Breaking Down the NBA Draft, Part 3: Teams 10-1

Which NBA team has drafted best since the turn of the century?

In the first part of this analysis, we looked at the worst NBA teams in terms of drafting first-round talent in the NBA. In the second, we saw the teams who have basically been able to return value on their picks. In this one, we're going to have a look at the top-10 teams - teams that have been able to find difference makers and solid talent in the draft. While there are multiple ways to build a team, many of the teams at the top have seen a ton of success precisely because they are able to find and develop talent even late in the first round.

In case you forgot how this works, I took the nERD (click here to learn more about nERD, which is important to understand for this article) of every player, and figured out his nERD per year since he was drafted. I then grouped all the picks together and averaged those nERD averages, determining the average nERD at each draft position. So, for instance, all the number one picks have a baseline nERD value based on production among all top picks.

This is essentially the expected value or return of that player. If a player plays 2 nERD points above draft position expectation (a +2), then he is +2 nERD higher per year than what was expected from him at his draft position. Likewise, a player with a -2 is 2 nERD lower per year than what was expected from his draft position. Keep in mind that the study is for top 30 picks only, and starts with the 1999-2000 season. You can read more about the study in detail, here.

Below are the results of the top 10 .

10. New York Knicks (+4.4)

Best Pick: David Lee (+4.8)
Worst Pick: Mardy Collins (-3.0)

Just to quickly go over this with an example, a score of +4.8 means that a player (in this case, David Lee), has performed nearly 5 nERD points better than other players drafted at the same draft slot (first overall, second overall, third overall). A negative score, obviously, means that a player has performed worse than other players who have been selected at the same draft spot.

The Knicks get a ton of guff for their draft picks, particularly from the normally New York-heavy crowds at the NBA Draft. And, in fairness, during the Isiah-era (and within the current administration), the Knicks have traded a ton of picks. But when the Knicks have made picks, they have been pretty successful. And at the top of the success list is double-double machine and former two-time All Star David Lee. Drafting a guy like Lee 30th overall and watching him bud into a solid offensive option and a strong presence on the glass is really no small feat.

The problem the Knicks have is retaining these picks. Not only do the Knicks trade picks away, they trade or lose the players they draft with them. Of the players studied under this exercise, exactly zero of them are currently with the Knicks. This includes Danilo Gallinari (+3.6) and Jordan Hill (+1.1) - two players who have contributed to their new teams. The problem in New York isn't identifying talent, it's being patient enough to hold on to it.

9. Utah Jazz (+4.5)

Best Pick: Andrei Kirilenko (+4.8)
Worst Pick: DeShawn Stevenson (-3)

Though most will give the Jazz credit for Deron Williams, the truth is that Deron is just one of a number of good picks by Utah. Ronnie Brewer comes in at a +3.7 and Kosta Koufos at +2.6. Even Kris Humphries at +1.0 provides some value in Utah.

More than that though, the Jazz just simply haven't missed very often. Besides DeShawn Stevenson and Raul Lopez (-2.8), the Jazz have no picks that were worse than -1.5. That said, Gordon Hayward was at a -0.8 prior to this year, and given his performance, I expect this to be improved moving forward. We could see the Jazz climb even higher in these rankings.

8. Denver Nuggets (+9.1)

Best Pick: Ty Lawson (+4.1)
Worst Pick: Nikoloz Tskitishvili (-3.0)

This represents quite a leap in tiers, as the Nuggets are nearly +4 better than the Jazz.

Basically, Denver doesn't miss on their draft picks. Besides Tskitishvili, the Nuggets have one player with a minus nERD (Mamadou N'Diaye at -0.1). Every other player is a positive, and in some cases is extremely positive.

Though Carmelo Anthony (+2.2) is the biggest name here, Ty Lawson has been a revelation at pick 18. Not only has Lawson been incredible, but Nene at +3.4 has been a mainstay on NBA rosters since being drafted to the Nuggets, too (he was traded directly after being drafted by the Knicks, so I counted him as a Nugget). The Nugs may continue to see success if Lawson keeps it up.

7. Indiana Pacers (+9.9)

Best Pick: Danny Granger (+4.2)
Worst Pick: Brandon Rush (-2.2)

Speaking of not missing, the Indiana Pacers have been crazy good in the draft, and are only looking better with how well Paul George has been playing. George, a +3.1 entering the season, has played at a superstar level this season, and will more than likely be the best pick for the Pacers once the season is over.

Another player that will increase his value is Roy Hibbert (+2.2). Hibbert is the front runner right now for the Defensive Player of the Year award, and because nERD factors in defensive play, Hibbert should see his number go up. Further, this study does not even count Lance Stephenson in the second round, who is widely considered the biggest All-Star snub this year. It's no wonder the Pacers are a beast in the Eastern Conference right now - the fact is, they've drafted like an elite team should.

