The Value of the NBA Draft

How great teams like the Spurs have capitalized on their late draft picks to sustain their run.

The goal in sports is to win, right?

In the NBA, like any other league, there can only be one champion. And being that one team is an incredibly difficult achievement.

Many NBA general managers - maybe more so than in any other sport - face a difficult dilemma each season: If you have no realistic shot at the title, should all resources thus be reinvested or reallocated in order to maximize this possibility in the future? In other words, if you aren’t elite, should you tank to get a high draft pick and possible superstar?

As we’ve discussed at numberFire before, it takes a superstar to win a championship. But those are few and far between - there definitely aren't enough top players out there for all 30 teams to have a superstar. So why compete if you know you don't have one? Why not just tank and hope you can snag one in the following year's draft?

It’s an interesting debate, and really gets fascinating when we look at how teams are made up.

How Valuable is a Draft Pick?

In order to measure this, I created a very long excel sheet (if you know of a website that already has this data, please tweet/email me) that mapped out every NBA team and every NBA player and if/where they were drafted when they entered the league. I then took the average draft pick of all these players and found out which teams had the highest (theoretically, best) draft picks on their team. The results are below:

TeamAverage Player Draft Pick% Players Drafted by Team
New York Knicks18.414.3
Oklahoma City Thunder18.657.1
Chicago Bulls19.569.2
Los Angeles Lakers21.928.6
Washington Wizards22.246.7
Golden State Warriors22.642.9
Denver Nuggets23.035.7
Los Angeles Clippers23.921.4
Memphis Grizzlies24.815.4
Cleveland Cavaliers24.846.7
Portland Trail Blazers25.257.1
Milwaukee Bucks25.935.7
Utah Jazz26.740.0
Sacramento Kings26.846.2
Miami Heat27.128.6
Detroit Pistons27.253.3
Charlotte Bobcats27.646.2
Dallas Mavericks27.840.0
Toronto Raptors27.921.4
Houston Rockets28.230.8
Brooklyn Nets28.320.0
Boston Celtics28.430.8
Philadelphia 76ers29.633.3
New Orleans Pelicans29.821.4
Orlando Magic29.928.6
Phoenix Suns30.330.8
Minnesota Timberwolves32.050.0
Atlanta Hawks34.533.3
San Antonio Spurs34.950.0
Indiana Pacers37.738.5

The New York Knicks are the winners - they have the best team if we judge by past draft pick position. But as you can see in the far right column, the Knicks also have the lowest percentage of players on their roster that they, themselves drafted. This brings up another situation in the NBA - the bigger market teams have a tendency of trying to buy players as opposed to the draft and develop method.

Even though the Knicks have the "best" selection of players on their roster, only 14% of their team are guys they actually drafted. The Knicks, with their long history and the fact they play in the famous Madison Square Garden, can attract lucrative free agents. Small market teams like the Pacers, Timberwolves, and Charlotte don't have that luxury. They have to rely on the draft more and truly develop their own players.

None other than the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers, two of the best teams in the league the last couple years, are at the bottom of this list in terms of average player draft pick. Regarding their rosters, their average man was a 35 and 38 pick in the draft, respectively. In fact, the Pacers don't have a single top-10 pick on their entire roster. The Spurs aren't so different - other than Tim Duncan, the number 1 pick from the 1997 draft, the Spurs don't have a top-10 guy either. Stars Tony Parker (pick 28), Kawhi Leonard (15), and Manu Ginobili (57) were all drafted by the Spurs, despite their perennial good record and lack of a top pick.

The Importance of Nailing Your Pick

The following table shows how much each team is led by their own draft picks. The column on the right represents the percentage of each team's production (scoring) that is comprised by players drafted by that organization. For example, 54.1% of the Boston Celtics production so far this year was from players that they drafted.

Team% of Production by Drafted Players
Chicago Bulls92.7
Oklahoma City Thunder85.1
Utah Jazz68.5
San Antonio Spurs66.4
Minnesota Timberwolves66.0
Charlotte Bobcats65.2
Detroit Pistons63.5
Portland Trail Blazers62.9
Golden State Warriors62.7
Sacramento Kings62.2
Washington Wizards59.4
Cleveland Cavaliers58.2
Philadelphia 76ers56.9
Indiana Pacers56.0
Boston Celtics54.1
Atlanta Hawks47.1
Miami Heat45.3
Denver Nuggets41.7
Orlando Magic40.9
Milwaukee Bucks40.1
Toronto Raptors39.4
Phoenix Suns35.7
Houston Rockets34.8
Brooklyn Nets32.7
Dallas Mavericks32.4
Los Angeles Clippers31.4
Los Angeles Lakers27.8
Memphis Grizzlies22.0
New Orleans Pelicans22.0
New York Knicks15.6

It's incredible that the Chicago Bulls are built so much around their own draft picks. Five of their six top players - Derrick Rose (1), Luol Deng (7), Joakim Noah (9), Taj Gibson (26), and Jimmy Butler (30) - were all recent draft selections that they have developed and invested in over the years.

Meanwhile, a team like the Knicks have either whiffed on their picks or traded them away for other pieces (they don't have a first-round pick in this year's loaded draft due to the Carmelo Anthony trade). The Knicks are notorious for giving away future first rounders in exchange for assets in the present. The problem is that this approach eventually catches up to you.

They have missed on a lot of great first-round players due to this strategy. This upcoming year will most likely be a lottery pick that they don't even own anymore. Their 2012 pick (traded to create cap space to sign Amar'e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton, and they also traded their 2011 pick but it hasn't been used yet) turned into Royce White, but could have been Terrence Jones or Jared Sullinger. Their 2006 and 2007 picks for Eddy Curry? Joakim Noah and LaMarcus Aldridge. And the list goes on and on.

Building a Contender

As discussed above, only one team can win a championship. News flash: It's really hard. Not every team is going to pick as wisely as the Bulls or Pacers; there has to be a mix.

Let's take a look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are the story of the 2013-2014 season so far. About 63% of their production this year has been made by their own draft picks, which puts them in the top quarter of the league. In 2012, they flipped Gerald Wallace to the Nets (who were trying to build around Deron Williams and attract Dwight Howard) for the Nets' first-round pick. They then proceeded to select current reigning Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, with that pick.

Further, they selected players that they believed in and took the time to develop them. LaMarcus Aldridge (2) and Nicolas Batum (25) were given patience, and they acquired good assets like undrafted Wesley Matthews and traded for Robin Lopez (stole him in exchange for pick Jeff Withey). Because of these moves, Rip City turned themselves into a contender in the loaded Western Conference.

A balanced diet is the key here. Smart draft picks, patience, and stockpiling young assets will get you to the promise land. If your team is joining in Tankapalooza 2014, you aren't going to be a title contender next year, even if you do draft Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. However, if you can be smart in the next couple of drafts and take advantage of teams in win-now mode who are willing to give up assets with potential, you might just have yourself a champion in a couple of years.