The True Power Of The Draft

Photo from Spec-ta-cles via Flickr

Of course, we knew all along that the draft is important, but now we see it as an absolutely critical ingredient to the championship recipe. If payroll predicted championships, then the Knicks would have a dynasty by now. Instead, they largely ignored the draft, sold the lottery picks to other teams and look what it got them: a blood-red cell in the winning percentage column.

In order to be competitive in the NBA, you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of money, but you absolutely need to be smart with your money. And the smart money tends to be in the draft. When Stern says the system is broken because of the disparity in payroll, feel free to listen to the Lakers-Kings comparison but also note that the Thunder has been able to fast track success in a supposedly broken system.

via The payroll and competitive balance myth – TrueHoop Blog – ESPN.

Tom Haberstroh pretty much sealed the deal as far as the owners’ competitive balance argument. It’s done. Having money is good and all, but it has long been argued that if you want to be a successful basketball franchise, drafting well is far more important, and Tom brought the hammer down. I urge you to read the entire piece, as it is impossible to summarize it with a single excerpt.

What Haberstroh does is take a decade long record of every single team’s every single draft pick, analyze how much value each team gets relative to the average value of that pick (with value measured in Estimated Wins Added, which we won’t discuss over these pages), and sum it up, thus showing how much each team exceeds its expected position. The inner mechanics are better described here, from the original draft analysis done in 2009.

But amongst the several nuggets from the piece, what caught my attention was the 6th best drafting team on the chart. The Detroit Pistons are best remembered for flopping on Darko Milicic in the stacked 2003 lottery, but that didn’t prevent them from ranking above 24 other franchises in drafting acumen this past decade.

Of course, Tom had an answer for that to. When I asked him on Twitter where this disparity comes from, he elaborated on the ranks certain Piston draft picks had:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/tomhaberstroh/statuses/129240391810695168″]

Obviously, this is an isolated list out of 30 similar ones, but from these 9 players alone there is much to learn. Striking gold with an all-star in the second round (Okur) is nearly as valuable as flopping on the second overall pick (Darko) is hurtful. A mid-lottery hopefully future star (Monroe) is as big a coup as a solid 10 year starter in the lower first round (Prince), and both of them more than make up for the pain of a blown mid-lottery pick (White).  And any value you can get from later in the draft – even if they are flawed players such as Johnson, Stuckey and Jerebko – acts as gravy in a process that is ultimately a crapshoot.

The mere existence of such a statistical field makes one giddy as to the upside of advanced statistics. However, the problem with judging teams on these values is exactly the sort of accumulative effect that we see with Detroit. The drafting of guys like Maxiell, Jerebko, Stuckey and Johnson has yet to translate to huge success for Detroit, even if their net value is positive relative to their drafting position. The reason for this is pretty intuitive – role players are important, but superstars are typically those who determine on what fingers a ring doth fall.

So I decided to do a far less extensive drafting history analysis, but one that I feel automatically sifts out only the top of the top: MVPs. They aren’t necessarily representative of each season’s elite, but they are a small, if arbitrary part of it.

So let’s go back into the past, and see who drafted each past winner of either the regular season and Finals MVPs.

The NBA Finals MVP trophy was given 43 times, to 27 NBA players. This in and of itself is pretty amazing – Finals MVP winners averaged almost 1.6 awards per player, which tells you how much competitive balance is truly achievable. Superstars are rare, superstars win, and quite often, superstars win multiple times.

Furthermore, of these 27 winners, 23 of them took the trophy home with the team that drafted them (for the sake of this argument, draft day trades count as “drafting” – so Kobe and Dirk were drafted by the Lakers and Mavs, not the Hornets and and Bucks). Of those 23, only one – Rick Barry (Warriors, 75) – left his original team for a stint before returning (and even that was a stint in the ABA, not with a different NBA team), and 1 player – Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – won both with the team that drafted him (Milwaukee, 71) and with a new team (Los Angeles, 85).

The other 4 players were Moses Malone (Philly, 83), Wilt Chamberlain (Lakers, 72), and Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers, 3 times), three of the most nomadic superstars of all time, and Chauncey Billups, who won Finals MVP for the incredible outlier that was the 2004 Pistons. All in all, 36 of 43 Finals MVP trophies were won by original draftees, or a dominant 83.7%.

Moving on to regular season MVPs, we have a slightly broader picture. The award has been handed out 56 times since Bob Pettit’s inaugural victory in 1955-56, to 29 different players. Of these 29, we had 6 winners combine for 12 trophies while not playing for the team that drafted them: Shaq in 2000, Charles Barkley (Suns, 93), Moses (Houston 79, 81, Philly 82), Dr. J. (80-81 – though Philly was indeed Irving’s first NBA team, they acquired him for a $3 million fee once the New York Nets merged with the NBA), Kareem (Lakers, 76, 77, 80, after 3 wins with the Bucks) and Wilt (66-68, Philly 76ers, was drafted by the Warriors). Also notable is Steve Nash, who won his two MVPs with the team that drafted him (Phoenix), but only after a Dallas hiatus.

So if we combine the two trophies into broad categorization of “MVP awards”, we have 99 awards that are distributed thusly:

Draftees: 80 (81%, folks)

Draftees that left, then returned: 3 (Nash twice, Barry)

Centers who somehow found themselves on the Lakers: 9 (Shaq’s 3 Finals+1 regular, Kareem 3 regulars+Finals, Wilt)

Centers who somehow found themselves on the 76ers: 4 (Wilt, Moses)

Awkward circumstances created by the ABA: 3 (Moses’s Houston trophies, Julius’s Philly trophy. Feel free to move Barry here if you like)

So in the very narrow view of nothing but MVP trophies, a striking majority of players were acquired by the draft. The only place where competitive balance seems truly absence is in Los Angeles’s truly remarkable knack for acquiring once-in-a-generation centers. I guess that does it for Dwight Howard.

Of course, many of these players worked for their trade under completely different circumstances. In last year’s all-star game, 17 of the 24 participants were playing for the team that drafted them – which seems close enough to the 81% from earlier until you remember that 2 of those players (Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony) were traded mere days after the game, and 2 more (Chris Paul and Dwight) are approaching a free agency that is rife with doomsday, big-market only theories. Players have more control these days, and if you ignore the money, and the money again, and the owners’ insistence that by owning an NBA team they automatically deserve to make lots and lots of money – that’s what this lockout is all about.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.