Perhaps American Sports' greatest cliche is "You play to win the game." But the second greatest cliche is definitely "He's got a huge wingspan."
Every year in June, fans of each and every NBA franchise gather together to watch the NBA Draft - and the best players not in the NBA are selected to the cheers (or boos, if you are a Knicks fan) of their diehard fans. Five years later, most picks are bemoaned, as people talk about how Team X passed up Guy Y to get Scrub Z.
The NBA draft is particularly important because most teams only play between 7 and 10 players, one superstar or even just one valuable role player can mean the difference between being a title contender and being a perennial lottery team.
Much is made of a team's ability to draft, but I've often wondered: what teams were, objectively, the best drafters?
A project was born.
Using our nERD metric, I was able to figure out how many wins each and every player contributed to his team since the 1999-00 season. I could have simply added the numbers up to find the result, but that would be too easy, and also inaccurate - the 24th pick in the draft is much different than the 3rd. The quality of player you can expect to get in one slot varies significantly from the player you'd expect to receive in the other.
For every draft from 1999-2010 (I wanted each player to have potentially three years of NBA service, though guys that washed out in two years from the 2005 draft, for instance, remained a factor in this project), I charted each and every player taken for what I called nERD/y. This is simply the average nERD per year contributed by the player. I then averaged all of the number one picks together to get expected nERD to see what a team, on average, would be expected to get per year from the top pick, and so on and so forth for picks 1-30 (basically the first round in the modern era).
From expected nERD, I figured out how teams performed on a pick by pick basis. For example, if the expected nERD was -1 and the player drafted had a +2, the team would get a +3 grade. All the picks from the 1999 draft through 2010 draft were then added together by team, and compared to the teams expected nERD on all their picks to see who received the most value out of all the draft picks they made.
Some things off the bat that surprised me: the bottom half of the draft had higher nERD scores than I thought. This has to do with nERD being a cumulative stat - it measures a guy's impact on wins over the course of a season based on his playing time. Truly bad players on good teams (as you would expect) had relatively small nERD numbers (between 0 and -1) because they simply did not clock enough minutes to make an impact.
Conversely, good players would tend to clock similar minutes to other good players, posting relatively high nERD numbers. Normally, the worst nERD players came in the first half of drafts, which makes sense - a guy in the lottery a team has a vested interest in trying to get something (anything) out of, and the team is usually bad and has holes. Therefore, a bad player has more of a chance to impact his team negatively (likewise, if he were good he'd have more chance to impact his team positively).
Measurements, as a result, were not without flaws. The few guys who never played an NBA minute clocked a zero (Frederic Weis comes to mind), which might actually better than some guys who logged actual minutes. These examples are few and far between, and it could be argued that a guy who plays no minutes is not actually negatively effecting his team on the floor, so he should receive a zero.
Additionally, if a team traded for a player on draft night, I used the team he was traded to as the "drafting" team. And even if a guy switched teams, the team that drafted him receives credit or blame - my goal was to see which teams best identify talent in the draft, even if that talent is impactful elsewhere.
I also didn't include second rounders, which hurts a lot of teams, but there are just too many guys that never played a minute in the NBA. Many of the numbers would become irrelevant.
That nerdy mouthful aside, let's move to the worst of the worst teams at NBA drafting.
30. Los Angeles Clippers (-24.2)
Best Pick: Blake Griffin (+4.7)
Worst Pick: Darius Miles (-5.9)
The worst team in the league at drafting over the last 11 years was of no shock to me and of no shock to anyone who follows the NBA. The Clippers have been absolutely abysmal with their first round picking. In fact, outside of Blake Griffin, the Clippers had exactly one first round pick worth more than a +.5, Chris Wilcox (+1.2).
Their picks read like a veritable who's who of the worst picks ever, starting with Darius Miles but also including Al Thornton (-4.8) and Al Farouq Aminu (-2.9). In fairness to the Clippers, DeAndre Jordan is not included in this study because he is a second rounder, and the Clippers have gotten a lot out of him recently. Jordan's nERD compared to other 35th overall picks would probably increase the Clippers somewhat here, but certainly not enough to take them out of the bottom ten either way.
