A Not-So-Brief History of Homegrown Stars and the Conference Finals

With the Conference Finals on our doorstep, I figure now is as good a time as any for this post I've been mulling around for some time...

I see lots of talk in the comments here at DBB speculating about what the future of the team holds and the value that the Pistons players either have or can/will prove to have with more time, experience and opportunity. I don't know how many people expect all of Weaver's first round draft picks to pan out and become the Pistons' core for the future but it's no exaggeration to say that each of them has people arguing that they either currently are or will eventually be starter material, if we just give it some time.

For Hayes supporters, his size and defense are often argued as things Cade absolutely has to have next to him and any slight sign of offensive progress is proof that he's putting it together. And regardless, if he doesn't ever become a great shooter, he still has Cade there to deal with the scoring load and why would you want to take the ball out of Cade's hands anyway?

Bey has flashed serious scoring potential, if inconsistently. For what it's worth, it seems most people have the easiest time envisioning him as a future running mate with Cade.

Stewart, I feel, often gets the short end of the hopes, and yes, maybe that is because he's a little undersized. FBOTB? Or maybe he's a slightly late blooming Horford? There are defensive metrics that say he's actually excellent.

And hey, if we go beyond that, Bagley was a #2 pick and maybe the change of scenery can get that Sacramento stink off him. Isaiah Livers played surprisingly competently this year. If Hamidou just tries to dunk from the 3-point line instead of shooting, his efficiency could skyrocket. Is Frank Jackson just Anfernee Simons with less opportunity? Saben Lee put up his tenth consecutive 40-point game in the G-League! Why isn't Luka Garza getting more minutes? Yeah, he can't run or defend but the theoretical offense he could provide!

If you try hard enough, it seems possible to talk yourself into about anyone being an integral part of the franchise going forward. But, and not to throw a bunch of cold water on the situation, the Pistons did finish with just 23 wins this year and while they're young and there is hope, they do kind of stink. Still, Cade looks like a potentially great player and the type of guy it's easy to see being a centerpiece of a very successful team. With that in mind, I wanted to see what history has to say about the odds of a significant portion of this current roster sticking together and becoming a successful team.

To define a successful team, I figured that a trip to the Conference Finals was a good measuring stick. Not every team that reaches a Conference Finals is a true contender, but basically any team that is really worth a damn will eventually make it at least that far. (Chin up, Joel Embiid.) That said, to see what a future with Cade could look like if he does in fact become one of the players that can lead a team to at least the Conference Finals, I decided to look back at all the Conference Finals in the modern NBA (since '79-80), find the teams that drafted their own star and then determine how many teammates that player had left over from his rookie year by the time he reached the Conference Finals.

First, a couple ground rules:

1) Every included team must have a star drafted by that team.

The definition of "star" is admittedly pretty loose here. Basically I'm just looking for players that can be semi-reasonably argued as the best player on that specific team, or at least close enough to the best player so as to not be worth arguing about. Every team that makes a deep playoff run will inevitably have someone on the team that is a great player and most of the time it ends up being a sure-fire hall of famer but sometimes it's a guy who finishes his career with only a couple all-star games. In the cases where multiple players drafted on a team could qualify as the star, I try to take the first drafted one. For example, John Stockton was drafted before Karl Malone, so Stockton's rookie year is the one everything gets measured against, regardless of the importance of Malone. Basically, I'm trying to get a good picture of where teams are when the team building process is at a similar spot to (what we hope is) the Piston's current spot.

Also, I still include draft day and preseason trades, so long as the entire rookie year is played for the team being considered. This doesn't affect too many teams because, as you'd expect, guys who develop into stars aren't often traded on their rookie contracts. There are some cases though, like Kevin Johnson playing most of one season on the Cavs before being traded to the Phoenix Suns. His '88-89 Suns team made the Conference Finals but since neither he nor Tom Chambers meet my qualifications, I don't include them. Thankfully, there are not many situations like this. The vast majority of teams have either a clear drafted star or are made almost entirely through trades and free agency.

