Email Exchange: Losing the Lottery?

DarkoMilicic

Today’s article: “Why Top NBA Draft Picks So Often Disappoint,” David Berri, The Atlantic

Michael Rosen:

So on NBA Draft eve, it looks like we’re going to be talking about this Atlantic article, “Why Top NBA Draft Picks So Often Disappoint,” which I believe is an abridged version of a paper the author wrote for an academic journal. The author is a professor at Southern Utah University, and his argumentative style/rhetoric is very much reflective of an academic frame of mind.

The central crux of the argument is that it is the fault of NBA executives that so many top NBA draft picks disappoint. The author finds in his study that the common criteria for a top draft pick is being “young, playing for a winning team, and (being able to) score.” Evidently, these criteria, he finds, are not the criteria GMs ought to be looking at, instead pointing to rebounding and shooting efficiency as greater predictors of future NBA success.

Here is my objection to his argument. The author is looking at his study on a macro scale; that is, he’s analyzing what percentage of picks qualify as “good” or “bad.” That is all fine and good. But the author is not acknowledging a large part of why the teams are drafting in these high spots in the first place — they need more than just a good player. They need a franchise changer.

The percentage of “hits” on good players may be slightly lower in those top-three picks because they’re drafting more so on potential, but that’s a gamble these GMs are knowingly taking. One can find a “good” player fairly easily in free agency, but it’s nearly impossible to secure a top-15 player – especially if you are Milwaukee or Cleveland – unless you find them in the draft. By dividing players into these two distinct categories of “good” and “bad,” the author is missing the key point of drafting that high in the draft – you need a “great” player, and if you look at the history of number one overall draft picks, the hit percentage in that category is surprisingly high.

At the end of his piece, he builds up a nice straw man, even going as far as to say that experts are referring to Wiggins as a “no-brainer” (his quotes). I’ve been devouring draft coverage, Cam, and not once over the last few months has one draft expert referred to Wiggins as a no-brainer. Everyone is skeptical of his efficiency, as the author rightly points out as a problem. But they understand that these types of coin flips need to be made near the top of the draft, because there’s a chance he figures it all out and becomes that top-15 asset all teams seek to have. Yes, if you look at rebounding and shooting efficiency first, you’ll be able to more accurately find a solid rotation player, but those players are never your Derrick Roses, or your John Walls, etc.

Anyway, to dive out of his argument itself, have you been following draft coverage at all? Who would you draft first overall, if you were the Cavs? Do you have a favorite sleeper pick? And who is your favorite NBA draft bust in recent memory?

Cameron Seib:

I can’t knock Berri’s smarts, because, yeah, he’s a professor that gets published in the fuckin’ Atlantic. But did you notice something funny about his definition of a “good” player? He says it’s someone who produces wins at an “above average” rate. Then, he feels the need to clarify, “(by this definition, about half of all NBA rotation players are ‘good’).” You don’t say, Mr. Professor! Who would’ve guessed half the given population is above average? Academia, what a blessing.

Really great rebuttal, Mike.

The NBA Draft, in comparison to the NFL version, seems to be considered the “easier” of the two. You’ll hear it from any analyst on TV or self-authorized expert at Buffalo Wild Wings: top basketball picks are safer bets than are those in football. We’re not only told this, though, it seems supported in the respective players’ performances. Of course, the article directly stabs at that widespread belief. And, at first, I thought everything I’d known to be true about the security of lottery picks was false. But you did an excellent job of resolving the discord. I’m sure all Berri’s numbers check out, but when people refer to the “security” of NBA lottery picks, as opposed to top-10 NFL selections, they’re referring to the franchise players you mention. Who knows the exact numbers, but I’m sure the success rate of choosing will-be greats in the NBA draft is much higher than it is on the NFL side.

That said, another thought I had. Take a perennially bad team, like the Bucks. Do you think the more effective franchise-building strategy is going all-in on the potential superstars? What if they, uh, bucked the trend and started going for safer picks, even knowing these players’ ceilings were more limited? I’m guessing the former strategy is still more effective, because the NBA is the one league where a single superstar can legitimately carry his team, but I’d like your thoughts.

