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:
- 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)
- records the number of championships each drafting team won with the drafted player on their roster
- records the number of championships each drafting team won after they drafted their player
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:
- they will be a bad team (they secured a top three pick, after all)
- they will have a hard time making it past the first round, let alone win a championship
- 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.