The NBA Draft is one of the most important aspects of the league that teams can use to obtain talent. However, it is also one of the most difficult to perform with success. Some franchises have mastered the craft of drafting the best player available to aid their team with every pick. But, on the other hand, some have been consistently lackluster. They either draft talents who don't reach their potential or pass on generational studs. So which are currently the best and worst NBA teams at drafting?
Over at towards data science, Brayden Gerrard made a data-driven analysis, ranking teams based on their draft history in the last decade. There you can find the whole dataset and the methods and formulas used in the spreadsheet's conception. The article scores every draft pick from 2009 up to 2020, giving them a numerical value centered around a score of 0. It also classifies each selection based on the numerical score. These five classifications range in ascending order are: awful, bad, average, good, and excellent.
Success in the NBA Draft is often associated with success in the league. Furthermore, teams that are historically bad drafters are also the same franchises with poor histories of success. With the 2021 NBA Draft approaching, I wanted to highlight teams from the dataset that performed the best and worst in the Draft over the last 10 years. Also, I wanted to discuss what the future holds for these teams. Whether or not the more successful teams should continue excelling and if the poor drafting teams will draft better in the future.
Best of the best: Toronto Raptors
According to the statistics, the Toronto Raptors are the best drafting team of the last decade by a significant margin. The association between winning and successful drafting was glaring in the study. The last three NBA Championship-winning teams were each in the top four highest draft scores over the last decade. The Raptors are among this decorated group, obtaining the best draft score and winning the 2019 NBA Championship.
Based on the classification scale of the data, the Raptors achieved the title by only having three draft picks in the last 10 years with a negative score. The most recent of these negative scores came in 2014. Since the 2015 NBA Draft, Toronto has only selected draft picks that received positive scores. The best of their positive picks were Pascal Siakam (2016 R.1 #27) with an "excellent" score of 3.52, DeMar Derozan (2009 R.1 #9), who scored a "good" 1.44, and Jonas Valanciunas (2011 R.1 #5) receiving a 1.04 "good" grade.
From their Championship-winning 2018-19 roster, they ran an eight-man rotation in the playoffs. Of the eight, Siakam and Valanciunas were drafted by the Raptors. Also worth mentioning, Fred VanVleet went undrafted but was brought onto Toronto his rookie season. He's been an integral player in recent years and played solid backup minutes in their Championship run. These three are a big part of why the Raptors are the best NBA team at drafting.
Of the past decade, the Raptors epitomized the correlation between successful drafting and winning basketball. Masai Ujiri has been at the helm of the franchise since 2013. He has overseen their near-perfect drafts since obtaining the position. Despite his future with the Raptors being up in the air, his presence should have rubbed off enough for the next-in-command to find success in upcoming NBA Drafts. Their draft processes are the same as ever, with him still a part of the organization for this year at least.
Second best: Denver Nuggets
Despite a sizeable margin between them and the Raptors, the Denver Nuggets also have a great drafting track record. Coincidentally, Masai Ujiri led this team for three years as GM at the start of the decade and even won Executive of the Year in 2013. Despite this, the first-ever African GM in major American sports didn't have a particularly great draft history in his time in Denver. After he left for Toronto, GM Tim Connelly has been at the helm ever since. Nevertheless, the Nuggets drafted well enough for the second-best data score in the NBA in this span.
The Nuggets rank this high among NBA teams thanks largely to a second-round pick in 2014 named Nikola Jokic. Ever heard of him? The only second-round pick in NBA history to ever receive the NBA MVP award did just that this past season. Obviously, Jokic's draft selection (2014 R.2 #41) was deemed "excellent," scoring a whopping 5.33 in the analysis. This score for that pick was the single best of all data retrieved. The next best score was Karl-Anthony Towns (2015 R.1 #1), drafted by Minnesota, who scored an "excellent" 4.78.
Aside from Jokic, there were also some solid selections sprinkled in the Nuggets' last decade. First, Jamal Murray (2016 R.1 #7) received a "good" 2.08 score from the observer. Next, Jusuf Nurkic (2014 R.1 #16) also scored a "good" 1.57 rating. Finally, the most recent successful pick came in Michael Porter Jr. (2018 R.1 #14), who too achieved a 1.34 "good" score. All of the aforementioned players are phenomenal NBA players and great value draft picks. Excluding Nurkic, they are all key to their current success and in the future.
As for whether or not they can continue their success in the future, I think it's likely. Tim Connelly has done a pretty remarkable draft job in the last decade. Despite a weak 2020 NBA Draft haul last year, I think he can bounce back nicely this year and as we advance. However, I don't think anyone could ever find a gem as great as his Nikola Jokic found in 2014.
