Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Is a top 3 pick necessary to win a title?

Readers, if you haven't read the basics, make sure you do so before you leave any comments.

Commenter khandor left the following comments on part three of my AGS audit on the Raptors' front office:

If the Raptors truly wish to turn around what is a mess of a franchise on the court and a huge winner from a financial standpoint ... which to this point, unfortunately, there is no such evidence of actually being the case ... then what they NEED to do is finish with one of the 3 worst W-L records in the NBA this season, in order to obtain a Top 3 Pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, and the future rights to a franchise player like Harrison Barnes.
...When you compare the number of championship NBA teams with one or more Top 3 Draft Picks on their roster, to those without any Top 3 Draft Picks at all, it quickly becomes obvious just how important it is to obtain players who fit into this category, if your team is truly serious about ever winning the League Championship one day in the not-too distant future. [... which is not to say that merely having any old Top 3 Draft Pick on the roster, at all, is good enough to get the job done right, because the history of the league clearly shows that it is not the case by any stretch of the imagination.] 

I disagreed for the following reasons:

  • You don't need to have a high lottery pick to get a productive rookie. In 2006 alone, Rondo went at 21 and Millsap at 47. If you have a way of predicting rookie productivity, then you don't even to get a lottery pick at all. See Arturo Galletti's work on the subject
  • Arturo found that the majority of the most productive players from each draft were drafted outside of the top 8 picks. While there have been some good top 3 picks, there are always good players available outside the top 3. You don't need a top 3 pick to win a championship.
  • The Raptors have a large trade exception they should use before the trade deadline (because it expires in June). If they use it to net some good players, they will not only be a better team and win more games, but the incoming players (depending on their level of stardom) may expect to make the playoffs (and the last thing the Raptors want on their hands is another disgruntled star)

But khandor is not so easily convinced. So I put together a list of the number of top three picks on every NBA champion since 1966 (the first draft year without a territorial draft pick). In order for khandor to be correct, a majority of these teams must have at least one top three pick. Here is the summary (full spreadsheet here):

It appears that 88.9% of championship winning teams have at least one top three draft pick. That settles it then; khandor is right and I'm wrong...right?

No. Simply looking at the number of players drafted in the top three on each championship team is not a good way of tackling this question, because those numbers include players who signed as free agents or were traded for. The real question is: if the Raptors secure a top three draft choice, will that put them on the path towards a title? In other words, how do teams with top three draft picks fare historically?

To answer this question, I've put together two spreadsheets. One sheet covers the lottery era (1985-present); the other covers the non-territorial pre-lottery era (1966-1984). Each of these sheets:
  1. records the peak success (best playoff result) of each team with a top three pick over the first four years of a draftee's career (because four years is the length of a rookie contract)
  2. records the number of championships each drafting team won with the drafted player on their roster
  3. records the number of championships each drafting team won after they drafted their player
We need number one to see which rookies were "impact rookies", number two to account for success achieved after the rookie contract, and number three to account for success achieved by trading away top three draft picks. Obviously, players drafted after 2006 haven't played for four seasons yet, so their records are incomplete (but we might as well include them). How do these sheets look? Here is the lottery era summary (full spreadsheet here):

Wow, that gives us a completely different answer than the first method. Of the 78 instances of a team drafting a top three pick in the lottery era, a full 28% did not make/have not made the playoffs in any of the first four seasons of their drafted player. Another 32% only managed to lose in the first round. So 60% of teams that had a top three pick did not make it past the first round over the course of their draftee's rookie contract. Shockingly, only two top three picks managed to "lead" (hint) their teams to a title during their first four seasons during the lottery era - can you name the players? That's right, all-time greats Tim Duncan and Darko Milicic. Obviously, Milicic isn't an all-time great; he played very few minutes during his time in Detroit, and when he did play, he didn't help his team at all. But he does meet our requirements for the purposes of this exercise.

An additional two teams  - the Spurs with Sean Elliott and the Spurs with David Robinson - ended up winning one or more championships with their own top three draft pick after their player's first four years, and three more teams won championships without their drafted player, sometime after their player was drafted. One of those three teams was Boston after drafting Len Bias in 1986 (who - to put it quite frankly - didn't exactly contribute to the Celtics win in 2008). The second team was Boston after drafting Chauncey Billups in 1997, and that wasn't much better, because he was traded to Toronto (who, being Toronto, also traded him away) midway through his rookie season for Kenny Anderson (who was eventually traded for...wait for it...Vin Baker). But Detroit and Grant Hill in 1994 is the last one, and the most appropriate, because the Pistons manage to get the incredibly productive Ben Wallace when Hill forced a sign and trade to the Magic. Ben Wallace (along with the aforementioned Billups) was the driving force behind the very good 2000's Pistons teams that won one title.

