A Complete Analysis of the NBA Draft 1980-2016
As a lifelong Mavericks fan, I have become adept at deluding myself into believing that every one of our draft picks is going to turn into a superstar, only to be consistently disappointed. Year after year, I am convinced the bean pole center from Europe, who does not know how to dribble a basketball, that we somehow end up drafting in the late second round every year, (or mortgage our future to trade for) has what it takes to succeed. This recently got me thinking that I should never believe in a player deemed a "project," but also how any given NBA player can be realistically expected to fare based on their draft position. To do this, I spent a bajillion hours putting together the following graphs based on data I collected from several very helpful websites (sources at the end.) Each graph displays the aggregate or average amount of success, or atleast what I believe to be accurate measures of a successful NBA career, each draft position, 1-60, has produced from 1980-2016 (besides for the last one, a bonus graph, which compares draft years to each other).
The Role of Luck
“No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word.”
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The role of pure chance is often overlooked as a major component of success. Predictable factors which we have control over, like hard work, character and drive will only get us so far. Everything else is dependent upon things outside our direct control, aka luck. Luck can work for us or against us. It can bestow beneficence or it can be a hindrance.
Nothing demonstrates this idea more than professional sports, as in the example of the NBA. Every year, 60 of the greatest athletes on the planet are drafted to play in the most exclusive league in any professional sport. Talent and drive has gotten them this far, but now many outside factors come into play that can serve to hinder or aid. The longer and more intense NBA season will prove certain players to be injury prone and others to be durable. Some players will be elevated by being drafted to the right team, others will be debased by being drafted to the wrong team. Some will fail to live up to expectation solely because they were drafted too high, while others will exceed expectations because they were drafted later.
Here are some examples of players who were rather unlucky in their careers:
Greg Oden: Oden was the first pick of the 2007 draft, taken right before Kevin Durant. Despite being a “once in a decade player,” according to Steve Kerr, Oden experienced a litany of injuries which limited his career to just three seasons. Soon after being drafted, he underwent microfracture surgery on his knee which put him out for the entire 2007-2008 season. When he finally got on the court in the next season, he was injured in his first game, which caused him to miss two weeks. Over the remainder of Oden’s career, he could not escape injury and was forced to retire. His being regarded as a colossal draft bust is compounded by the Blazer’s selecting him over Durant.
Jayson Williams: Despite being a late first round pick and experiencing a few early disappointing seasons, Williams performance began to steadily climb in the middle of his career and he made the All-Star Game in 1998. His mid-career resurrection came to a complete halt, however, when he broke his leg when he collided mid-game with teammate Stephon Marbury. Williams had five screws and a plate inserted into his leg, but he never healed sufficiently to return to the court.
Jay Williams: Jay Williams, the 2nd overall pick of the 2002 NBA draft, did not perform as well as expected during his rookie season, but he did display flashes of potential. Unfortunately, this potential remained unrealized, due to a career ending motorcycle accident in which Williams suffered gruesome injuries. Williams was violating his contract by riding a motorcycle and he did not have a motorcycle license, so it could be argued that this incident was due slightly more to poor decision making than chance. However, this incident could be contrasted with the very similar motorcycle accident that Ben Roethlisberger had in 2006, in which he nearly died from blood loss, but was able to return to the field in a short time.
Darko Milicic: Selected over several future hall of famers with the 2nd pick of the 2003 draft, I consider Milicic to be the worst draft pick of all time. Milicic though, never really had a chance. He was drafted by the Pistons, a team that already had all-star Ben Wallace starting at center and a capable backup, Elden Campbell. Milicic rarely saw the court, averaging under six minutes per game in his three years with the Pistons. He attributes his lack of playing time as a major factor in stymieing his development as a player, "I've said it 10,000 times, the best way for me to improve is to play. All the work in practice and individual workouts can only help me so much.” If Milicic had been drafted by a team that was actually willing to help him develop, his career likely would have been much more successful.
Sam Bowie: Though injuries got in the way of Bowie satisfying the expectations that come with being the 2nd overall pick, he had an overall stellar career. His relative success, however, does not stop him from being considered one of the greatest draft busts of all time. Why? Because he was drafted immediately before Michael Jordan and thus spent his entire career in the shadow of the greatest player of all time. If Bowie was selected just one pick later, he would not be considered a bust.
Royce White: Royce White was drafted by the Rockets with the 16th pick of the 2012 draft. He was a fantastic college player for Iowa State and his all around skill set drew comparisons to Lebron James. Unfortunately, White suffered from severe anxiety attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder, along with a phobia of flying, which is kind of a problem for an NBA player. White’s mental health issues forced him out of the NBA after only a single season, in which he played in three games.
The 1980's Cleveland Cavaliers were Absolutely Pitiful
In the first rounds of the 1983 and 1984 NBA Drafts, despite the league only having 23 teams, there were 24 spots. Why? The Cleveland Cavaliers, the laughing stock of the NBA, had developed a very poor habit of trading away their first-round draft picks. Despite repeatedly dealing away valuable assets, they had nothing to show for it. This left them in a bad state with no draft picks and therefore no way to dig themselves out of the hole they found themselves in. In response to this, the NBA threw them a lifesaver in the form of an extra first round pick in 1983 and 1984, thus creating an extra spot in the first round in these years. The Cavaliers managed to screw this up too however, by passing on Doc Rivers and Mark West in 1983, and John Stockton in 1984. The Cavaliers abysmal management in these years led to the institution of a rule banning teams from dealing first round draft picks in subsequent years.
