Arguably the most exciting part of a rebuild is dreaming about how all the new young players will contribute to the next era of winning basketball for your favorite team. As Detroit Pistons fans, we are currently living and breathing this because the Pistons are, as Troy Weaver likes to say, in the talent-acquisition phase of their restoration. We have a stable full of young players who are champing at the bit to bring back winning basketball to Detroit, and we as fans are emotionally invested in each one of them (or at least most of them), sometimes to the point of delusion.
As debates rage among the Pistons faithful about whether or not they should consolidate young players in pursuit of the next stars made available, my curiosity was kindled and my tendency to saddle my abundant optimism with realism inspired me to look into how many players on each NBA championship team were drafted by that team.
Because I have some ounce of sanity, I decided to only go back to the year 2000. That gave me 23 championship teams to look at, which seemed like a good enough sample size. For each team, I looked up their playoff minutes distribution on www.basketball-reference.com and labeled the top 5 minute-getters as “Starters” and any player who played at least 12 minutes per game as a “Bench” player. I then looked up for each player in those categories whether or not they were drafted by that team. If a player who met the minutes benchmark went undrafted or played for another team between being drafted and winning the championship, they were not considered drafted by the team; some notable examples: Udonis Haslem wasn’t included in any of the Heat’s championships because he was undrafted, and LeBron was not included for the Cavs in 2016 because he played for Miami before returning in free agency.
The Results and Observations
- 6 different franchises won 8 championships with only one drafted starter, this was the most frequent result for drafted starters. However, 4 of those 6 franchises only won 1 total championship during that span
- Franchises who won multiple championships during this time, averaged just over 2 starters & 3 total drafted rotation players (starters + bench)
- Warriors and Spurs (the gold standard of sustainability) never had more than 1 bench player they drafted but each maintained a consistent trio of drafted starters for every one of their championships in this span (Steph/Klay/Draymond & Duncan/Parker/Manu)
- All but 2 of the last 23 champions had 1 or fewer bench players whom they drafted
- Of the 15 bench players to win a championship with the team that drafted them, only 3 were not on their rookie contract: Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Norman Powell
- Lakers are the only team to win a championship with more drafted bench players than starters; they did it 3 different times
- Lakers are also only team to win with zero drafted starters
Implications for the Pistons
As things currently stand, the Pistons have six drafted players who could all be considered as part of the young core: Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Livers, Jaden Ivey, and Jalen Duren; if you include another potential top-5 draft pick in 2023, that brings the total to seven. Based on the last 23 NBA champions, it is most likely that only 2 or 3 players from that group will be starters on the next championship team for the Pistons, with at most one more player coming off the bench.
That is why the trade of Saddiq Bey for James Wiseman should be looked at as unsurprising. No rebuilding team locks in its entire core long-term. Some are traded in a move for a star, some are traded to rebalance the roster, and some are traded because they simply do not fit the plan going forward. I will leave it to you to determine which of the latter two categories Saddiq fit into.
Of the current core, Cade is the most likely to be one of those starters; Ivey and Duren have the potential and physical gifts, not to mention the gleam as the shiny new toys, working in their favor. If all three hit as starters on a contending team, likely only one of the other five will still be part of the rotation. This doesn’t mean that the other players won’t be good players. In fact, Troy Weaver has shown he is a quality talent evaluator. The recently departed Bey and entrenched Stewart have shown the work ethic and mentality to become key rotation pieces on playoff teams. Livers’ shooting and defensive discipline gives him the chance to fit on any team. And Killian’s recent resurgence has him firmly in the mix to be a long term piece.
Good drafters draft for talent over fit, which means sometimes teams will have talented players who skills don’t add up to championship level basketball. After a team has acquired top-end talent, the next step is to make it all fit. So even if all of their drafted players become good NBA players (which they won’t), some of them need to be used to acquire other talent and assets that will fit better together for winning championships.
When you also start to consider the financial side of team building, it makes even more sense. Great teams that sustain success have a mix of players on rookie contracts, designated rookie extensions, veteran max and minimum contracts. The reality is you can’t pay every single one of your young core, even if they all miraculously fit together. Eventually, you’ll have to let the 4th starter (Harrison Barnes) go somewhere else and replace him with the next great rookie you draft (Jordan Poole) or Kevin Durant, whichever is more convenient.
So enjoy watching the young guys grow up together and start pushing their way into the playoff conversation. Just don’t get too attached (or resent your fellows fans who love the trade machine), because over time many of these players will leave so the missing pieces of the dynasty can enter the fold.