While watching NBATV on Sunday morning - two days before the much anticipated 2016 NBA Draft Lottery - I caught an episode of "Warriors Ground", a series produced locally by the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors that gives Warriors and NBA fans alike a behind-the-scenes look inside the organization. The episode I happened to watch was number six, titled "The Vision", and it begins in 2009 when the Warriors drafted Stephen Curry seventh overall and follows the many events that followed, including the sale of the franchise to Peter Guber and Joe Lacob in 2010, the hiring of "The Logo" Jerry West as an executive board member in 2011 (and West's hiring soon thereafter of current GM Bob Myers), the drafting of Klay Thompson 11th overall in 2011 and the incredible 2012 NBA Draft when the Warriors drafted Harrison Barnes seventh, Festus Ezeli 30th and Draymond Green 35th overall. With the exception of the Warriors miss when they drafted Ekpe Udoh (who??) sixth overall in 2010, the Warriors basically haven't missed on a draft since selecting Curry in 2009.
As I watched this program, I couldn't help but think of our Nuggets who - despite never once getting "lucky" in the NBA Draft Lottery - have, like the Warriors, made the most of their picks over the last few years and enter the 2016 draft with three first round selections. Going back to the 2014 NBA Draft, the Nuggets did just fine with their 16th (Jusuf Nurkic), 19th (Gary Harris) and 41st (Nikola Jokic) overall selections and then scored by selecting Emmanuel Mudiay seventh overall last year.
I was particularly inspired by the Warriors origin story as it's the only viable model that I can see the Nuggets attempting to replicate if they're ever to achieve true success in the NBA. Ever since the Nuggets winning ways fell off the rails in the summer of 2013, all too frequently several pundits who cover the Nuggets locally have suggested that the Nuggets follow the San Antonio Spurs "model" to success, a theory that I've always found to be laughable. There was no "model" for the Spurs' incredible two decade run among the NBA's very elite. Simply put, Spurs (then) general manager and (then and now) head coach Gregg Popovich threw away the team's entire 1996-97 season - primarily by sitting or altogether sidelining able veterans - for a shot at landing that summer's first overall NBA Lottery selection, which the Spurs received and subsequently used to make the no-brainer selection of Tim Duncan. (Lest Nuggets fans forget that the 1996-97 Nuggets won one more game than the Spurs and ended up drafting Tony Battie fifth after the Spurs took Duncan first overall.) With the coach-able Duncan on board, combined with the equally coach-able superstar David Robinson returning from injury, Popovich was able to create a team-first, first class culture that has lasted through countless roster changes until this very day ... evident by the Spurs winning a franchise record 67 games and tying the NBA's all-time home wins record this past season.
So even though the Spurs should be endlessly applauded for the culture they've developed in San Antonio, there was no preconceived "model" that enabled the Spurs' success prior to Duncan's arrival. Popovich and the Spurs embarked on an old school tank job throughout the 1996-97 season to get Duncan just as the Houston Rockets tanked the 1983-84 season to get Hakeem Olajuwon, the Orlando Magic tanked the 1991-92 season to get Shaquille O'Neal, the Cleveland Cavaliers tanked the 2002-03 season to get LeBron James and the many other examples of season-long tanking I'll spare you from. And as we've debated here ad nauseum, sometimes tanking works and sometimes it backfires spectacularly; just ask Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The success of the modern day Warriors, meanwhile, was built not on tanking but rather on great drafting in both deep and weak NBA Drafts. When the Warriors "struck out" by not getting the first overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, they were still able to snag Curry in a draft that before the two-time MVP was selected featured two perennial All-Stars in Blake Griffin (first overall) and James Harden (third), two talented but oft-injured guards in Tyreke Evans (fourth) and Ricky Rubio (fifth), and two all-time busts in Hasheem Thabeet (second) and Jonny Flynn (sixth). Now you know why David Kahn has been out of a job in the NBA since 2013.
When the Warriors astutely selected the sharp shooting Thompson 11th overall in 2011, they sat and watched while actual NBA GMs drafted busts Derrick Williams (second), Jan Vesely (sixth) and Jimmer Fredette (10th) and drafted solid-but-not-spectacular players like Enes Kanter (third), Tristan Thompson (fourth), Jonas Valanciunas (fifth), Bismack Biyombo (seventh) and Brandon Knight (eighth) before Thompson. If you were to re-draft the 2011 NBA Draft today, Thompson would be selected third behind only Kyrie Irving, who was justifiably drafted first overall, and Kawhi Leonard - an all-time steal drafted 15th.
And when the Warriors snagged Barnes, Ezeli and Green in a single NBA Draft in 2012, they again did it without a pick before seven. Drafted before Barnes were two superstars (Anthony Davis first and Damian Lillard sixth overall), one solid selection (Bradley Beal third), two mediocre players (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist second and Dion Waiters fourth) and one bust (Thomas Robinson fifth overall). And in-between Barnes's selection at seven and Green's at 35 are about 15 players who have already been relegated to journeyman status.
To be clear, the Nuggets would have to be incredibly lucky if Mudiay develops into a player anywhere near Curry's stratosphere and the same certainly goes for the other recently drafted Nuggets who don't yet appear to have the type of ceilings Thompson, Green or even Barnes have shown thus far in the NBA. (Sorry, Nuggets fans, but Harris isn't the second coming of Thompson ... nor will he ever be.) But to the Nuggets credit, they have made the most of the picks bestowed upon them during the Tim Connelly Era and we as fans have every reason to believe they'll draft well again in 2016.
Therefore, Nuggets fans shouldn't be overly distressed if they don't land a top-three pick during Tuesday's NBA Draft Lottery nor should they push the panic button just because their franchise has three first round picks in what is generally considered to be a "weak" 2016 NBA Draft (although I too will be shocked if it compares to the depth of its preceding 2015 NBA Draft). The Warriors are living proof that great drafting can overcome a low pick and a weak draft.
That said, it sure would be nice for our Nuggets to once - just once - move up beyond their predicted lottery selection of seventh. And frankly, the Nuggets deserve it. It's too bad that Bill Simmons has had to (temporarily, I hope) retire his annual NBA Draft Lottery Karma Rankings column because if he wrote it this year, he'd write that the Nuggets deserve to be near or at the very top of the karma rankings. As we discussed here long ago, the Nuggets competed all season long and probably won more games than they should have, costing themselves critical percentage points in landing a top-three selection. Meanwhile, the Nuggets competition for one of those choice top-three picks - like the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns among others - cheated their fans all season long with crummy rosters and downright awful, unwatchable basketball.
But if 2016 is yet another year in which the Nuggets get Stiffed on lottery night, the team and their fans should look to the Warriors success for what could happen in the Mile High City. Some day.