Real Time Analytics

To Crank Or To Tank: How Valuable Are NBA Lottery Picks?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Checking with the stats to determine the real value of your team’s pick spot in the NBA Draft.

“Trust the Process.” 

This romantic slogan, initially used to pacify a Philly fanbase as its favorite basketball team chose to lose miserably for consecutive seasons, on purpose, has now become a widely accepted team-improvement method throughout the NBA

As Sam Hinkie, former head honcho of the Sixers, used to say, he took “the longest view in the room.” The lengthy view, indeed, is now the chosen optic for a slew of NBA teams who have come to terms with the misfortune that their present trajectory is not headed towards a championship. Instead of seven-seeds and first-round exits, they’d rather take the 20-win seasons and ping-pong balls. 

This season alone, the case can be made that six teams “tanked” in order to improve their lottery odds: the Suns, Lakers, Kings, Sixers, Magic, and Knicks. Brooklyn, of course, sucked, but must send their pick to Boston anyways, and thus won’t realize the fruits of their non-labor. Using strategic rest, sketchy trades, and roster depletion, these teams all sank to the bottom instead of fighting to win as many games as possible. 

Similarly, the option of “blowing it up” has never been so widely accepted across the league. For instance, the Clippers went 51-31 this season and earned home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs… yet, as I wrote last week, everyone seems to think its time to “blow it up” instead of running back the same group. What happened to the days when a 50-win season was considered a great success?

The tear-down-your-house-so-you-can-build-it-back-up strategy has likewise been suggested, mostly by the media, to a handful of winning franchises throughout the 2016-2017 season; the Raptors, Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, Grizzlies, and Blazers come to mind here. If your franchise’s house has too low of a ceiling, most will argue that it’s no longer worth living in.

Hinkie’s far-sighted glasses are now being adopted across the entire league. It’s like a fucking Warby Parker store. Take the long view and, while (re)construction is underway, trust the process.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The en vogue strategy of today’s NBA is to amass as many picks as possible and take every available measure to ensure that those picks are maximally valuable to the franchise. Draft picks, cap room, and young talent make up the most precious property that any franchise can have in today’s basketball universe: assets.

Accumulate assets. Take the long view. Trust the process.

Just how valuable are these picks, however? How much do you gain by sinking all the way to the top of the lottery? What’s the difference between the first and the tenth pick? Is tanking for the top three, when you otherwise would be in the mid-lottery, really a worthwhile endeavor? What pick spots have produced the best talent, or the longest careers? Where has value been discovered?  

My aim with this project was to answer some of these questions, and shed some light on the relative value of each of the top 16 picks in the NBA draft. By looking at the difference in average production from each pick spot, perhaps we can clarify the real value of tanking. More than anything, though, let’s have some fun with draft picks.

Before we dig into the data, some notes: 

  • Why win shares? Click here for Basketball-Reference’s explanation of win shares and how it is calculated. In the words of BkRef’s David Corby, “one Win Share should reflect the offensive and defensive contributions of a player that have led to one win during the season.” My personal answer, though, is that I wanted to estimate how winning individual players were (as in, ”Draymond Green is such a winning player”). Did the first pick produce the players who most affected the process of winning? Or did winning players come from all over the board? After all, winning is the goal… or at least I hope it still is.

  • I included the 15th and 16th picks to reflect the decision to tank vs. chasing the last couple of spots in the playoffs. The 15th and 16th picks are just on the other side of the lottery cut-off, and are assigned to the worst non-lottery teams — the purpose of including them, then, is to determine the draft-pick-value gained or lost in the decision to chase a low playoff seed or jump a couple of spots into the lottery.

  • The data extends only through the Lottery Era, or from 1985 to today. The first pick of the 1985 draft was Patrick Ewing, going to the New York Knicks. Of course, this was the year of the infamous lottery conspiracy, in which many believe that the NBA purposefully availed the Knicks of the first overall pick and, subsequently, the rights to Ewing.

  • Left-Out Players: The following players have yet to record a single minute in the NBA, and thus were not factored into calculation; you can still find their info in with the rest of the raw data, though. They are: Ben Simmons (First pick, 2016, Philadelphia); Len Bias (Second pick, 1986, Boston); Fran Vasquez (11th pick, 2005, Orlando); Frederic Weis (15th pick, 1999, New York); Guerschon Yabusele (Sixth pick, 2016, Boston).

