Draft Success of NBA Teams
The memory of the 2006-2007 NBA regular season is not very heartwarming for the Portland Trailblazers by any means. They finished the regular season with a record of 32-50, just passed the Sonics and the Wolves in the Northwest division and they were the seventh least winning team of the league, even though they had Zach Randolph, the rookie of the year Brandon Roy and the promising youngster LaMarcus Aldridge on their roster! It was obvious that something was not right, and in fact this young and talented team just needed a good coach, a good management and a little bit of luck to succeed.
Kevin Pritchard became the new General Manager of Blazers on 1st of March, 2007 and started to get ready for his first NBA draft. When the regular season was over, Pritchard –with the enthusiasm of being a new GM- has more interested with new players and prospects that he would bring to Portland rather than why they were unsuccessful in that season.
At this time the draft lottery shone for Trailblazers and they won the first pick of the 2007 NBA draft despite their odds of winning it was just 5,3%. This adequate consolation would turn soon to a bitter memory.
Pritchard reached the pole position, could select whomever he wanted to and left the others to other GMs. But the options were clear: He would choose either Greg Oden, the 19 year old big man from Ohio State who carried his team to NCAA finals and who seemed to be close to the top of his career , with physical and mental readiness; or he would select Kevin Wayne Durant from University of Texas who seemed an amazing offensive power with limitless potential but was also too slim and too feeble.
Both played stupendous on their only college season. Durant was unstoppable on offense (25.8pts, 11.1reb, 1.9blk, 1.9stl on 36min), Oden was dominant in the paint on both side of the game (62% fg, 15.7pts, 9.6reb, 3.3blk on 29min).
Pritchard founded his decision on two issues. 1- Portland roster needed a big man who brings the defensive security rather than an offensive weapon. 2- Durant couldn’t even lift 185 pounds during the pre-draft workouts…
Durant could have been selected with the first pick had he been a little bit stronger on workouts. But Portland GM decided to draft Greg Oden. 2007 NBA draft will always be remembered for Portland supporters because this decision altered the fate of the team completely for upcoming years.
Draft choices, on whatever picks, are always difficult as they involve uncertainty. Like in every area of life, we try to make predictions in such fuzzy situations. NBA GMs pick up data as much as they can get before drafts, they process them and decide which player will be more suitable for their team. This decision is in fact a prediction about how players will perform in the future.
So, when we look at the drafts after year 2000, which GMs and teams are more successful on their predictions? How important the draft success for ultimate team success? Let’s try to answer those questions.
Draft Picks Values
The difficulties of answering those questions stem from the difference in values of draft picks. Talent available at first pick and the last are obviously not similar. Thus, firstly we need to establish some value coefficients for each draft pick. This will also help us to evaluate each pick’s trade value for example.
Starting with the 1998-99 season, we calculated an efficiency score for each player in the league based on the regular season performance (total regular season statistics). Then, we found the average of each player’s efficiency score per game played. Finally when we cross-linked the players’ average efficiency scores by their draft pick order, we’ve reached the average yield of each draft pick to their team. The average of efficiency score per game of all players is 7.51 based on a 482,782 total games played (by all players) starting from 1998-99 regular season. And the average efficiency of the players picked first is 15.87.
In order to level out the effect of the draft pick’s order, we have normalized the efficiency score averages (players’ performances) by the draft pick’s value. In this way, we have obtained what we looked for: coefficients for draft picks. You can see its summary in the following table:
Thus, for instance, if a GM wants to trade a draft pick from the first five ranges, we can say he should get in return at least 1 pick from 6-15 range and 1 pick from 16-30 range according to this analysis. Accordingly, the average efficiency contribution of a player selected in the first five picks is almost twice as much than a player selected between 16th-30th pick. More precisely, 1st pick is 1.82 times more valuable than the 15th pick, 2.75 times more valuable than the 31st pick and 3.95 times more valuable than the 60th pick.
