ORLANDO - If there’s a lesson to be learned from this year’s NBA Finals series matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, it’s that championship-level teams are built through the draft – in one way or another.
Even in the past among teams that won the title with star players they either signed in free agency or added through trades, it was key decisions in the draft that set them up for success. The L.A. Lakers of a couple years ago are an example of this. Obviously, by signing LeBron James in free agency, they got the ball rolling. But without the quality young talent they had plucked from the draft – notably Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart – they wouldn’t have had a chance of acquiring Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans in that 2019 blockbuster trade. Without an All-Star caliber trade chip like DeMar DeRozan, whom they drafted nine years earlier, the Toronto Raptors wouldn’t have gotten Kawhi Leonard in 2018. Without Al Jefferson, a budding center at the time whom they had selected in the draft three years earlier, the Celtics wouldn’t have gotten Kevin Garnett in 2007.
But even those are exceptions to the norm. The overwhelming majority of teams that won the championship featured core players they themselves drafted.
The Lakers drafted Magic Johnson; the Celtics drafted Larry Bird; the Detroit Pistons drafted Isiah Thomas; the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan; the Houston Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon; the San Antonio Spurs drafted Tim Duncan; the Dallas Mavericks drafted Dirk Nowitzki (through draft rights swap); the Celtics drafted Paul Pierce; the Miami Heat drafted Dwyane Wade. The Lakers also acquired Kobe Bryant’s draft rights from the Charlotte Hornets. The Cleveland Cavaliers drafted James, and even though he didn’t win his first title until signing with Miami, it’s probably safe to assume he wouldn’t have returned to Northeast Ohio if he hadn’t played there to begin with.
In more recent years, the two teams that have had the greatest drafting success are the Warriors and Celtics. In 2009, Golden State selected Stephen Curry seventh overall. Two years later with their 11th overall pick, they took Klay Thompson. The very next year with one of their second-round picks, they chose Draymond Green. Even though he’s just one of their role players, Kevon Looney was homegrown. He was taken 30th overall by the Warriors literally a week after they won their first of three titles in four years. And now with the emergence of Jordan Poole, their 28th overall pick in 2019, Golden State is back to being an absolute juggernaut.
While the Warriors were busy dominating the league in the latter part of the last decade, the Celtics were grooming their own young talent. For them it all started with a brilliant draft night trade in 2013. Boston sent Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry – all past their prime – to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for future draft picks, along with several salary-matching player contracts.
By 2016, the Nets had fallen way back in the standings. In fact, they went 21-61 that year and finished the season on a 10-game losing streak. This was exactly what the Celtics hoped would happen when they made that 2013 deal because 2016 was one of the years Brooklyn had to surrender their draft pick to Boston.
Selecting third overall, the C’s opted for Jaylen Brown, which caught some by surprise considering he had a somewhat disappointing freshman campaign for the University of California. But even in his rookie NBA season, the 6-foot-6 swingman showed flashes of his two-way potential.
Also part of the trade between the Celtics and Nets was a pick swap in 2017. While Brooklyn was forced to pick 27th overall that year despite finishing that season a league-worst 20-62, Boston landed the No. 1 pick through the swap after winning the draft lottery. Deciding to trade down two slots, the C’s chose Jayson Tatum with the third pick.
Not only did they now have a pair of dynamic and versatile wings to build around, but they also were transforming into a defensive powerhouse. Led by Marcus Smart, their sixth overall draft pick in 2014, the Celtics had discovered their identity. They have ranked in the top five in defense in three of the last five seasons, including this year finishing first on that end of the floor.
The Warriors and Celtics meeting in the NBA Finals shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Not only stocked with tremendous individual talent, but both teams play to their strengths. Golden State has an offensive system predicated on cuts, curls, constant motion, relentless passing, and, of course, sharp shooting. Boston is one of the most physical and versatile teams we’ve seen over the last couple decades. By having so many interchangeable parts, they are rarely a mismatch victim. On top of that, Tatum is one of the game’s all-time great isolation scorers, and now possesses enough playmaking ability to keep defenders on their toes.
The Orlando Magic, one of the league’s youngest teams, are looking at this matchup with a smile. Not only are they building through the draft like the Warriors and Celtics did, but they are also establishing a defensive-oriented culture that they believe will lead to enormous success down the road. After the All-Star break this past season, the Magic had the NBA’s seventh-best defensive rating.
The key now is to do exactly what Golden State and Boston did years ago, which is to hit a homerun in the draft. By having the first overall pick later this month, the Magic will have a chance to do just that.