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A heady process vs. steady progress part III: The real NBA lottery

The best way for a team to get better is through the draft, right?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed Part I, I wrote about the respective situations that the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers found themselves in that led them to blow up their teams. In Part II, I covered the spending patterns and money movements of the two teams. Today, in the final part of the piece, we’re going to talk about drafting, tanking, and developing players.

Subscription to the Philadelphia 76ers ‘Process’ requires a zealous belief in two tenets of winning in the NBA.

  1. You must have top tier talent.
  2. Tanking and building through the draft has the best odds of any available path to building such top tier talent.
NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Personally, I don’t feel that there is much to be argued about the first point, as that’s pretty objective. Talent is what wins in the NBA and the fate of the league has almost always been decided by a team a top-five or at worst top-ten player in the league. Many teams understand this, and will acquire a top-20 player with hope that they can make a leap like Stephen Curry or James Harden into that kind of MVP candidate later in their career. Whatever the case, teams are trying to get those guys and most NBA fans agree on that.

Which brings us to the blood feud being fought over that second point...

The point of contention in this argument is built around a weird idea that people who had issues with the process were illogical and grasping for reason that it might fail. I think most Process Truthers believed that critics thought that the process would never work and what they didn’t like about was that someone else “figured something out”. Obviously, that is not true, as anything can work if given enough time for circumstances to shift around it. Tanking (and making enough good decisions) for long enough was always going to give the Sixers a contending team, as would pretty much any other team doing pretty much any other type of behavior. The more cogent point that critics had was “does it actually help you win?”.

My peer Ryan Bernadoni is the apex scholar of such arguments having literally written the source material both statistically and longformly that repudiate The Process on one singular, objective truth. Tanking guarantees that you lose games in the short term and has little effect on winning percentages 5-10 seasons out. A lot of people reject that idea out of hand, because it just simply seems wrong. After all, How could getting top picks every year possibly not do more for a team that is picking in a lower position?

The Long Answer

The long answer is that there is so much that goes into the development of all but the most transcendent stars and so many ways for that development to be derailed, that it simply doesn’t always work out. Cleveland might have had the greatest player of all time on their roster, but were so hampered by bad spending and poor decisions they needed a four year clear cut while LeBron James was in South Beach to reset their roster and try again.

The New Orleans Pelicans seem to be in a similar boat, having made one first round selection in the first round of the draft in the five drafts since they drafted Anthony Davis. The Pelicans are one of the most shallow teams in the league, and it might be easy to write off their talent troubles as just something that happens to an upper-middle class team with star talent. However disastrous deals to both obtain and send away Omer Asik have trimmed selections that could have been used on players like Bobby Portis, Delon Wright, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or whoever might be available in this year’s draft.

It’s not ‘picking in the middle of the NBA draft’ that has hindered the Pelicans, but not picking at all.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Comparably, Bucks fans are beginning to get jittery about what will happen with Giannis Antetokounmpo in three years if the Bucks don’t find a way to escape the first round. Injuries to Jabari Parker, the miss on Rashad Vaughn, and inept coaching have the Bucks scrambling like the pelicans and using first round picks to plug holes.

The “treadmill of mediocrity” moniker is often assigned to a team because they don’t have a viable improve to a championship level. However, most of the time, the reason that those teams don’t have those paths is because there’s not enough franchise players teams make stupid decisions or have bad luck that that hold them in place, not because being in the middle of the standing affects your ability to improve.

It’s also worth noting that players aren’t drafted for life. If you aren’t able to find a way to make them happy in that first four to nine years, that franchise player can leave and put you right back at square one. Four to nine years might sound like a lot of time, but when you are talking about multiple years of tanking, a lot of that advantage goes away, particularly since you need to try to win to see what is going to work with your “stars” and what won’t. The Sixers mitigated this a bit with their injured and stashed players, but they also never got a firm handle on how their franchise players fit together, and there have been varying returns on that in the regular season and postseason. You need to try to win at some point, and to try to flip the switch that quickly after years of designed losing…. Let’s just say it’s easy to flood the engine and you give yourself much less time for maintenance.

The Short Answer

The short answer is that there is one omega certainty.

That one primary truth is that in order to build through the draft, you must nail your draft picks. In order to nail your draft picks you have to be lucky. Everyone holds up Oklahoma City as the model for, but I would be shocked if we saw another team draft three (assumed) MVPs in a row during the next century of the NBA. It was such an outrageous amount of luck and fortune that considering it as something that could replicated is like trying to throw an egg through a rotating helicopter blade three times in a row.

Throughout this series I’ve detailed multiple places where the Celtics and Sixers both had times where they have gotten extremely lucky.

Both teams could have also had better luck, for example, the Sixers could have drafted Porzingis instead of Okafor. It was also realistic that the Celtics could have drafted Giannis instead of Kelly Olynyk. However, overall, both teams have been extraordinarily lucky with various aspects of their team building. Luck is about not shooting yourself in the foot while you are waiting for it happen, and there’s no question that both Hinkie and Ainge deserve credit for their frugal deals and maximization of the tools available to them. That said, it was much more important that the two not level the sights with their own toes and pull the trigger, as Ainge very nearly did with the Justise Winslow deal.

Sam Hinkie bet big on giving himself the best odds in the NBA Draft lottery. Danny Ainge also gambled on a lottery, he just did it in a separate, less official lotteries like the Brad Stevens hire, the Nets Trade, the Isaiah Thomas trade, and Al Horford signing, which all had a multitude of possible outcomes. Both teams have needed incredible amounts of luck (and the intelligence to not ruin it) to get where they are today. Over the next five years, we’re going do see which of these two teams (if either) ended up with the winning ticket.

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