General Manager’s Difficult Decisions
It is not so difficult to calculate general managers draft success based on the player’s performance they drafted (and played for their team) if you measure the efficiencies/performances of each player played in the NBA and find a value coefficient for each draft pick order. We do this starting from the 2000 NBA draft.
Nevertheless, in order to avoid mistakes, we have two assumptions:
1- GM draft success is about the total contribution of a player to his drafting GM’s team, not any other team. Hence, in our calculations, we consider only the cases where the player drafted actually played in the team that drafted him. Traded players (such as draft day trades and swaps) are excluded because they are related to the success of the trade, not the draft.
2- Endurance is equally important to performance. The contribution of a player who played all the matches in the season and another player who missed the half of the season are not similar. In order to take this into account, the efficiency points of the players are multiplied by the percentage of games they played (In later analysis we used efficiency*endurance points in our analyses unless otherwise stated).
Let us also denote you how many drafted players have in fact found an opportunity to play in the NBA. (Note that in our draft success calculations, if a drafted player didn’t play any games, he did not provide any points to his GM’s draft success.) After 2000, the percentage of drafted players not played in the NBA are as follows:
Back to GM draft success evaluation, for each GM, we used their selected players’ efficiency*endurance points and multiplied them by their draft picks values and finally add them up. Then, this total points are divided by the total games played in order to give the average normalized contribution of a player, selected by each GM. This calculation provides us each GM’s draft success for each year and for each team they worked (some GMs worked in multiple teams so this calculation is about GM success rather than team draft success).On average, 10 drafted players per year, is not playing (or not ever played) in the NBA. Among them, there are players who eventually will play in the NBA after their injuries like Nerlens Noel, or after their European contracts will expire such as Nikola Mirotic or also there are players who are approaching the end of a career and missed the NBA train like Cenk Akyol.
Larry Riley -who is the GM of Golden State Warriors between 2009-11- is the most successful GM in drafts with 2009 #7 pick Stephen Curry and 2011 #11 Klay Thompson.In this table, the GMs in charge after 2000 are ranked according to their average draft picks and their selected players’ efficiency*endurance points.
Billy Knight -who is the GM for 76ers between 2000-2007 and the GM for Nets after 2011- is the second most successful NBA GM for drafts. His most successful drafts are: 2007 #12 Thaddeus Young, 2004 #9 Andre Iguodala, 2001 #26 Samuel Dalembert, 2013 #22 Mason Plumlee and 2000 #20 Speedy Claxton.
Sam Presti who is the Sonics-Thunder GM since 2007 has relatively higher draft picks, but his draft success is undeniable with 2007 #2 Kevin Durant, 2008 #4 Russell Westbrook and #24 Serge Ibaka, 2009 #3 James Harden, 2011 #24 Reggie Jackson.
The other successful GMs which are near the top of the list are already known with research depth (Spurs GM R.C. Bufford and Kings GM Geoff Petrie), or advances statistics usage (Rockets GM Daryl Morey) across the NBA.
Although Isiah Thomas is not considered a very successful
GM (for management) and coach in the NBA, he is actually quite successful in drafting, as shown in the cases of Trevor Ariza (#43), Channing Frye (#8), David Lee (#30) and Wilson Chandler (#23) selections.
On the other hand, at the bottom of the list, we are seeing the unsuccessful general managers in drafts such as Michael Jordan, Jerry Krause and Kevin Pritchard, who is always remembered with Oden draft. Steve Kerr is the bottom of the list as he couldn’t get significant performance of any player he drafted for this team (Phoenix Suns).
An average GM’s drafted player provides an efficiency score of 15,43, whereas the most successful GM’s selected average player can get this value up to 23,92.
Durant vs. Oden
Is Kevin Pritchard that bad of a GM? Our list says yes, he is the second least successful GM in drafting, but after he left Portland, he was hired by the Indiana Pacers! Steve Kerr, who is at the bottom of the list, was the GM of Phoenix Suns in 2007-09, then he was one of the most wanted coaches this summer (he eventually agreed to a deal worth 25M$ for 5 years, to coach the Warriors).