2) For a teammate to count, he must be on the roster from the star's rookie year to the first Conference Finals year.

This isn't terribly common but for instance, Chris Andersen was on the Nuggets for Carmelo's rookie year, signed with the New Orleans Hornets in free agency, got kicked out of the league, got reinstated, and finally signed with the Nuggets again in free agency the year that they make the Conference Finals. A similar thing happened with Ersan Ilyasova on Giannis' Bucks, minus the whole drug ban thing. When I found these situations, I didn't count the players in question. It is entirely possible that I missed some of the times that this happened because it is tedious as hell to try to track all of this.

And before I give the results, a few exceptions:

1) Every. Lakers. Team.

Every successful Lakers team starts off with some ridiculous crap happening. Is it common knowledge among most NBA fans how the Lakers got Magic Johnson and/or how absolutely absurd free agency was before the late 80s? It certainly wasn't for me, so if you're in my boat, here's a little history lesson:

In 1976, Gail Goodrich, a great player in his own right but going on age 33, decided to leave the Lakers to sign with the New Orleans Jazz. The league, at the time actively doing everything it could to discourage free agency, didn't just allow him to sign there but instead forced the teams to negotiate compensation, so the Lakers ended up getting a few future Jazz draft picks. The Jazz, having been formed just a couple years earlier were a bad team and the addition of a past-his-prime Goodrich didn't change that. So along comes the 1978-79 season and the Jazz finish a league-worst 26-56. The Lakers, however, finish 47-35, with a second round playoff loss. The Jazz get the #1 pick, which transfers to the Lakers, they draft Magic, win the title in the same year and are set for a decade. (Note: The Lakers again draft #1 overall in 1982, taking James Worthy, in a similar ridiculously luck trade with the Cavs. Hard to imagine why everything has pick protections on it now, isn't it?)

The other major Lakers draft pick is obviously Kobe Bryant, even if he was technically drafted by the Hornets and acquired in a trade for Vlade Divac. Still, we all know what happened there, I think. Lakers get Shaq from the Magic that same year, making Divac unnecessary, allowing them to pair Bryant with a superstar big, just like the Magic and Kareem combo. Unsurprisingly, they made their first Conference Finals in their second year together, with mostly the same roster as the first. Regardless, that was decidedly Shaq's team at the time and the year they made their first Conference Finals, Kobe wasn't even the #2 scorer on the team (Eddie Jones).

The first Lakers teams that actually resemble a normal team building process around someone they "drafted" are the post-Shaq Lakers. There they were a mediocre-to-.500 ballclub for a couple years before putting things together and getting back to the Finals. I'm not including that because obviously Kobe had already won championships and I'm only taking the first Conference Finals minimum trip a player makes in their career. For what it's worth though, the only player on Kobe's rookie year team and his '07-08 run was Derek Fisher but because he went to the Warriors and Jazz on years in between, I wouldn't have counted him anyway.

2) The Larry Bird Celtics

There is an argument to include Larry in this since the Celtics didn't have a major roster overhaul the year they added him and their record went from 29-53 in '78-79 to 61-21 in '79-80, Larry's rookie year. However, they also made the ECF that same year, and on principle I'm not including any team that makes it in year one. It's not terribly interesting to find the changes and similarities in rosters between when a guy was drafted and when he managed to get deep in the playoffs if the answer is that the entire team was literally the same. It's also basically not able to be recreated in today's NBA either. Nobody since Bird has come in to the NBA, had that level of success and been clearly the best player on his roster as a rookie.

3) The Brown/Smart/Tatum Celtics

While Brown and Tatum eventually reached the point where they could be the leads that take a team to a deep playoff run, their early seasons were already doing that but with players like Horford, Thomas and Irving as the premier players. Also, like in the Bird exception, Brown and Tatum both made the ECF in their rookie seasons.

With that out of the way, here we go...

