FanPost

Do Bad Teams Make Fewer Lottery Picks?

I hear over and over in these pages that the Blazers should rebuild the “right way”, through the draft like OKC did. It worked for them so it will work for us, right?

Well, if you knew that you would have the #2, #3, #4, and #5 picks of the draft over just a 3-year span, and if you knew you would inherit Kevin Durant at #2 when another team picked Oden #1 that year, and you would get James Harden at #3 when another team picked Thabeet at #2 that year, and you knew you would properly assess Russell Westbrook’s future as a #4 pick … Yeah, if you knew all of that was going to happen you would definitely follow that model to rebuild your team.

OKC was smart with their picks of Westbrook and Harden, but they were really lucky too. They were lucky the ping-pong balls dropped to give them the #2, #3, #4, and #5 picks instead of lower picks, and that they were forced to take Durant and not Oden, and Harden didn’t go to Memphis at #2 instead of Thabeet. Everything fell into place for OKC to rebuild with great success through the draft.

The pertinent question for the Portland Trailblazers is whether rebuilding with draft picks is in general a better strategy than trading draft picks for veteran players. That depends on so many variables, including (but not limited to) what players you start with and what players are likely to be available through trades, that it is impossible to prove as a generality one way or the other. And neither strategy is likely to be 100% pure. OKC picked up their missing piece by trading to get Kendrick Perkins. So a key trade or trades may complete a team built through the draft, while a fortuitous lower draft pick could complete a team built by trading for veterans.

I personally think the draft is a higher risk-reward method, where fabulous successes like OKC get all the attention, and failures are ignored. While other fans appear to believe that focusing on rebuilding through the draft almost invariably will eventually produce success. It’s not my intention to try to prove anything in this fanshot, because like I said above there are just too many variables. Dumb management can mess up the best plans, and smart management can find ways to make even not so smart plans work. And luck may be the biggest variable of all.

However, I thought it would be interesting to look at the teams that have not been successful. If having more than one’s share of first round draft picks, or numerous lottery picks, was a strategy with a high success rate, I wondered if the least successful teams had been trading off their draft picks. So I made a table with the 12 teams that finished at the bottom of the NBA standings this year. That’s 40% of NBA teams, the Failing 40%.

Every NBA team gets one first round pick each year unless they trade it away, or make trades to accumulate more. Have the Failing 40% been trading away their first round picks? Lottery picks (#1-#14) are more likely to become star players than players drafted near the bottom of the first round. So have the Failing 40% “earned” or accumulated through trades fewer lottery picks than other teams? And the really blue chip rookies tend to be the highest picks. So have the Failing 40% simply not been bad enough and lucky enough with the ping-pong balls to get their share of the Top 6 picks? I decided to arbitrarily draw the line at pick #6 since that is the Blazers top pick this year.

So let’s look at the stats and see how many picks this year’s Failing 40% have actually used to draft players for themselves (not for another team) over the last 5 years (2007-2011). These are picks that were “earned” by where the team finished in the standings or they are picks the Failing 40% received in trades. If a team traded away its pick or drafted for another team (by trade), then that pick is not counted (it became someone else’s player).

So here’s this year’s Failing 40% in futility order:

Failing 40% Team

Futility Order

Round 1 Picks

Lottery Picks

Top 6 Picks

Charlotte

1

6

4

0

Washington

2

7

2

2

New Orleans

3

3

1

0

Cleveland

4

4

2

2

Sacramento

5

6

5

2

New Jersey

6

7

3

1

Golden State

7

6

5

1

Toronto

8

3

3

1

Detroit

9

5

2

0

Minnesota

10

7

5

4

Portland

11

8

2

1

Milwaukee

12

5

3

1

Total Drafted Players

67

37

15

Total Available Picks

150

70

30

% Available Picks Used

45%

53%

50%

Ave Available Per Team

5.0

2.33

1.0

The table shows that over the last 5 years this year’s worst 12 teams (40% of the NBA teams) have drafted 45% of all First Round draft picks. i.e. instead of trading away First Round Picks these teams have collectively made trades to accumulate more than their 40% share of the available First Round Picks over the last 5 years. More importantly they have drafted 53% of the lottery picks and 50% of the Top 6 picks. But even though they drafted a higher proportion of the top picks over the last 5 years they still ended up in the bottom 12 teams this year.

The bottom row of the table shows the average number of available picks in each category per team. For instance, there are 30 Top 6 picks over 5 years and 30 teams in the league, so there is an average of 1.0 Top 6 picks available per team. Of the 12 teams only 3 teams made less than the average number of first round picks, i.e. traded away more picks than they received back in trade. Only 1 team made less than the average 2 lottery picks, and only 3 teams made less than the average Top 6 picks. Sacramento, Minnesota, and Golden State had the most lottery picks, while Minnesota had 4 Top 6 picks. Of course, injuries played a part in where these bottom 12 teams finished in the standings. But for the most part, these teams were expected to finish in the lower half of the standings before the season began.

Again, I’m not trying to prove anything. So statisticians please holster your weapons and relax. We all know that no strategy guarantees success. But it is worth remembering that OKC had an exceptional set of picks (4 Top 6 picks in 3 years) and luck, and as this table shows not every team that makes more than an average number of lottery picks will end up successful after 3 years or even 5 years.

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