ORLANDO – If there’s one lesson to be learned from this year’s NBA Finals series duel between the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics, it’s that championship-level teams are made by the draft — one way or another.
Even in the past, for teams that won the title with star players that they either signed privately or added through trades, it was key draft decisions that propelled them to success. The LA Lakers from a few years ago are an example of this. Obviously, they got the ball rolling by signing LeBron James to free agency. But without the high-quality young talent they picked from the draft — notably Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart — they would have stood no chance of capturing the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis in this blockbuster 2019 trade. Without an All-Star-caliber trade chip like DeMar DeRozan, who they drafted nine years earlier, the 2018 Toronto Raptors would not have gotten Kawhi Leonard. The 2007 Celtics would not have picked Kevin Garnett if it weren’t for Al Jefferson, a then-rising center they drafted 3 years earlier.
But even these are exceptions to the norm. The overwhelming majority of teams that won the championship were made up of core players that they called up themselves.
The Lakers drafted Magic Johnson; the Celtics drafted Larry Bird; the Detroit Pistons drafted Isiah Thomas; the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan; the Houston Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon; the San Antonio Spurs drafted Tim Duncan; the Dallas Mavericks drafted Dirk Nowitzki (by exchanging drafting rights); the Celtics drafted Paul Pierce; the Miami Heat drafted Dwyane Wade. The Lakers also acquired Kobe Bryant’s draft rights from the Charlotte Hornets. James was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and while he didn’t win his first title until he signed with Miami, it’s probably safe to assume he wouldn’t have returned to Northeast Ohio if he hadn’t played there from the start.
In recent years, the two teams that have had the greatest drafting success have been the Warriors and the Celtics. In 2009, Golden State selected Stephen Curry seventh overall. Two years later, when she was 11th Overall pick, they took Klay Thompson. The very next year they chose Draymond Green with one of their second-round picks. Despite being just one of her role players, Kevon Looney was a homegrown character. He was born on the 30thth overall by the Warriors literally a week after winning their first of three titles in four years. And now with the emergence of Jordan Poole, her 28thth Overall pick in 2019, Golden State is once again an absolute juggernaut.
While the Warriors were busy dominating the league for the second half of the last decade, the Celtics nurtured their own young talent. For her, it all started with a brilliant draft-night trade in 2013. Boston sent Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry — all past their prime — to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for future draft picks, along with multiple player contracts matching salary correspond to.
By 2016, the Nets had fallen far behind in the standings. In fact, they went 21-61 that year and ended the season on a 10-game losing streak. That’s exactly what the Celtics were hoping for when they made that deal in 2013, because 2016 was one of the years Brooklyn lost its draft pick to Boston.
The C’s picked third place overall, choosing Jaylen Brown, which surprised some considering he had a somewhat disappointing freshman campaign for the University of California. But even in his rookie NBA season, the 6-foot-6 swingman showed his two-way potential.
Also part of the trade between the Celtics and the Nets was a pick swap in 2017. While Brooklyn was forced to pick 27th Overall, Boston ended up No. 1 overall that year, despite finishing this season 20-62, worst in the league after winning the draft lottery through the trade. The C’s decided to trade two slots and chose Jayson Tatum with the third choice.
Not only did they now have a pair of dynamic and versatile wings to build around, but they also transformed into a defensive powerhouse. Led by Marcus Smart, their sixth overall draft pick of 2014, the Celtics had discovered their identity. They’ve been in the top five on defense in three of the last five seasons, including this year when they finished first at that end of the floor.
The Warriors vs Celtics clash in the NBA Finals should come as no surprise to anyone. Not only equipped with enormous individual talents, but both teams play to their strengths. Golden State has an offensive system built around cuts, curls, constant movement, relentless passing and, of course, sharp shooting. Boston is one of the most physical and versatile teams we’ve seen in decades. Because they have so many interchangeable parts, they are rarely the victim of mismatch. In addition, Tatum is one of the best isolation scorers of all time in the game and now possesses enough playmaking skills to keep defenders on their toes.
One of the youngest teams in the league, the Orlando Magic looks on with a smile. Not only are they building the draft like the Warriors and Celtics, but they’re also establishing a defensively oriented culture that they believe will lead to tremendous success later. After last season’s All-Star break, the Magic had the seventh-best defensive rating in the NBA.
The key now is to do exactly what Golden State and Boston did years ago, hit a home run in the draft. With the first overall pick later this month, Magic has a chance to do just that.