Conference Finalist

Drafted Player (Pick #, Year)

# of Teammates on Rookie through Conference Finals Teams

1980-81 Kansas City Kings

Otis Birdsong (#2, 1977)

1: Sam Lacey

1982-83 Milwaukee Bucks

Sidney Moncrief (#5, 1979)

4: Junior Bridgeman, Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier, Brian Winters

1983-84 Phoenix Suns

Walter Davis (#5, 1977)

2: Alvan Adams, Alvin Scott

1985-86 Houston Rockets

Hakeem Olajuwon (#1, 1984)

9: Craig Ehlo, Allen Leavell, John Lucas, Rodney McCray, Hank McDowell, Jim Petersen, Robert Reid, Ralph Sampson, Mitchell Wiggins

1986-87 Detroit Pistons

Isiah Thomas (#2, 1981)

2: Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer

1987-88 Dallas Mavericks

Mark Aguirre (#1, 1981)

2: Rolando Blackman, Brad Davis

1988-89 Chicago Bulls

Michael Jordan (#3, 1984)

1: Dave Corzine

1989-90 Portland Trail Blazers

Clyde Drexler (#14, 1983)

1: Wayne Cooper

1991-92 Cleveland Cavaliers

Brad Daugherty/Mark Price (#1/#25, 1986)

2: Craig Ehlo, Hot Rod Williams

1991-92 Utah Jazz

John Stockton (#16, 1984)

1: Thurl Bailey

1992-93 New York Knicks

Patrick Ewing (#1, 1985)


1992-93 Seattle Supersonics

Shawn Kemp (#17, 1989)

4: Dana Barros, Michael Cage, Derrick McKey, Nate McMillan

1993-94 Indiana Pacers

Reggie Miller (#11, 1987)

1: Vern Fleming

1994-95 Orlando Magic

Shaquille O'Neal (#1, 1992)

5: Nick Anderson, Anthony Bowie, Donald Royal, Dennis Scott, Jeff Turner

1994-95 San Antonio Spurs

David Robinson (#1, 1987)

3: Willie Anderson, Terry Cummings, Sean Elliott

1998-99 San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan (#1, 1997)

6: Sean Elliott, Jaren Jackson, Avery Johnson, David Robinson, Will Perdue, Malik Rose

2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers

Allen Iverson (#1, 1996)


2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks

Ray Allen (#5, 1996)

1: Glenn Robinson

2001-02 Boston Celtics

Paul Pierce (#10, 1998)

4: Kenny Anderson, Tony Battie, Walter McCarty, Antoine Walker

2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves

Kevin Garnett (#5, 1995)


2004-05 Miami Heat

Dwyane Wade (#5, 2003)

5: Malik Allen, Rasual Butler, Udonis Haslem, Eddie Jones, Wang Zhizhi

2004-05 Phoenix Suns

Amar'e Stoudemire (#9, 2002)

4: Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Bo Outlaw, Jake Voskuhl

2005-06 Dallas Mavericks

Dirk Nowitzki (#9, 1998)

3: Shawn Bradley, Michael Finley, Steve Nash

2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James (#1, 2003)

1: Zydrunas Ilgauskas

2006-07 Utah Jazz

Deron Williams (#3, 2005)

7: Carlos Boozer, Jarron Collins, Gordan Giricek, Matt Harpring, Andrei Kirilenko, C.J. Miles, Mehmet Okur

2008-09 Orlando Magic

Dwight Howard (#1, 2004)

3: Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Tony Battie

2008-09 Denver Nuggets

Carmelo Anthony (#3, 2003)

1: Nene

2010-11 Chicago Bulls

Derrick Rose (#1, 2008)

2: Luol Deng, Joakim Noah

2010-11 Oklahoma City Thunder

Kevin Durant (#2, 2007)

2: Nick Collison, Jeff Green

2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies

Mike Conley Jr. (#4, 2007)

1: Rudy Gay

2012-13 Indiana Pacers

Paul George (#10, 2010)

4: Danny Granger, Tyler Hansbrough, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson

2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers

Kyrie Irving (#1, 2011)

2: Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao

2014-15 Atlanta Hawks

Al Horford (#3, 2007)


2014-15 Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry (#7, 2009)


2015-16 Toronto Raptors

DeMar DeRozen (#9, 2009)


2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokuonmpo (#15, 2013)

1: Khris Middleton

2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard (#6, 2012)

1: Meyers Leonard

2019-20 Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic (#41, 2014)

2: Will Barton, Gary Harris

2020-21 Atlanta Hawks

Trae Young (#5, 2018)

2: John Collins, Kevin Huerter

2020-21 Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker (#13, 2015)


2021-22 Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic (#3, 2018)

6: Jalen Brunson, Trey Burke, Dorian Finney-Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell

There are, of course, some teams/players I could've missed here, so apologies for any unintended omissions. There are also many issues that could be raised with the selections I did make. Tim Duncan, for instance, follows David Robinson on the list and I considered excluding him since David was still on the team and still very good, but Duncan was already the best player on that team in their run and it felt odd leaving out the centerpiece of so many championships afterward. Overall, I wanted to try to get as many teams in as technically qualify so that it covers the teams that barely squeak into the Conference Finals only to face a sweep/gentleman's sweep and those that casually cruise to a Finals appearance/championship.

Anyway, overall we have 41 teams that qualify and 96 combined teammates on those teams from rookie year to first Conference Finals, for average of 2.34 per team. That's not bad and a little more than I was expecting, honestly. The bulk of these star draft picks were from the draft lottery at least, so you'd figure the teams they were drafted to were likely not great. Couple that with the likelihood that any teammates that stick around are likely not buried at the end of the bench (because that type of player is much more expendable) and it means a not insignificant part of a good roster is generally already on these teams when they draft a star.

Still, there are some outliers that should be addressed. Of those teams, the Olajuwon Rockets, Duncan Spurs, Wade Heat and Williams Jazz all made at least the Conference Finals in their second year. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that a second year Conference Finals is an incredibly lucky result for a star to find himself in. Not coincidentally, those teams are the ones that retained the highest number of players between the years. If we remove those teams from the equation, we're down to 37 teams and 69 teammates, for a lowered average of 1.86 per team.

We've now managed to remove the teams that were already contenders from the get-go but there are still a large number of teams that drafted their star into either an above average roster or the star was so great that he was able to make an outsized win impact immediately. What about the teams like the Pistons that draft (what we hope to be) a star and still finish with a dreadful record? Of the 41 teams listed, only 10 managed less than 30 wins in year one; Young Hawks (29), Booker Suns (23), Antetokuonmpo Bucks (15), Curry Warriors (26), Durant Thunder (20), Irving Cavs (21), Garnett Timberwolves (26), Iverson Sixers (22), Ewing Knicks (23) and Aguirre Mavs (28). Those teams had a combined nine teammates retained, for a 0.9 per team average. Upping the win total limit to 35 adds the Doncic Mavs (33), Jokic Nuggets (33), Lillard Blazers (33), James Cavs (35), Allen Bucks (33), Daugherty/Price Cavs (31) and Birdsong Kings (31), raising the teams to 17 and the teammates retained to 23, for a 1.35 per team average. Additionally, the only team that retained more than two teammates in that entire group is the Doncic Mavs, with a surprisingly high six.

So what does this mean for the Detroit Pistons? With the recent outlier that is Doncic's Mavs, there seems to be some reason to dream that a significant number of the Pistons' projects pan out and become long term pieces. That said, no successful team that has finished as poorly as the Pistons did this year has ever retained more than two of their star rookie's teammates. Not particularly encouraging but probably not surprising to most either. I think most reasonable fans have already been open to the possibility that any or all of the Hayes/Bey/Stewart trio could simply end up as trade fodder. Still, if you're the hopeful type, there is still plenty of reason to maintain hope. Not many teams have relied as heavily on first and second year players as this Pistons team did and with the wrench Covid has thrown into the last few seasons, player development and results around the league haven't been 100% typical of normal NBA seasons. Not to mention that the Pistons salary cap this season was a complete dumpster fire, with an almost comical amount of the cap space being spent on players who missed large amounts of time with injury or were just being paid to go somewhere else (the entire lob catching faction of the Lob City Clippers, primarily). It's not hard to picture this season shaking out very differently had it not been basically hamstrung before it could even get going and it's possible that the quality of players on the Pistons' roster is not entirely typical of what would be expected on a team that wins in the low 20s for a season.

