It’s better to be lucky than good, the saying goes. But once lucky, it helps to be smart if one hopes to get or stay good.
That’s nobody’s saying, actually, but it is the challenge now facing the Minnesota Timberwolves and specifically Flip Saunders. Saunders, the team’s president of basketball operations, a part-owner and the Wolves head coach, got lucky at the NBA Draft lottery Tuesday night largely by being the opposite of good. The Wolves were b-b-b-b-bad to the bone this season, diving to the bottom of the league’s standings (16-66) with the single-mindedness of a bomb squad. They got rewarded when their 4-to-1 bet came in.
Now Minnesota not only has the No. 1 pick in the 2015 Draft for the first time in its 26-year franchise history, it likely will become the first team in NBA annals to have on its roster the three most recent No. 1 picks overall: Anthony Bennett (2013), Andrew Wiggins (’14) and either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns, the two big men projected as this year’s top prospects.
All of which guarantees nothing. Since 1995, only two of the 20 players taken No. 1 overall have won NBA championships: Tim Duncan (1997, five) and LeBron James (2003, two). Eight never made it to an All-Star Game (six if you don’t count youngsters Bennett and Wiggins).
Stockpiling top picks is less important, it seems, than seeing talent and fit where others do not with later picks. It’s a formula executed masterfully by San Antonio and, as Britt Robson of MinnPost.com points out in a piece citing past misguided Wolves decisions, it looks to be working well for current title favorite Golden State:
It is by now an infamous part of Wolves lore that the team passed on Golden State guard and reigning MVP Stephen Curry (twice!) in the 2009 draft, taking Ricky Rubio with the fifth pick and Jonny Flynn with the sixth before the Warriors gleefully snapped up Curry.
But it is more instructive to look beyond Curry on the Golden State roster to appreciate how shrewd drafting fostered the 67-win team that now leads Houston in the conference finals and is the favorite to become NBA champions this season. You can go back to 2005, when the Warriors plucked Monte Ellis in the second round with the 40th overall pick. Seven years later, Ellis had become such a dynamic scorer that Golden State offered him as the main bauble in a five-player deal that enabled them to acquire Andrew Bogut, the top pick in 2005 and a current anchor of their low post defense.
Or go to the 2011 draft, when the Warriors, choosing eleventh, grabbed the shooting guard, Klay Thompson, who made Ellis expendable. The Timberwolves picked second in that draft and chose forward Derrick Williams, who was traded away for peanuts (specifically, Luc Mbah a Moute, who lasted 55 games in Minnesota) two years later.
Then slide up a year to the 2012 draft. The Warriors took their current starting small forward, Harrison Barnes, with the seventh pick. They acquired their current backup center, Festus Ezeli, with the 30th pick. And they grabbed their current power forward, Draymond Green — who just finished second in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting — with the 35th pick in the second round.
After recounting Minnesota’s sorry history of botched personnel calls, Robson snaps back to the present. On the heels of two fortunate outcomes – getting Wiggins last summer for one final season of Kevin Love and landing the No. 1 pick next month – he says it’s now on Saunders to maximize return from draft positions where hard work and keen eyes get rewarded against long odds. Specifically, the Wolves need to upgrade from dead last in 3-point attempts and 25th in accuracy.
In his season-ending meeting, Saunders himself brought up the need to become better from long range, and, in answer to my question, said that one of the later draft picks could be a good way to remedy that need. The Wolves currently own the first pick in the second round (31st overall), as well as the 36th overall pick, acquired in the Corey Brewer trade.
[Curry] is the reigning MVP, and had a wonderful game in Tuesday night’s win over Houston. But the most important player on the floor was …Green, the 35th pick in 2012, who keyed the surge with his defense and quickness after Golden State went to a smaller lineup.
Saunders and the Wolves have been uncommonly bold and uncommonly lucky in the past twelve months. At this propitious moment, it is time for this franchise to be uncommonly smart with all of the resources at its disposal.