Bronze medal: Los Angeles Lakers
The 2020 NBA Champions haven't been too shabby in the draft themselves, narrowly besting Milwaukee for the third-best rating. Their successful drafting is a large reason why the team could trade for Anthony Davis a few years back. Then, the team sent three players they drafted and three first-round picks to the Pelicans to pair LeBron James with superstar Center Anthony Davis. The Lakers, though, are among the best NBA teams at drafting.
Although not many of their draft picks remaining on the team long, they still were largely successful in the draft last decade. Even though they didn't have any real big-time gem selections, they were still consistently impactful talents or role players. Their best-rated pick was Ivica Zubac (2016 R.2 #32), with a "good" score of 1.57. Next, Larry Nance Jr. (2015 R.1 #27) also received a "good" rating with a score of 1.41. Lastly, second-year player Talen Horton-Tucker (2019 R.2 #46) received a 1.05 "good" score.
The aforementioned consistency is why they were able to obtain the bronze medal in the analysis. While they obtained many positive ratings in their selections, they also only had two below-average draft picks in the last 10 years. Surprisingly, the worst is actually Lonzo Ball (2017 R.1 #2), with an "awful" rating of -1.17. Despite being a solid NBA player, there were a few better players available that went later in the draft. Even though they had no "excellent" rated picks, they did have 11 "average" and 11 "good" picks.
Rob Pelinka has been pretty solid in his first two years as the GM in Los Angeles. Prior position holder Magic Johnson also had some decent draft hauls as well. Longtime GM Mitch Kupchak ran the franchise for the first seven years of the decade. All three were very serviceable in their tenure and played a part in their third-place ranking in the data. It will be intriguing to see what Pelinka will do with the Lakers' sole draft pick this year. The Lakers only have the 22nd overall pick this year, but it could be on the move as well.
Worth a mention: Memphis Grizzlies
Although they are in the middle of the pack, the Memphis Grizzlies have the most interesting data in the set. Over the last decade, Memphis ranks 16th of the 30 teams in the NBA in drafting capabilities. However, this isn't because they have been consistently average. They ranked worst in the league from 2009 to 2014. However, they balance out the whole decade by ranking second in the league from 2015 to 2020. The latter ranking is mostly attributed to them going 4/4 in their draft picks in the last 2 drafts. Three of them were home runs, and the last was also solid.
Of their 25 draft picks in the last decade, only nine of them received a positive rating. Their best was the aforementioned home run picks in the last few NBA Drafts. The first was Rookie of the Year Ja Morant (2019 R.1 #2), with a whopping 4.08 "excellent" rating. After he was Brandon Clarke (2019 R.1 #21), who also rated "excellent" with a 3.44. And the most recent "excellent" score went to Xavier Tillman (2020 R.2 #35) with a 2.69 score. So the Grizzlies have one of the brightest futures in the NBA, largely thanks to this recent draft history.
A large reason why the Grizzlies ranked so poorly in the first half of the decade was thanks to having the second-worst rated draft pick across the league in this timespan. That title belongs to Hasheem Thabeet (2009 R.1 #2), who received an "awful" rating of -3.35. Thabeet was second only to a player who I'll feature later on down below. The Grizzlies also had nine "bad" rated draft picks in the last decade as well.
The Grizzlies have had four different stints of GMs leading the organization this decade. The first three had insignificant or awful draft histories. They belonged to two different stints of Chris Wallace and the tenure of Jason Levien splitting them. However, Jason Wexler took over before the 2019 NBA Draft and has been lights out in his time with the Grizzlies. Memphis will have picks 10 and 40 in this year's draft after yesterday's trade. I would love to see Wexler keep up the hot streak this year.
Third worst: Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns are the third-worst among NBA teams at drafting over the last 10 years. However, they do barely have a positive overall rating in the decade (0.01). There is a sizeable gap between them and the two worst teams in the league, and they both have negative overall scores. They wind up here after ranking near the bottom for the first half of the decade and only below average in the second half. Including Phoenix, the remaining teams on the list have had their share of draft busts.
Sixteen of the Suns' 28 draft picks over this time received negative scores in the analysis. Three of these picks were deemed "awful." The worst of these was Dragan Bender (2016 R.1 #4), with a disappointing score of -1.65. The next worst was another bust in the form of Josh Jackson (2017 R.1 #4) with a -1.21 rating. Finally, while it's still early and harder to evaluate, Jalen Smith (2020 R.1 #10) also received an "awful" rating of -1.02.
