NBA Draft Scores

Back in September 2013 I took a look at the value of an NBA lottery pick, but one thing that always bugged me about that analysis was that there was an inherent assumption that all drafts are created equal. In other words, the expected value of the number one pick was always the same regardless of the talent available. This is, of course, demonstrably false, so I wanted to come up with a way to account for this quirk.

I first had to come up with a way to assign a career value to every player. To do this, I used a weighting scheme similar to what Doug Drinen, creator of Pro-Football-Reference.com, uses. Here’s Doug’s description of the method:

My opinion is that most people mentally rank players by counting all the players’ seasons, but weighting their best seasons more. In order to mimic that, I’ve defined each player’s approximate career “value” to be:

100 percent of his best season, plus 95 percent of his second best season, plus 90 percent of his third best season, plus…

So, for two players with the same career value, the one with the higher peak will be rated a little higher. And junk seasons at the end of a player’s career count for almost nothing.

Using Drinen’s method as my blueprint, here’s what I did:

  1. A player’s season value is equal to his regular season 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.

I calculated the career value of every first and second round pick from 1985 through 2009. It was assumed that the first overall pick would produce the highest career value, the second overall pick would produce the second-highest career value, etc. Then within each draft year I compared each player’s career value to the career value of every other player chosen in that draft. The expected and observed ranks were converted into a draft score using the following formula:

ln(Expected Rank / Observed Rank)

There are, of course, a number of different ways that you could do this, but I like this method for several reasons:

  • The players aren’t saddled with unreasonable expectations simply based on their draft slot.
  • Players who finish higher than their expected rank will have a positive draft score, while players who finish lower than their expected rank will have a negative draft score. Players who finish at their expected rank will have a draft score of zero.
  • Getting the player with the highest career value with the 11th pick (ln(11 / 1) = +2.40) is judged to be much more valuable than getting the player with the 15th highest career value with the 25th pick (ln(25 / 15) = +0.51) even though each player finished ten spots higher than expected.

As an example, here are the draft scores for the 13 lottery picks in the 1998 draft:

Pick Team Player Rank Score
1 Los Angeles Clippers Michael Olowokandi 34 -3.53
2 Vancouver Grizzlies Mike Bibby 6 -1.10
3 Denver Nuggets Raef LaFrentz 9 -1.10
4 Toronto Raptors Antawn Jamison 5 -0.22
5 Golden State Warriors Vince Carter 3 +0.51
6 Dallas Mavericks Robert Traylor 24 -1.39
7 Sacramento Kings Jason Williams 12 -0.54
8 Philadelphia 76ers Larry Hughes 16 -0.30
9 Milwaukee Bucks Dirk Nowitzki 1 +2.20
10 Boston Celtics Paul Pierce 2 +1.61
11 Detroit Pistons Bonzi Wells 17 -0.44
12 Orlando Magic Michael Doleac 25 -0.73
13 Orlando Magic Keon Clark 21 -0.48

This method makes it possible to answer a number of draft-related questions, so the rest of this post will be presented in question-and-answer format. As you read, please keep in mind that the results below are for the 1985 through 2009 drafts only, not every draft in NBA history.

Who were the biggest busts?

Player Year Team Pick Rank Score
Michael Olowokandi 1998 Los Angeles Clippers 1 34 -3.53
Greg Oden 2007 Portland Trail Blazers 1 25 -3.22
Len Bias 1986 Boston Celtics 2 40 -3.00
Kwame Brown 2001 Washington Wizards 1 19 -2.94
Jay Williams 2002 Chicago Bulls 2 36 -2.89

This list contains two very sad cases:

  1. Len Bias, the 1985 and 1986 ACC Player of the Year from Maryland, never got the chance to play in the NBA, as he died of a drug overdose just two days after the draft.
  2. Jay Williams, the 2002 AP Player of the Year from Duke, was involved in a horrible motorcycle accident following his rookie season that almost claimed his life. After a long and painful recovery, Williams attempted a comeback in 2006 with the New Jersey Nets, but he was cut before the start of the season.

Who were the biggest steals?

Player Year Team Pick Rank Score
Jeff Hornacek 1986 Phoenix Suns 46 1 +3.83
Sam Cassell 1993 Houston Rockets 24 1 +3.18
Paul Millsap 2006 Utah Jazz 47 2 +3.16
Michael Redd 2000 Milwaukee Bucks 43 2 +3.07
Manu Ginobili 1999 San Antonio Spurs 57 3 +2.94

The 1986 draft was an odd one, as six of the top eight players in career value were selected with the 24th pick or later. In addition to Hornacek, the others are:

How many players drafted first overall produced the highest career value in their draft?

Player Year Team Pick Rank Score
David Robinson 1987 San Antonio Spurs 1 1 0
Shaquille O’Neal 1992 Orlando Magic 1 1 0
Tim Duncan 1997 San Antonio Spurs 1 1 0
LeBron James 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers 1 1 0
Dwight Howard 2004 Orlando Magic 1 1 0

A summary of the 25 first overall picks from 1985 through 2009:

Which teams were the most successful?