And a special thanks to Basketball-Reference for being so awesome, as it is the source for all data that follows. Here is a link to the raw data I worked with, if you would like to check it out in full: Google Drive

Sweet 16” of the top 16 picks in the NBA draft:

The pick whose selected players had a higher average WinShares/48 minutes advanced into the next round. So, for instance, the average WS/48 of players chosen with the 1st pick was higher than the average WS/48 of players chosen with the 16th pick. Sorry to spoil the first matchup, but it’s safe to assume the 16-gang never really stood a chance.

"Sweet 16" of NBA Draft Picks

Hey, not bad! We got an 11/6, a 9/8, and a 10/7 upset in the first round. And, in the Final Four, the “Deep 3s” took down the “2 Hot 2 Handles” to advance to the championship game. Despite the upsets, the top dog remained supreme.

To learn more, let’s rank these picks by Avg. WS/48, and dive deeper into how well each individual slot has performed. For each pick, note that the NBA comparison is the current player whose 2016/2017 Regular Season WS/48 was closest to the overall average WS/48 of the pick — so, yes, the metrics favor Crowder over Ibaka!

The second bullet under each header reads ”PPG/RPG/APG”… of course, we aren’t factoring in positions, but traditional statistics have a way of grounding the conversation, especially when analytics are involved.

The “Notable Players” were chosen because they were “notable” in either direction, good or bad — I’m 21 years old, and some of these names were straight out of left field… Harold Miner? LaPhonso Ellis? Yinka Dare? Healthy Greg Oden?

Here We Go!

1) The First Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .1339 (2016/2017 NBA Comp: Jae Crowder)

  • 17.04/7.50/2.85

  • Notable Players: LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Greg Oden, Michael Olowokandi, Anthony Bennet

  • The First pick is super, super valuable. I’m actually surprised, looking back, by how few busts there have been at the top of the draft. Aside from Kwame, Pervis Ellison, and a couple of the guys listed above, teams have largely succeeded with the pick. 

2) The Third Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .10053 (Comp: Serge Ibaka)

  • 13.92/5.01/2.78

  • Notable Players: Pau Gasol, Grant Hill, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Adam Morrison, Chris Washburn

  • Third jumps Second! 

3) The Fourth Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .10047 (Comp: Kyle Korver)

  • 13.08/5.24/2.74

  • Notable Players: Chris Paul, Dikembe Mutumbo, Russell Westbrook, Chris Bosh, Marcus Fizer, Eddy Curry

  • Notice how close Third and Fourth are, separated by just .00006 win shares.

4) The Second Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .1001 (Comp: Malcolm Brogdon)

  • 12.52/5.63/2.54

  • Notable Players: Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Kevin Durant, Stromile Swift, Darko Milicic, Hasheem Thabeet

  • The Second pick falls a couple spots. A handful of busts, but also a lack of stars. Outside of KD, no one picked Second has averaged more than 20 PPG for their career. Damn. Excited to see what BrIngram, D’Angelo Russell, and Jabari Parker can become.

5) The Ninth Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .099 (Comp: Skal Labissiere)

  • 10.28/5.07/1.82

  • Notable Players: Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, Ed O’Bannon, Patrick O’Bryant

  • The Ninth pick comes out of nowhere to jump 5, 6, 7, and 8. Things are starting to get fun. Again, not a lot of extreme busts at this pick.  

6) The Fifth Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0923 (Comp: Mo Harkless)

  • 11.76/4.88/2.53

  • Notable Players: Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Shelden Williams

  • The Fifth pick tumbles one spot. 

7) The 10th Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0918 (Comp: Darren Collison)

  • 10.36/4.14/2.46

  • Notable Players: Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Paul George, Luke Jackson, Mouhamed Sene, Jimmer Fredette

  • 9 and 10 are hungry! Classic 7-10 upset… it feels like March out here, man. 

8) The 11th Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0884 (Comp: Ty Lawson)

  • 8.64/3.83/1.64

  • Notable Players: Reggie Miller, Robert Horry, Klay Thompson, Acie Law, Todd Fuller

  • 9, 10, and 11 jump 6, 7, and 8. Not a lot of scoring from this spot, but the win shares are solid. 

9) The Seventh Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0829 (Comp: Doug McDermott)

  • 11.51/4.53/2.71

  • Notable Players: Chris Mullin, Stephen Curry, Kevin Johnson, Emmanuel Mudiay, Bobby Hurley

  • Count me in the group who wishes Emmanuel Mudiay was better… really thought he was gonna be special. Alas, the Seventh pick tumbles a couple of spots.   

