Thursday, February 16, 2017

NBA Championship Roster Construction

For the better part of 30 years, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been considered a "young, up and coming" team. Years of poor drafting and player acquisitions kept our lovable losers in the lottery year after year after year, which allowed the team to add another young talent every season.

With the current Timberwolves roster filled with former lottery picks and the team's young core viewed very highly around the league, it's a popular mantra to say the young Wolves are close to getting back into contention. The theory seems to be that as the teams young talent continues to develop, they will become a winning team. With talents like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the media thinks it's a foregone conclusion that this team will win soon.

That got me curious as to whether any other NBA dynasties, or even champions, were put together by drafting young players and developing them exclusively. I realize the Timberwolves will have plenty of cap space this off-season to sign a veteran, but I just can't see a top end player signing here with other options available.

The game has certainly changed an awful lot even over the last decade, but we're still going to take a look at how championship teams have been built. We're going to take a look at the past 20 years of champions, starting in 1998.


1998 NBA Champions - Chicago Bulls

1999 NBA Champions - San Antonio Spurs
  • Starting Five: Avery Johnson, Mario Elie, Sean Elliott, Tim Duncan, David Robinson
    • Duncan, Robinson and Elliott were all top 3 picks by the Spurs. Johnson and Elie were solid veteran role players signed in free agency. Jaren Jackson was the only bench player to play any real role in the playoffs, and he was also a veteran signing.
  • Final Totals: 3 key players drafted, 3 key role players signed
2000 NBA Champions - Los Angeles Lakers

2001 NBA Champions - Los Angeles Lakers
  • Starting Five: Ron Harper, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox, Horace Grant, Shaquille O'Neal
    • The Lakers simply replaced aging AC Green with aging Horace Grant, while Derek Fisher, Brian Shaw and Horry played significant bench roles again.
  • Final Totals: 2 key players drafted, 6 key players signed.
2002 NBA Champions - Los Angeles Lakers
  • Starting Five: Lindsey Hunter, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox, Samaki Walker, Shaquille O'Neal
    • The Lakers brought in Samaki Walker to replace Horace Grant, and added Lindsey Hunter to replace Ron Harper. Horry, Fisher and second round pick Devean George played significant roles off the bench.
  • Final Totals: 3 key players drafted, 5 key players signed
2003 NBA Champions - San Antonio Spurs
2004 NBA Champions - Detroit Pistons
2005 NBA Champions - San Antonio Spurs
  • Starting Five: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, Nazr Mohammed
    • Parker, Ginobili and Duncan were all drafted. Bowen, Mohammed and key bench contributors Brent Barry and Robert Horry were all signed as free agents.
  • Final Totals: 3 key players drafted, 4 key players signed
2006 NBA Champions - Miami Heat
2007 NBA Champions - San Antonio Spurs
  • Starting Five: Tony Parker, Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, Francisco Elson
    • Parker and Duncan were the only ones drafted. Fabricio Oberto and Robert Horry were the only real bench contributors, and both were signed.
  • Final Totals: 2 key players drafted, 5 key players signed
2008 NBA Champions - Boston Celtics
  • Starting Five: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins
    • The Celtics drafted Rondo, Pierce and Perkins, and used the rest of their young assets to acquire KG and Ray Allen. James Posey was the only real contributor off the bench in the playoffs and he was signed as a free agent.
  • Final Totals: 3 key players drafted, 3 key players signed/traded for
2009 NBA Champions - Los Angeles Lakers
  • Starting Five: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
    • Fisher, Bryant and Bynum were all Laker draft picks, as was key bench contributor Luke Walton. Odom and Gasol were acquired from elsewhere. Bynum missed the playoffs due to injury.
  • Final Totals: 4 key players drafed, 2 key players signed/traded for
2010 NBA Champions - Los Angeles Lakers
  • Starting Five: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
    • Fisher, Bryant and Bynum were drafted, Gasol, sixth man Lamar Odom and Artest were acquired.
  • Final Totals: 3 key players drafted, 3 key players acquired
2011 NBA Champions - Dallas Mavericks
  • Starting Five: Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler
    • The Mavericks technically drafted Kidd, but it was in 1994 and they got rid of him between his stints in Dallas, so he qualifies as an acquisition. That makes Dirk and JJ Barea (signed as an undrafted FA) the only drafted players, while Stevenson, Marion, sixth man Jason Terry and Chandler were all brought in.
  • Final Totals: 2 key players drafted, 5 key players signed
2012 NBA Champions - Miami Heat
2013 NBA Champions - Miami Heat
  • Starting Five: Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem
    • The Heat returned basically the same team, with Battier remaining a key contributor off the bench.
  • Final Totals: 2 key players drafted, 4 key players acquired
2014 NBA Champions - San Antonio Spurs
2015 NBA Champions - Golden State Warriors
2016 NBA Champions - Cleveland Cavaliers
Total Key Players Drafted: 61
Total Key Players Acquired: 78

Observations

It's clear that most teams landed the cores of their championship teams through the draft. While both the Lakers and Heat were able to acquire Shaquille O'Neal and a few other marquee free agents, they are the exceptions. Players love to play in Los Angeles and Miami, so it's no surprise those places have a higher success rate at convincing players to sign there.

Very teams were built exclusively through the draft, with the Warriors being the only real example we can point to as they had 4 of their 5 starters as key draft picks. That's in large part due to the salary cap. Teams can't have a team full of players whose contracts all expire at the same time. They need a few aging veterans on minimum deals, some key contributors on rookie scale contracts, and a core of stars making the majority of the cap. A team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, simply couldn't afford to keep all three of them because they were all max-salary players during the same time.

If Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins both are able to land max-salary deals, the Wolves may have a hard time keeping those two and Karl-Anthony Towns together long-term without gutting the rest of the roster. The organization will have some difficult financial decisions to make in the near future. Ricky Rubio's bargain contract and improved play make him a perfect role player for a championship core, and he's such a great teammate he's the kind of player you could use as a backup point guard on a winning team without him causing a problem.