On First Round Draft Picks

February 29th, 2012 by Kevin Hetrick

I assume the discussions of “to win or not to win” and “what to do at the trade deadline” have the same effect on me as everyone else…cold sweats, sleepless nights, uncontrollable shaking, blurred vision.  In a rarely ending quest to make sense of it all, curiosity struck about the value of first round draft picks.  Not curiosity as in “I’m going to spend my free time for a week researching this”, but more like, “I’m going to spend thirty minutes copying and pasting numbers into a spreadsheet and then draw broad conclusions from it.”

Using the Win Shares data at basketball-reference for all players drafted in the 2001 – 2010 drafts, the following table was derived:

  WS Per Player Years Per Year
Picks 1 -5 1539.9 30.8 295 5.2
Picks 6 – 10  899.4 18 295 3
Picks 11 – 15 554.9 11.1 295 1.9
Picks 16 – 20 497.3 9.9 295 1.7
Picks 21 – 25 548.3 11 295 1.9
Picks 26 – 30 521.7 11.9 239.6 2.2

Disclaimer: The ideas below are based on minimal data / reflection on the data, and probably include some personal bias.  Anyways, I look forward to hearing what conclusions that you derive.

  • This was never really in dispute, but picking at the top of the draft is better than everything else.
  • That said, as a broad average, picking in the top 5 is worth only 3.5 win shares per year over picking from the worst spot in the first round.
  • The real “value” of a top five pick is the chance to select a star, a player that immediately starts paying huge dividends.  This is called a lottery for a reason; one or two teams scratch off the $10,000 prize, a few might win $100, some go home empty handed.  To hone in on this; if the best player is excluded from the top-five of each draft class, the numbers drop to 23.5 win shares per career and 4 per year for the other forty top-five selections.   
  • The two bullet points above help to clarify why my “Building a Winner” research did not unveil a massive rising to the top for repeatedly lottery bound teams.  If a team can combine great management, lottery luck and extended losing…that’s a potential dynasty like the Thunder.  With lesser lottery outcomes though; the 1 to 2 win per season benefit of a top five draft selection cannot save a franchise on its own.  (Also most teams that draft a STAR, combine that with some level of regression to the mean the next season, and don’t get three straight top five picks.)
  • Picking in the bottom two-thirds of the first round appears to be interchangeable.  On average, all draft ranges have been worth two win shares per year.  For a re-building team that’s not in win-now mode, this reinforces that gathering first round draft picks, regardless of where, can be beneficial.   Kind of a “throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks” approach.
  • Surprisingly, selecting at the bottom of the first round has been the third most successful source of players.  Tony Parker, David Lee and Kevin Martin headline this group, but eighteen of the forty-five players have accumulated over ten career win shares to date.
  • It’s likely that this table tells us something about the teams that pick in these ranges.  Squads floundering in “NBA no-man’s land” gain less from their choices than anyone else.  Teams picking at the end of the first round have been the third-most successful.  This may be indicative of those respective teams general ability to make good decisions, hence why the one group is stuck and the other perpetually contends.
  • Arguably, picking 26th to 30th is the second most “valuable” drafting range.    Players picked six to ten, cost three times as much as the late picks.  Are 0.8 win shares per year worth $2 million annually? 

Those are my quick takeaways.  What do you think it means, if anything?