Why the Phoenix Suns Should Never Tank, A Historical Perspective

Some Suns fans talk about how the team should tank and wind up with a high draft pick. Scott Howard tells you how that hasn't exactly been working out for teams since the inception of the draft lottery.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a 'Town Hall' meeting for Suns season tickets holders in which people could ask stupid questions of owner Robert Sarver, Lon Babby, and Rick Welts.

Beyond the obvious hilarity of people asking ridiculous questions and actually posing specific transactional ideas (live rosterbation is exactly as funny as you think), one of my fellow season ticket holders suggested to our panel that it was time for the Suns to stop messing around and just tear the roster down. Now, by a tear down, this fellow meant that the team should trade Steve Nash and Grant Hill, get really bad, end up with a high draft pick and build the roster from the ground up -- "Oklahoma City style," as he said. 

Sarver and Babby dismissed the notion that this was the most appropriate way to rebuild a team, claiming that when you have weather like Phoenix and an organization that has been as historically strong as the Suns then you can build through free agency and trades. In effect, leave building through the draft to the icy wasteland of Minnesota. 

I tend to wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment from Sarver/Babby, but I do, at the same time, realize that there has been a growing faction of Suns fans who do believe this is the way to build. Since I'm not one to immediately dismiss the ideas of others out of hand, I went back to research how this type of strategy had worked for teams in the past. 

To get my sexy analysis going, I looked at the top three picks in the NBA Draft since the lottery began way back in 1985. I drew the line at three, since those are the picks you typically really have to suck to get. For the most part, if you are going to dress down your team like some suggest the Suns do, the goal is to get one of the top three selections. 

In order to be perfectly fair, it is appropriate to mention that the draft lottery rules have changed a few times since the advent in 1985.

  • In 1985 and 1986, all non-playoff teams were entered into the lottery and envelopes (one per team) were picked. There was no weight given to being more awful than your non-playoff cohorts.
  • Beginning in 1987, the lottery would only determine the top three picks in a draft.
  • By 1990, the NBA added extra opportunities for the worst of the worst to get the highest picks by giving teams with worse records more lottery balls. In 1994, they further weighted things for the worst teams.

After pulling the top three picks, I determined the record of each team in the previous season and then, to get a reasonable sample size, I looked at their performance in the following four seasons with their top three player. Since the 2007-2010 NBA Drafts don't have four seasons of data, they've been cut out. You can save your Kevin Durant-based whining, though -- I'll mention it. 

All that foreplay aside, the results really bear out two truths that any NBA fan suggesting tanking should know:

(1)    You've got to be really lucky in the lottery.

(2)    You've got to be really lucky with the draft class.

Them's the rules. What, you don't trust me? Fine, I give you permission to read on.

Worst Record Doesn't Mean #1 Pick:

A lot of the tanking advocates are probably saying to themselves, "Hey if we trade everyone and get the worst record in the league then bingo -- time for the first pick." Well no, my friends, that's not quite how it works.

In the 26 NBA Drafts since the lottery began in 1985, there have been only four seasons in which the team with the worst record managed to get the number one pick. Just four.

The Clippers won the lottery in 1988 with the worst record and their big prize was Danny Manning. Certainly Manning had his career derailed a bit by balky knees, but is he the type of prize you want to throw away a season for? Los Angeles made the playoffs just twice in Manning's five-plus seasons with the Clips and though making the playoffs seems like winning it all for that franchise, they never went beyond the first round.

Two years later, the team with the worst record again got the big prize. This time, it was New Jersey gaining the opportunity to select Syracuse big man Derrick Coleman. Jersey actually managed to make the playoffs in Coleman's second, third, and fourthseasons, but it took a 26-win first year -- along with some lottery luck -- to get them the second pick in the 1991 Draft (although they had just the fourth worst record in the league) and a shot at Kenny Anderson.

Anderson and Coleman may have looked cool on those early 90s NBA posters, but the combo failed to ever advance New Jersey beyond the first round.

The last two teams to have the worst record and get the top pick actually did quite well for themselves as the 2003 Cavs tanked their way to 17-65 and, for their trouble, got LeBron James, while Orlando won 21 games in 2003-2004 and landed Dwight Howard

But even with Cleveland, they only tied for the worst record, as Denver also went 17-65 and, for their trouble, was stuck with the third pick. That year actually worked out for both teams for a while, as Denver got Carmelo Anthony.

James and Howard were, without a doubt, two of the biggest gets with the number one pick and, as I'm sure you're well aware, neither has delivered a championship for their franchise. James had Cleveland in the playoffs by his third season and the Finals by his fourth, but after a few more playoff flameouts, LeBron left for Miami and left Cleveland completely starting over. 

Howard paid dividends a bit slower, as Orlando was under .500 in each of his first three seasons. They did make the Finals in season five, but they've since taken to making desperate roster moves in order to quiet the rumors that Dwight Howard will pull a LeBron when he becomes a free agent. 

