NBA commentary seems to me to exhibit an unhealthy obsession with the idea of “tanking” to secure a better place in the draft lottery. Even this semi-skeptical article gives credence to the idea that tanking-induced high draft picks are integral to the current success of the franchise. But look at it more closely. Obviously the key pillar of Oklahoma City’s success is Kevin Durant who they snagged with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft. But had OKC gotten “luckier” in the draft lottery, they would have picked Greg Oden who’s just had his career ruined by injury. They scored Russell Westbrook with the No. 4 pick in the following year, but again he came after two markedly inferior players—Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo—and before the much better Kevin Love. In that very same draft OKC snagged Serge Ibaka with a relatively lowly 24th pick, and then their foursome of core young players was rounded out by James Harden with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 draft, chosen one spot below Hasheem Thabeet.
No doubt this illustrates the power and importance of drafting quality young players. But it also drives home the fact that the draft is a crapshoot. High picks in 2007, 2008, and 2009 could just as easily have brought you Greg Oden, O.J. Mayo, and Hasheem Thabeet as Durant, Westbrook, and Harden while Ibaka is a case of striking gold with a late pick. Meanwhile, poorly managed franchises like the Grunfeld-era Washington Wizards manage to run through many high draft picks without ever snagging a true star player. Ability to use the picks you have to acquire quality talent (look at the Spurs) matters more than aquiring high picks.