29. Washington Wizards (-22.5)
Best Pick: Trevor Booker (+2.2)
Worst Pick: John Wall (-7.8)
A little bit unfair, as John Wall has not had the returns you would expect from a number one overall pick. He might come into his own, but his complete lack of shooting ability has really put a damper on the team (as well as his nERD).
Wall shot 7% from three two years ago. That's not a typo. In fact, prior to this year, Wall had never shot better than 30% from three. He seems to be putting it together in 2013, but as of now, Wall is one of the biggest hinderances in the league to his team because he gets so many minutes and simply has been a terribly inefficient player.
The Wiz's other picks do not help their cause either - the infamous Kwame Brown (-5.6) represents nearly as bad a pick over the course of several years as Wall. Those are two number ones where the Wizards have really gotten nothing, making them one of the worst drafting teams in the league. I don't believe Wall will be this bad over the course of his career, but if his career ended today, he would be one of the worst picks in league history.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (-19.3)
Best Pick: Kevin Love (+6)
Worst Pick: Wesley Johnson (-6.3)
Though Love has been an exceptional pick, his positives are more than entirely wiped out by the abomination that was the Wesley Johnson pick. But, in fairness to Wes, none of the other picks the Timberwolves have made since 1999 are helping improve the numbers all that much.
Only one player returned better than expected nERD - Wally Szczerbiak (+2.4), currently an analyst on the Knicks' postgame show on MSG Network. The Jonny Flynns (-5.9) and Corey Brewers (-4.1) of the world seriously hurt the Timberwolves here. It's notable that Ricky Rubio (-2.8) will probably, when all is said and done, make decent returns on his investment. I like his game and I think he does tend to make the players around him better. I expect when we have more data in a few years, Rubio will represent a positive, but even that wouldn't do much to improve the Timberwolves overall.
27. Chicago Bulls (-14.4)
Best Pick: Joakim Noah (+4.4)
Worst Pick: Jay Williams (-7.2)
The first real surprise, I just want to note that this represents, I believe, the next "tier" up in drafting - the Bulls are nearly five points better than the 28th team.
The Jay Williams pick is unfortunate. He was a high pick that the Bulls really got nothing out of, as they developed a young player on a bad team his first year in the league, and his career was cut short.
Picks like Marcus Fizer (-4.8), Trenton Hassel (-3.3), Ben Gordon (-2.9) and Eddy Curry (-2.3) outweigh some legitimately good picks by the Bulls like Taj Gibson (+2.2), Luol Deng (+2), and, of course, Tyson Chandler (+4.3). Though Derrick Rose has been exceptional, he is only .1 points higher than the expected return for a number one overall pick. The Bulls got what they should have out of Rose so far, which is not a bad thing, but you can't really give them "value" on that.
26. Charlotte Bobcats (-11.4)
Best Pick: Jared Dudley (+2.9)
Worst Pick: Adam Morrison (-7.1)
This number would probably be much worse if the Bobcats had more picks, but because they're newer, they simply did not have as much volume (or time) to screw up picks as everyone else.
Even still, the Bobcats in their first rounds have exactly one player with more than a +1 nERD/y over expected. The Morrison pick is inexplicably bad, as was the Raymond Felton (-4) pick. Though Emeka Okafor has been effective defensively over his long career, he only represents a +.9 per year over his career, and that just isn't good enough to make the Bobcats at all viable in the draft.
In time, Kemba Walker may represent substantial value, but I wonder if he is outweighed by his draft buddy Bismack Biyombo in a few years anyway.
