The NBA draft is a crapshoot. There are no guarantees in the lottery. After all, nothing in life is certain except for death and taxes, right? Or are all of these adages just myths waiting to be dispelled?
Here's the regular Sunday installment. On Monday. I fail at deadlines. After watching Markieff Morris have another impressive showing and witnessing the team throwing daggers in the fourth quarter while finishing off my research last night.... I'm beginning to think I may need to reassess my expectations for the season at some point in the not too distant future. Worst case scenario I can still
try to play the reverse jinx card. Maybe something for another week....
For now I was ruminating on another topic. There was a little bit of back and forth over this during the past week and it has resurfaced at various points
since the dawn of time over the last few years. I'm not going to delve into what strategy I think the Suns should be taking in terms of their rebuild (much). I'm just going to analyze the value of a top five pick, especially one in a top tier draft. Also, what guarantees do exist (there are some) in this game of chance?
All of this stitched together in a variegated quilt of random musings... and there will be tables.
But before that...
Being the worst team does not guarantee a team the first pick. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth. But it does guarantee that team one of those four picks. The worst team, in the current lottery structure, is guaranteed a top four pick. The second worst team is guaranteed a top five pick. The third worst is guaranteed a top six pick - top five is 96%. Here is the breakdown of all the odds:
All of the picks are guaranteed to fall within a certain range.
The NBA isn't the NFL. The lottery does help discourage teams from going the "Suck for Luck" route. Can you imagine the maelstrom of scathing press the NBA would take if they simply let the worst team pick first? They might have a team go from 56-26 all the way down to 10-72 (you know, for comparison sake) just to get a franchise
quarterback player to rebuild for a new generation. Instead, the lowliest teams depend on the favor of a combination spewing computer.
But, being in the top five is where the action is. A team selecting there has given themselves an inside track to finding NBA royalty.
This table was created using SLAM Magazine's 500 Greatest NBA Players of All Time.
The list was created in 2011 and only consisted of players with at least five NBA seasons played. This is a couple of years old, so players like LeBron will have risen since this point. The exact rankings are immaterial for the purpose of this evaluation. They simply serve as a useful guideline.
According to this, 39 of the top 50 players ever were taken in the top five. 34 of the top 41. 13 of the top 15. The top eight.
Well, I guess I am making a couple of assumptions here. The territorial pick was basically a PR gimmick that allowed teams to call dibs on players that attended college in the area to foster local support. Wilt, presumably, would have still been a number one pick for his overall skill level - despite another team not benefiting from ticket sales to his faithful Jayhawk followers. I'm putting Lucas in the same boat (well, not the exact same boat). George Mikan may have also gone top five, if there was a draft, after winning NCAA player of the year twice while leading the nation in scoring - including 53 in a tournament game during a year DePaul won the national championship. Malone joined the NBA in a dispersal draft from the sale of the Kentucky Colonels and Spirits of St. Louis during the NBA-ABA merger.
Some years a fall from grace can be quite debilitating. Settling for Emeka Okafor, instead of hitting on Dwight Howard, is a franchise altering (in the wrong way) consolation prize. Imagine being stuck with Emeka Okafor on your team...
That draft (2004) didn't have a ton of star power, but did offer a couple of solid NBA players such as Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, Al Jefferson and Josh Smith. Some drafts, however, are better than others. Years like 1985, 1987, 1996 and 2003 were great times to be in the top five, irrespective of exact position, as you can see below...
The 2014 draft class is predicted to be similar to these in terms of star power, headlined by players such as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum and Marcus Smart.
These are all of the players in SLAM's top 150 that have been drafted since 1985. I arbitrarily chose this season since it was the first year of the early lottery system. It seemed more than fair as a starting point considering the draft class from the prior year. This opens up the field to allow more great, but not transcendent, players to be included in the discourse.
26 top five players. 18 players selected sixth or later. 11 of 15 in the top 50 taken fifth or higher.
That's over 21 years. That's 26 top 150 talents out of 105 selections. Then, being allowed to pick from everyone left in the world, including you and me, the rest of the draft produced just 18. Also, the chance of striking gold on a second round pick is Manu Ginobili (it's easier to call it that than try to determine an actual percentage). Anything below 28, for that matter. Just don't tell this to Archie Goodwin.
On a side note, it's hilarious to look back at how pitiful the 2000 draft class was. Three players (Kenyon Martin, Jamaal Magloire and Michael Redd) combined for three all-star appearances out of this class. Three total. Stromile Swift, Darius Miles, Marcus Fizer, Dermarr Johnson, Chris Mihm and Keyon Doolng all went in the top 10. Damn.
And now we see why drafting these types of players is so imperiously urgent. Let's go back to 1985 again, because I like that year... plus it was Back to the Future year. Every team that has won a title since 1985 has had a top five pick as its first or second best player. Every team drafted their own first or second best player except the 2004 Detroit Pistons (and arguably 2008 Celtics).
The NBA favors the superstar and whatever team possesses him. Only eight teams have won the NBA title since 1985. That's 29 seasons. Over that period if your team didn't have Magic, Thomas, Jordan, Olajuwon, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe, or LeBron (Wade) there wasn't much hope for your championship aspirations. Eight players - 25 championships.
The one real outlier on this is Kobe Bryant. He was drafted as a 17 year old kid. With the new draft eligibility requirements and extensive improvements to scouting it is even more unlikely that a future league icon will slip like this.
Finally, we have the players taken in the drafts from 2006-11 who have made all-star games and/or all-NBA teams. Basically the guys who have shown the most propensity to become (or already are) franchise type players. This list may expand, as some players are late bloomers.
If we add 2003-05 to this list 13 of the 15 players listed are top five picks. Interestingly enough, while everyone but Harden from this table is still on their original team only Dwyane Wade from the 2003-05 classes is still with their original team. While this lends credence to the school of thought that teams can acquire franchise players in trades, the trend has been for these players to force their way to teams of their choosing, generally in large and desirable markets.
Nothing in life is certain except for death and taxes. Fact or fiction? Well, I personally know people who have neatly evaded paying taxes, unless someone from the IRS is reading this... in which case everyone has paid them with the utmost fealty.
There are also some guarantees in the draft/lottery and there other general guidelines based on empirical data. Hopefully I have provided enough evidence to help support my conclusions:
- Finishing with one of the worst two records (and basically worst three) guarantees a top five pick.
- The 2014 draft is expected to produce multiple all-stars and maybe even superstars.
- Superstars are nearly indispensable in the championship formula.
- Superstars are much easier to find in the top five of the draft.
- Most teams that win titles draft their own superstars.
While being bad and picking high doesn't guarantee a team will land star or superstar talent, far from it, it does give the team a much better chance. There are the methods of trades and free agency, but these are less likely routes and tend to favor specific teams.
The Suns, for instance, have gone the routes of trades and free agency and gotten really close to winning a title, but have never drafted their own phenom in the top five and gone that route. They've been too good to try and not good enough to win.
There are few guarantees in life. Let's look at this analogy. Going to college and getting a degree doesn't ensure that a person will have a more successful career with better earnings than a person who foregoes that route and starts working straight out of high school. Some people don't even need college. They can be successful entrepreneurs and outpace the accomplishments of doctors and lawyers. But a lot of them end up cashiering and waiting tables, too.
On the whole, going to college gives people the best odds of having successful careers. On the whole, finding a franchise player in the top five gives a team the best odds of winning an NBA title.
At least that's my take.