A look at every NBA title winning team in the lottery era; do you have to get really bad to get really good?
Nobody has had lottery success like the Spurs.
Here at CelticsLife we have had much internal debate (like hundreds and hundreds of emails) as to whether or not Boston must get a top lottery pick if they are to have any chance of winning another title in the near future. Basically the "to tank or not to tank" debate. To add some insight to the discussion, here's what's happened in recent history:
The draft lottery began in 1985, but for many years after that all the titles were won by teams with top picks from the pre-lottery era (Celtics-Bird, Lakers-Magic, Pistons-Isiah, Bulls-Jordan, and Rockets-Olajuwon). The first team to win a championship with lottery players was the Spurs in 1999. They worked the system to perfection after going 20-62 in 1996-1997 (while sitting former #1 overall selection David Robinson), and getting the top pick with the chance to draft Tim Duncan.
From 2000-2002 the Lakers won three titles in a row. They did it by signing Shaquille O'Neal as a free agent, and drafting Kobe Bryant with the 13th pick (which they got by trading Vlade Divac) out of high school. Admittedly that draft scenario would never happen today with the NBA's "one and done" rule, and most top picks fitting into that category. It's worth noting that in the 5 years before they won it all the worst record the Lakers had was 48-34 in 1994-1995 (although they did go 33-49 in '93-'94).
In 2003 (as well as 2005 and 2007) the Spurs won again, but in 2004 it was the Detroit Pistons, the poster children for anti-tankers. While Detroit did actually have the #2 pick in the previous draft (which they'd acquired in a trade from Memphis 6 years earlier), they used it on Darko Milicic, who was a non-factor. The Pistons were a team without a superstar, and their worst finish in the years leading up to the title was 32-50 in 2001.
The Miami Heat were champions in 2006, and they used the same method as the Lakers; get Shaq (they traded several players and a draft pick to LA). Miami also had Dwayne Wade, the #5 overall pick in 2003, which they earned from finishing 25-57 that season.
In 2008 the Celtics won by pulling off the magical trade for Kevin Garnett. However if they hadn't gone 24-58 the year before they wouldn't have had the #5 pick to deal for Ray Allen.
The Lakers in 2009 and 2010 won two more titles with Kobe, but had also traded for Pau Gasol (giving up multiple players, including his younger brother Marc, and draft picks to get him). LA's worst record in the seasons leading up to this was 34-48 in 2004-2005.
In 2011 the Dallas Mavericks were champs, led by a spectacular playoff run from Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk was taken 9th overall in 1998 by Milwaukee, and dealt to Dallas on draft night for the 6th pick and another player. The Mavericks actually won 50+ games for ten straight seasons with Nowitzki before finally breaking through and winning it all. They were 20-62 in 1997-1998, the year before they drafted him.
And finally Miami's 2012 and 2013 championships came via the same route as before, but instead of Shaquille O'Neal the dominant free agent was LeBron James. The Heat gained the #2 pick in the lottery in 2008 after finishing 15-67, but they used it on Michael Beasley, who like Darko with Detroit was a non-factor. In the two years before they signed LeBron Miami was 43-39 ('08-'09) and 47-35 ('09-'10).
Boston is never going to be the popular free agent destination that Los Angeles and Miami are, so for argument's sake I'm going to throw their title formulas out the window. That leaves just four remaining teams on this list; the Spurs, Pistons, Celtics, and Mavericks. Boston and San Antonio won their championships with players they got from being terrible, Detroit did not. Dallas is a grey area. As much as this is a tiny sample, I think it's probably a fairly accurate ratio.
Is it more likely the Celtics will win a title in the future if they get a top lottery pick? Yes. But does it make it that much more likely that it's worth all the garbage that comes along with tanking a season? That's debatable. Other than the Spurs, no team has won it all behind a player they drafted themselves with a top 4 lottery pick. And in all honesty, it's highly unlikely that Boston will win another championship any time soon, regardless of where they finish this season. Most teams aren't contenders most years, and the reality is the Lakers and Heat have won 8 of the last 12 titles, primarily because that's where the big names want to play.
Let's say the Celtics win 30-some games this year. It's quite possible the Nets could be very terrible in the near future, and one of the draft choices the C's are getting from them could turn out to be the franchise player they're looking for. Or Boston could trade some of their picks for a star, similar to what the Lakers did to get Gasol. And as one final example, take a look at this year's 8-0 Indiana Pacers. Their best player, Paul George, was drafted 10th overall in 2010. The worst record they've had in a decade was their 32-50 campaign in 2009-2010 that led to his selection.