Sports

What Is Each Spot in the Draft Lottery Worth?

More than any other part of the NBA calendar, the draft is a time of optimism. Every long-suffering fan base with a high pick can point to a new prospective savior; every would-be contender just outside the lottery can imagine a new rookie filling the one remaining hole on the roster.

Sixty young men will see a dream fulfilled on Thursday, but for the teams themselves, the actual returns rarely live up to the lofty expectations. Maybe, for instance, this draft’s best big man, Evan Mobley, will actually develop into “Chris Bosh on offense and Anthony Davis on defense,” as one scout apparently hyperbolized last week. But it’s far more likely that Mobley—who seems like he’ll be a great pro!—won’t become one of the best players in league history, as that comp would imply.

Let’s examine what those actual returns look like going back to 2004, the first draft with 30 teams, and assess the average value of each draft slot, as well as how teams have performed relative to what would be expected based on their pick numbers.

First, this chart shows the expected production for each lottery pick through the first four seasons of their career, the length of a rookie contract for a first-rounder (using wins above replacement totals from FiveThirtyEight), as well as a player or two who epitomizes the median selection at each spot. (Find more methodological details here; the only difference is that for the purposes of this piece, expectations were calculated using drafts since 2004, rather than all drafts in the lottery era.)

Lottery Picks’ Expected Value Since 2004

Pick Expected Four-Year WAR Median Player(s)
Pick Expected Four-Year WAR Median Player(s)
1 13.5 John Wall
2 11.3 Marvin Williams
3 10.0 Otto Porter
4 9.0 Cody Zeller, Tyrus Thomas
5 8.3 Kris Dunn
6 7.7 Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein
7 7.2 Corey Brewer, Randy Foye
8 6.8 Stanley Johnson, Frank Ntilikina
9 6.4 DeMar DeRozan
10 6.1 Andrew Bynum
11 5.8 JJ Redick
12 5.5 Alec Burks, Gerald Henderson
13 5.2 Julian Wright
14 5.0 Denzel Valentine

First, look at the numbers—and remember that those win figures are spread out over four seasons. The average no. 3 pick, for instance, expects to produce 10 wins during his rookie deal, or 2.5 wins above replacement per year. That’s a decent number, but nothing special.

The same impression appears when looking at the player column. Most of these median examples are rotation players who have gone on to enjoy long NBA careers—but very few would be considered leading options for a contender, which is the hope for any franchise with a pick in this range.

Heck, forget about the rest of the lottery—fewer than half of players picked in the top five since 2004 have made an All-Star team in their careers, and that fact holds true even when accounting for the likelihood that some recent top-five picks (Deandre Ayton, Ja Morant, LaMelo Ball) should receive that honor in the future.

And at the very tiptop of the draft, none of the last 12 no. 1 picks have won an MVP award—or even received a single first-place vote. The top spot is still the most valuable by far—John Wall, a five-time All-Star before being undercut by injuries, as a median outcome is high praise—but the no. 1 pick isn’t a guaranteed legend, either. (The likes of Zion Williamson or Karl-Anthony Towns may nab an MVP vote in the future, but Anthony Davis was supposed to by now, too, and he’s still searching for his first first-place vote after nine seasons in the league.)

The lesson, then, is to temper expectations—which could make things tricky for teams counting on this year’s lottery. The Warriors, who hold the no. 7 and 14 picks, are trying to contend next season—but they might be better off trading one or both of those picks for an established regular because the 2021 equivalents of rookie Randy Foye and rookie Denzel Valentine won’t help the team return to the Finals.

More broadly, one interesting trend to monitor in the years to come is that the expectation curve looks flatter when calculated since 2004 than over longer stretches of time. In other words, the no. 1 pick has looked relatively less valuable in the 30-team era, perhaps because that stretch has coincided with a quartet of outright disasters—Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden, Anthony Bennett, and Markelle Fultz—at the top of the draft. There have arguably been more bad no. 1 picks since 2004 than in the four decades before then, in the same span that more superstars—Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard—have popped up outside the lottery.

Jokic, now the lowest-picked player ever to win an MVP award, was a prominent part of my previous piece on this subject, which examined teams’ draft records since 2010 and found that the Nuggets had the best performance relative to expectations. Extending that analysis back to 2004 to account for the full 30-team era shakes up the leaderboard’s extremes. (Note that for these purposes, a player technically picked by one team but traded to another on draft night counts for the latter. So Leonard counts for the Spurs, not the Pacers; Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert count for the Jazz, not the Nuggets; etc.)

Of course, all these results are not a perfect measurement of draft prowess, but rather a combination of draft and development ability. The two are impossible to disentangle, as much of a player’s ultimate success or failure in the NBA is contextual. But the outputs are notable regardless.

