The reason the season seems so close is because I’m beginning to see more and more articles online attempting to predict who will win the various end-of-year awards, which teams will win their respective divisions, and most importantly, which team will be crowned champion at the end of the season. However, a fundamental part of answering that last question is figuring out how to build an NBA champion, which is the subject of this article.
The main player that blurs the draft/trade distinction is Kobe Bryant, who was drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996, but wasn’t traded to the Los Angeles Lakers until 2 weeks after the draft (a quick shoutout to Vlade Divac, the new GM of the Sacramento Kings and former Laker who was sent to Charlotte in exchange for Kobe). Ultimately, I decided to classify Kobe as being drafted by the Lakers, based on the fact that despite being technically drafted by Charlotte, the Hornets and Lakers had agreed to the trade prior to the draft. This means that the Hornets drafted Bryant based on input from the Lakers. In other words, the Lakers drafted him by proxy, which is good enough for me.
In order to answer the question of how to build an NBA champion, I did the following: I looked at the rosters from the NBA champions and runner-ups of the past 25 years and classified each player’s acquisition status as either by draft, trade, or free agency. I then looked at each player’s total playoff Win Shares (WS) from that postseason, and rearranged the data in several ways to see which players did more in that particular postseason. A Win Share (WS) is a statistic that compiles an individual player’s offensive and defensive contributions to give an estimate of how many wins that player contributes to a given team, and is a fairly simple and effective way of measuring a player’s contribution to their team’s success.
Win share information was acquired from www.basketball-reference.com, while roster and player acquisition information was acquired from www.basketball.realgm.com.
The average playoff WS per player involved in the NBA finals dating back to the 1989-1990 season is 1.13, with each player on a championship team averaging 1.24 WS and each player on a runner up averaging 1.02 WS. These numbers are all very reasonable; from 1984-2003, teams only needed to win 15 games to win an NBA title, as the Conference Quarterfinals (1st round) were best-of-five series. In 2003, the first round was extended to a best-of-seven series, meaning teams needed to win an extra game to win the NBA title.
By saying that each championship team averaged approximately 12.5 players per roster, and each championship team won, on average, 15.5 games per playoffs since 1990, each player would therefore contribute 1.24 wins on average. Similarly, each runner-up would win a minimum of 11.5 games and a maximum of 14.5 games per postseason, the average of which is 13 games won per postseason. This amounts to each player contributing, on average, 1.04 wins to a runner-up team. The deviation from the obtained value of 1.02 WS per player can be attributed to the fact that there is not an even distribution of championship series going 4, 5, 6, or 7 games.
For the purposes of answering the question posed earlier, the data shows the following:
Players acquired via free agency contributed 0.70 WS on average (0.805 WS on championship teams, 0.59 WS on runner ups).
Players acquired via trades contributed 1.14 WS on average (1.19 WS on championship teams, 1.09 WS on runner ups).
This means that players acquired through the draft are likely to contribute more postseason wins than their colleagues acquired through free agency or trade. In other words, when building a team, a GM’s best bet on finding championship caliber players is in the draft. Since 1990, only 7 out of the 25 championship teams did not have their team led in WS by a player acquired through the draft: ’95 Rockets (Clyde Drexler, 3.0 WS, via trade), ’00 and ’02 Lakers (Shaquille O’Neal, 4.7 and 3.8 WS, via FA), ’04 Pistons (Ben Wallace, 3.6 WS, via trade), ’08 Celtics (Kevin Garnett, 4.1 WS, via trade), ’10 Lakers (Pau Gasol, 4.3 WS, via trade), ’12 and ’13 Heat (LeBron James, 5.8 and 5.2 WS, via FA).
Even so, looking at that list, only Shaq and LeBron can really say that they were the true alphas of their teams – the Rockets were still Olajuwon’s team, and the ’08-’10 Lakers were still Kobe’s (both of whom were drafted by their respective teams, might I add). Meanwhile, the whole of the ’04 Pistons was truly greater than the sum of its parts, and the leadership duties on the ’08 Celtics were shared by the original “Big-3” of Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
Some of the greatest players in the past 25 years were able to lead the teams that drafted them to NBA championships: Thomas/Dumars, Jordan/Pippen, Hakeem, Duncan/Robinson, Wade, Kobe, Dirk, and Curry (who hasn’t reached “great” status yet, but is well on his way). When looking at the runner-ups, a similar trend occurs, with franchise players like Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant all being acquired via the draft.
Just for the sake of comparison, here’s a list comparing the Top-10 WS players of the last 25 years from each acquisition category:
Still, that doesn’t mean that teams shouldn’t look to improve their rosters at the trade deadline or through free agency. The Bulls likely wouldn’t have won their second three-peat without Dennis Rodman (traded to Chicago in 1995). The Lakers wouldn’t have three-peated had it not been for Robert Horry’s game-winner against Sacramento in the 2002 Western Conference Finals (traded to Los Angeles in 1997). And if not for Andre Iguodala’s contributions in the most recent NBA Finals (traded to Golden State in 2013), Stephen Curry wouldn’t have joined Magic Johnson, Bob Cousy, and Oscar Robertson as the only point guards to win MVP and an NBA title in their careers. Role players acquired in any capacity might not be as important as number one options in the playoffs, but they can swing a series just as easily.
The moral of the story is this: GMs shouldn’t ignore free agency and trades. They just shouldn’t expect to acquire a franchise player there, when the history and the statistics show that they are better off working through the draft.