The prevailing perception around the NBA is that a wrong selection in a draft is not a big deal. Basically, every GM scrutinizes the players by watching his latest matches in college, reading scouts’ reports and analyses, following up pre-draft workouts and physical results, and finally they try to select (according to their basketball experience and luck) the best/most talented player or the most appropriate player for their team.
In 2007, when Pritchard selected Greg Oden with the first pick, it was a well-known fact that Oden had relatively fragile ankles and knees to carry his heavy body but it was considered an acceptable risk. Even on those days, in many mock drafts, analysts suggested Oden was the top pick.
Durant showed incredible performance since day one in the league and never looked back. But Oden also gave numerous positive signs when he was on the court. In his first three seasons, he played 82 total games with averaging 24 minutes, 10 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks.
We see that Durant is better on points, assists and steals, i.e. the offensive side of the game (it is pretty normal since Durant is a wing player, whereas Oden plays center). But looking per 48 minutes stats, we see the dominance of Oden on defense (better on blocks, rebounds and fg%). The surface of blue and red trapezoids reflects the performance of these two players and per 48 minutes, Oden possesses (just like Durant) the same high potential to enter among league’s elites; but it is obvious now that because of injuries Oden have not found this chance and surely never will.
So the verdict is, in fact Oden is not a bad player at all, but he failed to stay healthy…
Draft Winners and Losers at Team Level
GMs are professional salaried team members just as players. A GM can work with multiple teams, and despite they seem to be the responsible decision maker in drafting players, actually it is a team decision. These two facts suggest to look at the draft success from the team level.
Taking into the consideration of the last 15 years, very few teams have continued with the same GM (R.C. Bufford in Spurs, Kevin O’Connor in Jazz, Mitch Kupchak in Lakers- except Jerry West who was in charge in 2000-). That means when we look at team level, we sum the draft success of multiple GMs.
Applying the same procedure of calculating GMs’ draft success, we created a draft success list for teams considering the players they are drafted and played (according to their efficiency scores*endurance).
With reference to this analysis, the Spurs is the most successful team in drafts although their average draft pick order is one the lowest (with the Lakers) and this fact deserves respect. Their drafted players give higher contribution to the fellow same pick order players: Tony Parker (2001, #28 pick), Tiago Splitter (2007, #28 pick), George Hill (2008, #26 pick) and even Dajuan Blair (2009, #37).
76ers is the team which has contributed the second most by their drafted players. In addition to what previously mentioned as Billy King draftees, their other most successful drafts are Jrue Holiday (2009, #17 pick), Michael Carter-Williams (2013, #11 pick) and Lavoy Allen (2011, #50 pick –relative to its pick order, he can contribute to the team.)
Milwaukee Bucks is also one of the most successful drafting teams: Michael Redd (2000, #43), Ersan İlyasova (2005, #36), Ramon Sessions (2007, #56), Brandon Jennings (2009, #10) and Dan Gadzuric (2002, #33) are the players who played effectively comparing their draft pick order for Bucks after they drafted by this team. We can also add Andrew Bogut (2005, #1) as an O.K. first pick selection. If the Bucks can gather more contribution from Joe Alexander (2008, #8) and from Yi Jianlian (2007, #6), they can inevitably higher on that list.At the third place in the list, we see the Sonics/Thunder franchise. In addition to players that Sam Presti have drafted, they have also gained high contribution from Desmond Mason (2000, #17), Earl Watson (2001, #39), Luke Ridnour (2003, #14), and Nick Collison (2003, #12).
Besides, when we examine this table, we notice drafting in higher picks or lower picks does not have a clear advantage after normalizing pick values. For example, Raptors selects higher picks on average in last 15 years but they have a bad draft success. Even more importantly, although Spurs and Lakers selected most behind on average, one of the team is on the top of the success list and the other is at the very bottom.
