The Value of an NBA Lottery Pick

Earlier this week over at ESPN Insider I took a look at the average career value produced by each of the top 14 NBA draft picks (i.e., the lottery picks).

You have to be an Insider in order to read that piece, so let me briefly summarize what I did in order to get a career value for each player:

  1. A player’s season value is equal to his regular season win shares plus his postseason win shares.
  2. The player’s season values are ordered from best (highest) to worst (lowest).
  3. The player’s career value is equal to 100 percent of his best season, plus 95 percent of his second-best season, plus 90 percent of his third-best season, etc.

In the Insider column I went on to give the average value for each of the lottery picks as well as the top three players and bottom three players for each slot.

In today’s post I’m going to expand on that idea a bit by building a model to figure out the expected value for each lottery pick*, then use that model to find some of the best and worst draft picks since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.

* From here on out I will use the term “lottery pick” to refer to a top 14 pick even though the draft lottery did not start until the 1985 NBA Draft, not to mention that not all top 14 picks were technically lottery picks.

I decided to keep things relatively simple and build a model to predict a player’s career value based on his overall pick number. Using data from 1977 through 1994, I came up with the following model:

value = 61.07 – 14.17 × ln(pick)

For example, the expected career value of the fifth overall pick is:

value = 61.07 – 14.17 × ln(5) = 38.3

Here is the expected value chart for all of the lottery picks:

Pick Expected Diff*
1 61.1
2 51.2 -9.8
3 45.5 -5.7
4 41.4 -4.1
5 38.3 -3.2
6 35.7 -2.6
7 33.5 -2.2
8 31.6 -1.9
9 29.9 -1.7
10 28.4 -1.5
11 27.1 -1.4
12 25.9 -1.2
13 24.7 -1.1
14 23.7 -1.1

* The difference between the expected value of the pick and the expected value of the pick immediately preceding it.

The rest of this post will mostly be a data dump, but I’ll add some explanations when necessary.

First, here are the top 10 lottery picks since the ABA-NBA merger based on career value:

Name Year Pick Value Expected Diff*
Michael Jordan 1984 3 168.8 45.5 123.3
Tim Duncan 1997 1 143.5 61.1 82.4
Karl Malone 1985 13 140.0 24.7 115.3
David Robinson 1987 1 139.4 61.1 78.3
LeBron James 2003 1 135.1 61.1 74.1
Shaquille O’Neal 1992 1 134.2 61.1 73.2
Charles Barkley 1984 5 131.4 38.3 93.2
Magic Johnson 1979 1 130.3 61.1 69.2
Dirk Nowitzki 1998 9 127.6 29.9 97.7
Larry Bird 1978 6 126.1 35.7 90.4

* The difference between the player’s actual career value and his career value based on where he was picked.

The next table shows the players since the merger who exceeded their expectations by the greatest amount:

Name Year Pick Value Expected Diff
Michael Jordan 1984 3 168.8 45.5 123.3
Karl Malone 1985 13 140.0 24.7 115.3
Dirk Nowitzki 1998 9 127.6 29.9 97.7
Charles Barkley 1984 5 131.4 38.3 93.2
Larry Bird 1978 6 126.1 35.7 90.4
Kobe Bryant 1996 13 114.7 24.7 90.0
Reggie Miller 1987 11 111.7 27.1 84.6
Tim Duncan 1997 1 143.5 61.1 82.4
David Robinson 1987 1 139.4 61.1 78.3
Kevin Garnett 1995 5 115.0 38.3 76.8

The differences above are absolute differences. Here’s a similar table using percentage differences instead:

Name Year Pick Value Expected Pct*
Karl Malone 1985 13 140.0 24.7 466%
Kobe Bryant 1996 13 114.7 24.7 364%
Dirk Nowitzki 1998 9 127.6 29.9 326%
Reggie Miller 1987 11 111.7 27.1 312%
Clyde Drexler 1983 14 96.7 23.7 308%
Michael Jordan 1984 3 168.8 45.5 271%
Larry Bird 1978 6 126.1 35.7 253%
Paul Pierce 1998 10 98.3 28.4 246%
Charles Barkley 1984 5 131.4 38.3 244%
Horace Grant 1987 10 93.7 28.4 230&

* The percentage difference between the player’s actual career value and his expected career value based on where he was picked.

For example, as the 13th overall pick Karl Malone would have been expected to finish with a career value of 24.7 but actually finished with a career value 466% higher than that ((140.0 − 24.7) ÷ 24.7).

Now here are the players since the merger who missed their expectation by the greatest amount*:

Name Year Pick Value Expected Diff
Michael Olowokandi 1998 1 1.5 61.1 -59.6
Jay Williams 2002 2 0.8 51.2 -50.4
Adam Morrison 2006 3 -1.4 45.5 -46.9
Chris Washburn 1986 3 -0.7 45.5 -46.2
Darko Milicic 2003 2 5.8 51.2 -45.4
Pervis Ellison 1989 1 18.4 61.1 -42.6
Nikoloz Tskitishvili 2002 5 -1.6 38.3 -39.9
Ralph Sampson 1983 1 21.7 61.1 -39.4
Dennis Hopson 1987 3 6.2 45.5 -39.3
Marcus Fizer 2000 4 2.4 41.4 -39.1

* I excluded active players from this table.

Finally, here are the 10 players who came closest to hitting their career expectation:

Name Year Pick Value Expected Diff
Rodney Rogers 1993 9 30.2 29.9 0.2
Purvis Short 1978 5 38.0 38.3 -0.3
George Lynch 1993 12 25.4 25.9 -0.4
Lester Conner 1982 14 23.1 23.7 -0.6
Larry Johnson 1991 1 60.4 61.1 -0.6
Andris Biedrins 2004 11 26.4 27.1 -0.7
Bryant Stith 1992 13 25.6 24.7 0.9
Xavier McDaniel 1985 4 40.5 41.4 -0.9
Brandon Roy 2006 6 34.7 35.7 -1.0
Antoine Carr 1983 8 30.5 31.6 -1.1
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6 thoughts on “The Value of an NBA Lottery Pick

  1. It looks like there’s a pretty big difference between the average values in the Insider piece and the model fits here. Is that a difference in era (the model is from seasons prior to the players used in the Insider article)? Or is it something else?

  2. Very cool analysis! Were there any issues with the variance of career value for different picks?

    Also, it’s amazing but sad to see Brandon Roy on the list of players whose career resulted in almost identical career value to expectations. He could have easily contended for the top lists had his knees not failed him. :(

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