25. Milwaukee Bucks (-8.8)
Best Pick: Larry Sanders (+1.3)
Worst Pick: Andrew Bogut (-3.6)
Talk about awkward. The best pick the Bucks had over their expected value from 1999 through 2010 is now on thin ice with the team. The head case Larry Sanders might be on his way off the team, but I am confident he can continue to contribute somewhere. His ability to block shots and rebound is amongst the best in the league. If he can keep his head on straight he will latch on somewhere.
Andrew Bogut barely eeked out The Chairman Yi Jianlian as the worst pick the Bucks had. Bogut still was better than average amongst all players, but from the number one spot, you would expect them to have gotten a much bigger contributor game-to-game. The Bucks did not have a ton of picks, and did not have much luck with the precious few they did have.
24. Toronto Raptors (-8.3)
Best Pick: Chris Bosh (+6.4)
Worst Pick: Andrea Bargnani (-7.7)
Outside of John Wall, this is the worst pick we have seen so far, paired with the best pick we have seen so far. Other than Bosh and Bargs, the Raptors have been painfully average outside of DeMar DeRozan at a -5.4. Though DeRozan has a bit of a reputation, the numbers show it's pretty unearned. He has given the Raptors a -4.1 nERD per year, including a -5.2 in 2010 and a -5.7 in 2011. He's a guard who definitely has finishing ability, but his ability to hit the three has been suspect, and his long jumper (though the least efficient shot in the league) has also been abysmal.
Ed Davis (+3.4), who is off to a very good start this year, has been the Raptors' best pick besides Chris Bosh. Davis is a pretty good fantasy performer, and has been, so far, a decent value for the Raptors.
23. Sacramento Kings (-4.7)
Best Pick: Kevin Martin (+4.5)
Worst Pick: Tyreke Evans (-4)
The Kings' deficiencies haven't necessarily been in their draft. It's been retaining picks that matter. The Kings' best three picks came a long time ago - Kevin Martin (2004) (+4.5), Gerald Wallace (2001) (+2.4) and Hedo Turkoglu (2000) (+2.4) - and none of them are still with the team.
Meanwhile, some of the worst picks the Kings have made have all been recent - Tyreke Evans in 2009 and DeMarcus Cousins (-3.6) in 2010. Again, in fairness to the Kings, they aren't getting credit for Isaiah Thomas, who has had a positive impact in each of his two seasons (1.5 and 1.2 nERD, respectively), a guy they picked 60th overall. I do believe in Boogie Cousins' talent, but right now it is not coming together for him mentally. It might be beneficial for him to move, the physical talent is certainly there, as is the rebounding ability, but he looks lost a lot of times on and off the court.
22. Detroit Pistons (-4.3)
Best Pick: Greg Monroe (+3)
Worst Pick: Rodney White (-4.3)
Despite the White and Darko Milicic picks, the Pistons haven't been terrible at drafting. They've been within 1.5 of their expected nERD in either direction on every pick outside of White, Milicic, Monroe and Tayshaun Prince (+1.9).
Monroe has been a beast so far for Detroit, averaging a double-double on his career, but once Andre Drummond is eligible for this study, I am guessing the Pistons will be at or close to plus-territory on their drafts. Drummond is currently top five in the league amongst centers in PER, and his increase over expected nERD last year would've been a +3.4. He's even better this year than last, one of the league's best fantasy and real life centers, and might be a pick that takes the Pistons much higher than this position.
21. Houston Rockets (-3.7)
Best Pick: Yao Ming (+4.3)
Worst Pick: Donte Greene (-3.6)
Capping off the bottom 10: the Houston Rockets. Though they got solid value on Yao Ming, they had no other player drafted with more than a +1 nERD. The closest they have is Aaron Brooks (-1.8) being amongst the worst. In a way, that's what this whole study is in a nutshell: It's not so much getting what you expect that separates you from the pack, it's finding value.
Though you might draft totally adequate players relative to your draft slot, other teams are finding steals, and that's what separates the bad teams from the good teams in the NBA. Houston is making a run now with their non-draft acquisitions, as they did in the past, but their inability to find value in the draft has been a hindrance long-term.