In hailing the all-world talents of Nikola Jokic, now an NBA champion (and the most influential Serb since Gavrilo Princip), let’s also recognize that this cornerstone figure was taken #41 in the 2014 NBA Draft, behind Doug McDermott, whom the Nuggets took that year at #11. Don’t get me wrong: Dougy McBuckets has enjoyed a longer NBA career that most. He is, in fact, one of 20 Nugget draftees from the past decade who remain active in this league. That’s the extraordinary organizational lesson delivered by Monday’s clincher.
Observers journalistic and otherwise spent considerable time discussing teambuilding during these playoffs. First, it was the Heat’s predilection for making serviceable NBA squad players of undrafted castoffs. Then, when Denver started to look inevitable, the conversation moved to canny roster-development via the draft, wherein Joker remains Exhibit A.
Yet the larger takeaways for NBA clubs and fans alike are simpler and self-evident: Denver is the league’s best talent evaluator, full stop, thanks to Vice President of Scouting Jim Clibanoff (pictured above) and his crack staff. The Nuggets not only draft more effectively, they also better assess the potential value of Europeans and players discarded by competing NBA franchises. They’ve shown these traits for a decade or more, as I will detail below, and theirs is the best, most practical example of how to develop championship-ready rosters in 2023.
Free agency remains vitally important, of course. I read somewhere during these playoffs that Denver’s title is the first from a Western Conference team not located in California or Texas since the 1979 Seattle Supersonics! Big markets/money will always give “coastal elites” a leg up in luring/landing established stars. Yet Denver has shown league peers how to nullify these advantages in the 21st century. Once the new collective bargain agreement takes effect, and teams cannot afford three max stars going forward (thereby more evenly distributing plus-players around the league), the primacy of talent assessment is only enhanced.
By contrast, it’s time to get real on the most overhyped aspect of any NBA teambuilding discussion, the Draft Lottery. Based on the amount of media attention paid to these first half-dozen picks, one assumes this approach to be a proven strategy. It’s not. The Golden State dynasty was not built via reliance on or maneuvers to enable high lottery picks. LeBron James was a lottery pick 20 years ago; his fellow Laker, Anthony Davis, ran out on the team that picked him no. 1. Kawhi Leonard went 14th and somehow managed to be the best player on two NBA Champions, just north of two separate borders (San Antonio and Toronto).
What’s more, it seems clear to me the Lottery affects championship fortunes and overall roster strength less and less. Lottery picks are, of course, getting younger and younger. It’s no coincidence they are less and less able to produce at the NBA level, especially within the 3-year rookie contract window. Joel Embiid and Zion Williamson are great players, when healthy, but they’ve delivered nothing in terms of playoff success to the teams that contorted their long-term fortunes to acquire them. The demonstrable abilities of these younger and younger men, imbued with evermore AAU-enabled, one-and-done skill sets, makes them less and less NBA ready with every passing year. Why tank any season, much less two or three, to acquire them?