I’ve hardly been following draft coverage at all. I wish I had, though, because everything I’ve read suggests this class is a doozy. If I’m in the Cavs’ war room? I’ll take Jabari Parker, if only because he’d (I think?) complement LeBron better in my dream scenario. Sleeper-wise, it’s gotta be C.J. Wilcox. Use him as a role-player, paired with some guys who draw defenders in, and 3J could be lethal at times.

Wow, favorite bust. That’s almost unfair, because you know busts are my favorite single type of NBA player. Darko’s always great, because I didn’t realize until, like, three years later that Detroit had actually chosen him before Melo. Hasheem’s up there, considering he was a lottery pick despite having the speed of a fat fifth-grader finishing the Presidential Physical Fitness Test’s mile-run. Ultimately, though, Adam Morrison. After Adam realized how much weed his rookie contract could buy, I don’t think he ever willingly stepped foot on a basketball court again. Unless it was the local rec center, in which case he was there to deal to ex-cons.

MR:

I only have a little bit of time, so I’ll try to address your question in the middle there: is the more effective franchise-building strategy gambling on potential superstars? I guess in the ideal situation, you’d take the surefire superstar, but we both know this “surefire” superstar thing has only happened maybe two or three times over the last 10, 12 years. (LeBron, Anthony Davis…Blake Griffin, maybe?) Again, if I had more time I’d conduct a more in-depth study of this type of thing, but what I would guess is that if you have a top-three pick, you want upside first. One can find, say, a player like Nene or Trevor Ariza with decent ease; these are the players of the “NBA middle class,” as Zach Lowe referred to them in a recent column. Aiming for upside, though, assumes your team’s ultimate goal is to win a championship. This seems intuitive; what is point of sports if not pursuing this elusive championship? But as Lowe has written, some teams, like the Atlanta Hawks, have ownerships that are content winning 50 games every year and bowing out in the second round. It’s good for the bottom line, and it keeps fans interested. So, yeah, your question is one I could go on and on about for hours, but my short answer is: if you’re a small market team and you want championships, athleticism is what you ought to be aiming for.

I want to add my sleeper pick here, as well, just so I can go back in a year or so and brag that I called it. Keep an eye out for Jordan Adams from UCLA. Everyone’s knocking his athleticism, but that dude can get buckets. I can easily see him putting up 17 or 18 a game at some point in his career, and even contributing right away wherever he goes. On a less sleeper note, I think Nick Stauskus is going to have a great career. He has had similar athleticism criticisms, but he can shoot like Klay Thompson and handle like Steph Curry. Regardless of his limitations athletically, that’s a guy who’s going to be a very good NBA player.

Gotta agree with you on Adam Morrison, who is the subject of two of my favorite YouTube clips of all time. Forgive the terrible music.

CS:

Hmm, so your take is a slight variation on my claim of a single superstar’s ability in the NBA. Not only can teams rely on an individual all-star to carry them, you’re saying, but championship-caliber teams need at least one of these players. Essentially, if you’re the Bucks, you’re going to have to risk it all until you succeed. Unless you’re okay ending up like the Hawks. Do you want to end up like the Hawks?

Mike, talk shit about System of a Down once more and see what happens. (Seriously don’t though, we can’t afford to lose readers with the blog still in its infancy, especially not the Hot Topic crowd.)

That Kimmel clip is so goddamn funny. Even before he asks about their offseason plans, Ariza (speaking of) is turned completely away from the crowd, staring at Morrison. And after Kimmel finishes, it takes Ariza less than a second to mutter, in feigned innocence, “Adam?” Then Kobe joins and tries to be all like, “Real top-notch question there, Trevor. In fact, no one else’s answer interests me more. Adam, what are your plans?” But it’s way over-the-top sarcastic, and Kobe can’t hide it. Morrison was these guys’ teammates for an entire NBA season, and he’s still so clearly an outsider. The Lakers know all of America wants Morrison to talk, and they give in immediately. They don’t give the slightest fuck about acting like he’s one of the homies, they just know they can make a memorable YouTube clip by mocking him, so they do. Morrison’s definitely annoyed by it, but the 15 bong rips he took pre-filming inhibit him from thinking up anything good, so his comeback is, “Stay here.” And the studio is left in this awkward predicament of, do we stop picking on the pissed-off guy, or do we keep ragging on him for getting progressively stupider?

Morrison couldn’t do much on the court, but he remains a legend off it.

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