I've been away for a while, so I've been writing a bunch of new posts in the short term. Today I'd like to revisit a classic topic: NBA champions and the draft.
I've already shown that securing a top tree draft selection is generally not the ideal position to be in for an NBA team. To recap, I found that:
- in the lottery era (1985-present), 60% of teams that have ended up with a top three draft pick haven't made it past the first round of the NBA playoffs during their draftee's first four years in the league.
- to put it another way, only 40% of teams with a top three draft selection managed to advance past the first round in one or more of their draftees' first four years.
- during the lottery era - only four (Duncan, Robinson, Sean Elliott, who was traded away and then reacquired, and Darko Milicic, who shouldn't count because he didn't really play) out of the 78 players (5%) taken with a top three pick have won a championship with the team that drafted them.
- all that makes sense, as top three draft picks generally start their careers on bad teams. The Spurs lucked out with Duncan because, rather than being a bad team, they were a good team that had injury problems. The Pistons "lucked out" with Milicic because the Grizzlies were dumb enough to trade away their 2003 1st round pick in exchange for Otis Thorpe. Robinson and Elliott won their championships well after they were drafted, and Elliott was actually traded away and reacquired before he got his.
- top three picks fared a little bit better in the pre-lottery era - ten players (Jordan, Olajuwon, Worthy, Thomas, McHale, Magic, Walton, Kareem, Unseld, and Cazzie Russell) out of the 57 top three draftees (17.5%) eventually won with the team that drafted them, and only 28% of teams couldn't make it past the first round in their draftee's first four years.
- this also makes sense, as there were fewer teams in the pre-lottery days, which gave each team a better chance of moving up in the standings.
But there's another myth about championship teams that I want to address this time: the myth that championship teams are led by high (as in top three, for example - am I the only one who finds the term "high draft pick" rather ambiguous?) draft picks. I looked at every NBA champion from 1966-2010 and used total regular season Wins Produced to determine the top three most productive players from each team, recorded when these players were drafted, and calculated the averages. I settled on the top three players - instead of the top two or top five, for example - because it seemed to me like teams only go as far far as their top three players. In fact, according to a recent David Berri post, the performance of a team's top three players usually explains around 76% of a team's success, so three players seems like a good choice.
In determining Wins Produced, rather than using the yearly AdjP48 for each position for every individual season, instead I've taken the 1978-2010 average AdjP48s at each position (which - thanks to Arturo - can be found here), which admittedly isn't as precise as possible - but it is easier. Unfortunately, seasons before 1978 posed a few problems due to incomplete stat-keeping:
- from 1977-1974, there are no individual TO stats kept.
- from 1973-1971, in addition to the above, steals, blocks, and offensive rebounds weren't tracked.
- from 1970-1966, in addition to the above, opponent statistics weren't kept.
Going back to 1974 is no problem; basketball-reference has a handy way to estimate TOs for those seasons. But I have no way of estimating all the missing stats for seasons played before 1974, which means that my rankings not be correct. For those years, sometimes it's easy to tell who should be where (Bill Russell, for example, was clearly the Celtics' best player when he was playing), but where it's closer (between, say, Jerry West and Happy Hairston on the '72 Lakers), I'm more likely to have made some mistakes. And remember, the average AdjP48 numbers I used are based on the averages from 1978 onwards - if things were a lot different before 1978, my rankings for older seasons are even more wacky.
Before I start discussing the results, I'd also better address some issues that popped up when it came time to record draft positions. They are:
- territorial draft picks (Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas)
- undrafted players (Ben Wallace, Udonis Haslem, Moses Malone)
- really late draft picks (Mario Elie, Bill Laimbeer, George Johnson)
I recorded the territorial draft picks as top picks (#1s); in Robertson's case, the Royals had the #1 pick anyways, so there is no harm there. Chamberlain would probably have been the #1 pick as well. That only leaves two bonus #1s, which isn't too bad.
Undrafted players were dealt with as follows:
- find the year they made their NBA debut
- count the number of draft picks made that year
- add one to that number
Wallace and Haslem made their NBA debuts in years when there were 58 draft picks, which means that they were counted as 59th picks. Moses Malone, however, was a very weird case. Immediately following high school, Malone was drafted in the third round (possibly 27th overall) of the 1974 ABA draft. It's hard to know what number to give him, so Malone is the only player on the list that isn't included in the averages.
Since 1989, the draft has only had two rounds, but before then, the draft was routinely ten or more rounds long. This means that, while the latest a player can be drafted today is with the 60th pick, some players were picked well after that. Mario Elie, for instance, was taken with the 160th pick of the 1985 draft! Bill Laimbeer was taken with the 65th pick, and George Johnson (b. 1948) was taken with the 79th pick. Of these three, only Elie really throws things off. If we considered him undrafted - not too much of a stretch, given that he made his debut five years after he was both drafted and waived by the Bucks - and used the same rules as above, he'd be a 55th pick. The 160 is just such an outlier that I'm going to do just that.
All that being said, these are the results (full spreadsheet here):
What do we see? Several things:
- the averages do play out in favour of higher draft picks. In every era, the average best players are earlier draft picks than the average second best players, and the second best players were drafted earlier than the average third best players in all but two of the eras (and one of these "eras" was only four years long).
- however, in the lottery era, the best player on a championship team has been drafted around the 7th pick. That means that all those fans who are hoping that their favourite teams will tank should reconsider. While the number one pick is often head and shoulders above the rest of the draft class, there are always very productive draftees to be had all the way past the 7th spot.
- the 1st best, 2nd best, and top three averages are all later picks during the lottery years than during the pre-lottery years. The only exception is the 3rd best players, which are still pretty close. While this is probably due to the fact that there are more teams in the league, it also could be that teams have gotten worse at drafting over the years.
- the mid-late '70s were an interesting time - the third best players were drafted almost as early as the best players, and the second best players were taken really late. The average of the top three players in this era is an outlier compared to the other time periods. During this time, the champions were the Blazers (49 wins, 55 expected wins), the Celtics (54 wins, 47 expected wins), the Warriors (48 wins, 50 expected wins), and the Celtics (56 wins, 51 expected wins), so (and I'm getting tired of saying this) it's not much of a surprise.
- the late '60s were dominated by the Celtics, making that era an outlier as well. The top three players during this era were picked around eight spots ahead of the top three players from the other time periods.
Very interesting stuff. Well, at least, I found it interesting.