All in all, if we really want to evaluate things properly, we would say that only four top three draft picks taken during the lottery era - about 5% - actually helped their teams win a championship. Not a very good result. But that's just the lottery era - what about top three picks taken from 1966-1984? Here is the summary for those years (full spreadsheet here):

Very interesting! The pre-lottery era was a lot different from the lottery era. Very few teams with top three picks - only 8 out of 57 - missed the playoffs every year for the first four years following the drafting of their player, and the same number of teams only managed to reach the first round. That means that 72% of teams made it past the first round within four years of using a top three pick, which is pretty amazing. Actually, why don't we just use a graph to show the differences:

There, that's better. I removed the last category of the two tables - "Teams winning Championship (after drafting player)" - because the teams with older lottery picks have the built-in advantage of extra opportunities (ie: more years) to add to their championship titles. For example, Chicago drafted Clem Haskins with the third pick of the 1967 draft, but I don't think he should receive any credit for any of the six championships that Chicago ended up winning during the '90s. But the remaining categories have not been affected at all and are still comparable. And what we see is that prior to 1985, teams with top three draft picks ended up deeper in the playoffs than the teams from the lottery era. If you think about it, it's not all that surprising. The lottery system is a fairer way of determining draft order than a coin flip, so on average, top three picks have been playing on worse teams, which means they don't advance as far into the playoffs.

So what do all these charts, graphs, and tables tell us? If the Raptors secure a top three pick, there are a couple of things that will be likely:

  1. they will be a bad team (they secured a top three pick, after all)
  2. they will have a hard time making it past the first round, let alone win a championship
  3. therefore, a top three pick won't pave the way to a title
The data I have shown in this post adds further support to my position that the Raptors do not need to get a top three pick in this year's - or any year's - draft in order to be successful. The best teams are good at drafting productive players regardless of their draft position, signing productive free agents, and making trades for productive players and extra draft picks. If the Raptors want to be successful in the future, those are the things they need to be focused on, instead of being focused on securing a good draft position.

 - Devin


  1. Just because "most" teams that secure a Top 3 Draft Pick actually do a poor job of selecting the "correct" player in this position, in the first place ... who, in turn, fails to develop in the NBA, as a dominant player should ... this does not men that a team also fails to improve its chances of becoming a championship calibre team when it secures a Top 3 Draft Pick who succeeds in becoming a dominant player.

    You should have simply stopped your research into this specific topic after you first discovered and then wrote the percentage figure of 88.9%. :-)


    High End teams in the NBA have GM's who actually make the "correct" selection once they've been able to secure the rights to a Top 3 Draft Pick.

    Conversely, Low End teams in the NBA have GM's who repeatedly make mistakes when it comes to selecting the "correct" players in the Draft ... whether in the Top 3 Positions, or otherwise ... and, when it comes to making trades and free agent acquisitions.

    BTW ...

    When a top flight GM actually has the No. 1, overall, selection in the NBA Draft, and that year there is no dominant player to be found, then, that GM does not use that selection to pick a stiff, just for the purpose of using his pick ... except in the rare case of someone like Joe Dumars and Darko Milicic ... what he does, instead, is TRADE DOWN in that draft year so that some OTHER TERRIBLE GM has the privilege of selecting a player who is actually going to be a future dud in the NBA, unexpected injuries aside.

  2. Devin:
    Really interesting analysis. Could you show that first table for all teams in the years you studied? That is, what percentage of all teams had 0, 1, 2, 3+ top-3 picks? Or if that's too much work, maybe just tell us the mean number of top-3 picks an NBA team had over these years. Would make it much easier to interpret your table. Thanks.

  3. khandor:

    Look, with a top three pick, the Raptors could land a decent player, or even a superstar player. But they could also do the same thing drafting at any other position.

    The #1 and #3 picks have actually outperformed every other pick in the draft, and the #2 pick is sixth. So the top three picks have, historically, had the better players. But, after the #1 pick, the differences between the draft positions aren't very large.

    Your argument is rather circular: "this does not men that a team also fails to improve its chances of becoming a championship calibre team when it secures a Top 3 Draft Pick who succeeds in becoming a dominant player." Excuse me for saying 'no duh'. If you get a dominant player you will be better off - the question is, by securing a top three draft position, are you any more likely to draft a dominant player than anyone else? And the answer to that is "no, not really". And that's because teams are simply bad at evaluating draft talent.

    Again, the Raptors could have taken Roy, Rondo, or Millsap in 2006. Those would be the "dominant players" of that particular draft. But those players went at #5, #21, and #47. A bunch of teams passed on them. Teams just don't know how to draft. In that draft, every team had a chance to draft Millsap.

