In the recent NBA draft, the Chicago Bulls were rumored to be discussing trading Jimmy Butler for prospects. Another hot topic was the Boston Celtics shopping assets for a premiere player and getting rejected. All that raises the question: How hard is it to build through the draft?
Certainly, some teams have done it. The Oklahoma City Thunder landed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and are one of the elite teams in the NBA because of them. The Minnesota Timberwolves have harvested a young cadre of talent, and may finally be on the road to success behind the coaching of Tom Thibodeau.
On the other hand, the Sacramento Kings have been drafting high for years, and the fact that they keep doing so year after year indicates how bad they are at it.
Using Basketball-Reference’s draft finder, I looked at last season’s players based on where they were drafted. The following chart shows the draft position from top to bottom and the draft year from left to right (most recent first). The red-green color scale indicates performance based on win shares. Red is worse; green is better.
At first blush, it would seem that drafting near the top has the desired effect. The blocks tend to be filled and at least somewhat green.
However, there are also a lot of green blocks at the bottom and in the middle of the screen, indicating that moving to the top of the draft might help a team get an elite player, but it isn’t required to do so.
Does the No. 1 pick really mean you have a better chance at success? Here’s another look at the same data, this time looking at how many players were in the league last season based on each draft slot (once again the color coding is based on win shares):
Fourteen of last year’s players were taken No. 1 overall in the draft, tied for most in the league. but there are some qualifiers to that.
Anthony Bennett logged minutes, so he was technically on the list. However, he didn’t finish the season in the NBA. The other qualification is that while the No. 4 slot has one fewer players, it seems to have performed better as a group.
Furthermore, several picks — 5, 4, 7, 8 and 10 — have all done better than the No. 3 slot. The No. 2 pick is tied with 13 and 18 for the seventh-most players in the league last season. The No. 6 pick has done worse than 34, which isn’t even in the first round. In fact, only the 29 and 30 picks had fewer players in the NBA last year than the No. 6 pick.
Here is another view of the same data, this time, based on win shares by selection:
When we look at these picks based on last season’s win shares, an even less linear pattern forms. In general, picks in the single digits are on top, but that’s about the most you can say. The No. 4 pick was the most successful. No. 9 was better than 2. The No. 35 pick was the 14th best.
What does all this mean?
It would seem to indicate that while there might be some advantages to drafting higher, those advantages are probably overrated. We get caught up in the moment sometimes, thinking there is a vast difference between the No. 10 pick and the No. 7 pick. Teams tank, trying to get into that bottom three. Yet, at least according to recent history, that No. 4 pick seems to be the one worth getting.
It’s not to say there’s no advantage in getting a better pick, but the “pick” always seems greater than the “player.”
A week ago, the Boston Celtics held the No. 3 pick in the draft. Now they have Jaylen Brown. Picks are a lot like new cars. They lose 20 percent of their value as soon as you drive them off the lot, which is to say, the moment you use them.
A top-three pick is a potentially elite player in the league. As soon as that pick has a name, though, he has flaws and limitations. A year ago he was a top-three pick. Now Jahlil Okafor is a big who can’t defend, and whom the Sixers are having trouble finding a buy for (allegedly).
Sure, a top pick can become an elite player, but he might just be a role player. He might not even be in the year three years later, as Anthony Bennett shows us.
He might be a mercurial star, and then have his career wrecked by injuries… like Derrick Rose.
The point: There is a long way from being a pick to being an elite player. Here are last year’s top 20 in win shares along with their draft positions:
This is where things get really interesting.
Of the players who finished in the top 20 in win shares, there were as many second-round picks as lottery winners–five. Ten were lottery winners, and as many as were lottery losers.
Only one No. 1 pick, LeBron James, finished with more win shares than Jimmy Butler, who was taken with the last pick of the first round, or Isaiah Thomas, who was the last pick of the draft, period.
The Golden State Warriors, who just broke the record for wins in a season and came a handful of Game 7 minutes from repeating, were led by a No. 7 pick (Stephen Curry), a No. 35 pick (Draymond Green), and a No. 11 pick (Klay Thompson).
Of course, the team that beat them in the Finals was led by two No. 1 picks. That presents an alternate strategy to building through the draft:
Take a generational player with the No. 1 pick, develop him until he’s the best player in the world, watch him ditch you for another team where he goes to win a championship, and while he’s gone, find an out of shape former All-Star whose massive contract you can take on in exchange for a lottery team’s rights immediately before a collective bargaining agreement. Then, hope that you can get the chance to amnesty that player after the CBA.
Then all you have to do is be a hot mess for two more years, winning both of those lotteries, bring back the generational player, and trade for another All-Star. Then wait for two years and win a title coming back from a 3-1 Finals deficit.
It’s really that simple.