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?
I don’t think it’s controversial to say the Draft Lottery has become the darling creature of media, which value content-creation above all things. The amount of writing and podcasting devoted to this narrow subject has become truly ridiculous. What’s more, any reliance upon Lottery-derived talent represents the outsourcing of talent identification to some weird, unaccountable amalgam of media hype, conventional hoop wisdom and the assumption that college basketball is turning out finished basketball products — something it stopped doing circa 2003. Victor Wembanyama is a unicorn. Of course, a team might tank to get him. However, year in and year out, NBA franchises throw away entire seasons to position themselves for drafts where the depth of talent is completely unknown and, it says here, scandalously overrated.
Denver never worried about mortgaging its future on unknowns. Jokic has proved a generational talent, and Denver did get lucky with him. The remainder of their roster, however, was sensibly shaped by non-lottery drafting (no picks higher than #7), low- to mid-range free agent signings (Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown, Jeff Green), and trades using their voluminous draft bounty as collateral.
Here’s a casual detailing of Denver’s still-NBA-active draftees from 2012 or later. No team can keep all the good players it might draft. Monte Miller and Malik Beasley and Jerryd Vanderbilt were all acquired by Denver before fully expressing their potentials elsewhere. Yet this list shows how badly Denver is beating up on the competition when it comes to straight-up talent identification. This compilation excludes Kenneth Faried, whom the Nuggs took at #22 in 2011. He’s no longer in the NBA, but he enjoyed a good, long, productive career, as well. He’s my jumping off point because I always loved his game, his nickname (“The Manimal”), and his uncanny resemblance to all those Na’vi warriors from the Avatar movies:
Evan Fournier, drafted in 2012, #20 overall pick
Rudy Gobert, 2013, #27 (traded on draft day for the 46th selection, Erick Green, and cash)
Nikola Jokic, 2014, #41
Doug McDermott, 2014, #11
Emmanuel Mudiay, 2015, #7
Malik Beasley, 2016, #19
Juancho Hernangomez, 2016, #15
Jamal Murray, 2016, #7
Monte Morris, 2017, #51
Donovan Mitchell, 2017, #13 (traded on draft day to Jazz for the 24th selection and Trey Lyles)
Michael Porter, 2018, #14
Bol Bol, 2019, #44
Bones Hyland, 2021, #26
Christian Braun, 2022, #21
Note: This list above doesn’t include guys on the 2022-23 Nuggets roster who simply do not play, not yet (2021 pick Vlatko Cancar, 2021 pick Zeke Nnaji). Now check out this additional list of NBA squad players ferreted out, in one way or another, by Clibanoff & Co.
• Josef Nurkic, 2016 draftee of Chicago (#16), acquired by Denver post draft (sent to Portland in 2017 to clear minutes for Jokic)
• Jarred Vanderbilt, drafted by Orlando in 2018 (#41), acquired by Denver prior to 2019 opening day
• Facundo Campazzo, undrafted, acquired in 2020
• Will Barton, claimed in 2015 after 3 scrapheap years in Portland
• Torrey Craig, undrafted, arrived Denver after three years overseas
That’s a lot of serviceable NBA players, while never picking above 7th. The Spurs are considered to be among the most savvy player-personnel operations around, often picking late but effectively. By my count, only nine of their draftees taken since 2012 remain in the league. The Heat are considered quite clever in this regard, too, but have proved far more active in the free agent market, signing big names and adeptly grabbing undrafted players (Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson). They don’t put a lot of stock in the draft. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are their only home-grown talents; Pat Riley likely took them only because they went to Kentucky (!).
The point is not that Torrey Craig will unlock a team’s championship fortunes, or that Bol Bol will win you a playoff series someday. What’s more (irony alert), no one played a shorter bench in these playoffs that Nuggets coach Mike Malone.
In the league’s prevailing asset economy, however, all these guys were identified as legitimate, viable talents whose value would either add depth to Denver’s team or, via trade, that of another team. The draft happens each and every year, so the process never stops. What’s more, with a high enough pick and a scouting staff you can trust, Jamal Murray doesn’t slip by you.
Mistakes? Naturally, Denver has made a few. Emmanuel Mudiay was another #7 pick, though I would point out that he stayed in the NBA through 2022 (today he’s playing point for the Loong Lions in Guangzhou, China) … Everywhere outside the Fantasy Basketball context, Rudy Gobert’s value continues to drop. But trading him on draft day for Erick Green and cash? That’s a whiff… Trading away Donovan Mitchell was probably not the best idea, either. They dealt him for the 24th pick, where they took Tyler Lydon out of Syracuse, and Trey Lyles. Lydon didn’t pan out, but Lyles remains in the league, as a rotation big man on an up-and-coming Sacramento team.
There’s one more salient factor we have not addressed: Time. The Rockets and Thunder have each stockpiled impressive young talents, mainly via the Lottery mechanism. Their progress over the next two or three years, or the lack of it, will go a long way toward propping up and potentially validating this roster-building practice. I, for one, am intrigued by the prospect of Ime Udoka pulling the on-court strings in Houston. And OKC has clearly surrounded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with a boatload of skilled shooters and passers. What remains to be seen? Whether anyone can get all those Jalens to play defense.