The 2014 NBA Draft Lottery is upon us and hopes are high for the 14 teams looking to get lucky. The bounce of a ping-pong ball can mean all the difference for some franchises, especially the ones who don’t have the luxury of being a destination city like Los Angeles or New York. When you can’t attract star free agents, your only option is to draft one.
Ask the Cleveland Cavaliers how it worked for them, when they drafted LeBron James No. 1 overall back in 2003. Ask the San Antonio Spurs, when they had the No. 1 pick back in 1997 and drafted Tim Duncan. The fact is, teams like those don’t attract the big name free agents based on the city or their locale.
There are a few cities that have seen good times because of their drafting prowess. Once you’re able to bring in a star through the draft, it becomes somewhat easier to pull that secondary talent that really puts a team over the top.
MINNESOTA, LAND OF NO BIG FREE AGENTS
Look at a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have never brought in a top free agent in the history of their franchise (sorry Latrell Sprewell, you don’t count). Recently, they acquired Kevin Martin, who is the personification of the type of free agents that the Wolves can draw. He’s a solid player, but the market wasn’t exactly foaming at the mouth to get near him.
They had some great times because of their drafting of Kevin Garnett back in the 2000’s. They overpaid to keep him, which completely hamstrung their chances of signing free agents, who may have braved the cold for the chance of winning. What happened after Garnett left? The dark times returned, despite the drafting of Kevin Love (who is now looking for a way out, it appears).
MILWAUKEE, BASKETBALL HELL ON EARTH
The Milwaukee Bucks are the case study of why teams like these simply can’t strike out in the draft. They can’t afford to miss on their picks, because they’ve got no chance of bringing in quality free agents. They can’t even seem to overpay free agents to come to town and instead have to throw exorbitant amounts of money at guys like Ersan Ilyasova to get him to stay.
Let’s take a look at the last seven first round picks for the franchise (and make sure to keep a barf bag nearby): Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson, Jimmer Fredette, Larry Sanders, Brandon Jennings, Joe Alexander and Yi Jianlian. They had the No. 1 overall pick back in 2005 and selected Andrew Bogut, who was serviceable, but not a franchise changer. They missed on Chris Paul, Deron Williams, David Lee and Danny Granger in that draft.
OKLAHOMA CITY, THE ANTI-MILWAUKEE
No offense to the residents of Oklahoma City, but living there is no bargain. The weather is rarely “nice” and it seems like the next tornado is around the corner. It’s certainly not a hotbed for free agents, with one major exception — they’ve drafted so well that players might be willing to throw their personal lives out the window for the chance to play with some transcendent talent.
In the span of three years, they drafted Kevin Durant (2nd), Russell Westbrook (4th), James Harden (3rd) and Serge Ibaka (24th). They’ve hit home runs with all of those picks. However, they’ve also cut their championship chances by getting rid of Harden for financial reasons. If they were in a big market, they’d be a guaranteed dynasty. Do premiere free agents take those things into account? Of course they do. What happens to the Thunder if Durant and/or Westbrook leave? They go in the toilet.
It’s a tough situation for those teams who are inland (for the most part). They’re not destination cities and they don’t offer much in the way of basketball history (Chicago being the obvious exception here). They simply have to strike gold in the draft, then draft well, then do everything in their power to hold onto their talent. It may be unfair, it may be a challenge, but it is what it is.