I've got one more thing I wanted to get in there before I wrap this up. Here's a list of #1 picks and whether or not they made a Conference Final on their first team:




Conference Finals?


Magic Johnson

Los Angeles Lakers



Joe Barry Carroll

Golden State Warriors



Mark Aguirre

Dallas Mavericks



James Worthy

Los Angeles Lakers



Ralph Sampson

Houston Rockets



Hakeem Olajuwon

Houston Rockets



Patrick Ewing

New York Knicks



Brad Daugherty

Cleveland Cavaliers



David Robinson

San Antonio Spurs



Danny Manning

Los Angeles Clippers



Pervis Ellison

Sacramento Kings



Derrick Coleman

New Jersey Nets



Larry Johnson

Charlotte Hornets



Shaquille O'Neal

Orlando Magic



Chris Webber

Orlando Magic



Glenn Robinson

Milwaukee Bucks



Joe Smith

Golden State Warriors



Allen Iverson

Philadelphia 76ers



Tim Duncan

San Antonio Spurs



Michael Olowokandi

Los Angeles Clippers



Elton Brand

Chicago Bulls



Kenyon Martin

New Jersey Nets



Kwame Brown

Washington Wizards



Yao Ming

Houston Rockets



Lebron James

Cleveland Cavaliers



Dwight Howard

Orlando Magic



Andrew Bogut

Milwaukee Bucks



Andrea Bargnani

Toronto Raptors



Greg Oden

Portland Trail Blazers



Derrick Rose

Chicago Bulls



Blake Griffin

Los Angeles Clippers



John Wall

Washington Wizards



Kyrie Irving

Cleveland Cavaliers



Anthony Davis

New Orleans Hornets



Anthony Bennett

Cleveland Cavaliers



Andrew Wiggins

Cleveland Cavaliers



Karl-Anthony Towns

Minnesota Timberwolves



Ben Simmons

Philadelphia 76ers



Markelle Fultz

Philadelphia 76ers



Deandre Ayton

Phoenix Suns



Zion Williamson

New Orleans Pelicans



Anthony Edwards

Minnesota Timberwolves



Cade Cunningham

Detroit Pistons


Started off strong but it has gotten more and more shaky over the years. There are, I think, three major reasons for this:

1) Top picks shifted over the years from multi-year college players to one-and-dones and kids straight out of high school. It's just easier to find the best players with more data. Think of what a couple of extra years could've done for Giannis' draft stock as he gradually transformed from lanky pile of potential to Stretch Armstrong, World Destroyer. This isn't even to mention the added difficulties in scouting foreign players.

2) The league has shifted away from big men being the answer to all questions. Turns out just identifying a seven foot guy who can walk without falling down is a lot easier than figuring out which 6'6-6'8 swiss army knife is the future of the NBA.

3) The top picks actually tend to go to bad teams now. Wherever you come down on tanking and the luck involved in the draft lottery now, there's no denying that the league as a whole has finally identified the value of a draft pick and with advances on things like pick protections on traded picks, it's no longer the wild west that teams like the '80s Lakers got to take advantage of.

To those that stuck this out and read it all, thank you. I know it was a spectacularly long way of saying that "Good teams tend to have good players and bad teams need to go get new players who are better" but I find this stuff interesting, so I hope somebody else out there does too. And hey, if you liked this, look forward to my exciting future piece "3>2, The Shocking Math Behind The NBA's Hottest Shot."

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