Using Math to Evaluate Kevin Love Trade Scenarios

How high of a first round pick would it take to match Kevin Love's value?

The NBA Finals are here, and the NBA Draft is just weeks away. For many organizations, the month of June is the most critical one on the calendar. Some franchises, like the Lakers, have huge television markets that can afford to wait until free agency and offer massive contracts to free agents in their prime. But that's the exception, not the rule – most teams have to rely on building through the draft.

With how contracts and the new CBA works, a top-20 player is a valuable commodity to have. But a top-20 player on a rookie contract? Well, that’s a whole different category of valuable.

That's exactly why a player like Kevin Love on the market isn’t demanding a star player in return as much as multiple future draft picks. They’re just more valuable to teams right now.

Nate Silver at wrote about the value of the number one pick a couple weeks ago. However, I wanted to take it a bit further than just how valuable the pick is itself, explaining how the numbers compare across all first-round picks historically. More specifically, I wanted to look at how this should be evaluated in trade talks this summer, especially in a situation with a star player like Kevin Love.

Note: we have our own metric, nERD, which is comparable to win shares, the statistic Nate Silver used in his article. I will use the same numbers for cohesion, but will also be referencing nERD when talking about player value.

Win Shares by Draft Pick

The following table breaks down the value of each draft pick, shown by four numbers – career win shares, win shares of the players' first five years, their average win shares per year during their career, and win shares over 48 minutes.

The career win shares numbers are going to be a bit depressed, as this first table's data is from 1985 until 2009. The reason I chose those dates is because 1985 is the beginning of the lottery and current draft as we know it, and 2009 is the year that allows us to see at least the first five years of a player’s career. However, the career win shares will be down as players from 2009 haven’t had more than five years to gather win shares. I’ll give a table at the end of this article with just players from 1985 until 2000, giving every player in that category at least 15 years.

Draft PickCareer Win SharesWS In First 5 YearsWS Yearly AverageWS/48

The number one pick in the draft averaged 34.84 win shares over their first five years in the league, which equates to about 6.97 shares per year. To show how quickly it goes down, the sixth pick has averaged 2.95 win shares per year over their first five years. In fact, the first pick in the draft is, on average, 26% more valuable than any other. So when the Cavs jumped up to get it during the lottery, it was a big deal.

So why is this relevant? Well, if we can see the value of each draft pick – both over their entire career and first five years in the league (that’s the length of a rookie contract, so the drafting team will at least get them that long before their first free agency) – then we can judge how fair or lopsided trades for draft picks are.

Applying the Principle to Trade Evaluation

Using this idea as predictive isn't an exact science, and there will be many more examples of a future dud being selected second in the draft and a future Hall of Famer being taken in the late first round. There's no real reason I can discern why (if I had to guess, it'd be a mix of luck and misguided scouting) the fifth pick is statistically more valuable than the third or fourth pick historically. But there are significant trends that should be noticed, and it at least gives us a starting point to evaluate something in the future versus something in the present.

Let’s go over a tangible example. Kevin Love had 14.3 win shares this past year, and at age 25 is right at the beginning of his prime. The Celtics are one of the rumored places that Love could be traded to, but are their assets actually valuable enough for him?

The Celtics have the sixth pick in the draft, worth an average of 2.95 win shares (2.47 yearly average over their entire career) over their first five years. This is all the Timberwolves can really count on, especially with how this Love situation has unfolded. Obviously, that pick isn’t even close to worth it for Love by itself. Could they throw in their 17th pick this year? Sure, but that’s only worth 2.11 win shares on average over the first five years. Still not close.

What about a future first-round pick? We’d have to assume Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo would be able to make the playoffs in the down East, so at the very minimum that first-round pick would be at 15 – that is worth on average 1.68 (8.39/5) win shares over their first five years.

Obviously, there would have to be current players involved in a trade, if nothing else than to match salaries to make the trade legal. Last year, Brandon Bass led the Celtics in win shares with 5.1. Second was Kris Humphries with 4.1. Both of them are older players – not something the Timberwolves would be very interested in if they are trading Love and starting another rebuild.

Perhaps Kelly Olynyk (2.9 WS), Jared Sullinger (3.9 WS), or Avery Bradley (1.8 WS) would help move the needle because of their youth, but I’m not sure they’re Kevin Love trade worthy. Even if they were, it would take many pieces to match Kevin Love’s production. If he averaged 14.3 win shares over the next five years (not ridiculous), that would be 71.5 win shares.

Let’s break this scenario down with probable data over the first five years. To explain, I will be multiplying the yearly win share projection by five years for each part of a hypothetical trade. Then I'll add up to the total projected win shares to see how it compares to Kevin Love's projected shares.

Sixth pick: 2.95 WS x 5 = 14.76 WS
Future first round pick: 1.68 WS x 5 = 8.39 WS
Brandon Bass: 4.44 WS (average over last 7 years) x 5 = 22.2 WS
Kelly Olynyk: 2.93 WS (projected avg over next 5) x 5 = 14.65 WS
Total: 14.76 + 8.39 + 22.2 + 14.65 = 60 WS

There might have to be additional salaries sent over to make the trade work, but you get the basic premise of the trade.

So even after giving up their best veteran, their first-round selection from last year, their sixth-overall pick this year, and their future number-one pick next year, we are still 11.5 win shares from matching the potential value of Kevin Love. That number – 11.5 win shares – is the equivalent of an All-Star. Joakim Noah had 11.2 win shares this year (ninth in the NBA), for comparison. Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Anthony Davis were all lower on the list. What the Celtics could offer just isn't good enough.

So What Does It All Mean?

I could go over more examples and break down other trade rumors, and may decide to do that in a future article. But you can see here that Kevin Love’s value is very high, and the Timberwolves are correct in supposedly asking for a lot in return for him. Top 10 players are, by their nature, very hard to obtain, and not many players – only two others, in fact, LeBron James and Kevin Durant – averaged more win shares this past year.

All of this is consistent with our nERD statistic as well. Kevin Love had a 17.7 rating this year, meaning that he would add 17.7 wins to a team if he was playing with all replacement-level players. Only LeBron at 20.4 and Durant at 27.0 were higher.

If I’m giving up the third-most valuable player in the league by these metrics, I better be getting back a ton of assets in return. The sixth pick just won’t cut it. In fact, I probably wouldn't be interested in anything other than a top three pick, with the first pick – averaging 6.97 win shares over their first five – being my major goal. And what’s remarkable, the first pick even still isn’t worth it for Love unless a lot of other assets come with it, and the team with the first pick, the Cavs, don’t really have those.

It's almost impossible to win a title without a top-10 or -15 player in the NBA, so Love's value - while many people will argue about his worth - is and should be very high. Teams that say they won't give up lesser assets (like is rumored about Klay Thompson and the Warriors) will be missing a supreme opportunity. Love almost got the Timberwolves to the playoffs completely by himself, and will definitely get there in the future, especially if he goes to a team in the East.

Here's the craziest thing - as much as I've been droning on about Love's value, it's probably lower right now than it will be at any point in the next several years, especially during his impending free agency. What will his value be next summer if he and Derrick Rose lead the Bulls to the NBA Finals?

Sky high.

And as promised, the table with data from 1985 until 2000, which has truer career win share averages.

Draft PickCareer Win SharesWS In First 5 YearsWS Yearly AverageWS/48