6. Phoenix Suns (+12.3)

Best Pick: Amare Stoudemire (+5.7)
Worst Pick: Casey Jacobsen (-.8)

The Suns are a really unique circumstance. They mostly had two great picks, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion (+5.4), and not much else. I mean, the next best player the Suns have drafted is Robin Lopez (+1.4). And every other player is between +1 and -1. What that says to me is something I have preached from the start of this article: It's not just about simply getting value, but it's also about not totally missing (or cutting your losses quickly).

5. New Orleans Pelicans (+13.2)

Best Pick: Chris Paul (+14.0)
Worst Pick: Baron Davis (-1.3)

The Pelicans are an example of one player boosting a team into the upper-echelon, but in the NBA, sometimes all you need is one guy to turn a franchise around (more on that later). Paul plays at MVP-caliber levels, and the Hornets/Pelicans drafted him. Without Paul, the Pelicans are a painfully average drafting team. In fact, besides Paul and David West (+4.2), New Orleans drafted no player better than +0.2

But the losses have not been bad in New Orleans - most teams would take their "worst pick" being Baron Davis, whose nERD per year suffered late in his career. Most of New Orleans' misses came within 0 and -1.0, which means the majority of their picks have been average. With the way Anthony Davis is playing (even as a number one pick), New Orleans might be able to creep even higher in these rankings from their already impressive spot.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (+13.3)

Best Pick: LeBron James (+14.4)
Worst Pick: Christian Eyenga (-2.5)

It should be no shock that James is the Cavs' best pick, but when you take LeBron out of the equation, the Cavs plummet to the bottom half of this list. This, like Paul, is an example of one player being able to turn around a franchise.

Though most of their picks have been bad, Cleveland did get Anderson Varejao late, and he represents a very solid +3.3. A prolific rebounder, Varejao has been very good given his draft position. Besides that, however, the Cavs have been woefully unable to return value on their picks, or surround the talent they were fortunate enough to draft with role players. At the end of the day, the Cavs rank fourth, but over the long term I think they will fall in these rankings.

3. San Antonio Spurs (+15.2)

Best Pick: Tiago Splitter (+5.5)
Worst Pick: Beno Udrih (-1.1)

A measure of consistency, the Spurs are the model NBA franchise and they are even better than this ranking suggests, as I couldn't incorporate Tim Duncan (too long ago) or Manu Ginobili (second round) into this study.

The Spurs don't pick very much - only six picks during the time span that this study looks at - but when they do, they make it count. Splitter is a much more recent revelation as a late pick, but Tony Parker has been a consistent high-level performer at +5.3 per year.

Additionally, of the six picks made, only Beno Udrih is at a net negative nERD per year. Udrih, however, has only been a -1.1 per year, and was a meaningful player in Sacramento not long ago. Quite simply, when the Spurs take a guy, they get a guy who is going to positively contribute. That's why the Spurs are consistently in the title hunt, and are consistently one of the league's best teams.

2. Orlando Magic (+15.8)

Best Pick: Dwight Howard (+5.5)
Worst Pick: Reece Gaines (-0.6)

I'm kind of fortunate the Magic and the Spurs fell so close together, because they represent such different ends of the success spectrum. While the Spurs get a few players who are major contributors, the Magic have drafted a ton of players (13 players in this study), rarely missing on any player but never hitting it way out of the park. It's a measure of consistency in a different way.

Howard is by far the biggest improvement over his draft position, but it's pretty meager when you look at the LeBrons and the Chris Pauls of the world.

In the end, of the 13 players the Magic have drafted, 10 had positive returns on their expected value, but none of those 10 besides Howard represented a bigger gain than +2.4 (JJ Reddick).

The Magic, however, rarely miss. Besides Reece Gaines, their other three negative players are Ryan Humphries (-0.3) and Jerryl Sasser (-0.1). As a result, the Magic surprisingly make their way to number two in these rankings, a result that was rather stunning.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (+18)

Best Pick: Kevin Durant (+11.9)
Worst Pick: Byron Mullins (-5.2)

We probably could've fast-forwarded to this result right away, but the Thunder have had some enormous picks, and have been the high watermark in terms of drafting over the past decade. Besides Durant, the Thunder's next two best picks - James Harden(+7.5) and Serge Ibaka (+5.9) - would have been the best pick for any other team in the top 10 besides the Cavs (LeBron James) and the Pelicans (Chris Paul).

Heck, Russell Westbrook isn't even in the top three for the Thunder, which speaks more to how well the Thunder have drafted as opposed to speaking on the very talented Russell Westbrook. With the way Durant is playing, his +11.9 nERD per year might climb even higher into the LeBron James or Chris Paul range (around +14). That's some Hall of Fame caliber drafting.