There’s an ancient NBA draft proverb that says, “It’s not where you pick, it’s who you pick.” Sometimes, NBA teams ignore the wisdom of the elders only to feel the sting of regret years later; other times, the Cavaliers pick LeBron James at No. 1.
That mantra probably wasn’t chiseled onto a peach basket by James Naismith in the stone ages of basketball — for all anyone knows, Mark Jackson could have been the first to say it during a conference finals telecast last month — but it is a tried-and-true belief regarding the NBA draft. Of course, where directly determines how many whos are available for a team to choose, so getting the first pick should provide a team with the best opportunity to select a great player.
Yet history is replete with stories like Michael Olowokandi, picked No. 1 overall by the Clippers in 1998 while Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki — and their championships and Hall of Fame careers — waited their turns. On the flip side, for every near-the-top bust like Olowokandi, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden, there are second-round counters like Draymond Green, Jeff Hornacek, and Anthony Mason.
The 2017 draft is next week, and once again the 76ers have their shot at selecting greatness. But what are their chances of coming away with a gem? What does Bryan Colangelo’s performance in the draft as an executive say about the team’s future? Which NBA teams have done well at getting the best players considering their spot in the draft?
To provide some answers, we’ve created the NBA Draft Data Tool with information from Basketball-Reference.com for every draft since 1977, the first after the NBA-ABA merger.
Using win shares, a metric that takes traditional box-score statistics — such as points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers — and measures them against league-wide totals in a given season, we can evaluate a team’s draft effectiveness. The number it produces for each season of a player’s career roughly corresponds to how many wins he was personally responsible for. Created by Basketball-Reference.com founder Justin Kubatko and based upon a similar measurement Bill James had made for baseball, the metric adjusts for era and pace of play, providing a sound way to compare, for instance, Tim Duncan to Bill Russell.
We took that data and used it to craft “percentage of expected win shares,” a metric that calculates how players performed against their draft expectations.
Here’s how we did it. First, we added all of the win shares earned by the top 54 players selected since 1977 (54 because several of the drafts only had 54 players taken) and determined what percentage of those win shares was earned from each slot. Then we totaled the win shares from the top 54 in each draft class and, using the percentages calculated earlier, determined an expected number of win shares each slot would have been expected to produce each year. That lets us to compare a player’s actual win shares against what was expected based on his class.
For example, consider Jason Kidd, taken second overall by Dallas in 1994:
- No. 2 picks have accounted for 1,879.2 of the 37,143.9 wins shares in our sample, or 5.059 percent.
- The top 54 picks in 1994 compiled 952.3 win shares over their careers.
- Thus, the No. 2 pick that year would be expected to produce 5.059 percent of 952.3 win shares — 48.2.
- Kidd actually earned 138.6 win shares, which is 287.6 percent of 48.2.
We also accounted for draft-day trades, so Nerlens Noel is considered a Sixers pick, not a Pelicans selection.
Some draft classes are better than others (way better), but by comparing players against their draft classes and not against others selected at the same spot historically, that imbalance is accounted for. After all, you can’t hold a team responsible for not finding the next Michael Jordan when Hedo Terkoglu was the best player available.
Nose above water
The Sixers, it turns out, have been slightly better than average at selecting players over the last 40 years. Since 1977, the players they selected have returned 104.9 percent of their expected win shares. This chart shows how they have performed each year.
76ers' Draft Performance Since 1977
The last four Sixers drafts, however, have gone poorly, to say the least. They’ve done a good job with where they’ve been drafting. The who part of the equation? It hasn’t been pretty.
Hurting the value of those picks are the seasons that have been missed, either because of injury or overseas play. The Sixers’ eight first-round picks in that span have combined to miss seven whole seasons. And while Joel Embiid was brilliant in 2016-17, he missed 51 games. Of all the Sixers’ “Process” era picks under Sam Hinkie and Colangelo, Jerami Grant (611.1 percent above expectation) and Richaun Holmes (492.4 percent) have provided the best value. Noel, despite missing what would have been his rookie season, has performed 114 percent above his win-share expectation.
On June 22, the Sixers will pick in the top three of the draft for the fourth time in five seasons. The Sixers had the fourth-worst record, and while moving up even one spot as they did in the lottery is good, if a team can’t get the top pick, history says the key is to stay in the top five. After that spot, the expected value drops off considerably.
