NBA draft data: Why the Sixers and Celtics can both claim a win from trade

NBA Draft Point Guards Basketball
Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the first pick in the draft, barring something unforeseen.

Snap judgments about winners and losers on trades are fraught with uncertainty. We can’t know for sure who got the better of any deal in the moments after it happens because none of us can look into the future.

But we can look into the past and try to learn lessons from it. And, realistically, that’s the best that NBA team presidents and general managers can do, too. They have to make their calls based on how much they value their draft assets. The question is how do you value those assets?

Let’s dig into the data once again.

(For an explanation of the methodology and what win shares, expected win shares, and percentage of expected win shares are — and why we included only the first 54 picks — read the first entry in this series.)

The 76ers are about the get the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday’s draft (to select Markelle Fultz) from the Boston Celtics for the No. 3 pick this year and another first-round pick in 2018 or ’19. Using win-shares data from basketball-reference.com, the trade, on the surface, favors the Celtics. If we dig a little deeper into the past and examine how the Sixers acquired that extra pick, however, it wouldn’t be unfair for either team to think it came out on top.

Poll

Will the 76ers be a playoff team this season with Markelle Fultz?

Draft Pick Values

Based on win shares earned by the last 40 years of players taken in the top 60 of the NBA draft. The numbers can be used to compare the value of picks exchanged in a trade; they are not expectations for win shares generated by the pick.

T.J. FURMAN / Staff

How did we figure this out? By creating an NBA draft value chart based on the information we used to create our data tool. The chart assigns a point value to each spot in the draft and can be used as a point of comparison. There are similar charts for the NFL draft, and most football teams have some version that they use when exchanging picks. I don’t know how Sixers president Bryan Colangelo and Celtics president Danny Ainge value NBA draft picks, but the chart shows how a data-driven approach would.

Unlike the data tool above, the draft value chart is not based on order of selection, but rather on order of actual win shares produced by the players selected. Why? If we based the value chart on the order of selection, it would tell us that teams would rather have the third or fifth picks than the second pick. How do you think Lakers fans would react if Magic Johnson traded this year’s second pick to the Kings straight-up for the fifth pick and then defended it by saying more value has come from No. 5 historically? It might look like this.

So I’ll treat the first pick as the most valuable, No. 2 as the second-most, and so on. I was also able to extend the value chart all the way to No. 60, instead of stopping at No. 54 as we did in the data tool. Once you put the players in order based on win shares, you eliminate the randomness of, say, the No. 3 pick in the draft turning into the second-worst player selected. (Poor Adam Morrison.) There were fewer than 60 picks made from 1989 to 2004, and when you order the numbers this way, it's possible to fill in the blank data with estimates.

When you apply the draft value chart to the Celtics-Sixers trade, you have to evaluate two possible outcomes: the Lakers’ 2018 No. 1 pick going to the Celtics, or the Kings’ 2019 No. 1. Since the Lakers pick goes to Boston only if it falls in the range of Nos. 2 to 5, I’ll assign it the value of the median of those four picks: 754.8. For the Kings’ pick, though it’s still two years away, I’ll assume it will fall in the top 10 (an assumption I’m sure Ainge also would feel safe with) and assign it the value of the median of those picks: 603.1. When you compare it to what the Sixers receive in exchange, here’s what you get.

Sixers-Celtics Trade Value

T.J. FURMAN / Staff

Essentially, if the Celtics get the Lakers’ pick, the Sixers will have paid 296.2 points on the chart, the equivalent of the 13th overall pick, to move from No. 3 to No. 1 this year. If they send the Kings’ 2019 pick to Boston, they will have paid 144.5 points, the equivalent of the 21st pick. Once we know the 2018 (or 2019) draft order, we’ll have a better read on the value.

But it isn’t really that simple. There is a story about how the Sixers acquired the Lakers and Kings picks. If we examine that, the Sixers can look at this week’s trade and think they pulled one over on the league, if not the Celtics.

Let’s start with the Lakers’ first-round pick in 2018. The Sixers received it in a 2015 trade for Michael Carter-Williams. Carter-Williams is a little-used backup on his third team in five seasons, and the Sixers, now that all the protections on the selection have been exhausted, traded him for the top overall pick of a team that isn’t expected to be all that good next year. The Suns had the rights to the pick from an earlier trade and included it in the three-way deal with the Sixers and Bucks.

If we take Carter-Williams’ percentage of expected win shares from the data tool above (30.44 percent) and apply it to the No. 11 spot in the draft (where he was originally selected in 2013), we can say he is worth 112.4 points on the draft value chart, roughly the 23rd pick. So, with a broader historical perspective, the Sixers can say they sent the Celtics a No. 3 and a No. 23 for a No. 1. On the value chart, that’s 343.5 points in the Sixers’ favor. Even if we treat Carter-Williams as a full-fledged No. 11 pick, trading a No. 11 and a No. 3 for a No. 1 is a plus-88.9 for the Sixers.

What if the Celtics get the Kings’ pick instead? Pity Sacramento. Remember the trade that brought Nik Stauskas to the 76ers? It’s paying off. The Sixers gave up the rights to Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic, late draft picks who have yet to play in the NBA, and the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft. That’s 644.1 points on the chart. In exchange, they received Stauskas (202.3 points based on his production out of the No. 8 spot in 2014), Carl Landry (145.4 points), Jason Thompson (324.9), this year’s No. 3 (810.9), and a 2019 first-round pick (estimated at 603.1). Add it all up, and the Sixers are plus-1,442.5. That’s so lopsided it’s literally not on the chart. Even if you remove from the equation Thompson, who never played for the Sixers, and Landry, who played little and was out of the league one year later, it’s still plus-972.2 in the Sixers’ favor.

If the Kings’ pick goes to Boston, looking at the situation from the Kings-Sixers trade forward, Colangelo and Sam Hinkie will have collaborated to trade the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft, along with the rights to two late second-round picks, for the No. 1 overall pick and a useful, if overrated, backup shooting guard. Here’s how that looks.

Turning Trash Into Treasure

How much value did the Sixers squeeze from the Kings in their July 2015 trade? If they end up sending the Kings' 2019 first-round pick to the Celtics, this much.

T.J. FURMAN / Staff

It’s like getting a No. 3 pick in the draft as a bonus just for being smart.

(Note: I cannot place a value on having a player with the nickname “Sauce Castillo”; some things are invaluable.)

Of course, it doesn’t matter to Ainge how the Sixers got the picks in this week’s trade; he just cares that his team has them now. But it is a zero-sum game: All the value that the Sixers can claim and that the Celtics don’t care about had to come from somewhere. Sorry, Suns, Bucks, Lakers, and Kings fans.