10) The 13th Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0809 (Comp: Cory Joseph)

  • 9.76/3.82/1.98

  • Notable Players: Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Jalen Rose, Tyler Hansbrough, Sean May, Marcus Haislip, Pearl Washington

  • Kobe, Mail, and Jalen put the team on their back as 13th jumps three spots. 

11) The Sixth Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0738 (Comp: Anthony Tolliver)

  • 10.08/4.22/1.95

  • Notable Players: Hersey Hawkins, Shane Battier, Brandon Roy, Dajuan Wagner, Jonny Flynn

  • Huge drop for the 6. Where you at, Drake? 

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

12) The 15th Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0729 (Comp: Jodie Meeks)

  • 7.66/3.44/1.55

  • Notable Players: Greek Freak, Steve Nash, Brent Barry, Kawhi Leonard, Reece Gaines, Jose Ortiz

  • Again, very low scoring production from this pick but solid across the board with win shares. Smiled a bit when I saw Nash, Greek, and Klaw at the same pick. 

13) The Eighth Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0717 (Comp: Rodney McGruder)

  • 9.69/3.97/1.88

  • Notable Players (yikes!): Detlef Schrempf, Andre Miller, Jamal Crawford, Joe Alexander, Rafael Araujo

  • Another 5-spot tumble! I was pretty surprised by the lack of big-names here. Schrempf, Brian Grant, Vin Baker, Kerry Kittles, and Olden Polynice are top-ten in win shares for the pick. Kerry Kittles has got to be an all-time NBA name, though.

14) The 14th Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .064 (Comp: Jameer Nelson)

  • 8.54/3.28/1.63

  • Notable Players: Tim Hardaway, Peja Stojakovic, Rashad McCants, Mateen Cleaves

  • Way to hold on to your spot, 14! Guy is absolutely cruising one year post-Bar Mitzvah.  

15) The 12th Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .063 (Comp: Richard Jefferson)

  • 7.15/3.65/1.56

  • Notable Players: Mookie Blaylock, Mugsey Bogues, Hilton Armstrong, Xavier Henry, Yaroslav Korolev

  • Again, huge lack of big names here. If you wanna know how bad it is, Thaddeus Young and Nick Collison are top-five win shares guys at 12. Ew.   

16) The 16th Pick

  • Avg. WS/48: .0462 (Comp: Lance Thomas)

  • 6.59/3.01/1.35

  • Notable Players: Metta World Peace, Hedo Turkoglu, Royce White, Kirk Haston

  • Chalkity-chalk-chalk. Wish Royce White was better in the NBA. Coulda been a lower-middle-class Draymond.

WS/48 By Pick Spot

A couple interesting things to note here: 

First of all, the value of the top spot is on full display here. Players picked first overall have, far and away, outperformed those of other pick-spots. In fact, the difference between the first pick and the third pick (second place) is equal to the difference between the third pick and the 12th pick (second-to-last place). Or, in other words, the difference between the first and the second pick is worth about 13 picks. Woah.

Secondly… damn, tankers! Here, we see the ninth, 10th, 11th, and 13th pick as more valuable, on average, than the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth picks. After the top four picks held relative serve, the production-based pick ordering led to a crapshoot. Creating a new draft order based on average past production, the next nine picks would be: ninth, fifth, 10th, 11th, seventh, 13th, sixth, 15th, and eighth. Hey GMs, if you aren’t in the “elite” group at the top of the lottery, go chase those wins… you’ll be fine!

Graph for PPG by pick spot:Avg. PPG By Pick Spot

  • When measuring by pure scoring, the draft order holds up much better. The trend-line is rather solid and, once again, the value of the first pick is abundantly clear. 

Graph for MPG by pick spot:Avg. MPG By Pick Spot

  • Damn… the first pick is important! Additionally, there is a clear division here between starters and bench guys — the top handful of picks have consistently yielded starter minutes, and there’s a real drop-off as you move towards the middle of the first round. The 16.86 MPG posted by guys at the 16h pick comps to Wayne Selden’s role for the Grizzlies this season.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Go get that first pick! I was actually rather surprised by the utter dominance of the first pick, easily winning every statistical contest amongst picks. If you have a chance to tank for the first pick, do it — all signs point to it being worth the hype.

