I don’t know about you, but with that figure in the loss column ever-increasing over the first 17 games for the Spurs, I must admit I was starting to flirt with the number one pick in the upcoming draft. The Spurs were 4 and 13 after 17 games before their current three-game winning streak, roughly on pace to finish 20 and 62 — which they did in 1997 when they got the number one pick. In other words, when they got Tim Duncan.
Chances are though, there isn’t a Duncan-caliber play in the upcoming draft. After all, the number of drafts that have taken place, 75, vastly outweighs the number of players who can legitimately be considered better than Duncan. That number is likely to be somewhere between a minimum of one and a maximum of ten — though I would argue there weren’t ten players better than Duncan in the history of the NBA. But Timmy’s history, and Spurs fans are waiting for another player to make history for the franchise we love.
Of course, those ranked first, second, and third in the mock drafts are the most likely ones to make history. And among those there is one who has really caught my eye — or maybe ear is more accurate. Because I don’t even know how to watch college basketball over here in Germany, my way of evaluating prospects is listening to what Sam Vecenie has to say on his “Game Theory” podcast, and to what Dennis (surname unknown) has to say on the “Talking the Game” and “Jeden Tag NBA” podcasts (both German). And by their judgement, Paolo Banchero out of Duke could just be what the doctor ordered for the Spurs: a fundamentally sound power forward, ready to contribute from day one.
Then again, should the Spurs be looking for a power forward in the draft? Should they even tank? I say nay!
First, what the Spurs are looking for is not a power forward, but a player who can alter the direction of the franchise because, as yet, no one can say such a player is already on the roster. In my view, Devin Vassell could be the one. But I emphasize could. Maybe even Josh Primo? Frankly, it’s absurd to put such expectations on him this early.
Second, who’s to say that franchise-altering player is to be found with the number one pick? In 75 NBA drafts there were only eleven first picks who won the Most Valuable Player Award: Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Derrick Rose. (Nice, isn’t it? Two of the eleven were Spurs!)
I know what you’re thinking: “There are multiple multiple-MVP wining players among those 11!” And you’re right. But the MVP award isn’t the be-all and-all. (Frankly, I’m completely indifferent about MVP awards. It’s an award that exists as an incentive for the best players in the league to compete during the regular season — and after all, a popularity vote.)
What’s more interesting than looking at how many first picks won MVP is looking at where the players were picked that are there in the NBA right now and have the class to turn pretenders into contenders .
Disregarding LeBron James, who’s not only a franchise-altering player but one of the two best players to ever play the game, I looked at all the drafts from 2009 and on, identifying the players who have done best in terms of value over replacement player (VORP), win shares (WS), win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) and box plus/minus (BPM).
In 2009, there is a steep drop-off in all these categories after the first and second-best players. In all cases, James Harden ranks first and Stephen Curry second. I would argue that Curry is the better of the two, because basketball is a game of five-on-five, but what it comes down to is this: none of them was a number one pick. Harden was picked third, Curry was picked seventh. (The number one pick was Blake Griffin, by the way.)
The best player in the class of 2010, in terms of VORP, WS and BPM, is Paul George. In terms of WS/48, the best player is Hassan Whiteside. Let’s leave it at that. Paul George was picked at number ten.
In 2011, the best player in three of the four categories started his career in Silver & Black. His name is Kawhi Leonard. He was picket at number 15. The only category Kawhi doesn’t rank first is WS. Jimmy Butler is first in WS among the class of 2011. Where was he picked? At number 30.
The class of 2012 has two players who could be considered the best of the class. Both Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard are best in two of the four categories, and they are runner-up in the categories they’re not best. And while Davis was a number one pick, Lillard was only picked at number six.
Things look very similar in the class of 2013. The four categories are split between two players, with each player best in two. Giannis Antetokounmpo is best in terms of VORP and BPM (and second-best in terms of WS and WS/48), Rudy Gobert is best in terms of WS and WS/48 (and second-best in terms of VORP and BPM). We don’t need to talk about who is the better player of the two, what’s important is this: Giannis was picked 15th, Rudy 27th.
The class of 2014 sees a clean sweep in all four categories: Nikola Jokic is the man, a second-rounder picked 41st overall. Admittedly, Joel Embiid was in that draft as well. And though he’s nowhere near Jokic in any of the four categories, I’d prefer Embiid over Jokic in a Finals matchup on my team. But that’s not the point. The point is that Jokic, a consensus franchise-altering player, was picked in the second round. (Sorry to stray from the subject: The two most fun-to-watch players ever, according to me, were picked in the second round – Manu Ginóbili and Nikola Jokic.)
Things get difficult from 2015 onwards. In 2015, number one pick Karl-Anthony Towns wins three of the four categories. But he hasn’t thus far changed the direction of the franchise he was drafted by. Let me emphasize, I feel sorry for the guy. Not because he has never played a single play-off game. But because of what Covid did to his family. I firmly believe he can be a franchise-altering player. But he would have to be in an above-average organization for that. And that he isn’t. (Other players doing well in the four categories from that draft are Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner, and Montrezl Harrell. But none of them has proven to be a franchise-altering player.)
Everyone drafted 2016 or later is still pre-prime – and therefore difficult to pass judgement upon. I would say the best player among those drafted 2016 or later is Luka Doncic. He’s definitely a player to change the fortunes of the franchise he plays for by himself. But, other than him, who’s really in contention mode among those drafted 2016 or later as a first option? The first name that springs to mind is Donovan Mitchell, a number thirteen pick. Mostly because he plays with former number 27 pick Rudy Gobert. Maybe also Trae Young or the pairing of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But it’s too early to tell.
What’s important is this: If the Spurs end up overachieving this year by making the play-in, they might still pick the next Giannis or Kawhi or Jokic. And if you leave the other 29 franchises aside, I’d say that since Duncan the Spurs drafted three players (technically, one wasn’t drafted by them) who could be considered franchise-altering – one at number 15, one at number 28, and one at number 57. Yes, all of them were fortunate enough to play with Tim Duncan. Still, if you would like the Spurs to tank, then please tell why.