The data prove it: The draft is the NBA’s most important day

The Warriors drafted three of their four great stars.
The Warriors drafted three of their four great stars.
Image: AP/Tony Gutierrez
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There’s one thing that sets the Golden State Warriors apart as the reigning NBA champions, even among the champions of the past—and there’s data to prove it.

The 2017 National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs were not particularly competitive. The Warriors dominated their way to another NBA championship, losing one game of the seventeen played. Even the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers—the defending champs—could not give the star-studded Warriors much of a fight.

The anti-climactic playoffs sparked a lot of discussion among NBA players and fans about who is at fault for the rise of the unbeatable “super team.” The Warriors, based in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, seem poised to reign over the world’s top professional basketball league for the next half decade. Many have blamed Kevin Durant, one of game’s premier players, for choosing to sign with the Warriors, already a great team without him. The Warriors set the record for most wins in a season (73, in 82 games) the year before he joined.

Yet if the Warriors gained an unfair advantage, it wasn’t in getting Kevin Durant.

The real edge they have over all other NBA teams—even other past championship squads— is a great eye for new talent. They have been super successful in the NBA’s amateur draft—the annual event in which teams pick the next generation of players, mostly from US colleges. This year’s NBA draft will be begin tonight (June 22) at 7pm ET  in Brooklyn, New York.

Quartz analyzed the makeup of the last 20 NBA champions to find out which of the winning teams best stocked their rosters in the draft. The average share of draftees’ minutes played in the playoffs’ final round was 38.6%. The 2017 Warriors share: 48.6%, fifth highest.

One of only four champions with a higher share was the pre-Kevin Durant 2015 Warriors, with 63.9%. In fact, only one other franchise, the San Antonio Spurs, even cracked the top five on our list. (Players who were drafted by a team and then later returned are not counted in this analysis.)

But simply highlighting the share of minutes played by draftees does not do justice to how well the Warriors have identified talent in the draft. Unlike the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls, whose championship teams rank near the 2015 and 2017 Warriors teams, none of the Golden State players who have played the most minutes over that period were among the top five picked in the draft.

Warriors’ sharpshooters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were picked 7th in 2009 and 11th in the 2011 respectively. Defensive savant Draymond Green was picked 35th in 2012. These three players have proved to better than nearly all of the players picked before them.

Of course, just drafting the right players is not the only reason for the Warriors’ success. The team also has innovative management and a strong player-development infrastructure to help Curry, Thompson and others reach peak levels. They have also been lucky. The Warriors almost didn’t sign Andre Iguodala, a great defensive player, as a free agent because they preferred Dwight Howard—an injury-ridden player they now are surely glad to have avoided. And they were only able to get Durant because of an unusual one-year jump in the amount teams could spend on players.

Still, excellent drafting is the foundation of Golden State’s greatness. They are a super team because their management identified and nurtured talent that others didn’t see.

If any team is to challenge the Warriors, they will have to do the same, beginning Thursday night.