Tramel: Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat prove NBA Draft lottery luck not necessary
The Denver Nuggets are in the Western Conference Finals, having eliminated the superstar-laden Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night. The Nuggets are superstar-laden, too, of course, we just don’t always go around admitting it.
Jamal Murray is the star of these NBA playoffs. He’s averaging 27.1 points and 6.5 assists per game in 14 games, while shooting 50.2 percent from the field and 49.1 percent from 3-point range.
Or maybe his teammate, Nikola Jokic, is the star of these playoffs. He’s averaging 25.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, while shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point range.
Murray is 23. Jokic is 25. The Nuggets have arrived, at the expense of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clipper superstars whose roster engineering failed to get Los Angeles past the West semifinals.
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Here’s how the Nuggets are relevant to the rest of the league, including the Thunder. Denver joins the Raptors in giving the NBA, for the second straight year, a textbook example of why high lottery picks aren’t necessary for postseason success.
Toronto won the 2019 NBA championship without a lottery pick. And I don’t mean without one of their own lottery picks. Without anyone’s lottery pick. Leonard, at No. 15 overall, was the highest draft pick on the Toronto roster.
Now Denver has emerged as an NBA title contender, again with minimal help from the lottery.
To be fair, Murray came from the lottery -- No. 7 overall in 2016. And rookie Michael Porter Jr. was secured with the final lottery pick, No. 14, in the 2018 draft. Noah Vonleh, who is not in the Denver rotation, was a ninth overall pick.
But that’s it. The rest of the Denver roster came from late first round, second round or undrafted free agency.
Jokic: 41st overall.
Gary Harris: 19th overall.
Jerami Grant: 39th overall.
Paul Millsap: 47th overall.
Those are Denver’s starters. Off the bench, along with Porter, comes Monte Morris, 51st overall; Mason Plumlee, 22nd overall; Torrey Craig, undrafted; Will Barton, who is not with the team due to the pandemic, 40th overall.
It’s an impressive collection of talent, most of it via Denver’s own draft picks. Grant came via trade with the Thunder. Millsap came via free agency. Plumlee and Barton came via trade with Portland. Harris came via draft-night trade with Chicago. Craig was signed off the scrap heap of undrafted free agency.
It’s a wonderfully constructed team, helped by the lucky strike of Jokic in the second round, but also hitting on good late drafts and quality trades. You know. The kind of team-building that once was considered the proper way to construct a contender, instead of tanking for high draft picks.
In some ways, similar to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. The Heat leads Boston 1-0 in the East finals, and Miami is nothing like the LeBron-Wade-Bush teams that went to four straight NBA Finals 2011-14.
This Miami team does not have lottery power, either.
Andre Igoudala: ninth pick overall in 2004.
Tyler Herro: 13th overall.
Kelly Olynyk: 13th overall.
Bam Adebayo: 14th pick overall.
Jimmy Butler: 30th pick overall.
Jae Crowder: 34th pick overall.
Goran Dragic: 45th pick overall
Kendrick Nunn: undrafted free agent.
Duncan Robinson: undrafted free agent.
Derrick Jones Jr.: undrafted.
Miami has stars. Butler and Adebayo (and Dragic long has been one of the league’s most underrated players). But they weren’t prime lottery picks.
Winning basketball still can be produced by keen talent evaluation and roster construction. Toronto a year ago, along with Miami and Denver this year, prove that lottery luck or free-agent attraction are not necessary components of championship basketball.