    Teams that draft at #1, #2, and #3 are not on the path to the championship because their drafted players aren't really different from anyone else's and the rest of their teams are worse. You could surely throw in the fact that they generally have really poorly-run fracnchises too. All this to say...teams with top three picks stay crappy unless they can figure out how to surround their rookies with lots of talent. It's more about the rest of the team than the rookie. The Raptors need to focus on building a good team instead of worrying about draft position.

  4. Guy:

    When you say the "first table" which table are you talking about? The one about how many top 3 picks each champion had? I'd love to add in all the data about how many top three picks the other teams had, but that would take a lot of time. The mean number of top three picks would take just as long.

    Another thing I could mention in the post: compared to the pre-lottery era, the increase in the number of teams in the league during the lottery era is likely to have contributed to the lack of success of teams possessing a top three draft selection, as is the general ineptitude of the teams that regularly find themselves in the position of having a top three pick.

  5. Yes, I meant the Champions Summary table. 58% of champions having 2 or more top picks seems extremely high to me, as does a mean of 1.9 per team. But I don't have a sense of how many top 3 picks are playing in the NBA at any point in time. I would think though that it's no more than 30, probably less -- that's 10 years worth of picks, and of course some don't play for long. So that seems like evidence that teams do know what they're doing with those first 3 picks. (Although I'm sure there's nothing magical about 1-3 as opposed to 4-6 -- just somewhat better value on average.)

  6. Devin,

    Point 1. Contrary to popular belief, "Statistical Averages" have little meaning/value when it comes to evaluating properly how the NBA game actually works.

    The NBA game is based on Individual Match-ups and Mis-matches, not "Stat Averages".

    Point 2. Brandon Roy, Rajon Rondo and Paul Millsap are poor examples of who actually qualifies as a dominant player in the NBA.

    From the players in the league today ...

    Kobe Bryant is a dominant player.
    Dwyane Wade is a dominant player.
    LeBron James is a dominant player.

    Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash have been a dominant player in the past.

    Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Blake Griffin and John Wall will most likely become a dominant player in the future.

    From the players available in the 2011 NBA Draft ...

    Harrison Barnes will most likely become a dominant player in the NBA.

    Conversely, from the players in the league today ...

    Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Mano Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Brandon Roy, Paul Millsap, Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Luis Scola, David West, Danny Granger, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, Yao Ming, Vince Carter, Monta Ellis, Tyreke Evans and Rudy Gay all fit into the category of being a very-good-but-not-quite dominant player.

    Point 3. With high school graduates no longer eligible for immediate entry to the NBA Draft, the chances of a top flight GM, like Jerry West [for example] being able to select a "young stud" like Kobe Bryant [or "The Big Ticket"] with something other than a Top 3 Draft Pick are quite remote ... and, the history book for this league says that it is most frequently the teams with a legitimate dominant player on their rosters who are the REAL contenders for the NBA Title, on an annual basis.

  7. Khandor,
    If you believe that statistical averages are meaningless, why do you visit this site, which is primarily stats-based? Trolling is stupid.

    Harrison Barnes is supposed to be a stud however and it makes perfect sense to me that the Raptors should try to tank and secure this guy. What do they have to lose?

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  9. Devin: you might be interested in this analysis of draft pick values at BBR: http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=2740.

  10. khandor:

    Read this post, and all the links it leads to:


    Once you've done that, maybe we can have a conversation. But your positions are so absurd that I doubt that that will be possible.

    Chris Paul is not a dominant player? Oh boy. I'm not even getting into this with you. If you think that "'Statistical Averages' have little meaning/value when it comes to evaluating properly how the NBA game actually works," then how did you "determine" that Kobe was a dominant player? You just made it up. You have no way of supporting your claims aside from team success, and as I mentioned before, that is a stupid and flawed way of identifying "dominant players".

    Don't just tell me your positions - support them, too. Until you can learn how to do that, I'm afraid we have no more to talk about.

  11. If/when you state that you disagree with a specific observation made by another person on a web site this does not mean that what you are actually doing is "trolling".

    Unfortunately, in today's society, there are a great many misconceptions about the game of basketball which are being put forward by others on-line that are simply inaccurate interpretations of the way the game is actually played at the highest levels of competition ... e.g. some stating that obtaining a correctly identified Top 3 Draft Pick is somehow NOT the right way to go about constructing an authentic championship calibre team in the NBA.

    If the only people who contribute to specific web sites are those who think in a similar way already then what you get is an ultra simplistic form of propoganda ... and little else.

    Is this really what you want?

    I don't think it is.

    Constructive disagreement, OTOH, is the foundation of North American Democratic Thought, and I am constantly surprised by those who seem to object when others disagree [respectfully-?] with their own perspective on a particular subject.