So what have the teams with the worst record ended up with? Let's go to the data (leaving out our four teams that did land the top pick):

1985 - Indiana Pacers, #2 pick - Wayman Tisdale; Golden State Warriors, #7 pick - Chris Mullin

1986 - New York Knicks, #5 pick - Kenny Walker

1987 - Los Angeles Clippers, #4 pick - Reggie Williams

1989 - Miami Heat, #4 pick - Glen Rice

1991 - Denver Nuggets, #4 pick - Dikembe Mutombo

1992 - Minnesota Timberwolves, #3 pick - Christian Laettner

1993 - Dallas Mavericks, #4 pick - Jamal Mashburn

1994 - Dallas Mavericks, #2 pick - Jason Kidd

1995 - Los Angeles Clippers, #2 pick - Antonio McDyess

1996 - Vancouver Grizzlies, #3 pick - Shareef Abdur-Rahim

1997 - Vancouver Grizzlies, #4 pick - Antonio Daniels

1998 - Denver Nuggets, #3 pick - Raef Lafrentz

1999 - Vancouver Grizzlies, #2 pick - Steve Francis

2000 - Los Angeles Clippers, #3 pick - Darius Miles

2001 - Chicago Bulls, #4 pick - Eddy Curry

2002 - Golden State Warriors, #3 pick - Mike Dunleavy Jr., Chicago Bulls, #2 pick - Jay Williams

2005 - Atlanta Hawks, #2 pick - Marvin Williams

2006 - Portland Trailblazers, #4 pick - Tyrus Thomas

2007 - Memphis Grizlzlies, #4 pick - Mike Conley Jr.

2008 - Miami Heat, #2 pick - Michael Beasley

2009 Sacramento Kings, #4 pick - Tyreke Evans

2010 - New Jersey Nets, #3 pick - Derrick Favors

After reading that list you might be saying, "Well hell, things didn't end up so bad for the Nuggets with the #4 pick in 1991 -- Deke was a stud." But here's where luck pops in ... what if Denver gets the #3 pick instead of #2, do they go with Billy Owens like Sacramento did? Hindsight is 20/20. Same story with the Mavericks and Jason Kidd. They can say they would have picked Kidd over Glenn Robinson, but who knows? The Big Dog was a hell of a scorer.  

For a story in tanking fuitility, look at the Grizzlies from 1996-1999. Three of the four seasons, they had the worst record in the NBA. For all that fan misery, the team got Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antonio Daniels, and the draft rights to Steve Francis, who forced his way out of town. The take for Francis was pretty frightening. Vancouver got Antoine Carr, Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington, Brent Price, a 2003 first round pick (turned into Marcus Banks), and a 2002 second round pick (turned into Matt Barnes). Yikes.

That's what a team can get for being hot garbage for nearly half a decade -- several crappy lottery picks and a ticket to Memphis. Scary, right?

Now there's probably a sect of people who think that their team's organization wouldn't blow picks the way Vancover did. I suppose the way I respond to those people is that you've got to look at the specific situation that presented itself at the time.

Take 1996, for example. Yes, it was pretty awful that the Grizz didn't get the #1 pick and the right to draft Allen Iverson, but it's pretty unfair to say that they should have known well enough to grab Kobe Bryant at 13 or Steve Nash at 15. Again, hindsight is 20/20.

Having a Top Pick Doesn't Equal Success

As previously mentioned, it's flat out lucky to have a terrible record and end up with the top pick. As you saw from the list above, 12 other times out of the 26 lottery years the team with the worst record ended up with at least a top three pick. But even a top three pick guarantees you nothing. 

Now that we're back to actual team success, we're looking at the 22 NBA drafts from 1985-2006 -- the years that have at least four seasons of results following a top three pick. In that period, 66 different players have been selected with those high picks. The results have been ... well, not terribly impressive.

That's 264 seasons for the 66 players, although there is some overlap when teams had more than one top three pick in a four year period. To the bullet points:

  • Of the 264 available seasons, 105 saw a team make the playoffs. That's not even 40% of the four seasons following a top three pick. And not to tilt the numbers in the direction of my argument or anything, but that 105 includes teams such as the 1986 Celtics and 2003 Pistons, which were already good and then basically didn't use their top three picks to make eight combined playoff berths (Len Bias, Darko Milicic).
  • To go a step further, only 47 of the seasons wound up with a team getting to the second round or better of the playoffs. Again, six of the 47 were from the '86 Celtics and '03 Pistons.
  • It gets even darker when you step out to the Conference Finals. Just 18 of the first four seasons following a top three pick wound up with a team making at least their respective Conference Finals.
  • When it comes to making the NBA Finals, things thin out further to a total of 10 berths, one of which counts twice under my criteria. The nine:
    • 1986 Celtics (#2 pick) - Lost in the 1987 NBA Finals in what would have been the first season of Len Bias.
    • 1992 Magic (#1 pick) - Lost in the 1995 NBA Finals in the third season with Shaquille O'Neal.
    • 1993 Magic (#1 pick) - Lost in the 1995 NBA Finals in the second season with Penny Hardaway. Orlando actually drafted Chris Webber #1 that year, but dealt him on draft day for Penny and three first round picks.
    • 1997 Spurs (#1 pick) - Won the 1999 NBA Championship (strike shortened) in Tim Duncan's second season.
    • 1997 Sixers (#2 pick) - Lost in the 2001 NBA Finals in what would have been the fourth season with Keith Van Horn had they not dealt him on draft day for what basically amounted to Tim Thomas. Thomas didn't last until the '01 Finals, either, as he was dealt for Tyrone Hill in 1999.
    • 2000 Nets (#1 pick) - Lost in the 2002 NBA Finals in the second season with Kenyon Martin.
    • 2000 Nets (#1 pick) - Lost in the 2003 NBA Finals in the third season with Kenyon Martin.
    • 2003 Cavaliers (#1 pick) - Lost in the 2007 NBA Finals in the fourth season with LeBron James.
    • 2003 Pistons (#2 pick) - Won the 2004 NBA Championship in Darko Milicic's first season.
    • 2003 Pistons (#2 pick) - Lost in the 2005 NBA Finals in the second season with Darko Milicic.

