Indiana Pacers buck traditional team-building methods

Andy Lyons

Most conference finalists rise by drafting in the top five, signing impact free agents and/or pulling off a trade for a superstar. How about a little NBA trivia about the Indiana Pacers?

Quick, name the last time a team made the NBA Conference Finals with no top-eight draft picks anywhere on the roster.

Did you guess the Detroit Pistons of the mid-2000s, famed for their workmanlike attitude toward defense and consummate team play? Rasheed Wallace (No. 4, 1995) and Chauncey Billups (No. 3, 1997) would disagree with you.

The Seven Seconds or Less Suns, Western Conference finalists in 2005 and 2006, probably could have come close without them, but Tim Thomas (No. 7, 1997) and much-heralded bust Nikoloz Tskitishvili (No. 5, 2002) were still receiving bi-weekly paychecks. Interestingly enough, it was Tskitishvili's last year in the league. So close, Suns!

Chris Morris (No. 4, 1988) ruined the 1996-1998 Jazz's claim to the throne. The 1985 Denver Nuggets, whose highest-drafted player was Calvin Natt (No. 8, 1979), were damn close, as were the 1987 Seattle Supersonics with just Xavier McDaniel (No. 4, 1985).

In fact, the last team to make it this far in the NBA Playoffs with no players selected in the Top 8 of the NBA draft was the 1983 San Antonio Spurs, whose highest-drafted player was Roger Phegley (No. 14, 1978). That team's core was led by Hall-of-Famers George Gervin (No. 40, 1974) and Artis Gilmore (No. 117, 1971), as well as Johnny Moore (No. 43, 1979) Phegley scored 4.6 points in 9.7 minutes per game that year and the Spurs lost to the Lakers with Magic Johnson (No. 1, 1979), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (No. 1, 1969), James Worthy (No. 1, 1982) and Bob McAdoo (No. 2, 1972).

If you correctly guessed the 1983 Spurs, you can have all my blogger cash.

Why is this important? Because on the 30th anniversary of the '83 Spurs, the 2013 Indiana Pacers have accomplished the same feat, with their highest-draft player, D.J. Augustin (No. 9, 2008), not even acting as one of their positive contributors.

What does it all mean? For one, high-lottery draft picks are incredibly important. Even back in the 1980s when they weren't valued nearly as highly (read: Worthy's draft rights being traded to the Lakers who already had Magic and Kareem), teams simply didn't make it very far without someone being drafted way up the board. From Charles Barkley to Gary Payton to Patrick Ewing and Rik Smits, key players, even if they're not franchise stars, are far more likely to be picked near the top of the draft.

For another, the Pacers of the last decade are incredibly good at finding sleepers who can turn into All-Stars, like Paul George (No. 10, 2010), Roy Hibbert (No. 17, 2008) and -- even though he's not playing this year -- Danny Granger (No. 17, 2005). They've also been brilliant acquiring undervalued players from other teams or on free agency, like David West (No. 18, 2003) and George Hill (No. 26, 2008).

This year's iteration of the Pacers isn't the first formed by architect Larry Bird to follow this formula to relative success. The last time the Pacers made the conference finals, in 2004, Kenny Anderson (No. 2, 1991) was riding the bench, but the key pieces -- Reggie Miller (No. 11, 1987), Metta World Peace né Ron Artest (No. 16, 1999) and Jermaine O'Neal (No. 17, 1996) -- were late first-round draft picks. In Artest/World Peace's and O'Neal's cases, they were underperforming for their previous teams.

Much of the Pacers' success is attributable to phenomenal coaching. In 2004, they were led by Rick Carlisle, who has since added the 2011 Larry O'Brien Trophy to his mantle and was on the bench of several of those late-2000s Pistons conference finalists. Frank Vogel took over midseason in 2011 for Jim O'Brien, led the Pacers to surprise qualification for the playoffs that year and has enabled his team to steadily improve each year since.

Vogel has to get some credit for turning Paul George from a promising-but-raw rookie into the multi-faceted All-Star and Best Player On A Conference Finalist he is today. Sure, George grew from 6'8 to 6'10 since being drafted, and we know he was imbued with a superlative work ethic from an early age. But -- as Sacramento Kings fans know -- few things are more important to a young players' development than their first organization.

Also, who thought Lance Stephenson would ever morph into the defensive stopper role? The once-Top 10 recruit who did next to nothing in his lone season in Cincinnati was seen as a puzzling selection in 2010. This was the same organization that had drafted Tyler Hansbrough (No. 13, 2009) and high-character guys like Hibbert and Granger. Why would they consider Stephenson given his character issues? But he has morphed into the shooting guard of one of the best five-man units in the league.

Have the Pacers discovered some new paradigm of success, or are they just one of history's greatest outliers? The answer is somewhere in the middle. Their model of player development is nearly unmatched -- San Antonio and Oklahoma City are really their only rivals here -- and the relentless focus on intelligent defense, as Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls can attest, is one way to ensure prolonged success, at least in the regular season.

No team in NBA history has had as much success rebuilding through the middle of the first round, key free agency moves and trades without any qualifying as a "blockbuster" than the Pacers. As crazy as that Top-8 draft pick stat is, here's one even crazier: the last time the Indiana Pacers drafted anyone inside the top 9, it was George McLoud (No. 7, 1989). Since that 1989 draft, the Pacers have made the Eastern Conference Finals seven times, including this season, and missed the playoffs just five times, four of which were in the team's aftermath of the Malice at the Palace.

Have the Pacers won a championship? No, of course not. There are only eight franchises that have won titles since 1984. But the Pacers have done everything but without the benefit of superstars.

Take note, NBA GMs who have been unsuccessfully tanking for years (lookin' at you, Bryan Colangelo and Geoff Petrie). This is how you build a franchise.

More from SB Nation:

Ziller: A lottery conspiracy for every team

Howard vented to GM about D'Antoni

O'Donnell: The mysterious Rudy Gobert

How the Spurs confused the Grizzlies

NBA mock draft: We know nothing

Longform: Basketball and chaos in Europe

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