By total score:

Team Picks Score
Phoenix Suns 60 +23.10
Oklahoma City Thunder 62 +16.97
San Antonio Spurs 48 +15.83
Los Angeles Lakers 39 +14.12
Utah Jazz 49 +11.81

By average score:

Team Picks Score Avg
Phoenix Suns 60 +23.10 +0.39
Los Angeles Lakers 39 +14.12 +0.36
San Antonio Spurs 48 +15.83 +0.33
Oklahoma City Thunder 62 +16.97 +0.27
Utah Jazz 49 +11.81 +0.24

The Suns have selected three players who produced the most career value in their draft, all with the ninth pick or later:

Phoenix’s biggest misses came in back-to-back-to-back years:

  • 1986 — William Bedford (sixth pick in the draft, 31st in career value)
  • 1987 — Armen Gilliam (second pick in the draft, eighth in career value)
  • 1988 — Tim Perry (seventh pick in the draft, 22nd in career value)

Now is probably a good time to note that the team that drafted the player gets full credit for the pick even if the player was traded to another team. There are certainly ways you can adjust for this, but for the most part I think it’s a wash over such a long period of time. For example, even though the Lakers don’t get credit for drafting Kobe Bryant, they do get credit for drafting Marc Gasol, who never played a minute for the team (and was actually a slightly bigger steal than Bryant).

Which teams were the least successful?

By total score:

Team Picks Score
Los Angeles Clippers 51 -23.06
Brooklyn Nets 42 -8.56
Atlanta Hawks 59 -8.20
Toronto Raptors 25 -7.70
Chicago Bulls 64 -6.49

By average score:

Team Picks Score Avg
Los Angeles Clippers 51 -23.06 -0.45
Charlotte Hornets 14 -5.85 -0.42
Toronto Raptors 25 -7.70 -0.31
Memphis Grizzlies 31 -6.08 -0.20
Brooklyn Nets 42 -8.56 -0.20

The Clippers selected 11 players in the top five from 1985 through 2009 — more than any other team — and incredibly every one of the those players has produced a negative draft score. Their notable misses include:

Which executives were the most successful?

By total score:

Executive Picks Score
Bryan Colangelo 25 +13.56
Jerry West 30 +11.44
Bob Whitsitt 29 +7.97
Gregg Popovich 15 +7.90
Geoff Petrie 32 +7.46

By average score (minimum 10 picks):

Executive Picks Score Avg
Bryan Colangelo 25 +13.56 +0.54
Gregg Popovich 15 +7.90 +0.53
Jerry West 30 +11.44 +0.38
Bob Weinhauer 11 +3.54 +0.32
Bob Whitsitt 29 +7.97 +0.27

Since the Suns were on top of the list of most successful teams, it’s not a surprise to see Bryan Colangelo here. Colangelo was able to get a number of steals in the draft:

  • 1994 — Wesley Person (23rd pick in the draft, eighth in career value)
  • 1995 — Michael Finley (21st pick in the draft, third in career value)
  • 1996 — Steve Nash (15th pick in the draft, third in career value)
  • 1997 — Stephen Jackson (42nd pick in the draft, seventh in career value)
  • 1999 — Shawn Marion (ninth pick in the draft, first in career value)
  • 2002 — A’mare Stoudemire (ninth pick in the draft, first in career value)
  • 2005 — Marcin Gortat (57th pick in the draft, 10th in career value)

Colangelo’s biggest miss, by far, came with the Toronto Raptors in 2006, when he selected Andrea Bargnani with the first overall pick. Bargnani currently ranks 11th in that draft in career value.

Which executives were the least successful?

By total score:

Executive Picks Score
Elgin Baylor 49 -20.76
Jerry Krause 48 -8.35
Pete Babcock 37 -5.34
Stu Jackson 12 -5.22
John Nash 27 -4.93

By average score (minimum 10 picks):

Executive Picks Score Avg
Stu Jackson 12 -5.22 -0.43
Elgin Baylor 49 -20.76 -0.42
Glen Grunwald 12 -3.95 -0.33
Willis Reed 10 -3.05 -0.31
John Gabriel 18 -4.13 -0.23

Some people might be surprised to see Jerry Krause’s name appear in the first table, but his draft record is not strong. Krause picked up some steals for the Chicago Bulls early in his tenure:

  • 1987 — Horace Grant (10th pick in the draft, 4th in career value)
  • 1989 — B.J. Armstrong (18th pick in the draft, 10th in career value)
  • 1990 — Toni Kukoc (29th pick in the draft, 4th in career value)

But those three picks would turn out to be his best selections. Meanwhile, his first round picks in the 2000 through 2002 drafts were abysmal:

  • 2000 — Marcus Fizer (4th pick in the draft, 30th in career value)
  • 2000 — Chris Mihm (7th pick in the draft, 18th in career value)
  • 2000 — Dalibor Bagaric (24th pick in the draft, 50th in career value)
  • 2001 — Eddy Curry (4th pick in the draft, 16th in career value)
  • 2002 — Jay Williams (2nd pick in the draft, 36th in career value)
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One thought on “NBA Draft Scores

  1. Where does Lamar Odom fall? He’s had ups and downs, but it seems, just from perspective, that he should be at least minimally positive.

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