Former MVP Kevin Durant will become a free agent after the 2016 season, but unless he’s planning to pull a LeBron James and team up with two of his superstar friends somewhere—at a discounted salary nonetheless—NBA teams should plan on building their franchises the old-fashioned way—through the draft.
It’s still the best way to build a team. Just look at the Knicks.
In 2010, New York signed Amar’e Stoudemire to a five-year, $100 million deal. Six months later, they traded away a number of homegrown players (Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, and Wilson Chandler among them) for Carmelo Anthony. But the two stars never meshed, and now five years later they’re back in the lottery and all they have to show for it is one playoff series win.
The best teams are usually the ones who’ve drafted well year after year. Here are the best four in the league right now.
4. Boston Celtics
Danny Ainge was hired as Celtics GM in 2003 when all they really had for talent was All-Star Paul Pierce. Ainge slowly began stockpiling assets through the draft, though, like Tony Allen (25th overall in 2004), Delonte West (24th in 2004), Al Jefferson (15th in 2004), Ryan Gomes (50th overall in 2005), and Gerald Green (18th in 2005).
Finally in June of 2007, he went all in, trading his only top-five pick ever along with West, Wally Szczerbiak, and a future second-round pick for All-Star Ray Allen.
A month later he parlayed Jefferson, Gomes, Green, and a pair of first-rounders for All-Star Kevin Garnett and suddenly a contender was born. The Celtics with the Big Three of Pierce-Garnett-Allen and rising point guard Rajon Rondo (21st in 2006) won the title the following summer and nearly won again in 2010 before an injury to Kendrick Perkins (27th in 2003) in Game 6 of the NBA Finals derailed their hopes.
After trading away Pierce, Garnett, and Rondo in recent years, Ainge and the Celtics are armed with a number of picks to rebuild with.
3. Golden State Warriors
Bob Myers of Golden State, who was promoted to GM in 2012, was named the NBA’s executive of the year this past season, as the Warriors won the NBA title. A look at the roster, though, reveals that some of the heavy lifting was done before his arrival—without even the benefit of a top-five pick.
MVP Stephen Curry was taken with the 7th pick in 2009, while his back-court partner All-Star Klay Thompson was taken with the 11th pick in 2011.
In 2012, the Warriors pulled a fast one over everyone and nabbed defensive specialist Draymond Green with the 35th overall pick, while finding valuable contributors Festus Ezeli (30th overall) and Harrison Barnes (7th) in the same draft.
Even Finals MVP Andre Iguodala was obtained by trading two future first-round and three future second-round picks.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder might have had the best three-year stretch in the NBA Lottery as a team ever has from 2007 to 2009.
While some teams strike out with the top picks, GM Sam Presti—who’s been the team’s GM since 2007—hit a home run each time. In 2007, the Thunder took five-time All-NBA first-team forward Kevin Durant second overall. The next year, they nabbed four-time All-Star Russell Westbrook with the fourth pick. Then in the following draft, they drafted three-time All-Star James Harden third overall.
The foundation led them to the NBA Finals in 2012, but ultimately Harden was traded for financial reasons later in the year. Injuries to Durant and Westbrook have kept the team from making it back to the top.
1. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs started their current dynasty back in 1997 when the team lucked into winning the NBA Lottery—known as the Tim Duncan sweepstakes that year.
They added to Duncan—despite drafting at the end of every round—by finding future All-Stars Tony Parker (28th in 2001) and Manu Ginobili (57th in 1999).
The Spurs promoted assistant GM R.C. Buford to GM in 2002 and the team hasn’t skipped a beat since. They’ve found Tiago Splitter (28th in 2007), George Hill (26th in 2008), DeJuan Blair (37th in 2009), and then Buford’s best-ever move in flipping Hill for the 15th pick in the 2011 draft—Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard.