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Is the NBA Draft Lottery Overrated?

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
The NBA's draft lottery is coming up on May 20th and with it comes renewed hope from the fans of some hard-luck teams, that a high lottery pick may somehow reverse their team's misfortune. While that may happen from time to time, if the end-goal is an NBA championship, history has proven that number one overall picks aren't the answer.

Later this month, teams will draw for their positions in the NBA draft lottery for the 30th time in league history, but only one team in the last 29 to get the number one overall selection went on to win an NBA championship with that player- San Antonio. The Spurs originally drafted David Robinson back in 1987, but had to wait for the Admiral to finish his stint in the Navy, before he could begin to help the Spurs. When he finally arrived, the team looked like it was headed in the right direction- the Spurs were getting used to winning more than 50 games in a season and Robinson was grabbing MVP titles.

Then the team fell off the proverbial injury cliff during the 1996-97 season. Robinson missed the first month with a back injury, then lost the rest of the season minus six games to a foot injury. To add insult injury to injury, the Spurs' other key player, Sean Elliot, saw the pendulum swing on his career. Prior to that season, Elliott had never played in fewer than 70 games in a season, playing in 80 or more four times. Injuries caught up to Elliott during the '96-97 season and he missed more than half the season.

It became the perfect storm of success for the Spurs, when their number came up in the draft lottery and they selected Tim Duncan with the number one overall pick. With Robinson and/or Duncan on the floor, the Spurs went on to win 11 division titles, five conference titles and four NBA championships.

However, their success has proven to be the NBA lottery exception and not the rule. The Spurs were really good without Duncan and might have been able to win a title at some point without him, but adding him to the lottery clearly made it easier. Several factors had to fall into place in order for the Spurs to realize the success they had, which may not ever be repeated again-

  • The Spurs had a bad enough record (fourth-worst) to win the lottery the first time in 1987 (the chances of that happening have since decreased from 14.29% to 11.9%)
  • The Spurs had the chance to draft a player who would go on to a hall of fame career
  • The Spurs had to convince that player to re-sign with the team as a free agent
  • That player and another key player had to go down with injuries in the same season
  • The Spurs had a bad enough record again (third-worst) to win the lottery for a second time in 11 years (the chances of that happening were 21.60%)
  • The Spurs had the chance to draft a second player who would go on to a hall of fame career (who knows what the chances are of that happening?)
  • The Spurs were able to convince that player to re-sign with the team as a free agent

Add in the fact that the list of number one overall draft picks in recent years doesn't exactly coincide with a list of players who have won NBA championships and it's looking like the Spurs beat some fairly substantial odds. So what is the key to winning an NBA title if the number one pick has proven they don't deliver (at least not for their original team)? Attracting, signing and retaining top free agents. (Being located in the right market doesn't hurt either)