    PS. Have you noticed that I have already placed a link to your blog in the blog roll for my own site? Would I have done something like that, if I all I am trying to do is be a troll on your site? Keep up your good work, and continue to cast a squinting eye towards those who believe whole-heartedly in the power of simple game stats to explain the complex relationship between winning and losing in the NBA. Cheers

  12. re: "That is an absurd statement, given that the game is won by the team scoring the most points."

    The team which actually scores the most number of points in a specific game, against a specific opponent, is NOT determined by the "average number of points scored" for each of those two teams; nor is it determined by their averages for such things as Rebounds, or FG%, of Steals, BS, eFG%, Defensive Efficiency, Offensive Efficiency, etc.


  13. FYI,

    Arturo and I are already well-acquainted with one another. :-)

  14. khandor:

    And that's the problem: you aren't being constructive. If you had some valid, well-thought out and supported criticisms - like Guy - I and others would have no problem with you voicing your thoughts. But that is not the case. You keep repeating your theories without putting anything behind them.

  15. BTW ...

    88.9% is a strong positive correlation.

  16. Guy:

    That bball-ref article looks very similar to the work that Arturo did. The only difference is that bball-ref used Win Shares, and Arturo used Wins Produced:


    As Arturo says, "...it seems like in general teams get good value from the number one pick. But the data points to a talent evaluation model for NBA teams that is not very efficient at delivering value."

    These are averages across 30 years of picks. In any one draft, there are always very good players available at any draft position. The trick is to use the right numbers to identify these players (or draft relatively obscure, unknown players from Europe and hope they pan out).

    Here are some more of Arturo's findings that should interest you:


  17. khandor:

    re: 88.9%

    The answer is what you wanted, but the question isn't correct. I asked the correct question and got the true answer.

  18. Quite the contray actually ...

    The answer is correct for the question which was asked and for the teams which have won the championship with at least 1 [or more] Top 3 Draft Pick[s] on their roster.

    The answer is only incorrect according to the interpetation of those who "choose to believe" that the original question isn't correct in the first place.

    The concept of what qualifies as a "true answer", or not, in this case, is strictly a construct within your own interpretation of what qualifies as the right question, or not.

    The problem with some statisticians is that they do not like the existence of an irrefutable number like 88.9% ... which they then attempt to "prove" is somehow invalid.


  19. khandor:

    The question is not, "if the Raptors have a top three pick on their team, are they likely to win a championship?". In fact, the 88.9% number doesn't even answer this question. The 88.9% number is the answer to the following question: "how many champions have had top three picks on their teams?". I haven't even compared teams that didn't win championships to teams that did win championships, as Guy asked. I anticipated that this poor method would be the one you would choose to answer the question, and I was right.

    The real question is "should the Raptors tank to secure a top three draft position?". And the answer is "no, because teams that end up getting a top three pick end up sucking for years and years". The Raptors can draft a top three player (ie: one of the three most productive) even if they don't have a top three draft slot.

    There are proper questions to be asked, and proper ways of finding the correct answers to those questions. For you to pick out that one number says a lot about your reasoning ability, and I am not being insulting. Re-read the post, think it through, and if you still can't grasp why 88.9% doesn't support your case, I'm sorry, but I can't help you.

  20. Devin,

    God bless you for trying, but you should know from WoW that your efforts are futile. The laws of the universe do not hold sway in the Bottle City of Khandor; in that fantastical land, Zod--and ONLY Zod--can see the truth. Proof? Bah. Evidence? "I have spoken." Cogent, or even coherent, arguments? "I see the truth; do not try to weaken me with your facts." Ad nauseum.

    If you continue to believe that reason will have any impact on Zod--if you think that hard data, properly presented and interpreted, will be convincing--then you're halfway down the rabbit hole. Before long, you'll be pondering the wisdom of chewing off your own foot.

    You're doing nice work here, and I'm sure many of your visitors will continue to have questions and observations that touch upon the actual universe. Just don't get trapped in the Bottle City; clearly there isn't enough oxygen.

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  22. Don't worry jbrett, I'm done wasting my time with him. I like to give everyone at least a few chances to prove that they don't deserve to be engaged - but no further. All of khandor's nonsense will be removed from this point forward. If khandor wants to make more coherent points, he/she (almost certainly he) will be allowed to do so.

    A mind is such a terrible thing to waste.

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  24. khandor:

    I've already gone over why the 88.9% doesn't support your case. I won't continue to do so, and any time you bring up your same old points without offering anything new, I have no qualms about deleting your unproductive comments.

    Furthermore, I had predicted that you would say something about me 'deleting only those comments that disagree with yours'. The reason certain comments of yours will be deleted has also already been discussed. If you would like to leave useful comments, I will be happy to leave them up.

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