks in the last 15 years, Andre Iguodala became an All-tar, Thaddeus Young carved out a productive career, Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year (essentially by default, but still) and Evan Turner was only a partial bust. All in all, Philadelphia’s lottery resume isn’t bad.
Talk about extreme ends of the spectrum. Denver's No. 3 pick in 2003, Carmelo Anthony, is a future Hall-of-Famer with a 25.2 ppg scoring average, while the No. 5 pick in 2002 Nikoloz Tskitishvili is a washout who scraped his way to 2.9 points per game over four NBA seasons. In back-to-back drafts, the Nuggets wound up with a historic bust and a franchise cornerstone. Denver probably won’t complain; Carmelo provided more than enough value to make up for Tskitishvili’s disappointment.
The Jazz have had seven lottery picks since 2000 and have not really messed up any of them (we’re watching you, Dante Exum). They drafted an All-Star point guard in Deron Williams, a 19-point scorer in Gordon Hayward and good complimentary players in Trey Burke, Enes Kanter and Ronnie Brewer. Even Kris Humphries went on to play 11 years and counting. Credit to Utah for consistently avoiding lottery busts.
Orlando would probably like the Fran Vazquez pick back (and likely the Courtney Alexander one too), but other than that the Magic’s picks have largely panned out. Mike Miller and J.J. Redick were good players in weak drafts, and Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon help form a compelling young nucleus. And then there’s Dwight Howard, a six-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Orlando and arguably the best player in the franchise’s history. At the time, some analysts suggested the Magic select Emeka Okafor over Howard with the first overall pick in 2004, but Orlando’s choice certainly proved wise.
Two out of three isn’t bad, right? Selecting Dwyane Wade fifth in 2003 changed the entire history of Miami’s franchise. Without that pick, the Heat certainly don’t win the 2006 title and probably don’t sign LeBron James. And without stealing Caron Butler 10th in 2002, the Heat can’t trade for Shaq two years later. The No. 2 pick in 2008, Michael Beasley, busted big time, but Wade and Butler more than sustain Miami’s lottery resume.
More than any other team in the NBA, the Thunder built a winning roster through the draft lottery. That’s where they acquired current pillars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, plus role players Steven Adams and Nick Collison. They also grabbed James Harden and Jeff Green in the top five; that they traded away both players for underwhelming returns doesn’t take away from Sam Presti and company’s impeccable draft-night decision making. Among all NBA teams, only the Cleveland Cavaliers can claim close to Seattle/Oklahoma City’s lottery success.