The REAL reason WHY the #1 pick is so valuable in the NBA draft

WHY? Why do we, as fans, media, and NBA teams get so excited over the outcome of a lottery that doesn’t even mean we won a massive amount of money? Having watched the NBA draft lottery every year for as long as I can remember I can tell you it’s not because the process itself is exciting. So why are all of us entranced by the outcome of the NBA draft lottery? One word – OPPORTUNITY.

The winner of the draft lottery gets the opportunity to make the first selection in the next NBA draft. With the odds of winning the draft lottery tied proportionally to the worst records of the past NBA season this opportunity means hope. Hope for the fans of teams that haven’t excelled recently. Hope for more exciting stories for those media members tasked with covering that team. And hope for an NBA team that they can add a foundational player to their team.

Let’s expand on that last point a bit.

In basketball where only 5 players can be on the court for a team at any one time the impact of a single player is magnified compared to other sports. So the biggest problem NBA teams are constantly trying to solve is – how do they best acquire impactful players?

Trades are so much more difficult to pull off in real life than 2K, the media, or our fellow fans have led us to believe. And free agency is far from guaranteed with pay, opportunity to win, role, system fit, and the benefits of the local lifestyle just some of the many variables to see eye to eye with a free agent on. But with the rookie salary scale and the opportunity to provide greater incentives in extensions and second contracts rookies are generally:

A) The most cost-effective players on an NBA team.

B) Likely to stay with their drafting team (barring trades) for at least the first 7 seasons of their careers.

So the NBA draft represents the easiest way for an NBA team to solve their biggest problem. But WHY is winning the draft lottery so important to an NBA team? I have seen countless articles and research on the “value” of each NBA draft pick. And, across all of them, the top few picks correlate most with drafting a player who will have a great career. But, I posit here today, that all of those articles and research may actually be selling the “value” of the top picks in the draft short.

In my opinion, the “value” of any specific NBA draft pick is NOT the average historical career outcome of players taken with that pick. That suggests that draft success is derived solely through the luck of having a particular pick. I believe that the REAL “value” of any specific draft pick instead lies in the opportunity to select ANY player still available at that pick. It’s not the historical average career outcome of a player taken at THAT pick it’s the historical average career outcome of ALL players still available to be taken at THAT pick that matters!

To highlight this I looked at 29 draft classes from the start of the lottery era in the 1985 draft calls up through the 2013 draft class which is the most recent class to have played a season beyond the current 4-year term of a rookie scale deal. To evaluate career success I looked for measures of what matters most to players themselves (in no particular order) – $, winning a championship, minutes/role, awards & accolades. Given the scope I was covering salary was out. And given everything that goes into winning a championship and the fact that it is a TEAM triumph it didn’t feel right to me to include rings in the analysis. So I focused on minutes/role and awards/accolades. The various criteria were:

  • Career Longevity – 5+ NBA seasons played
  • Rotation Player – career minutes of at least 12.0 per game
  • Core Rotation Player – career minutes of at least 20.0 per game
  • Core Player – career minutes of at least 28.0 per game
  • Starter – started at least 50% of NBA career games
  • All-Star – selected to an All-Star game
  • Multiple Time All-Star – selected to more than one All-Star game
  • All-Defense – selected to an All-Defensive team
  • Multiple Time All-Defense – selected to more than one All-Defensive team
  • All-NBA – selected to an All-NBA team
  • Multiple Time All-NBA – selected to more than one All-NBA team
  • DPOY – chosen as Defensive Player of the Year
  • MVP – chosen as Most Valuable Player of the Year
  • Current/Likely HOF – currently in the Basketball Hall of Fame or has HOF odds of at least 25.0%

To see how the opportunity to pick any player in the draft is the REAL “value” of the #1 pick in the NBA draft let’s look at the difference between the historical outcomes of players who were selected with the # 1 overall pick and the historical outcomes of players who were available with that # 1 overall pick.

We can clearly see that the value of the # 1 overall pick is NOT tied to the careers of past # 1 overall picks but rather to the opportunity to select from the deepest and richest pool of talent available in the NBA draft. But that’s just the #1 overall pick why don’t we look at the historical odds of players fitting the aforementioned criteria being available at other key picks in the draft.

This table shows us that while lottery picks are more valuable given the opportunity to choose from a deeper pool of talent picks the opportunity to select a good player outside of the lottery, in the 2nd round, and even in undrafted free agency (which I have denoted as the 61st pick in the NBA draft in this research) is still reasonably high to pretty high. But what about great players as noted by awards and accolades?

These tables show us a few interesting things.

  • Even with much lower odds due to a much smaller pool of possibilities both the 2nd round and undrafted free agency show non-zero odds of being able to draft/sign an All-Star, All-Defensive Team, or All-NBA player at those points in the average draft. So high-level impact players CAN still occasionally be found outside of the lottery or first round.
  • Even with non-zero odds in the 2nd round and in undrafted free agency we can clearly see why earlier picks are more valuable due to the opportunity to choose from a deeper pool of players.
  • Despite the general rarity of Defensive Player of the Years, MVPs and HOF players the historical odds of one being available with the # 1 pick are surprisingly solid.

Some other essential things this research highlighted for me include:

  • Not every player taken number 1 overall is guaranteed a stellar career.
  • Not every draft class has the same upper tier or overall depth of quality talent as the previous or next draft classes.
  • Succeeding at the NBA draft is really a two-part equation. Not only do you need to have a pick that provides you an opportunity to select a player who your team could really use (however that is defined – BPA, Fit, Elevate) BUT you also still have to make the correct choice for your team.

I think it’s important to note that this research merely represents the historical odds over these 29 draft classes and does NOT predict how the next draft class will look or play out. The findings of this research would best serve as:

  1. Some context when analyzing how truly successful front offices have actually been at making the right call at their picks wherever they land given what the historical odds suggest should be available at those picks.  
  2. An entry point into a discussion on whether trading down in the draft can really maximize value or not given that the real value of a pick lies in the opportunity to select from a deeper and richer pool of talent. (Really it depends on a lot of things though)
  3. A solid prior in a Bayesian Analysis of the next draft class. These historical opportunity-based draft pick value odds can provide a good starting point for further analysis on THAT specific draft class and how it might follow or diverge, perhaps even greatly, from what has come before.  

I’ll leave you with the complete table of the historical opportunity-based odds of finding “value” at all 60 picks and beyond:

Historical Odds of a player fitting the criteria being available at this pick

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