That's it -- 10 times total that a team with a top three pick made the NBA Finals within four years of their pick. And it's just seven different teams. But look a little further at those seven teams.

Only three of those teams -- Orlando, San Antonio, and Cleveland -- had their top three draft pick as one of the top two players on the team. New Jersey is debatable, since Kenyon Martin was the leading scorer on the 2002 Nets, but Jason Kidd was the top guy while Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles were right there with Martin as second fiddles. In 2003, Jersey could easily have called Richard Jefferson or Martin the second guy. 

As you've almost certainly realized, just twice in all the eligible seasons in my criteria has a team won the NBA Championship. Tim Duncan and the 1999 Spurs and Darko Milicic and the 2004 Pistons wore the crown.

Darko's obviously a hilarious joke since he scored exactly one point in the Pistons 2004 playoff run, so the only title we can take seriously is Duncan, who was the top scorer and rebounder for the lockout champion Spurs. 

You're probably all like, "That's ridiculous, Scott. How can you just take four seasons and call that a statistical analysis?" Well, friend, as far as I see it, you should probably start seeing a good return from your rebuilding project after four seasons and your season ticket sales will probably drop to Montreal Expos-like levels if you don't. But if you want to go a bit further, I'll indulge you. 

If you look at whether the teams since the lottery era have won a title with their top three pick as a core player, the list is barely any longer than Tim Duncan. A few more guys eventually made the Finals with the team that drafted them:

  • Patrick Ewing (1985 Knicks #1 pick) helped the Knicks to the Eastern Conference title in 1994 and 1999, but never won a ring.
  • Rik Smits (1988 Pacers #2 pick) was the starting center and third leading scorer for the 2000 Indiana Pacers, who lost to the Lakers in the Finals.
  • Gary Payton (1990 Sonics #2 pick) was a 2nd-team All-NBA standout for the 1996 Sonics, who lost to the Bulls in the Finals.
  • Allen Iverson (1996 Sixers #1 pick) was the NBA MVP when his team lost to the Lakers in the 2001 Finals.
  • Dwight Howard (2004 Magic #1 pick) was the top star for the Magic when they lost to the Lakers in the 2009 Finals.

David Robinson (1987 #1 pick) and Sean Elliott (1989 #3 pick) are the only other top three picks that ever mattered for a championship team that drafted them.  But even for them, it took years of struggle and major injuries to both players for the Spurs to get in a position to land Duncan (1997 #1 pick). With Duncan in town, Robinson/Elliott were able to give the superstar load to the polished big man while acting as contributors in 1999. Robinson hung on long enough to win the title again in 2003. 

There's your list. Duncan's really the only guy that got drafted in the top three since the lottery began and turned his team into a title winner. And how incredibly lucky was that? If Robinson and Elliott go down with injuries in 1998 instead of 1997, the Spurs could have ended up with Michael Olowakandi.

Frankly, there are a 1,000 different examples just like the frightening Kandi-man-to-the-Spurs possibility and too many to list, even for my long-winded ass.

Obviously. there is a lot more that goes into building a team than just getting a single player, but I think it's important to address those who think the best way to build is to get the highest draft pick possible. 

I may not have swayed any opinions with this piece, but, for my money, I'd rather put my faith in the direction of the organization to the people paid to make personnel decisions rather than lottery balls.

To slap a nice bow on this, let's harken back to the last time the Suns had a top three pick. The year was 1987 and the Suns were fresh off a 36-46 season, yet, to their good fortune, they landed the #2 pick in the draft. With future Hall of Famers like Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller on the board -- along with future Suns guard Kevin Johnson -- the team went with UNLV forward Armen Gilliam.

Gilliam played just over two seasons with the Suns -- the first, a 28-win disaster that helped the Suns to just the #7 pick (and Tim Perry) and the second, a Western Conference Finals year in which Gilliam was only a partial contributor by the playoffs.

The next season, Gilliam was traded to Charlotte for Kurt Rambis and a couple second round picks. That's what the Suns got the last time they were top three. Anyone willing to bet several years of the franchise that they'll land a Duncan if they end up there again?

I'm not.     

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