Draft Track Record Since 2004

Team Draft Value vs. Expectation Most Above Expectation Most Below Expectation
Team Draft Value vs. Expectation Most Above Expectation Most Below Expectation
Pelicans +56.9 Chris Paul (4) Hilton Armstrong (12)
Jazz +44.0 Rudy Gobert (27) Enes Kanter (3)
Bulls +43.2 Jimmy Butler (30) Doug McDermott (11)
Celtics +41.6 Rajon Rondo (21) Gerald Green (18)
Nuggets +40.2 Nikola Jokic (41) Emmanuel Mudiay (7)
Pistons +40.2 Khris Middleton (39) Stanley Johnson (8)
Spurs +29.7 Kawhi Leonard (15) Lonnie Walker (18)
Pacers +29.5 Paul George (10) Brandon Rush (13)
Rockets +25.1 Chandler Parsons (38) Royce White (16)
Knicks +23.0 David Lee (30) Kevin Knox (9)
Warriors +21.1 Draymond Green (35) Ike Diogu (9)
Trail Blazers +7.2 Brandon Roy (6) Greg Oden (1)
Magic +7.1 Dwight Howard (1) Mario Hezonja (5)
Heat +6.4 Josh Richardson (40) Michael Beasley (2)
Lakers +5.6 Marc Gasol (48) Brandon Ingram (2)
Thunder +5.1 Russell Westbrook (4) Johan Petro (25)
Mavericks +3.2 Luka Doncic (3) Dennis Smith (9)
76ers -2.1 Andre Iguodala (9) Evan Turner (2)
Bucks -11.8 Giannis Antetokounmpo (15) Jabari Parker (2)
Raptors -16.3 Pascal Siakam (27) Andrea Bargnani (1)
Hawks -26.5 Josh Smith (17) Shelden Williams (5)
Nets -26.5 Ryan Anderson (21) Terrence Williams (11)
Clippers -28.6 Blake Griffin (1) Al Thornton (14)
Grizzlies -32.0 Mike Conley (4) Hasheem Thabeet (2)
Hornets -37.4 Kemba Walker (9) Adam Morrison (3)
Wizards -43.5 John Wall (1) Kevin Seraphin (17)
Timberwolves -44.8 Karl-Anthony Towns (1) Derrick Williams (2)
Kings -53.0 Isaiah Thomas (60) Spencer Hawes (10)
Suns -58.7 Mikal Bridges (10) Dragan Bender (4)
Cavaliers -62.8 Kyrie Irving (1) Anthony Bennett (1)

The top team here registers as a surprise. Almost all of the Pelicans’ draft value since 2004 has been concentrated in their three picks near the top of the draft, all of whom developed into stars: Chris Paul, Davis, and Williamson. As the above analysis suggests, a 100 percent success rate at the top of the draft is no small feat.

Alas, the Pelicans, née Hornets, have a losing record since 2004 with no conference finals appearances, and no members of that trio ever overlapped: Paul was gone before Davis was drafted, and Davis left before Zion arrived.

In second place is Utah, which has hit at every range of the draft: both the top (Deron Williams) and bottom (Mitchell and Gordon Hayward) of the lottery, the bottom of the first round (Gobert), and the second round (Paul Millsap). The Bulls are in third place, but their nine best picks relative to expectations all came in the period from 2004-2011. There’s a reason Chicago peaked with a trip to the conference finals in 2011—and hasn’t been back since.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Cavaliers fall into last place due to consistent whiffs:

Of 27 Cavaliers picks since 2004, only three have exceeded expectations in their first four seasons:

  • Kyrie Irving (no. 1 in 2011)
  • Danny Green (no. 46 in 2009)
  • Daniel Gibson (no. 42 in 2006)

The other 24 have gone in the other direction, from late second-rounders who never played an NBA game to no. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, who has the most wins below expectation for any draft pick on any team since 2004.

Second from the bottom is Phoenix, whose two worst picks both arrived in the same ill-fated 2016 draft class: Dragan Bender at no. 4 and Marquese Chriss at no. 8. And third to last is Sacramento, which somehow managed to find a future All-NBA guard with the last pick of the draft in the middle of a decade and a half of stumbles.

Teams like the Kings and Suns would expect to be at the bottom of this sort of list over this sort of timespan, but the r-squared between a team’s draft over- or underperformance and its record since 2004 is 0.21, meaning that 21 percent of a team’s record can be explained by this one factor. That leaves 79 percent to be explained by other factors, like trades, free-agent signings, the development of undrafted players, and pre-2004 picks. (If this analysis went back one more year, the Cavaliers would no longer be at the bottom because they’d add all of LeBron James’s surplus value.)

The draft, in other words, is only one of a much larger suite of roster-building tools; for as tantalizing as each new class looks every year, most franchises won’t meaningfully change their trajectories on draft night. But that’s the average outcome, and nobody goes into the draft dreaming of average.



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