The Suns missed the playoffs almost the entire decade from 2011 to 2020. Their inability to consistently add talent in the draft has played a factor in this horrid stretch of basketball. However, some of their solid first-round selections in recent years did play a part in their instantaneous turnaround this season, in which they lost in the NBA Finals. Devin Booker (1.43 draft score), DeAndre Ayton (0.53), Mikal Bridges (2.01), and Cameron Johnson (2.24) were all drafted by the Suns in recent years, and played significant minutes in their deep playoff run.
Phoenix has had five different GMs this decade. Like the Grizzlies, the ones making decisions earlier in the decade were the worst of the group, and the most successful General Manager is currently at the helm. James Jones has been making basketball decisions since he shared duties with Trevor Bukstein in 2018. However, he was named sole GM of the Suns in 2019. The 2021 NBA Executive of the Year has helped guide the Suns to their current state of success. Though he's had some draft errors in his tenure, he should continue leading this team in the right direction.
Not quite the worst: Sacramento Kings
The next two are by far the worst in the league. The Sacramento Kings are the second-worst NBA team at drafting over the last decade. The Kings received a negative score in each half of the last 10 years and ranked in the bottom five in each time span. Overall, they received a combined score of -0.08. The negative overall rating is something only they and the following team can claim to achieve. The Kings have many first-round busts and second-round misses, contributing to their poor ranking in the analysis.
The Kings are the unfortunate holders of the worst-rated draft pick in the entire analysis. Marvin Bagley III (2018 R.1 #2) gets the honors with an "awful" -3.49 score for obvious reasons. Aside from Bagley, three of the Kings' other draft busts received "awful" classifications. The infamous bunch includes Thomas Robinson (2012 R.1 #5), who also scored the third-worst rating in the entire study. T-Rob received a poor -2.40 score.
The Kings are in the midst of an NBA record-tying 15-season-long playoff drought. The Kings can largely thank their miserable track record in the NBA Draft for this. However, the Kings have had some of their better picks of the last decade in recent years, who are currently leading the youth of their roster. 2017 first-round draft pick De'Aaron Fox and almost-Rookie-of-the-Year winner Tyrese Haliburton combine to form one of the best young backcourts in the league on the Kings. However, the Kings still have much work to do if they are looking to break the streak soon.
The Sacramento Kings have had four different GMs that have handled NBA Drafts over the last decade. Longtime GM Geoff Petrie was responsibly some of the best and worst of the Kings drafting this decade, in the beginning. Then, the inexperienced Vlade Divac took over the Kings in 2015. Despite drafting De'Aaron Fox, he is also responsible for one of the biggest draft mistakes in NBA history, passing on Luka Doncic. Monte McNair has been leading the Kings for 1 calendar year now, and Haliburton fell in his lap last year. Hopefully, he can stay lucky going into this year's draft.
Worst of the worst: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the worst NBA team at drafting this decade. So, you might be wondering, "if the Kings have two of the top-three worst draft picks in the analysis, how are they not ranked the worst"? This is because of their 20 picks in this timespan, only two draft picks have a rating higher than 0.36, and only four had a positive rating altogether. Moreover, some of their negative draft picks were very negatively rated busts. As a result, they received a net rating of -0.12 for the analysis.
Cleveland was responsible for the fourth-worst draft pick in the entire study. Former number 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett (2013 R.1 #1) received an "awful" -2.09 score. In addition, the Cavs had two other "awful" rated picks in the study. Dion Waiters (2012 R.1 #4) was given a -1.14 score, and Collin Sexton (2018 R.1 #8) received a -1.08. Overall, 75 percent of Cleveland's draft picks had a negative score in this time period. In each half of the last decade, the Cavs were among the worst NBA teams at drafting.
Looking aside from LeBron's second stint with the Cavs, this team has struggled gravely this decade. They won more than 24 games only once this decade, not including LeBron's years. The Cleveland Cavaliers are a glaring instance that represents the relationship between poor drafting and poor season performances. Even though the team can be fun to watch recently, it does not appear the results will change much without better drafting or a big offseason changeup.
Of the Cavs' three GMs that held the position, the initial decision-maker of the decade, Chris Grant, was responsible for their drafting highs and lows. David Griffin didn't have many drafting responsibilities in his tenure, only making four second-round selections. The current GM Koby Altman has had a pretty rough, though short, draft history since gaining the position in 2017. He'll still be making decisions this year for the Cavs, which should cause some worry for their fanbase. Hopefully, he can turn it around, though, and make the most of his draft capital.