David Griffin is Betting on NBA History to Repeat Itself

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Published: December 4, 2020

The idea of first round picks are captivating, but the reality of what those picks become is often far less exciting. Every fan base with a first round pick studies mock drafts and prospect highlight videos for months before the draft, and then continues to study them weeks after, hoping against hope that their new shiny toy will be the difference maker that helps a lottery team become a playoff team or a playoff team become a champion.

But far more often than not, the player picked in the first round doesn’t become a difference maker, and not only do they not become a difference maker, over half of them won’t even be on the team that drafted them by the time they reach their athletic prime. When you look at those who do hit, however, history says that the vast majority will come from the top half of the first round. Therefore, it is fair to say that if you are looking to acquire first round picks, it should be picks in the top 15 that you should crave.

David Griffin has put a premium on collecting first round picks with his two big trades that he has made since joining the Pelicans – getting three firsts and a pick swap from the Lakers in the AD trade, and another three firsts and two pick swaps from the Milwaukee Bucks. The first Lakers pick has already been cashed in – a #4 pick that Griffin used to trade for 8, 17, 35 and two second round picks that project to be very high in 2021 and 2022. One of the Bucks picks has already been used as well – a #24 pick that Griffin used to get a future pick, which he then used to get a player he really coveted in Steven Adams.

What will determine whether Griffin got a bounty or a treasure trove for Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, is where those other picks land when they finally convey to New Orleans. If the Lakers and Bucks remain excellent for the first half of this decade, the Pelicans will receive 4 future 1st round picks in the mid to late 20s, and likely wouldn’t utilize any of the three pick swap options they have with those two franchises. But, if one or both of those teams falters in those years, the Pelicans can turn already good returns into franchise altering moves that make their asset war chest the envy of the league.

Before we go any further, let’s go over what is still owed to New Orleans from LA and Milwaukee. The Lakers owe the Pelicans either their 2021 or 2022 first round pick. The Pelicans get the pick if, and only if, it lands in the top-8. Very unlikely, but possible if catastrophic injury occurs similar to what the Warriors experienced last year. Barring that unlikely event, the Pelicans get the Lakers 2022 pick, unprotected. After that, the Pelicans have the option to swap picks with the Lakers in 2023 and then the Pelicans get the Lakers 2024 first round pick if they want it. Or, they can decline the 2024 pick if it is not to their liking, and if they do that, they will get the Lakers unprotected 2025 pick. As for the Bucks, the Pelicans have the right to swap picks with them in 2024 and 2026, while also having their unprotected firsts in 2025 and 2027.

What Griffin is betting on here is that NBA history, more specifically recent NBA history, will repeat itself. That is to say that if you look at the NBA in recent years, where player movement has become more rampant and major injuries more frequent, it has made sustained success for franchises far more difficult. In fact, over the last seven years, only one franchise (Raptors) has won 45 games or more in each of those seasons. Only two others (Clippers and Thunder) have been .500 or better every season in that same seven year period. And one of those teams, the Thunder, missed the playoffs (and made the lottery) in one of those seasons.

The Bucks have already had two years of massive regular season success. For them to go through the 2026-27 season without a down year that results in them having a good draft pick to convey, that would mean a nine-year run of being a contender. That is something that nobody has done, outside of San Antonio, this century. And while it is possible that one of those down seasons happens before the Pelicans get a hold of their picks, the overwhelming likelihood is that when, and if, the Bucks falter, it would be years down the line. Unless Giannis leaves after this year, in which case, history says that when a franchise star leaves, the next half decade or more is filled with lottery appearances. In either case, the Pelicans are set to reap the benefits.

The Lakers, on the other hand, would have to have sustained excellence for just 6 seasons (5, in addition to last year ) to prevent the Pelicans from ever receiving another good pick from them. And after signing new extensions this past week, the Lakers are assured to have both AD and Lebron for the next three seasons, and AD for the next four. History says that if you have a top-5 player on your roster, it is unlikely that you will be a lottery team. And if you have two, it is downright impossible. Unless……

Unless injuries occur. And this is the part we are not supposed to talk about. Because if we mention that this could be the path to great draft picks, then we have to root for people to get injured and that is simply not done in a polite society. But let’s stop pretending for a moment that rooting for something makes it any more likely to happen, and just talk about the objective likelihood of it occurring and what it would mean, starting with the latter first.

Top heavy teams, with massively paid stars taking up the majority of their salary cap, can not afford to suffer major injuries to those stars. Plain and simple. It is hard to overcome the loss of a star at any time, but it becomes impossible when their salaries get to a point that heavy rotation pieces are taken up by minimum veterans, and that is exactly where the Bucks and Lakers will be with their rosters in the middle of this decade. And we need to look no further than the Golden State Warriors to see how those players perform when you take the stars out of the lineup for substantial periods of time.

In fact, when you look at the teams that have experienced sustained success over the past seven years, you see a healthy amount of moderately paid players. You do not see payrolls heavily weighed down by massively paid stars on super-max extensions carrying the weight of the franchise on their shoulders. The other thing that you will see is tremendous health from the top players on those rosters, and another common denominator — those players happen to be guards.

Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, James Harden, Lowry and Derozen….the guys who are the engine for these successful franchises that have had sustained success all happen to be guards who don’t spend the majority of the game in the paint, crashing the boards, and leaving the ground thousands of times per year going for blocks or lob dunks. Elite big men in this league, however, all seem to miss considerable time and often are a shell of themselves much sooner in their career. We need to look no further than Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Boogie Cousins to see examples of highly productive bigs who went from perennial All-Stars to guys who are rarely on the court, and who don’t impact winning when they are.

In fact, when you look at the dominant big men around the league over the past 7 seasons, only Lebron has been fortunate enough to avoid missing major time due to injury and/or a sharp decline in production. And it’s possible that he can continue to do that for another 3 seasons. Possible AD can do it for another 5, and Giannis stays with he Bucks and does it for another 7. But history says that it isn’t very likely.

And that’s all Griffin is doing here — he is betting on history. Betting that two franchises can’t win 50 games every year for seven years, when no franchise has been able to do it for the previous seven. Betting that in a league with players who get antsy and always crave the greener grass, that one of these franchises stops watering theirs. Betting that, in a league with bigger and faster athletes than ever before, that injury will likely befall a major star or two and turn a contender into a lottery team, the way it did the Warriors just this past season.

And maybe Griffin will be wrong. Maybe the future will look a lot like the present and all of the picks that the Lakers and Bucks owe the Pelicans will be in the late 20s. All of the pick swaps will be rendered useless because the Lakers and Bucks will finish with superior records to New Orleans in those years. Maybe that happens and the trades that Griffin made for Davis and Holiday are simply good, not great. Maybe. But looking at history, I wouldn’t bet on it.

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