Percent of Win Shares by NBA Draft Slot
Having the third pick brings good news and bad news for the Sixers. Let’s start with the bad news, since that’s what Sixers fans are familiar with: Two of the seven worst returns on expected value at No. 3 are Jahlil Okafor (31.7 percent) and Embiid (18.5 percent). The league — and Sixers fans — have seen enough of Okafor to know there’s a good chance he’s playing at his true-talent level. When Embiid has played he’s been great; it’s just a matter of whether he can play. Three season-ending injuries in three years is not promising, but there’s a chance he’s been unlucky and that the Sixers have been too protective of him.
The good news? After the No. 1 spot, the third pick in the draft has provided the best return over the last 40 years. Among the best picks ever at No. 3 are Kevin McHale, Dominique Wilkins, Pau Gasol, James Harden, and — try to manage your expectations, Sixers fans — Jordan.
There’s also some so-so news. Even though the third pick has provided the second-best return, only 16 of the 40 players have met or exceeded their expected win-share total. But when the third pick hits, it can hit big — GOAT big. The likes of McHale, Jordan, and Wilkins have buoyed the group.
Life of Bryan
What does it mean for this year? While the Sixers’ draft history is interesting, using it to predict the team’s performance next week is problematic. Coaches, general managers, scouts, and front offices change. Much more useful, perhaps, is the record of their president of basketball operations, Colangelo. He has been responsible for 29 selections during his tenures directing the Suns (1995-2005), Raptors (2006-12), and Sixers (2016) and has done well overall: His picks have returned 148.7 percent of their expected win shares.
Bryan Colangelo in the NBA Draft
The bulk of that success was built with the Suns. Colangelo drafted Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, and Amar’e Stoudemire. That trio produced 347.1 win shares over their careers, 278.6 percent higher than expected. Other triumphs in Phoenix included Michael Finley (384.9 percent), Stephen Jackson (763.6 percent), and Leandro Barbosa (228.7 percent).
(This concerns only draft success. For instance, Colangelo traded away Nash two years into his career before signing him later as a free agent, Jackson was waived before he ever played a game for Phoenix, and Finley was traded away in his second season in a package for Kidd.)
Things did not go as well for Colangelo in Toronto. While DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, and P.J. Tucker have been modestly more successful than expected, the selection of Andrea Bargnani first overall in 2006 was disastrous. Bargnani’s 18.9 win shares are only 35.4 percent of what was expected from the No. 1 pick in that draft. While the class as a whole was mediocre, several all-stars were selected after Bargnani, including LaMarcus Aldridge at No. 2, Rajon Rondo at No. 21, and Kyle Lowry at No. 24. (Lowry did find his way to Toronto, but not until his seventh season.)
Colangelo has only drafted once with the Sixers, so it is difficult to determine that class’ success, but losing an entire season of No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons did him no favors.
There’s a chance his success with Phoenix could be the most telling, however. Nash, Marion, and Stoudemire formed the core of what became the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, who emphasized floor spacing; a quick pace; and, at least relative to the league at the time, a high volume of three-point shots. That group was the forerunner of what today’s NBA is becoming.
If Colangelo has a knack for finding players who fit that style of play, Philly fans could be in store for some fun seasons in the years ahead … unless he trades those players away.
The big picture
Of course, the Sixers aren’t the only team drafting. There are 29 others trying to soak up every drop of value from the player pool, and some of them have become quite good at it. Look at how all franchises have performed in the draft over the last 40 years.
NBA Teams' Draft Performance
Zooming in on a smaller sample of the last 20 years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Spurs, who have won five NBA titles since 1999, have been the best at the draft. Over that time, their picks have returned a whopping 231.5 percent more win shares than expected. The Spurs selected three generational players in Tim Duncan (No. 1, 1997, 272 percent), Tony Parker (No. 28, 2001, 717.6 percent), and Kawhi Leonard (No. 15, 2011, 372.6 percent) while also scoring modest successes in Beno Udrih, Tiago Splitter, George Hill, and DeJuan Blair. This doesn't even include Manu Ginobili, a possible Hall of Famer who was taken in 1999 at No. 57 overall, out of the top 54 and thus out of the scope of this research.
Selecting new players at the end of June isn’t the end of the road, though, and success at the draft doesn’t guarantee success on the court. Coaching, player development, free agency, injury luck, and myriad other factors work together to produce wins. Drafting a great player will only help a franchise if he stays with the franchise.
And here’s the proof: Over those 20 years of Spurs dominance, the team with the third-best return on draft picks is, believe it or not, the 76ers.
Come back to Philly.com for more insights between now and the NBA draft; we’ll be posting each weekday with a new tidbit gleaned from the data. Be sure to poke around the NBA Draft Data Tool above. If you find something interesting, let us know in the comments or on social media.
Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.