The 1999 Minnesota Timberwolves Really Screwed Up
In free agency prior to the 1999 NBA season, the Timberwolves landed former first overall pick Joe Smith. Despite being a productive player, Smith had failed to live up to the potential he exhibited coming out of college. The Timberwolves signed Smith to a 1 year 1.75-million-dollar contract, which was way below his market value, as evidenced by his prior team, the Warriors, offering him an $80 million-dollar extension the offseason before.
The Timberwolves, in fact, had engaged in illegal under the table practices in the process of signing Smith. Smith agreed to sign small one year contracts in three consecutive years, after which, the team, now having his bird rights, would be able to sign him to a massive $86 million contract with a reduced cap hit.
The NBA found out about this agreement in the next offseason, and they came down HARD. First of all, Smith had his contract voided, meaning he would no longer be able to receive the massive contract down the road. In addition, Glen Taylor, the Timberwolves owner, was suspended and the team was fined $3.5 million. The worse consequence though, was that the NBA took away the Timberwolves upcoming first round draft picks in 2001, 2002, and 2004. At that time, the Timberwolves, being led by Kevin Garnett and the emerging Chauncey Billups (and later becoming very formidable with the additions of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell), were beginning to show promise, and they were surely only a key player or two away from being a contender. Perhaps the additions of Tony Parker, Carlos Boozer, or Trevor Ariza whom they missed out on due to the loss of picks in 2001, 2002, and 2004 could have put them over the top.
Several Teams Have Never Had a #1 Pick
Including previous iterations of their franchises, Denver, Indiana, Memphis, Miami, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Utah have never landed the number one spot in the draft. This is pretty strange, considering that all of these teams have had several down seasons and all of them, other than Memphis, have been around since at least 1988.
I Cannot Get Over the Pistons Taking Darko Milicic in 2003
The 2003 NBA Draft saw the Detroit Pistons in a very rare position. Typically, the early lottery is populated by terrible teams. The Pistons though, who had the 2nd pick as a result from a several year-old trade with the Grizzlies, were very much not a terrible team. They were led by a young core of Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, and Ben Wallace (Rasheed Wallace was picked up in free agency following the draft,) and were coming off a 50-32 season in which they made the Eastern Conference Finals. If they picked the right player, they would have become a dynasty.
They did not pick the right player.
The draft was incredibly deep, and the Pistons had the opportunity to choose from an incredible smorgasbord of talent including Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich, T.J Ford, David West, Boris Diaw, Kendrick Perkins, Josh Howard, Zaza Pachulia, Mo Williams, or Kyle Korver. They passed on all these players though, instead electing to choose Darko Milicic.
Milicic’s tenure with the Pistons was an absolute disaster. In his three seasons with the team, he averaged under 6 minutes and 2 points a game and did not contribute even a tenth of a cumulative win share. The Pistons were so good though, that despite completely whiffing in the draft, they still experienced unbelievable success in the following years. In 2003-2004, they went 54-28 and upset the Lakers in the championship. In 2004-2005, they again went 54-28 and made it to the championship, but this time lost to the Spurs. In 2005-2006, they went 64-18 and lost to the Heat, who went on to win the championship, in the East finals.
It is scary to think how good the Pistons would have been If they had picked better in the draft.
They were already a championship team and they could have added a hall of fame talent.
Let’s imagine that the Pistons wisely passed on Milicic and instead elected to choose Dwayne Wade who ended up going 5th.
Obviously, there are a million reasons you cannot accurately extrapolate Wade’s success with the Heat and apply it to the Pistons, especially since Wade as a Piston, being a shooting guard, would mean Richard Hamilton would have to slide over to small forward. Who knows what kind of chemistry issues that might cause. But still, Wade is such an unbelievable talent that you have to assume Coach Larry Brown would have found a way to fit him in. So just humor me here.
We can ignore the first year, 2003-2004, because the Pistons won the championship regardless. In 2004-2005, his 2nd season, Wade averaged 24 points per game and contributed 11 win shares in the regular season and another 2.1 in just three rounds of the playoffs. That season saw the Pistons just one win away from winning a second straight NBA championship. I don’t see any way that Wade being on the team does not help them eek out just one extra finals win.
Applying this idea to the next season gets even crazier. Wade truly broke out in the 2005-2006 season, averaging 27 points a game and contributing 14 win shares, with an additional 4.8 in the playoffs, while almost singlehandedly leading the Heat to winning the NBA championship. The Pistons that season won an unreal 64 games, but lost in the eastern conference finals to, you guessed it, the Miami Heat. With Wade, the Pistons probably would not have won 78 games, but they likely could have broken the current record for wins in a season and they certainly would not have lost to the Heat on their way to the Finals. Once there, the Pistons would have faced the Dallas Mavericks, who the split the season series with. When Wade faced the Mavericks he absolutely torched them, averaging 34 points a game. It is very feasible that he could have done the same as a Piston, thus leading them to a third straight championship.
www.plotly.com (Shout out to plotly, this dope website that I used to make the graphs.
https://i.pinimg.com/736x/22/a0/c2/22a0c222a0e62835b02c3b4ea4a194bc--basketball-photos-nba-basketball.jpg (photo credit)
This is the excel spreadsheet that I stitched together from the various sources to make the graphs. It has the data as well as player specific information and some notes: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Ku5QANbunm2VKs8lmeYyQitGHAE9mrSznVroIHvVdTY/edit?usp=sharing