Are NBA teams getting better at drafting?

NBA: NBA Draft

It seems that in order to succeed in today’s NBA, you either need to have LeBron James, or you need to be able to draft really well. Unfortunately, having LeBron James is not an option for 29 other squads in the league, so these teams look to the NBA draft for a change of fortune.

Since the inception of the NBA draft, the scouting and drafting process has changed a lot. Basketball powerhouses are now more-than-ever earning the reputation as pro-basketball factories. Scouting videos for any player are readily available nation-wide; larger programs have the resources to go around, or even out of the country to scout players, and word on recruits spreads around quickly with the Internet.

Scouts are now able to hear about the newest European sensations, and savvy NBA general managers do their best to get these guys to play basketball in the United States.

Advanced statistics are starting to have more of a presence in basketball; there are brand new tests to test a players overall strength and ability.

But here’s a question. Has any of this advancement in scouting and drafting done anything for NBA teams? Or are we just as good at drafting as we were 20 years ago, before we had all this technology?

In my draft breakdown, I simply compare the rank of a player’s career win shares (relative to other players in their draft) against their draft position, from 1994 to the most recent 2012 draft.

I only use lottery picks for a few reasons. The first is out of my own convenience and time, but also because these lottery picks tend to be the most scouted guys, and are guys who GMs should have the most information on.

There are many different things I can devise from this. For this article I will jump right into the fancy graphs, and give an explanation for what each graph measures.

TWSP (Total win share positions) – Quick example: A three person draft class who are ranked 1, 2, and 3 in win shares will have a TWSP of 6, a three person draft class ranked 12, 15, and 19 in win shares will have a TWSP of 46. A smaller TWSP is good!

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Highest TWSP Draft – 2005 (296)

Lowest TWSP Draft – 2010 (158)

I tend to cover up the right side of the graph more because players drafted in the recent drafts still have a lot of their career ahead of them, and may have skewed win share numbers. However we can see there is a trend in increasing TWSP, which indicates that we are drafting crappier players in the draft lottery each year.

One of the reasons for higher TWSP in recent years is because of teams taking chance on international players that end up being busts. We see the 2010 draft has a really low TWSP, and this is because everyone drafted in the lottery came out of college. In 2005 the Magic took Fran Vasquez who never played a game in the NBA, and Yaroslav Korolev…. Who just wasn’t very good.

Lottery Worthiness – Where I focus on how many players in the top 14 actually deserved to be there.

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Highest Lottery Worthiness Draft – 1996, 1999 (10)

Lowest Lottery Worthiness Draft – 2000, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011) (6)

If you cover everything starting from the 2010 draft, it looks like a downward trend. Since the 2000 draft, it has happened 6 times where only 6 NBA players deserved their lottery pick, based on win shares.

Drafting accuracy – How many players in this draft was selected within one spot of their win share position, or how many players were drafted at the spot they belong to (e.g. LeBron James was taken number 1 and also has the highest win shares, so he has a high draft accuracy, and was drafted in the right spot)

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Highest Draft Accuracy Draft – 1994, 2003 (4)

Lowest Draft Accuracy Draft – 1996, 2000, 2008, 2010 (0)

It seems that NBA teams have a hard time evaluating where a player belongs in the draft, with no lottery ever having more than 4 guys being picked at an appropriate position.

Underdrafting – When a player has a higher win share position than his draft position (e.g. Kobe Bryant having the top win shares, but being drafted 13th)

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Most Underdrafted Draft – 2001, 2006, 2010, 2012 (5)

Least Underdrafted Draft – 2011 (1)

Most Underdrafted Player – Kobe Bryant (-12 spots)

Fairly constant to me, it seems like around 3 players get underdrafted in the lottery each year.

Overdrafting – When a player has a lower win share position than his draft position (e.g. Kwame Brown…) and also the degree of overdrafting.

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Most Overdrafted Draft – 2000, 2011 (12)

Least Overdrafted Draft – 1994, 2003, 2012 (7)

Most Overdrafted Player – Adam Morrison (3rd pick, 48th in Win Shares)

Really no trends to look at, but there is verification that Adam Morrison really stunk it up. Jonny Flynn is not far behind too in terms of being overdrafted.

I actually wanted to break down overdrafting into more categories, because it’s one thing to be in the high lottery when you actually should be in the middle first round, and it’s another thing to be drafted in the lottery when you are a late second round pick.

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Most overdrafted by 10 or more positions draft – 2000 (8)

Least overdrafted by 10 or more positions draft – 1996, 1997 (3)

We further break this up by using a graph with pretty colors…

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Where OD10 (blue) means players drafted 10-19 positions too high, OD20 (red) means players drafted 20-29 positions too high, and OD30+ (yellow) means players drafted 30 or more players too high, in other words, the colossal busts.

At least from the lottery, it seems like NBA teams have a tendency to draft players too high in more recent times, even though the scouting process should be getting better. Something worth noting is that while it seems like NBA teams keep screwing up the international draft picks in search of the next Dirk or Mutombo (guys like Yi Jianlian, Saer Sene, Yaroslav Korolev to name a few), they screw up a lot of collegiate draft picks as well (Jonny Flynn, Hasheem Thabeet, Joe Alexander).

Although my lottery analysis failed to identify any significant patterns, it does prove one thing. NBA teams, with the money they spend on scouting, combines, mini-camps and whatever other resources, have not gotten better at drafting, and might even have gotten worse.  Of course some teams end up drafting better players than others (i.e. San Antonio and Oklahoma City) but the league as a whole has not gotten much better.

Questions, criticism, feedback, suggestions? Feel free to leave comments below.

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Jordan Leung, originally from Hong Kong, is a junior Statistics major at UC Davis.  Reach out to Jordan on Twitter and check out his own website here.

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