Lakers never set up their team’s success strategies on drafts. They only drafted twice in top 20 in last 15 years: Andrew Bynum (2005, #10 pick) and Javarin Crittenton (2007, #19 pick). We can easily affirm that they can’t get what they expected from both of them. Actually, it is a little bit tragic that they can’t even get a mediocre contribution from any other players they selected. Their three most successful drafts (taking into account the pick orders’ values): Robert Sacre (2012, #60 pick), Ryan Kelly (2013, #48 pick) and Ronny Turiaf (2005, #37).
The Most Successful Draft Teams and the Effects of Draft Success on Team Success
The analyses that we presented up to this point can provide you with some insights about teams’ and GM’s draft success. But draft success is not the whole story, it’s just an instrument to be successful (to be a champion) on the league. It’s possible that being the most successful on drafts could not generate any concrete success such as the case of 76ers (after 2000, only one time they were among the top 10 most winning teams on the regular season –they finished the regular season as the third most winning team on 2003).
In contrast, Spurs is the most successful regular season team of the last 15 years by far. This of course can’t be possible only with a good coach, good Management and a good system/atmosphere in the team. Draft success played a crucial role as well. Lakers applied just the opposite strategy: they try to be successful not by drafting good prospects but gather them by trades and by the free agent market after their rookie contracts expired. Lakers is the by far the least successful team in drafts, but they are the third most successful team of the regular season.
On the following table, we summarized teams’ success orders according to their winning records on regular seasons. San Antonio Spurs is making the play-offs for 15 consecutive seasons and they finished 11 times among the top 3 performers of the regular season. They were crowned champions in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014, they also played NBA finals in 2013.
League’s worst regular season team is the Charlotte Bobcats which joined the NBA in 2005. They made the play-offs only once (last season) and they finished 4 times among the worst 3 performers of the regular season in the last 10 years. When we look at their draft success, we see that they are below the average as well. Although they selected 5 times in the last 10 years in the first 5 picks, they wasted these opportunities on Emeka Okafor (2004, #2 pick), Raymond Felton (2005, #5 pick), Adam Morison (2006, #3 pick), Michael Kidd-Girlchrist (2012, #2 pick) and Cody Zeller (2013, #4 pick).
In order to determine the relationship between the draft success and the team (regular season) success, we applied a correlation analysis. After Lakers is excluded (outlier), there is a significant linear correlation with 95% confidence interval. Between these two variables. When the draft success increases (namely the effectiveness of teams’ drafted players increase), the regular season win record is also improving. The correlation coefficient between the variables is 0.381.
Which may translate to the contribution level of draft success on team success being around 38.1%. 1 point increase of drafted players efficiency score would bring a 0.38 points of increase in the regular season team ranks.
Let’s revisit Portland Trailblazers’ 2007 first pick selection one last time after we extracted the importance of draft success.
In his first year on the team, before the season started, Greg Oden underwent his first knee surgery.
He played a total of 82 games during his 5 years in Portland (20,8% of total games played in regular season).
He suffered 5 big knee surgeries…
In his rookie season, Durant played 20.3 points per game and was named the rookie of the year.
In his second season, he raised his points per game to 25.3.
He became an all-star in the third season with the average of 30.1 pts/game (youngest-ever to win the NBA scoring title and was selected to his first All-NBA team.)
In his career, he only missed 16 games until today (97.1%).
Portland of course should regret not drafting Kevin Durant and must accept that they went with the wrong choice, but the team management board never admitted it.
GM Pritchard was fired in 2010 summer.
Brandon Roy left professional basketball in 2011 due to his injuries.
Nate McMillan was fired in 2012 after 7 years as the head coach.
And finally Portland released Greg Oden in 2012, and by doing so team owner Paul Allen recognized their failure of drafting him.
Nonetheless, Greg Oden is not the biggest disappointment for the city of Portland. They once selected Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984 drafts with the second pick (again after looking at their squad, they decided to go with the choice that would fit the roster the most, as opposed to the most talented choice). And that will always be remembered as the worst draft selection for the entire sports history for all time, for all levels.