    The AVERAGE top pick is going to give you 17, 8, and 3. Only eight guys in the entire league met those minimums this season: Westbrook, Harden, LeBron, Boogie, Greek Freak, KD, Blake, and Paul Millsap. If you’re lucky, you end up with a Shaq, a Duncan, a LeBron, or an Anthony Davis. Still, though, if you get a Derrick Coleman, a Derrick Rose, or even a Joe Smith, you gotta at least crack a smile. So yeah, tank for that top spot. Excited for you, Boston. 

  2. The rest is a lot of luck. While getting a top-four pick is really valuable, picks 5-13 turned out to be somewhat of a crapshoot. I’ve got a couple of theories here: the first is that teams tend to take second-tier “stars” in the middle of the lottery, and either big risks or solid role players in the late lottery. For instance, this season, the mid-lottery will feature guys like Malik Monk and Dennis Smith Jr. — guys who were stars in college, likely consider themselves stars, but sit a couple rows behind Lonzo, Markelle, and JoshJax.

    I think weaker “stars” have a tough time adjusting to the league. When you think you’re the best player on the floor, but you’re not, everything gets a lot harder. The late lottery, however, will probably see the unknown of Frank Ntilikana and the role-play of Zack Collins. Ntilikana will likely either boom or bust, and Collins has a clear-cut role. In bar-speak, Ntilikana can go savage mode, and Collins knows what’s good. This theory played out this season, with Thon Maker (10th/RISK) and Taurean Prince (12th/ROLE) overwhelmingly outperforming Kris Dunn (5th/WEAKER COLLEGE ”STAR”) and Jamal Murray (7th/WEAKER COLLEGE ”STAR”). 

My second theory is that NBA front offices tend to overthink things. With the fifth pick, there are a ton more options on the board — and a higher likelihood that you’ll be distracted from the obvious pick. 

This is how Darko goes over Melo. With more options available, it’s easier to talk yourself into a guy (or out of a guy) or stray away from your board. Picking later in the draft constrains your board, and the best/your favorite option becomes increasingly clear. In my opinion, it’s easier to stick to your guns at ten than it is at five. 

So, go ahead! Unless you’re an elite tanker and have a legit shot at the #1 pick, chase those wins, guys! The data demonstrates a minimal difference between mid- and late-lottery draft spots and, with a lot of luck involved, don’t fret if you slide up the standings and down the board. After all, I’m a firm believer in the development of a winning culture. The value of building a competitive, hungry, and focused group of guys far exceeds the added value of tanking from Ninth to Fifth, for instance. Losing today, unless you’re really, really good at it, doesn’t mean you’ll win tomorrow. Remember, the Suns grabbed Alex Len a full ten (ten!!!) spots ahead of f’ing Giannis.

For All My Draft-Junkies:

Let’s have some fun with it! I wanted to share with you guys some more charts and data that deal with the value of pick spots. Enjoy!

All rankings are, as in the above section, done by WS/48. Shoutout Bk-Ref again!

Top 5 Players from the late lottery (11-14):

Query Results Table
Per Per Per Per Per Per ShooShooShooShooAdvaAdva
198513UTAKarl Malone147637.
198711INDReggie Miller138934.318.
199613CHHKobe Bryant134636.
199111CLETerrell Brandon72429.813.
199614SACPeja Stojakovic80433.517.
Provided by
Generated 5/3/2017.

Forgive me, older readers, for not knowing who Terrell Brandon is. Interesting to see Kobe behind Reggie and Mail in win shares. Shout out to Peja, too, for out-shooting Reggie from 3!

Top 5 Players from the mid-lottery (5-10):

Query Results Table
Per Per Per Per Per Per ShooShooShooShoo AdvaAdva
Year Pk Tm Player G MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK FG% 2P% 3P% FT% WS WS/48
20097GSWStephen Curry57434.722.
19989MILDirk Nowitzki139434.921.
19955MINKevin Garnett146234.517.810.
20078CHABrandan Wright40016.
20085MEMKevin Love57632.618.411.
Provided by
Generated 5/3/2017.

The advanced metrics keep Brandan Wright alive. I’d love to see this group in action. Steph and Dirk are two of my favorite players ever.

