Building a Winner, Part 5

February 17th, 2012 by Kevin Hetrick

Part 5 – The other champions of the last 20 years

It’s Friday and this series is on a downward trajectory, so today the post will quickly look at the other four champions of the last twenty years, starting with the greatest team of all time.

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls

Chicago’s 1990’s dynasty was the last NBA champion built primarily on the strength of multiple elite lottery selections.  Their construction was more similar to today’s Bulls though, (arduous, 10 year lottery dip) than today’s Thunder (easy-in, easy-out lottery based contender).  Prior to drafting Jordan, the Bulls picked in the top ten in seven of eight drafts, including four top-fives.  This ended with them back in the lottery in 1984, where they hit the jackpot and drafted the greatest of all time at #3.  The next year, they made a lottery pick swap and nabbed Charles Oakley.  Two years after that, using a pick acquired from New York for 29 year old journeyman center Jawann Oldham, the Bulls traded it and a future first rounder to draft Scottie Pippen at #5.  Horace Grant was picked 10th, Charles Oakley and a future selection were traded for Bill Cartwright & Will Perdue, and the Bulls were set up for their first three-peat.

For their second three-peat, the core of Jordan and Pippen was supplemented with Toni Kukoc (29th pick in 1990), Dennis Rodman (maniac, acquired for Will Perdue) and a couple of free agents (Steve Kerr and Ron Harper).

Honestly, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this; clearly, drafting the G.O.A.T = multiple championships.  Duh.

1994  & 1995 Houston Rockets

In 1983 and 1984, the Rockets chose 1st, 3rd, and 1st, ending up with Ralph Sampson, Rodney McCray and Hakeem Olajuwon.  That group won 47 games per season over 4 years and played in one NBA finals, before Sampson and McCray were traded.  Over the next five seasons, the Rockets averaged 47 wins while making it beyond the 1st round of the playoffs only once.  In his tenth season, Olajuwon embarked on one of the greatest two-year playoff runs in history, but McCray and Sampson…not so much.  McCray contributed to the championships by being traded for Otis Thorpe, the second most used player on the 1994 team.  Thorpe was then traded for Clyde Drexler, the second most valuable player on the 1995 team.  The other main cogs on the champs were mid to late draft picks: Vernon Maxwell (47th in ’88, purchased from Spurs), Robert Horry (11th in ’92), Sam Cassell (24th in ’93), and Carl Herrera (12th in ’90).  Mario Elie was acquired by trading a 2nd round draft pick and Kenny Smith was acquired in a trade for John Lucas and a future 1st rounder.

1999 San Antonio Spurs

After drafting 10th, 1st (David Robinson), 10th, and 3rd (Sean Elliot) from 1986 through 1989, the Spurs went on a seven year run where they averaged 55 wins.  Unfortunately, this run was marked by several playoff failures, as the team only reached one conference championship.  In 1996 – 1997, David Robinson and Sean Elliot got hurt and the Spurs struggled, finishing with 20 wins.  These struggles amounted to the greatest thing that ever happened to the franchise though; the Spurs won the lottery and drafted the best power forward of all time.  Tim Duncan turned the team into dynasty.  The 1999 team was built around Duncan, Robinson, Elliot and a slew of role players acquired as cheap free agents.

2006 Miami Heat

The final champ of the last twenty years is the Dwayne Wade – Shaq Miami Heat.  This team was built around one top eight pick and NBA players’ insatiable desire to play in Miami.  Wade was drafted 5th in one of the better drafts of all time.  Shaq and Eddie Jones were acquired via trade, while the rest of the team was free agents.


The best teams of the 1990’s were definitely more high lottery-driven than the cream of the 2000’s, but other than the Bulls, not overwhelmingly.  The Malone / Stockton Jazz and Barkley Suns didn’t rely on a several year run of high lottery picks.  After a decade in the lottery, the Bulls struck gold drafting the most talented, driven player ever.  Using a pick acquired by trading a 4 point, 4 rebound career average player, they snagged Scottie Pippen.  This is the ultimate lottery success story (if only Kyrie can be the next MJ…).

The Rockets and Spurs built “good” teams through the lottery.  The Rockets had three top-three picks in two years, and for nine years after that, they averaged 47 wins.  Ten years later, the prize of that draft haul spearheaded two championships with epic playoff performances.

The Spurs late 80’s drafts built a really solid team that routinely underperformed in the playoffs.  As that core was nearing the end of their primes, an irreproducible sequence of events landed the player that created into a dynasty.

As has been discussed here previously, the assembly of the best teams of the 2000’s was accomplished with very little assistance from the high lottery.  Ten years from now, maybe I’ll look back and realize how dumb this series was, after the reign of the Durant – Westbrook – Harden Thunder, the Griffin – Paul Clippers (Paul acquired for Eric Gordon),  the Love-Rubio Wolves, and the five-time-defending-champion Irving & Davis Cavaliers.

Maybe not though.  By 2015, Love could be with the Lakers and Rubio in Spain.  The Clippers may fall apart, because they’re the Clippers.  The five-time champ Cavs…that’s a lock.  Regardless of how the 2010’s unfold, the basic tenets established in these posts are correct; good management and decision making will always be more important that draft position.  Cleveland has a good thing started with Irving, Thompson, Gee, Varejao, future draft picks and cap flexibility; regardless of 2012 draft position, a winner is constructible.  If it is not, it’s probable they have themselves to blame.

Thanks to anyone who read all five days.  Hopefully they were fun and informative for all.