FanPost

The Allure of Upside: Why NBA Teams Choose Potential Ahead of Production

This is not a direct response to Ebomb’s excellent post. This is a simple statement of NBA reality (as I see it). There’s a reason why guys like Chad Ford talk about Upside when it comes to NBA draft prospects: upside is more important to NBA success than production. However, if you want to win an NBA Championship you probably need both in the same player.

Draft prospects are like lottery tickets, the ones with the largest jackpot (the most upside) are also most often the ones with the least likelihood of paying off (turning the upside into production). Every so often a "Golden Ticket" comes along though – a player with a lot of upside and a high likelihood of turning that upside into production. As most of us are aware, those players are usually drafted within the top-10 (and most often in the top-5). If you want your team to win an NBA Championship you better pray one of them falls into your lap.

Out of the last 30 years of NBA Champion teams, guess how many did not have a Golden Ticket? Five by my count: the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons; the 2007-08 Boston Celtics; the 2008-09 & 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers; and the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks. Of the other 25 teams to win a championship each had at least one guy who fits the Golden Ticket description: Julius Erving for the 1982-83 76ers; Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the Lakers teams of the 80’s; Larry Bird for the Celtics teams of the 80’s; Isiah Thomas for the "Bad Boy" Pistons; Michael Jordan for the Bulls; Hakeem Olajuwan for the Rockets; Tim Duncan and David Robinson for the Spurs; and Shaquille O’Neal for the Lakers three-peat and Miami’s lone championship.

In the face of that history, it seems like the only real question at the beginning of the season is which Golden Ticket is going to put a banner in the rafters. But take a look at the five teams that won without a Golden Ticket. The Pistons are a true outlier amongst them because the other four teams had at least one player who overcame the long odds and turned their large amount of upside into actual production: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tyson Chandler all were drafted based on their upside. The same could also be said of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Shawn Marion, and countless other star players on the other championship teams.

Of course, we all know there are a dozen Darius Miles’ for every Kevin Garnett. The NBA is a revolving door of players with upside that never turn it into actual production. So why not draft players that have less upside but are more likely to turn their limited upside into actual production? Because it is a sure-fire path to NBA purgatory, that’s why. Just look at the Houston Rockets to see what it’s like when an NBA team is built with low-risk, modest-reward draft picks. They’re just good enough to have virtually no chance at a Golden Ticket, but bad enough to never make a serious run at contention. If the goal is to win championships, then the tried and true method is to keep drafting the player with the most upside until you get one that actually turns the upside into production or a Golden Ticket falls into your lap. And even when one of those two things happens you probably need to have it happen a second time before title contention comes into play. Only after you have two ultra-productive players can you afford to start drafting the kind of low-risk, modest-reward players needed to fill out your roster - in fairness to the Rockets, they had their two ultra-productive players when they started drafting those guys.

The good news for us Timberwolves fans is that it genuinely looks like we have our two ultra-productive players already on the roster – with a third potentially coming off the bench. The question is whether our GM can make the kind of low-risk, modest-reward picks (or acquisitions) that will be necessary to push this team toward championship contention.

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