Top 5 Players from the worst playoff picks (15-18):

Query Results Table
Per Per Per Per Per Per ShooShooShooShoo AdvaAdva
Year Pk Tm Player G MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK FG% 2P% 3P% FT% WS WS/48
201115INDKawhi Leonard39830.516.
199615PHOSteve Nash121731.314.
198917SEAShawn Kemp105127.914.
199515DENBrent Barry91225.
200318NOHDavid West96129.314.
Provided by
Generated 5/3/2017.

The advanced metrics fade Giannis. IMAGINE STEVE NASH WITH THIS SQUAD. Fun group of guys, too. I’m guessing they’d spend road trips playing “who can make Kawhi smile first”?

Top 5 Players from legit playoff picks (19-30):

Query Results Table
Per Per Per Per Per Per ShooShooShooShoo AdvaAdva
Year Pk Tm Player G MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK FG% 2P% 3P% FT% WS WS/48
201327DENRudy Gobert26927.
198624PORArvydas Sabonis47024.
201130CHIJimmy Butler39932.315.
200728SASTiago Splitter35519.
201425HOUClint Capela15420.
Provided by
Generated 5/3/2017.

This team would be so bad it’s not even funny. Crazy how much the advanced metrics love Gobert. 

Top 12 Players from the second round (31-60):

Query Results Table
Per Per Per Per Per Per ShooShooShooShoo AdvaAdva
Year Rd Pk Tm Player MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK FG% 2P% 3P% FT% WS WS/48
1999257SASManu Ginobili25.813.
2006249DENLeon Powe13.
2008235LACDeAndre Jordan27.
1999247PHITodd MacCulloch15.
2011260SACIsaiah Thomas30.
2006247UTAPaul Millsap29.514.
1986246PHOJeff Hornacek31.514.
2007248LALMarc Gasol33.814.
2010255UTAJeremy Evans10.
2007231SEACarl Landry22.510.
2012235GSWDraymond Green26.
2005257PHOMarcin Gortat26.410.
Provided by
Generated 5/4/2017.

Notice that it just turned midnight. And yes, I made it twelve so I could get Draymond in the piece. No apologies there. This team would win a championship.

The Veterans (Pre-Lottery Era, Round 1 only):

Query Results Table
Per Per Per Per Per Per ShooShooShooShoo AdvaAdva
Year Lg Pk Tm Player MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK FG% 2P% 3P% FT% WS WS/48
1984NBA3CHIMichael Jordan38.330.
1948BAA4NYKDolph Schayes29.918.511.33.1.380.380.849142.4.229
1969NBA1MILKareem Abdul-Jabbar36.824.611.
1979NBA1LALMagic Johnson36.719.
1984NBA5PHICharles Barkley36.722.
1954NBA2MLHBob Pettit38.826.416.23.0.436.436.761136.0.213
1960NBA2LALJerry West39.
1984NBA16UTAJohn Stockton31.813.12.710.
1960NBA1CINOscar Robertson42.
1985NBA13UTAKarl Malone37.
1978NBA6BOSLarry Bird38.424.310.
1956NBA2STLBill Russell42.315.
1976NBA6BUFAdrian Dantley35.824.
1979NBA5MILSidney Moncrief30.
1957NBA8BOSSam Jones27.917.
Provided by
Generated 5/4/2017.

You know I threw 15 bodies in there for the boys. A lot of household names here.

The All-Lottery Squad (Lottery Guys in the Lottery Era):

Query Results Table
Per Per Per Per Per Per ShooShooShooShooAdvaAdva
19871SASDavid Robinson98734.721.
20054NOHChris Paul83435.518.
20031CLELeBron James106138.927.
20072SEAKevin Durant70337.427.
20093OKCJames Harden61533.622.
19971SASTim Duncan139234.
19921ORLShaquille O’Neal120734.723.710.
198513UTAKarl Malone147637.
20097GSWStephen Curry57434.722.
20121NOHAnthony Davis33534.422.410.
20021HOUYao Ming48632.519.
19989MILDirk Nowitzki139434.921.
Provided by
Generated 5/4/2017.

A truly classic bunch. This article was missing a Ming Yao sighting, anyways.

Thanks for reading, guys! Looking forward to the NBA draft in June.

Edited by Julian Boireau, David Kaptzan.

In what NBA city was the Draft Lottery System voted into existence in June of 1984?
Created 5/3/17
  1. Los Angeles, California
  2. Salt Lake City, Utah
  3. New York, New York
  4. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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