By Jonathan Hartzell, NBA.com
There’s been much discussion recently about the proper way for an NBA franchise to rebuild. Many of these discussions have been about teams who appear to purposefully build an inferior roster in order to obtain a high Draft pick. This concept, also known as “tanking,” inspired an entire series by the ESPN TrueHoop Network staff and an excellent rebuttal from Tom Ziller at SB Nation.
The key question raised by all of these articles: What IS the optimal way for an NBA franchise to construct a championship team?
The best way to answer this question is to look at how past champions were constructed.
Here’s a graph that breaks down the roster construction of the past 20 NBA champions (click to enlarge):
And here’s how the top three players on each team were acquired:
(EDITOR’S NOTE ON ABOVE TRANSACTIONS: Maxwell was sold to the Houston Rockets by the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 20, 1990; James technically joined the Heat in a sign-and-trade deal that gave the Cavs two future first-round, two future second-round picks, a trade exception and an option to swap first-round picks with Miami in 2012 — which the Cavs passed on. Bosh technically joined the Heat in a sign-and-trade deal that gave the Raptors two first-round picks in the 2011 Draft and a trade exception.)
A few things of note:
- The 2004 Pistons were incredible. None of their top three players was drafted by the team; Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur were the only players drafted at all by the Pistons.
- The Pistons and the 2011 Mavericks were the only championship teams over the past 20 years who acquired the majority of their players through trades.
- The importance of the Draft is clear. Outside of those pesky Pistons, each championship team drafted either their best or second-best player. I labeled both Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant as drafted by their current teams even though they were drafted by other teams (Milwaukee and Charlotte, respectively) and traded on Draft night or, in Kobe’s case, shortly thereafter.
- The Heat started a new trend of how to build a champion with the majority of their players being acquired through free agency. This has a lot to do with the roster purge they experienced during the summer of 2010 when they cleared significant roster space to re-sign Dwyane Wade and sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Overall, the general construction of these squads seems to be quite basic. Draft a superstar, trade for players who fit well with said superstar, sign supporting role players and, boom … championship. Sounds easy enough.
But it’s obviously not that easy, considering only eight franchises have been able to crack the code over the last twenty seasons.
It’s clear, though, that the first and most important step in building a championship roster is acquiring a superstar. Unfortunately, superstars are rare. So for most franchises that are not located in a hugely desirable free-agent destination, or can’t swing a blockbuster trade, the only way to acquire one is through the Draft.