What’s The Top Pick Worth?

The Cavs how now won the NBA lottery for the third time in four years.  This record of success at picking ping pong balls has led some to question whether this shows that the system is broken.  Bill Simmons responded with a column arguing that the Cavs’ win proves the problems because “[f]or me, this was about the failure of rewarding a relentlessly incompetent organization.”

I understand the sentiment that the NBA shouldn’t be rewarding failure but I think this misses the point.  Why should the rambling Cavs ownership be given a top pick or some less terribly run team?  First, any team in the lottery, isn’t exactly successful to begin with.  Sure there are degrees of incompetence (and teams that fail by design) but that’s not the point of the system anyway.  The lottery was designed to avoid that losing will be guaranteed the top pick.  This year, the Cavs were the team that tried to compete.  They didn’t do it well but they actually traded for players at the deadline to try to make a run at the playoffs.  That they tried (and failed) and still won the lottery is supposed to be a good thing and throws enough of a shudder in bad teams that they may consider competing over taking in the future.  The bad teams that try to win should occasionally win the lottery, if only to show that tankers aren’t always going to win the top pick.

This raises another interesting question…How much of an advantage is the top pick?  Here is a rundown of each top pick since the lottery was installed in 1984, coupled with the best player from that same draft (best player isn’t always clear cut but usually is):

2013:  Anthony Bennett, Best Player, Michael Carter-Williams (11th)/Victor Oladipo (2nd)

2012: Anthony Davis, Best Player, Anthony Davis

2011: Kyrie Irving, Best Player, Kyrie Irving

2010: John Wall, Best Player, John Wall

2009: Blake Griffin, Best Player, Blake Griffin

2008: Derrick Rose, Best Player, Kevin Love (5th)/Russell Westbrook (4th)

2007: Greg Oden, Best Player, Kevin Durant (2nd)

2006: Andrea Bargnani, Best Player, LaMarcus Aldridge (2nd)

2005: Andrew Bogut, Best Player, Chris Paul (4th)

2004:  Dwight Howard, Best Player, Dwight Howard

2003:  LeBron James, Best Player, LeBron James

2002:  Yao Ming, Best Player, Amare Stoudemire

2001:  Kwame Brown, Best Player, Pau Gasol (3rd)/Tony Parker (28th)

2000:  Kenyon Martin, Best Player, Michael Redd (43rd)/Jamal Crawford (8th)

1999:  Elton Brand, Best Player, Elton Brand/Shawn Marion (9th)

1998:  Michael Olowokandi, Best Player, Dirk Nowitzki (9th)

1997:  Tim Duncan, Best Player, Tim Duncan

1996:  Allen Iverson, Best Player, Kobe Bryant (13th)

1995:  Joe Smith, Best Player, Kevin Garnett (5th)

1994: Glenn Robinson, Best Player, Jason Kidd (2nd)

1993: Chris Webber, Best Player, Chris Webber

1992: Shaquille O’Neal, Best Player, Shaquille O’Neal

1991: Larry Johnson, Best Player, Dikembe Mutombo (4th)

1990: Derrick Coleman, Best Player, Gary Payton (2nd)

1989:  Pervis Ellison, Best Player, Shawn Kemp (17th)

1988: Danny Manning, Best Player, Mitch Richmond (5th)

1987: David Robinson, Best Player, David Robinson

1986: Brad Daugherty, Best Player, Jeff Hornacek (46th)

1985: Patrick Ewing, Best Player, Karl Malone (13th)

1984: Hakeem Olajuwon, Best Player, Michael Jordan (3rd)

In 30 years of the lottery system, the best player in the draft is the top pick 11 times (though, again, some of those choices are subjective).  Viewing this another way, the top pick has been a likely future Hall of Famer nine times (with Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis looking like good shots in the future to get there).  So, the top pick is a serious advantage but this is not a slam dunk turnaround for a franchise.  On the other hand, tons of All-Stars and Hall of Famers have been found outside the top pick.  In fact, the best player/likely Hall of Famers are more often found after the first pick.

Taken all together, the debate on the lottery system misses some of the facts and the facts seem to be as follows:

-The top pick really helps a bad team significantly about 33-40% of the time

-The lottery really does prevent the worst teams from always getting the top pick.

-Despite this fact, teams will continue to tank because doing so makes sense in some situations and a 75% of the top pick is still pretty good, even if it is not a certainty.

The issues raised by Simmons and others are not really that big a deal.  Who cares which bad team wins the top pick?  Would the world have been better if Milwaukee or some other bad team had won this pick this year?  In addition, often the consequences of changing rules create new and bigger problems.  By not giving bad teams a chance at the top pick for continued failure over years, there is a risk of eliminating all hope and taking away an incentive to follow the team.  Tanking is bad, but overpunishing futility is worse and will only serve to kill interest from a fan base, a worse outcome for the franchise and the NBA as a whole.

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